I have always been a fan of the X-Men. One of my earliest memories may well be my family all together, watching Superman: The Motion Picture, and that “S” helped shape my moral structure, but there’s a lot more personal development which I can tie to the X-Men.
Whether it’s them affecting my life choices or me seeing myself in their experiences, it’s definitely been an interesting journey.
I grew up in the era of Thatcher, the era where, “One day all this will be yours” was replaced with, “This is what you could have won.” Another one of my earliest memories was being at home, looked after by my dad. My mum and my little brother were at a protest and I saw them there on television, on the news. As an adventurous reactionary child, I liked the underdog, the rebel. On the way back from Karate and later Judo lessons, my mum bought me Secret Wars. This was the UK edition where they halved the issues to drag it out to 24, and put lesser titles such as Alpha Flight or Iceman in the back-ups. Back then, I saw the face of establishment, Captain America, write off the X-Men for being mutants, just like Magneto, and for looking after him when he was placed inexplicably with the heroes.
I instantly hated Captain America and instantly loved the X-Men. They weren’t necessarily good or evil, they just wanted to survive.
When I was eleven a tumour started to grow in my spine, forcing my body against me. We had no idea what was happening, but it was like a mutation, a horrible, torturous one, which doctors dismissed as psychosomatic. I was wracked by crippling pain when I tried sitting or standing. It became a challenge to re-learn to walk down the street. Laughter physically hurt as my nerves jangled and reverberated. It trained me not to smile or laugh, earning me the nickname of “Cheerful Charlie” when I was working in a comic shop years later.
During this time, trapped in place, I found Secret Wars and was captivated. Again, Captain America was an enemy and the X-Men were maligned freaks. Just like me. My body adapted to the tumour and I could walk, although not as far as I used to. I returned to school, divorced from the general populace who’d had a year to make friends. One of my oldest friends, James Schan, introduced me to David’s Book Exchange (later Dave’s Comics). He was a huge Spider-Man and X-Men fan. Spider-Man was great, but I was intrigued with what the X-Men had been up to in the many years since I’d followed them. Secret Wars was a British reprint, years after the series itself wrapped in America, so I had even more to catch up with.
I was addicted from the start. I had no idea what was going on. There was a French guy and a guy who knew Wolverine and they were fighting, and that was my introduction. I had no idea who Gambit or Sabretooth were, but there were hints that more things were going on with characters I knew. Then a crossover happened. The worst thing for a kid who had no idea what was going on. No matter what happened, as Stan Lee said, “Every issue is someone’s first” and I was there, avidly following the soap opera, comprehending half of it at first and swiftly gaining more and more knowledge. It took me no time at all to be aware of the X-Men’s history. We didn’t have the internet, but we had four or five comic shops and they were all eager to help.
I was used to the way my life was, painkillers every four hours, a pillow under my leg when I slept, to stop it from moving and triggering my nerves. I was almost a normal kid, but not. I was still a freak, a mutant. At school I was always treated as an outsider, and I owned that role. I led the other outcasts, the Cyclops of my rag-tag group. Maybe a long-haired Professor X. I wasn’t in a wheelchair, but I may as well have been. My brother suffered for his acquaintance to me, like anyone who sided with a mutant would.
Time passed, and I became friends with some of the staff of the local comic shops, despite the rivalries they had with each other. I followed a few other comic books, Star Trek, New Warriors and the like, but it was always about the X-Men. What little money I had went on Classic X-Men issues to catch up and current ones, which seemed so different to the older characters and styles.
I still remember my thirteenth birthday. As I said, I was used to the pain, to constantly medicating, but when I was ill then it all got worse. I was sick, in bed, pillow under my leg and a pile of comics by my side. I couldn’t go outside, I couldn’t do anything. I was useless. I could hear my mother turning away friends who had come to celebrate my birthday. I stared at the ceiling, wanting beyond anything else for this pain to change, to metamorphose. To get ruby eyebeams, to fly, to move objects with my mind. I wanted anything to show that I was different in a good way. But I was grounded, trapped. In retrospect if I’d have developed Cyclops’ eye beams I would have destroyed my brother’s room and I don’t know how I could ever have apologised for that, especially if he was in it at the time.
My mother was busy battling a supervillain during these years, trying to find out why I was in so much pain all the time. Why I had to be on painkillers as much possible, why I was no longer the Hank McCoy, Beast-style youth, jumping around treetops. I was taken from doctor to doctor, alternative practitioner to alternative practitioner. Eventually, when I was fourteen, there was a phone call from the doctor who had initially misdiagnosed my tumour. The MRI which I’d had in Chailey Heritage, which looked like it belonged in The Prisoner, or like an abandoned version of the Xavier Institute. They found what was wrong with me, a tumour in my spine. It was pressing on the nerves in my right leg, which was why it always hurt. Such tumours get worse at night, which is why it was more painful then, why I was always screaming at night.
They found out what was wrong. And now was the time to fix it. I met doctors who weren’t debunking my pain, who seemed efficient. My experiences with any kind of authorities had been like the X-Men’s with Captain America back in Secret Wars, I was incredulous and annoyed with them. But now things were going to improve. My mother, my comics and I went to London, to the Maudsley, where I spent months before, during and after my operation. I heard tales of Forbidden Planet, which I still have never been to, when my mother quested for more comics for me. When I was gaining consciousness, I also regained some of my strength. When asked to push with my leg to make sure everything worked, I used my normal grace and booted the male nurse away from the bed. I started teasing the nurses, the gaggle of doctors who would come along like carol singers every day, staring awkwardly at their notes, unsure who should sing first.
