X-Men’s Legacy Virus

X-Men's Legacy VirusI annoyingly tagged along on my mother’s weekly grocery trips, using them to routinely see if the magazine spinner rack contained a new super-hero adventure.  As a youth, I connected with every aspect of the superhero genre: the ordinary persona was a cover for the true fascinating life away from restrictions.  The grocery store’s spinner rack held many A-list superheroes, such as Batman, Superman, and Captain America, but was overwhelmingly mostly C-list, Ex-Mutants or SleepWalker; others were B-list or cult heroes like the growing Dark Horse line, Ghost or X.  I flipped through each title, sitting on the ground, sampling their plots and characters, but their struggles felt too distant from my own.  It took months for me to find the title that was my life, that reflected everything that I was feeling – the X-Men.  These were heroes that instinctually understood me and I them.  Their world was my world.  I was a mutant and that’s why I didn’t fit in!

The X-Men family of titles when I discovered them were polybagged because they were amid the “X-Cutioner’s Song” storyline, and each issue contained a trading card.  The X-Men’s founder and mentor Professor X had been shot.  Searching for the would-be assassin the X-Men discover the attacker was a clone of Cable, time travelling son from the future of founding member Cyclops.  Before being defeated Cable’s clone, Stryfe, gave a mysterious canister of mutant DNA to the X-Men’s enemy Mr. Sinister, who opened the container to discover it open.  Rather than receiving the genetic code to Cyclops and Jean Grey, another founding X-Men member, Mr. Sinister released the Legacy Virus, a disease created by Stryfe that targeted mutants and disrupted their necessary RNA replication, making the body incapable of creating healthy cells, which resulted in the mutant’s death.  In the final moments of life, the Legacy Virus caused a mutant’s power to flare violently, in effect turning the mutant’s ability – what made them unique amongst other mutants – into the cause of their own destruction.

Underneath the garish early 1990s costumes the X-Men had pathos.  The Avengers and Fantastic Four were friendly clubs occupied by those who found being a super-hero an adventure.  The characters were chums and friends who spent their down time around a pool or squabbling over used condiments.  The X-Men were a found family because there were no other heroes that understood their position in society.  The X-Men didn’t want to save the world, they wanted to live and be left alone.  The villains of other teams wanted their opponents subdued so that victory could be achieved.   Down time for the X-Men was spent training to control their powers, running through numerous survival scenarios because their antagonists were actively attempting to kill and commit genocide.  Still the X-Men believed in showing compassion and empathy to their opponents, believing in finding a common ground to move forward.  The X-Men taught me that exposure to similar experiences has the potential to bring about understanding.

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Felix Masquerade

I dreamed of super-powers to be like the mutant X-Men, just as I had dreamed about being like the other boys in school.  I didn’t understand why I had to feel alienated and alone from everyone in my school and home; why couldn’t what made me different be celebrated the way athleticism and super-powers were? The character, Felix, I created was originally purely escapism, a way to join my favorite mutants as I read their new issues.   Over time he developed as I grew, becoming a character that I armored myself with in new and boundary-pushing situations.

The original power I grafted onto Felix were my wish fulfillment, liberating me from the conflicts I had with homosexuality’s shame.  Originally, I gave Felix shapeshifting abilities because I’d be able to become anyone other than myself.  With shapeshifting, I’d reflect the popular students throughout middle and most of high school, avoiding the lonely and isolation prophesized by television and movies.  Changing my appearance, Felix could literally become or match anyone’s desire, gaining the perfection that I had desired.  Being able to shapeshift I’d have more tools at my disposal to make my goals and fantasies match my outside.

Felix was eventually given telepathy as I struggled to juggle the various facades I had created to navigate interactions.  Telepathy ensured that the forms I took would be ideal for whom I was interacting with, removing the guess work about how to be part of the group.  I’d know exactly what to say, be prepared for what others would say, and always have a funny quip to keep grace.  Having the correct words, I’d be able to give the illusion that I was known without having to go through the painful experience of not exposing my queerness.

