I remember only a little of my childhood home in Minneapolis: my bedroom with its plastic, primary-color loft bed; the bathroom that bridged my and my brother’s rooms; and, of course, his room, marked by all the signs of high school adolescence. There were posters on the walls, a waterbed, a razor, and the smell of sweat and socks and god-knows-what-else. I would sneak in there, take out his comics, and run my fingers across the dog-eared books of trashy high fantasy.
I remember paging through his old Claremont-Byrne-era Uncanny X-Men and trying to make sense of the Dark Phoenix saga, the most celebrated of Jean Grey/Marvel Girl/Phoenix’s1 many deaths. As the ultra-powerful Phoenix, she commits genocide, and then as the still-powerful-but-not-as-powerful Marvel Girl, she commits suicide.
Jean Grey comes back, of course. And she comes back guiltless—at least according to the Marvel editors. (It took quite a bit of heavy-handed retconning for that to work, and I still don’t really understand how they managed it.) In 2001, by the time Grant Morrison—known for his work on Vertigo’s The Invisibles—took the reins of New X-Men (formerly a secondary title to the flagship Uncanny X-Men), Jean Grey was a major character again.
Not counting the heart-pounding, dangerous reading sessions on my brother’s unstable bed, I started reading X-Men in about 2005, beginning with Morrison’s collected work and finally catching up to the monthly issues of Uncanny in 2007.2 Also in 2007, I decided to try to read through the entirety of Uncanny X-Men (over 500 issues). I didn’t make it past Dark Pheonix; how could Claremont top that?
* * *
When I was young, six maybe, my brother and I used to make pillow forts. He was a Republican back then, and we hid upstairs from my parents, their friends, and their center-left politics. I was far too young to know what any of it meant, but he taught me to say “trickle-down economics.” He would dress me up in old football pads, wound around me as tight as they would go. He would toss me the ball, and I would run at him, flying. He would throw couch pillows at me—linebackers—and I’d try to dodge. If I got in close, he would tackle me, and we’d rise, laughing.
Another: He was always drumming his fingers on the table, and my sister would say, “____. Stop.” He’d keep drumming, but silently, my sister would lose it, and I would laugh and laugh knowing my brother was the coolest.
My brother made a drawing of Phoenix, and my parents framed it and hung it on the wall. I stared at it for hours. When I took art in high school, a few of my own paintings went up next to my brother’s. I would pace the hall, then, wondering what he would think if he could see them now.
It was Jonathan Lethem who noted the almost masturbatory sense we get when Peter Parker (Spider Man) first discovers his talents: shooting out webs behind a locked door. That ode to self-discovery is a staple in the superhero books I love best. It works as a metaphor for masturbation, which in turn (if you can stifle your giggles) works as a metaphor for coming of age.
All the great superhero comics are ultimately about adolescence. Especially the Uncanny X-Men, whose characters are nearly all, in some sense, adolescents. They learn in secret, behind closed doors, how to be themselves in a world that despises them. It’s the ultimate metaphor for teenage alienation and angst—but also for self-discovery and liberation. Even the adjective, uncanny, is an apt descriptor of the teenage struggle—at once familiar and foreign, quotidian and unique.
Because the X-Men are mostly actual adolescents, it makes it easier to see the links between the reader’s own teenage struggles and the often literal and sometimes metaphorical teenage struggle of the X-Men’s mutants. We are put in a school for the different, a home for the confused and unsure, a place for those who don’t fit in. Many readers of comics, I daresay, might want to find themselves at a school where abnormal is the normal.
Masturbation is a solitary moment, and the X-Men provide a hundred examples of solitary mutants discovering their power. But the X-Men is also a team book: it goes beyond a single character, and, instead, shows us adolescents in relationship to each other. In this way, X-Men dissolves (some of) the shame that comes with masturbation—that painful process of finding ourselves. The all-consuming problem of adolescence is one of identity. We put aside the child we were and try to come up with a way to be the adult we want to be. But we are not alone in this; we do it in community. Regardless of whether we choose to accept or reject that community, our identities are a reaction to those around us. In X-Men, under the firm guidance of Professor Charles Xavier, young mutants learn together, find a community, test the bounds of that community, and, eventually become teachers themselves.
I engaged with X-Men at pivotal moments in my own development, and watching others learn to be themselves in community made me yearn for a community of my own, made me desire the same satisfaction they found in their own self-discovery. Lethem’s masturbation metaphor doesn’t just work to describe the act of coming into one’s self, it works to describe me, hunched over the comic, learning about himself as he goes.
