“It’s 1987. Do you know what your children are?” A four-panel spread shows four children: one Black, one red-haired with freckles, one Asian, and a blond-haired, blue-eyed kid. Over the last child, the word “MUTIE” has been scrawled. Underneath, a tagline reads, “Paid for by citizens in support of the Mutant Registration Act.” This half-page advertisement graced several Marvel books in anticipation of the X-Men’s first official multi-book crossover, The Fall of The Mutants.
A postcard version distributed at comic book shops featured encouragement that if its readers suspected someone of being a mutant, they should fill out the card and mail it to Senator Robert Kelly’s team. The message was clear: anyone could be a mutant. Anyone could be hiding a terrible truth. Anyone could be a danger to you and your family, even your child.
The reflection of the Regan era’s xenophobic landscape was perhaps never quite so evident and wide-reaching in the X-Men’s mythology as it became here. While mutants were seen as “different” before, now, they became an existential threat to the fabric of American life. The nuclear family model was upended and left in question by their presence.
The dream of homogeneity could not exist alongside the mutants, making them an ideological threat to basic power systems. Images of a post-apocalyptic future were grafted onto the present. Targeted, isolated, and openly reviled, mutants were viewed as subhuman by their own government. In 1987, a lot of queer people around the world knew how that felt. Today, a lot of queer people around the world know how that feels.
WE ARE ALL SO SPECIAL AND SO THE SAME
I wasn’t reading X-Men comics in 1987, but I saw Pryde of the X-Men, the false start on an animated series featuring a teen Kitty Pryde as the POV character, which hit the air in 1989. My family had the Nintendo game complete with a character guide booklet, allowing you to play as Storm, Nightcrawler, Colossus, Wolverine, Cyclops, or Iceman. In this way, I came of age with the X-Men, learning their names, personalities, and unique power sets as my life became increasingly chaotic and unsafe. This is not a unique story among X-Men fans; these strange, visually striking, emotionally complex characters are not safe in the world, either. They are under attack for being different, just like you. Yet, there is something hidden and special about them. Just like you.
Comics are always around and thank god for the comics because there isn’t much else. Little stacks of Uncle Scrooge and Archie Digest, which soon include superhero holiday specials, then the X-Men. Finally, the X-Men, whose 1992 cartoon is going strong, but it doesn’t mean much to a family with a TV that doesn’t get reception out in the middle of nowhere, whose electricity and water keep getting shut off, whose parents vanish for days at a time, whose clothes are dirty and whose cupboards are empty.
I watched an episode through static once, the image gone and the voices distorted, and I imagined what the heroes looked like, who was talking when, and how the fights played out. The next time I look, the signal is gone. I try and try, and I can’t get it to come back.
For us, there are the comics that we read so many times that they rip and tear, and dirt and grime become part of the page. And every X-Men story tells a story of mutants whose lives are impossible to navigate, complicated, and full of trauma, but still, X-Men find one another, nonetheless. They find one another because they are family; even as a kid, I know that is beautiful.
Spoiler alert to my younger self, you won’t ever feel this way. You will never find a complete community that makes you feel held. In any group, you will always feel like you were dropped in without context. Some things happen to you as a kid that you will not recover from. The X-Men will help you, they will guide you, they will show you things that are deeply felt and true, but they can’t teach you everything you need to know. They’re wrong sometimes and it won’t be acknowledged in the text, you’ll have to think it out on your own. People will let you down. The X-Men will let you down. You’ll have to rely on yourself.
Decades will pass, you will change, and the X-Men will also change. There are times they will mean less to you, and just when you think you’re done with them, that they can no longer serve a purpose to you, they’ll return. It’ll be like getting reacquainted with an old friend, because, in some ways, that’s what they are. But you will never find your X-Men in real life.
That just wasn’t part of your path.
THIS, TOO, IS A LOVE STORY
I would like to say to my younger self, the comics cannot give you everything you need, and they were never meant to. It’s not on them that you had such a deficit in your life that you were looking to them to fill voids they were never meant to fill. Some people just read a comic and go on with their lives, and this medium is just as much for them as it is for you. The X-Men have to be a lot of things for a lot of people. The X-Men did what they could for you.
The villains Mystique and Destiny were introduced in the pages of Ms. Marvel in the late 1970s as two mutants who lived together and raised the mutant Rogue as their own. The context of their relationship and Mystique’s apparently inexplicable hatred of Carol Danvers was mostly lost as the series ended prematurely.