As I began to fully explore what differentiated me from others, I added the final super-power: teleportation.  Felix would be able to truly escape any situation that was uncomfortable; I’d be free to be away from ticky-tacky suburbia and be where the different, foreign, and unique are celebrated –  New York City, home to many of Marvel’s superheroes and faraway from the mundane.  By this time Felix stopped becoming escapism and became the armor for every day, designed to masquerade as popular and fleeting.  Felix had become the mysterious character whose silent smile spoke, so that I didn’t have to expose myself to isolation and alienation.

Queerly Geek

Enigma            Peter Milligan’s The Enigma confronts society’s expectations about identity.  The Enigma, narrated in the first person, tells the story of 20-something Michael Smith. Smith meets Titus Bird, the writer of the superhero comic book The Enigma, the story of a man with omnipotent powers who adopts the identity of a superhero. Smith runs into the Enigma, who reveals that he is an emotionless being, unfamiliar with concepts of right and wrong.  Enigma take Smith on life changing adventure where Smith is challenged by how consciously he is aware of himself.  His experience with Enigma reveal a deeper understanding of his, and the reader’s, place in the world.

In a twist at the end the narrator is revealed to be a lizard, that had been gifted human consciousness by Enigma, and the lizard is attempting to explain its new awareness to other lizards.  The other lizards though are unable to comprehend the story they are being told because their own knowledge of self and the world is limited.  The lizard’s interaction with Enigma mirrors Smith’s, who too has been changed and grown from experiences with Enigma, and finds it difficult to explain to friends.

[To Read the Complete Personal Essay Click the PDF Below]

Queerly Geek

Empire Comics

Empire ComicsEvery week I went grocery shopping with my mother and ran off to the magazines to check out the comic books.  After a few months I realized that there really was no rhyme or reason to the comics that were on the spin-rack, so I expanded out discovering Wizard Magazine, with comic book news, art, and a back issue price guide – giving me my first inclination that comics lasted longer than three months before disappearing.  When this no longer kept me contained so mom could grocery shop in peace, my parents began taking me to local comic book shops (LCBS) that were found through the yellow pages.  It took a few weeks until we ventured to Empire Comics.  In this LCBS, I found organized rows of new comics, shelves like a book store filled with the most recent 6 months of each title, and longboxes filled with back issues.  Empire Comics treated a comic book shop as more than just a secret club, but treated comic books themselves as the escapism that they had become for me.  I scanned the shelves, intimidated by the independent comic books I had read about, and grabbed the issues to fill in the gaps in my new X-Men collection.

My Comic Book Fan Origin

perez-wonder-woman

I discovered comic books through barbershop trips with my father.  The barber had old issues of George Perez’s Wonder Woman, which I’d read while my dad had his turn in the chair.  I remember being discouraged once I realized it was a serialized story, “War of the Gods,” and the barber only had intermittent issues.

In 1993 I was allowed to leave my mom in the grocery store and stay in the magazine section; reading has always been a preferred past-time, so being left alone was an easy sell, and she knew I wasn’t going to leave the area.  The magazines were not very interesting, but occasionally I did stop to flip through a Time, Newsweek, maybe RollingStone, depending on the cover.  This time when I opened comic books I connected with every aspect of the superhero genre: the ordinary persona was a cover for the true fascinating life away from restrictions.

Most comics in the spinner rack were c-list, Ex-Mutants or SleepWalker; others were b-list or cult heroes like the growing Dark Horse line, Ghost or X.  I sampled each one, but their struggles felt too distant from my own.  When I tried the X-Men I found the heroes that instinctually understood me.