Unlike my brother, I hung no posters in my room. I didn’t want a waterbed. I kept the trashy fantasy novels, though. I couldn’t have been older than thirteen or fourteen when I came across a box of his old books. There were no comics there, but I found The Sword of Shannara and a hundred other Lord of the Rings rip-offs. It was like striking gold.
* * *
The four-armed mutant fashion designer, Jumbo Carnation, leaves a club in Mutant Town, New York City.3 He futilely tries to hail a cab, and as he waits, he is attacked by a group of humans. He dies. While the news percolates through the student body of Xavier School for Gifted Youngsters, young mutant Quentin Quire finds out that he was adopted.
Quire, over the next few pages, begins acting out. He picks up the addictive mutant drug Kick—which heightens mutant powers, but also mutant aggression—and picks fights with Professor Xavier. Quire goes after Professor X’s desire for mutant–human harmony, pointing to the fact that many humans seem hell-bent on wiping out mutantkind.4 Professor X’s argues back: “Just because some birds are irrefutably black,” he says, we imagine, patronizingly, “it does not follow that all birds are blackbirds. You are falling into a logical error, Mister Quire.” Quire remains unconvinced. “You’ve always encouraged us to dream,” he says. “I just wondered what would happen if one of us had a dream you didn’t like.”
He gets new clothes and a new haircut—an exact replica of the “mutant overlord” look as imagined by anti-mutant demagogue Bolivar Trask. He assembles a gang of like-minded kids, and, one night, they head down to the city and attack a group of humans, exacting retribution for Carnation’s death.5 Then, on “Open Day,” when human visitors are allowed in the school, he straps a thought-dampening helmet on Professor Xavier’s head and leads the like-minded students in a riot. Two students die, one of them the telepath Sophie, Quentin’s crush.
Morrison, who wrote this arc, doesn’t give us a clear motivation; he presents a number of hypotheses without comment and lets the reader draw his own conclusion as to Quire’s motives. Was it to impress his crush, Sophie? Was it to take a stand for mutant rights? Was it to prove to Professor X and all the rest that he ought to be taken seriously?
Professor X certainly couldn’t figure it out, which is why he stepped down as headmaster after Quire’s riot. When Cyclops and Marvel Girl and Iceman and Beast and all the rest were Professor X’s students, he would shout “To me, my X-Men,” and they would come. In Morrison’s world—his students now two generations of mutanthood removed from Xavier—they don’t heed his call. His lame talk of logical fallacies has no resonance with this generation, nor does his feeble just say no anti-drug talk: “Arm yourselves with information. Please think before you act.”
Xavier may not have understood Quire, but Quire, like all rebellious teenagers, had to understand Xavier at least a little. He had to know what he couldn’t be. Quire found the negative space left by Xavier and his other pupils and found his identity there.
* * *
When he came home, first from college then from law school, I would brag to him about my exploits with my friends. We hang out at cool coffee shops, I’d tell him. We go to Uptown to chill. If I was lucky he’d roll his eyes.
I never did what he did, though. I didn’t play football or rugby. The thought of becoming a lawyer, like him, like my sister, and like my father, made me vaguely ill. I didn’t wear a letter jacket, and at homecoming, I smoked cigarettes in the woods behind the football field.
I don’t remember when I first had the thought that I didn’t want to be my brother, that I didn’t want to look, sound like, or act like him. I remember, though, having that thought every time I thought of ____ College (where both he and my father went) or heard another teacher tell a story of ____ West and his exploits in the high school we shared.
Here’s the only true moment I remember from the X-Men the first time I read it: Jean Gray and her boyfriend, Cyclops, are maybe on a beach together. Grey/Phoenix takes off Cyclops’s glasses—the only thing holding back his superpowerful optic blasts—saying that she wants to look at his face. Cyclops tries to protest, but Phoenix, using her mind, turns back his power, and they lie there, basking in each other.
When I reread that scene in 2007, I had the overwhelming sense that I was reading something that shouldn’t be read, that I was some kind of a peeping Tom, spying on Cyclops’s and Phoenix’s intimacy. The whole thing screamed sex: Cyclops baring himself, Phoenix testing herself, and both of them sharing more with each other in that moment than ever before.
It’s easy to read Phoenix’s arc as just another in a long line of X-Men discovering and testing their powers; that is, it’s easy to read Phoenix as just another teenager. But Phoenix is a being of nearly unlimited power. We get to see, then, the dangers of adolescence on much grander scale.