The issues were later published long after Ms. Marvel’s cancellation, showing that Mystique feared that allowing Danvers to live would trigger events that would lead to Rogue’s death. Throughout the years, her actions have been deemed irrational, missing the motivating factor. She was trying to protect her life with Destiny. She was trying to protect her family, which was not recognized as a “real” family due to its unconventional nature.
Editorial mandates may have prevented subtext from becoming text in the comics, but I don’t blame them, or the people behind them. They were scared of us, just like the people of the Marvel Universe are scared of the X-Men, but maybe a little less justifiably as we so seldom knock down buildings or destroy cities. It didn’t matter, anyway. The stream of comics might have been spotty and inconsistent, but I still found and read a tattered copy of X-Factor Annual #6 as a preteen, before I read any other story with them, and I saw Mystique mourning the now deceased Destiny as a lover. As a wife. It didn’t matter if other people saw it. I saw them, through whatever set of super-powered eyes I needed to know that Mystique was a woman who had lost the love of her life.
Sometimes I feel like Mystique. Sometimes I feel like I am reacting to threats that no one else can see, reeling from a loss that others don’t acknowledge, alone because of what someone took from me, fighting to protect people but only making it worse in the end. Sometimes I feel like Mystique, changing so much that I don’t remember who I could have been, just a series of reactions that became a persona. Sometimes I feel like Mystique, my capacity for true, biting, ferocious love buried under the perceptions of others, hidden but never gone, following my own path to its end.
Today, Mystique and Destiny are central players in the books, and they are in love, and they use the language to confirm it, and they kiss on-panel, and it’s a relief. It’s a huge relief. But it came to me so late. For some queer readers, this is the only world they’ve ever known. To them, it means something different. It means different things to us all, but it’s still important. Regardless of anything, it’s still important.
THE X-MEN CAN’T DIE, BUT YOU CAN
Being queer was like being an X-Man. You discover something about yourself and it makes the people around you upset, even violent. You can’t change it and maybe you struggle with it, but you’ll come to see it as a blessing in the end. It will transform how the world interacts with you. There is something irreconcilable between you and the ways things are supposed to be. You are a challenge to it, and it needs to be challenged.
Being queer is nothing like being an X-Man. It’s all so scary and uncertain, and no mentor comes out of the fog to save you. Your community might just as easily choose to tear you to pieces as support you. When there is a threat, people scatter, and many even side with the enemy. Your opponents don’t see the error of their ways. Your family doesn’t love you deep down in the end.
As a ten-year-old in rural Missouri, I didn’t have the language yet to communicate what was wrong at home or with the world around me, and now that I do, more often than not, I find that I’d rather say nothing at all. I can tell a story, and it feels like it’s about someone else. A little kid who was different and didn’t have powers, didn’t have a special school to go to, didn’t have mentors, and never quite found the community that would have made it all feel alright. The allegories will only take us so far, and then we still have to live our own lives. It’s a lonely life, and that’s okay. The X-Men made promises they couldn’t keep, but the world will always remind us.
The X-Men are with me, anyway. My feelings vacillate wildly. By the end of my life I will have felt every way a person could feel about the X-Men and then some. They aren’t real, but it doesn’t matter. It just doesn’t matter to me at all.
It’s 2022, do you know what your children are? I think of the promises we make to queer youth that things will get better, but the metric is broken. Better than what? I try to think of an alternative, but there isn’t one. I can’t even promise “you’ll get through this” because sometimes I don’t know that any of us will. Our communities are stretched to the breaking point, and they continue to stretch. We lose people every day, beautiful people, heroes. Their stories don’t have a moral. My story does not have a moral.
Now, the X-Men live on Krakoa, a mutant paradise. The stories are better than they’ve ever been, but they’re also more distant. It doesn’t mean less, it’s just different. They are surrounded by family, by other mutants like them, by people that they’ve been through Hell with, and they are all united by the single truth that they will never be alone again. Meanwhile, I am more alone than ever, more distant from the idea of community than I’ve ever been, more free from the need to find approval in others than the old me could have ever imagined being. I am not an X-Man. I will never live on Krakoa.
The X-Men have changed, and so have I, but there’s still something there. Buried beneath all of the endless crossovers and life-or-death scenarios, all of the movie hype and the bickering that comes from it, and all of the corporate gloss. There is a dream, deep at its center, and that dream doesn’t belong to anyone else, not the characters, not the corporation, not the fandom, not the creators. That dream belongs only to me, back when I was a scared little kid, grabbing at paper like it was a lifeline, reading every page again and again and again. Dreaming, dreaming, dreaming of a better world. It doesn’t matter if Krakoa never comes. It’s the dream that keeps you alive.