Freex

ultra_freex            When I was younger I was such an avid follower of everything X-Men that I fell for almost any comic that contained the letter ‘X,’ regardless of where the letter fell in the word.  That’s how I became acquainted with Malibu’s Freex, a group of teens with powers are hunted by a corporation.  The Freex were close enough in concept to the X-Men that it spoke to me, and unlike the adult X-Men, the Freex were closer to my age, and better reflected my current emotional reactions and problems.  Also, unlike mutants the Freex’s powers had a younger adult feel, being designed to create an even playing field amongst the characters; a cheerleader with deforming skin tendrils, the computer geek that can manipulate technology becomes a hero similar to a high school quarter back, who himself has lost his popular standing because of powers that change him into a large silver blob-creature.  Additionally, Freex characters needed one another in a more somber manner than the X-Men.  The Freex only had each other but mutants were plentiful enough to form multiple groups, X-Factor, X-Force, Excalibur, Wolverine, , etc.  I longed to be friends with the X-Men and their super-hero soap opera, but The Freex were my reality.

The Super-Powers I’d Want

If I was to be an X-Men there were two mutant powers that I wanted: shapeshifting and telepathy.

Shapeshifting to me represented liberation, a way to escape my conflict about homosexuality; freedom to explore queerness.  In middle and most of high school women were happy in their submissive role, reveled in the same fantasies about escape to a big city, a family of friends, and self-reliance.  With shapeshifting I’d be able to become that person, to become anyone other than myself.  I’d be able to avoid the lonely and isolation prophesized by television and movies.  By being able to shapeshift I’d have more tools at my disposal.  If only my goals and fantasies matched my outside.

Telepathy was a power that I wanted because it would ensure that the forms I took would be ideal for whom I was interacting with.  By having telepathy I’d know exactly what to say, be prepared for what others would say, and always have a funny quip to keep grace.  Having the correct words, I’d be able to give the illusion that I was known without having to go through the painful experience of not exposing my queerness.  Telepathy would remove the guess work about how to be part of the group.

Geekery Gay Subculture

callistoxBeing an isolated gay youth I didn’t grasp the larger social issues presented by the X-Men, but they became my original introduction to a subculture.  This was accomplished through their cartoon when it featured the Morlocks, mutants who lived in the sewers of New York City because their powers made them grotesquely disfigured. Their disfigurement and mutant-identity was analogous to my gay and homosexuality that I actively kept a secret because I feared being further separated from my classmates and friends.  The Morlocks illustrate a key dimension of the mythos, the group that requires isolation through creating its own culture because society won’t accept it.  The Morlock Tunnels, as their home became known, is an analogy for subculture and minority neighborhoods I discovered when I became 18 and went to college near NYC, and began going to gay clubs and Chelsea, I was enlightened to a world that was tailored to me.  In NYC’s clubs the drag- and nicknames used were similar to mutants’ code-names as their primary self-identity and opting out of their government birth names.  As my knowledge of queer history and culture grew the mutants’ outsider place took on greater meaning of social acceptance of uniqueness.

X-Men as a Bent Mirror

chris-bachalo-wolverine-and-the-x-men-0a3314e08b13dabb733fa6dca0085184Having grown-up in a predominately white upper-middle class suburb, the x-titles were my first exposure that my normal wasn’t the normal across the world.  Prior to contact to Karma, of the New Mutants, a Catholic from Vietnam, it never occurred to me Catholicism could be a minority religion.  The x-family was also my first introduction to other religions, such as Greco-Roman classical religionist (by way of Magma) or Islam through Monet St. Croix.  Storm was my primer to the concept of diaspora, giving me a more complex view of divisions within ethnic and racial groups.

As I entered my teen years, and began searching for my group, the x-family was my judgement-free space to fantasize and explore.  I began to take notice of the bent mirror between mutants and my inability to disclose and explore my orientation; no one had bothered to ask, either.  The characters that allowed me to safely experience reality without repercussions were shape-shifters, Mystique, Copycat, or Morph/Changeling, because of their ability to be anyone and fit into any situation, which was something I longed for.  By being able to change appearance, to literally become or match anyone’s desire, I’d gain the perfection that I had desired.