Jean Grey was born Jean Grey. But X-Men get new names, and hers was the unimpressive Marvel Girl. As Marvel Girl, Grey was a perfect pupil, a perfect girlfriend to Cyclops, and a perfect X-Man. Grey was actually rather boring—kind of a goody two-shoes—until, by happenstance (and the intervention of a radiation-filled solar flare), Grey/Marvel Girl briefly achieves her full powers, and re-christens herself “Phoenix.” Grey’s new powers draw the attention of the nefarious Hellfire Club, and they put into action a plan to bring Phoenix into their fold.
Grey willingly surrenders much of her power, wisely realizing she isn’t ready to safely be Phoenix, but due the the machinations of Hellfire, Marvel Girl becomes Phoenix once again, and while the X-Men prevail against the Hellfire Club, it is too late for Jean Grey. Realizing, now, the full extent of her powers, she turns against her fellow X-Men. After a pitched battle, she bests her former classmates and flees to the stars. There, in an effort to recharge her powers, she destroys the sun of an inhabited planetary system, killing a planet full of sentient beings.
Phoenix returns home, and she and Professor X duke it out psychically. Professor X wins and puts in place mental blocks that turn Phoenix back into Marvel Girl. But shortly thereafter, representatives of the interplanetary empire, the Shi’ar, come down to Earth and demand that Grey pays for her thoughtless genocide. The X-Men challenge the Shi’ar to a battle of honor, which naturally the Shi’ar accept. In the course of the fighting, Dark Phoenix reappears, but Cyclops brings her to her senses long enough for her to commit suicide.
Jean Grey couldn’t control Phoenix; she grew up too fast, and, as Claremont and Byrne make abundantly clear, she rejected her community. For Grey and the X-Men, then, trying to grow up in the absence of community is dangerous. This is the dual nature of self-discovery: on the one hand, there’s something liberating about finding one’s self. On the other, to do so without direction or without community is dangerous. Before I had ever read the X-Men on my own terms and in the heights of my own solitary discovery, I remember walking the High Bridge in St. Paul, taking cheap photos of the city by night, and at once congratulating and pitying myself for discovering myself without family and, as often as not, without friends.
Now, my brother is twitter-famous, kind-of. He has a few thousand followers. We can talk about Game of Thrones and Stargate SG-1. I try to imagine what it’s like to have a wife and kids, and I hope and guess he tries to remember what it was like to be in your twenties, unsure of what’s to come. We smile and laugh about our parents, and he calls me a hipster. He’s still the brother who introduced me to the X-Men, to a hundred bad fantasy books. He’s still the brother—even though he was gone for so much of my adolescence—whom I first wanted to be, then dismissed, and now want to understand.
I’m the godfather to my brother’s son. I’ve been his godfather for almost a decade now, and I still don’t know what that means.
* * *
One of my all-time favorite characters is the telepath Emma Frost. She was once a foe of the X-Men, but Morrison breathes new life into her character, giving her a “secondary mutation”—she can turn herself to diamond (which, yes, is as awesome as it sounds)—and having her join the X-Men as a teacher at Xavier’s school. Once there, she latches onto the Stepford Cuckoos, identical quintuplets and a powerful telepathic group consciousness. Frost, refined and calculating, becomes their mentor.
It is the Cuckoos who put a stop to Quire’s riot in the end. Sophie, the eldest by minutes, takes a hit of Kick to amp up her powers, straps herself into “Cerebra,” Professor X’s telepathy-enhancing machine, and ends Quentin’s revolt, dying from the exertion. The others, and Esme in particular, blame Frost’s influence. They believe that Frost filled Sophie’s head with the heroic ideas that got her killed.
Later, Esme breaks away from her sisters, partners with supposedly-dead Magneto, and hastens his Kick-fueled re-rise to power. Magneto has been masquerading as Xorn,6 a teacher at Xavier’s school, and he leads his “special class”—a group of mutant misfits—to New York City, which he re-christens New Genosha.
There is a fractal structure to the communities presented by the X-Men. Starting at the highest level, a species rivalry between mutantkind and humankind. Then within mutantkind, the rivalry between Magneto and his “Brotherhood of Mutants”7 and Charles Xavier and his X-Men. Then within both those groups, the micro-communities that form therein, and, finally, the painfully accurate tensions of identities within the mutant characters themselves—the constant play between human and mutant, child and adult.
