I’d read comics throughout my childhood, though I was never what you would call a comic book fan. My dad would bring me home Uncle Scrooge comics whenever he went to the store, and sometimes he would bring home huge stacks he’d picked up at garage sales. As I got older, Dad brought home fewer caches of comics, and eventually they stopped coming altogether, until one day, years after I’d last visited with Scrooge McDuck, he brought home an enormous stack full of characters I’d never seen before: Rom: Spaceknight, The Avengers, The Fantastic Four. Our neighbor had been about to throw out his own collection of comics, and my dad stopped him on the way, on the off chance that his little girl might enjoy them.
After years of reading nothing but the antics of Disney ducks, these comics were enticingly strange and exotic. They were all hopelessly out of sequence, so I had little chance of piecing together what was going on, but despite the disjointed nature of the narrative, one comic struck me in a way the others didn’t: The Uncanny X-Men. I didn’t understand why Wolverine wouldn’t let the girl named Rogue kiss him, or why it was such a big deal that someone named Storm showed up at a wedding with a Mohawk, but something about the characters kept pulling me back to those pages, again and again. Long after the novelty of the other superheroes wore off, I found myself thinking about Wolverine, Cyclops, and Professor Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters.
I knew there was a comic book store in the mall near the office where I was now working, so I quietly stopped by one day during my lunch break and bought a few issues of X-Men and Uncanny X-Men. I wasn’t sure what difference there was between them, and was too embarrassed to ask; I hoped I could just figure it out once I got home. Later that night, I sat on my bed, slowly piecing together the story as it progressed from book to book, learning more about these strange heroes and the villains who opposed them. In the X-Universe, certain people experienced mutations as they hit puberty; sometimes that resulted in superpowers, other times, it just made the mutant odd. Much of the world responded with fear and hatred, shunning or outright attacking mutants. Magneto and his followers were one side of the mutant equation, responding to ordinary humanity with opposite but equal bile and hatred, while Professor X and his followers used their abilities to make the world better and safer.
My exposure to the X-Men comics came at a transitional time in my life. I had recently graduated college and just started my first job. I had always known that I didn’t fit in, but I’d never really understood why. I spent my entire education, up through college, trying to copy my peers, in the hopes that I would accidentally find the secret formula to acceptance. I wore what they wore, I watched what they watched, I went where they went. But somehow they always knew I was faking it. Now that I was out of that environment, mingling with people who hadn’t been with each other every day since they were 8, I began to finally understand my problem: I was weird. Instead of caring about professional football and makeup and movie stars and beer, I liked comic books and Doctor Who and fantasy novels and videogames. I never fit in because I was wired differently; I could no more become like them than I could change my species.
I spent a great deal of time considering the X-Men and how they protected a population that would just as soon see them dead. I read Mystique’s description of how she was harassed because she was different, and I recognized her frustration. I saw Storm’s apparently endless reserve of inner peace, and wondered how I could emulate it. I saw nobility and selflessness in the heroism of the X-Men, and I saw lonely bitterness in The Brotherhood of Mutants. Finally, here was something I understood.
Waiting for new issues was agony, so I read issues many times, cover to cover, right down to the ads for X-Ray specs in the back. It was this desperation that led to my salvation, however. Each X-Men comic included a few letters from readers, which usually referenced specific plot points or asked silly questions, like how Wolverine’s hair managed to defy gravity (Shi’ar technology, apparently). One letter, however, was from a boy who was being bullied at school. He wanted to thank the writers of the X-Men comics for giving him heroes to look up to; heroes who were different from everyone else, whether they wanted to be or not.
I stared at the page, not quite believing the words I saw. Somewhere, out there in the world that so far had shown me nothing but disdain, was someone else who was a freak. Some other weirdo who had more in common with comic book mutants than with the person sitting next to them. I wasn’t actually alone. Today, in a world connected by the internet, finding a like-minded nerd is no grand accomplishment, but at the time, when after twenty years on the planet I still had yet to find anyone who understood me, that letter was nothing short of miraculous.
The idea that there was another person like me had quite literally never crossed my mind. Granted, that was undoubtedly in part due to the fact that I was barely out of my teens and thus prone to more than my fair share of melodrama, but mostly because so far I hadn’t seen any evidence indicating that I was something other than, well, a mutant. My mutation might not turn me blue or let me control the weather, but it certainly made me different, and for the first time I thought that maybe it wasn’t the sin that I’d let myself believe.
Looking back, it seems obvious that the X-Men’s wacky genes were metaphors for anyone whose beliefs, sexuality, religion, or personality made them feel like an unwelcome guest on planet Earth, and I’m a little embarrassed that I didn’t notice sooner. If I had, maybe I would’ve realized that there were many ways to be different, and that even if I didn’t know (or care) where to buy the right brand of super trendy jeans, I still had more in common with the person sitting next to me than I thought. Our mutations might not be identical, but we might nevertheless be kin under the skin, if only we looked deep enough.
I didn’t start dressing in spandex or fighting huge purple robots in the street, but I became a real-life member of the X-Men that day. I faced those that didn’t understand me and I refused to make their lives more comfortable by hiding my weirdness from them. I stopped trying to fit in with everyone around me and instead just did what I enjoyed, without fear. I recognized my weirdness and was unashamed – thanks to the X-men.
I’m a mutant. And damn proud of it.
Susan Arendt hopes that someone eventually gets Gambit right in an X-Men movie.