Despite all of these improvements, it was going to be a long road. It wasn’t like the old comics where a hero could break an arm and be okay the next issue, it was like the soap operas of Chris Claremont, with recovery taking several issues. Also like a Chris Claremont comic, there was a lot of angst, a lot of psychological issues which followed. I had an idea of where my life was, where it was going. I would be in pain and read comics. That was it. My destiny was unmarked territory now. It was thrilling, but it scared the life out of me, too.
My school was exactly the same when I eventually returned to it, apart from one person whose grandmother had died of cancer so he felt he could relate to what I went through. I let him believe that as he was one less person who didn’t hate and fear me. I moved schools and when it turned out that I had missed my chance of work experience in my old school, the new one arranged it. My choice, instantly, was David’s Comics, a separate site to the book shop which had just opened up. I loved it there, and after two attempts, ended up working for them part time until I was done with my studies.
I revisited Chailey a few times, mainly to get a plastic back brace fitted, and after that, for replacements as I was growing up. In my new school, Varndean, I turned my offish humour into something more light-hearted. With the back brace I was invulnerable, not a power I expected, but my brother could shoot a BB gun at me and at best damage a shirt button. I could stab myself with a compass and not feel a thing. I befriended a bully who tried punching me and hurt his hand. I could jam a pen into one of the holes used for ventilation and pretend to have been stabbed. I was superhuman. I had made my mutation work for me.
When I was done with sixth form I worked full time for Dave’s Comics, which was filled with fantastic and strange characters. They knew about comics, and retail, and life. My parents friends were always like surrogate aunts and uncles, but we were still children. Most of my friends were younger than I was, thanks to re-taking my GCSEs. At the comic shop, the staff and customers were of every age, every experience. It was fascinating hearing them talking whether it was about real life or about comics. Having the ties of our fandom meant that we could connect with that and go on from there. My oldest friend, Steve, was a friend of a customer who used to argue about X-Men with me. In my role as aspiring writer, I was more forgiving of the actions of the characters if it fit drama and was still in character. He was not.
This was no longer my experience alone, but it was everyone’s. They all had X-Men at some point in their lives. Being a mutant meant being black, or a woman, or gay. It could mean anything where you weren’t the norm. My life as a freak was just one of many. We all had stories, and we all had something we could relate to. They weren’t heroes and they weren’t villains. They were people. Bright spandex, crazy powers and world-bending plots aside, they were us.
I left David’s Comics and went to university. At the same time the great and powerful Grant Morrison wrote a more cerebral X-Men title. It used all of the tropes of the X-Men comics, Sentinels, evil twins, dark futures, wild space travels, and made them all sing. It was like David Lynch using all the tools of American Soap Operas to make the fantastic Twin Peaks. It fit my mindset as I was trying to grow, trying to evolve. Morrison’s message was that evolution never stops. Mutants would take over from the mainstream. We are all freaks and geeks and we should embrace that.
‘m still a freak. I haven’t had to wear a back brace in over a decade now, but that’s because I’m done growing and my spine’s stuck as curved as it is. I still feel pain in my right leg, nerve damage affected by the scar tissue where they removed the tumour. I’m still different, and I bear the physical reminders of it all the time. Twice now I’ve returned to a constant supply of painkillers to deaden any pain in my leg and my back, but that’s a terrible dependency to have and not great for the working bits of my body. I’ve stopped taking them, or any painkillers for about three years now which is a killer when I’ve got a hangover, but far better for me in the long term.
The current X-Men stories, with mutants as a dying race, segregated on an island, the prospects are grim, but the attitude is bright. Kieron Gillen and Matt Fraction gave us action, humour, a sense of dynamism and of people trying to claim their destiny. Where I was looking for acceptance and learning in university, I have what I need and I’m looking to be the agent of change in improving my life now.
The X-Men were a shield, a protective hiding place for me to retreat to when I was younger, to say that there were other people like me, real or not. Since then they’ve become more of a touchstone, a reminder of what I’ve gone through and what I’m doing now. They evolve, they grow, they don’t have the quick fixes that old school comics had, and they have many strange plot twists. And that makes them more human than other super heroes, even with capes, tights and galaxy-spanning plots.
I admit that I often live vicariously through the popular culture. I am a media sponge, and I like that. I do not define myself by what’s going on in the X-Men, but it’s something I’ve always been able to relate to, even at a base level. The continuing media of comics is an interesting phenomenon, as a much better comics journalist once said, “Batman was around before you were born and he’ll be here long after you’re dead.” The same is true of the X-Men. And being able to live a life with one intellectual property around when you’re a seven year old judo enthusiast, a thirteen year old victim, a twenty-two year old student or a thirty-one year old aspiring writer, it’s unlike anything you’d get from a movie or a television show. I guess the closest other format would be the soap opera.
There is a lot more of the popular culture that I follow, and my own writing, which I’ve analysed and overthought and loved, so X-Men is just a part of my life, especially now. In writing this article, I’ve discovered that it’s evidently a building block of how I became who I am now.
A very frank and personal account of growing up with and living with such a serious issue, and how comics, escapism, fantasy and fiction can help shape and bring hope and peace at times.
Moving and honest. Meant a lot.