No group is more emblematic of this structure than Magneto’s “special class.” Morrison presents the special class to readers as a group of mutants within mutants, misfits even among misfits. Magneto (in his Xorn alter ego) helps bring them together, gives them common purpose and teaches them that they, too, could be X-Men—in charge of their own fates. He then expects that they will form the core of his disciples as he ascends to power.
They refuse, in the end, to follow the Kick-addled Magento; his maniacal behavior and thuggish tactics turn them against him. They, helped by a spurned Esme, reject his plans for them, and the X-Men—with the special class’s help—prevail. But it’s too late for Esme, her metal earrings having been launched into her brain by Magneto. Frost, glittering in diamond form, holds her dying body: “You turned into such a wonderful little femme fatale in the end, didn’t you? I’m ever so proud of all my girls. But you...” Esme interrupts. “Nothing like you,” she croaks. Frost finishes, “I think I’m most especially proud of you, dear.” Even in rejection, it seems, we don’t get to escape from those around us. We can’t.
* * *
I spent years seeking the spaces left by my brother. And in some sense I succeeded, finding there in his shadow an identity dissimilar to his. But if the aim was to find something apart from—and not merely dissimilar to—then I failed. I failed as surely as Esme and Quire failed, and with some of the same intervening violence. I didn’t come to the X-Men soon enough, it seems, to discover what its writers must have already known: that you only bind yourself ever tighter to those from whom you seek distance; when you seek or reject a community, you engage with it—you become inextricably linked to it.
In this way, my adolescent enterprise was a futile one. In this way, Jumbo Carnation and all of mutantkind’s efforts to create society and culture set apart from their human brothers’ is futile. In this way, Quire’s rejection of Professor X, Esme’s rejection of her sisters, Jean’s rejection of her classmates are all doomed to fail.
Futile, of course, is no synonym for unimportant or uninteresting. I have read and re-read this story for so long—human vs. mutant, Xavier vs. Magneto, Quire and the rest vs. themselves—and that story remains vital.
The age-old narrative wherein siblings seek separation (and often worse) is stamped onto our psyches. For better or for worse, the futility of the struggle to be different is the force that drives our identity-making. Testing and violating the bounds of your home community, and thus tying yourself to it, always feels new, which is probably why I can read the X-Men a hundred times and never be bored. I could read about Quire, Phoenix, Esme, and all the rest over and over again because I was them. I am them.
Reading the X-Men—and my personal adventures before and after—have done something to disabuse me of the notion that blazing a solitary path is desirable or even possible. By which I mean: I am still not my brother, but I am also not not my brother. And that knowledge is farther than Quire ever got.
1 Jean Grey, whom we meet as a young mutant charge of Professor X in the first issues of Uncanny X-Men, then goes by the name “Marvel Girl.” Later, when she realizes her full power, she goes by the name “Phoenix.” It is not uncommon for mutant X-Men to have a given name and a X-Man name. Grey is uncommon in two ways: first, she has not one but two mutant names; second, she is often referred to as simply Jean Grey. This probably has to do with the fact that Marvel Girl is a stupid name, but I digress. More on Grey/Marvel Girl/Phoenix later.
2There are scores of X-Men titles. Between Uncanny, New, Astonshing, Amazing, Young, adjectiveless, and the off-name titles (X-Factor, X-Force, etc.), it can be overwhelming. If you’re wondering what path I took: I began with Morrison, switched to Joss Whedon’s Astonsihing (yes, that Joss Whedon), read “House of M.”, and then read Matt Fraction’s Uncanny.
3That’s Alphabet City, Manhattan, if you were wondering. And yes, there was a short-lived police procedural comic set there—mutants have their own Law & Order.
4Something else to consider: only pages before, archvillain Cassandra Nova used the human-created sentials to attack and destroy the mutant country of Genosha, killing 16 million mutants.
5We later discover that Carnation didn’t die from his injuries at the hands of bigoted humans. Rather, he expired from an overdose of Kick.
6Marvel, in a really stupid move, retcons this, and it wasn’t really Magneto after all; it was Xorn masquerading as Magneto masquerading as Xorn. Or something. But I’m going to ignore Marvel’s stupid move here and go with Morrison’s original.
7Like any revolutionary movement worth its salt, Magneto’s mutant separatists refer to themselves fraternally, as a self-conscious community. If I’m not mistaken, in the alternate (not set in the main Marvel Universe) Ultimate X-Men, Magneto even tells Cyclops that he wants to remake what it means to be a family—make it something that is decided by the mutant and not something dictated by the whims of nature, of to whom you happen to be born.