Stranger Danger

It’s been a while since I read comics properly, certainly not in the same way that I used to. It’s been 20-25 years of toying around with certain worlds and characters, always coming back at different times. (I thought those numbers were a bit overly generous, then I did a quick Google search. Apparently, the X-Men animated series debuted in 1992: at 24 years, we may as well round up to 25, right?

That cartoon series was like a gateway drug for me, introducing me to worlds and characters that were so bold and new and brave that they drew me in fully until I was watching them every chance I got. I watched every time I could: I bought episodes on VHS (okay, I got my parents to buy them); a used my pocket-money to buy comics and trading cards and T-shirts.

The trading cards were my favourite, little biographies of characters, heroes and villains alike; summaries of plotlines and epic fights that I wanted to experience for myself.

It was the 90s. Jim Lee’s art was important to the franchise and to the not-quite-ten-year-old-me, the world of the X-Men was a mix of sights and visions that would introduce me to many different genres and themes in TV. Most of those experiences were in my little pack of a few-hundred Flair trading cards: there was the horror of Mr. Sinister; there was the cyber-punk Cameron Hodge; there were the body-image issues of the Morlocks compared to the brazen pseudo-sexual body-owning Psylocke (and when you look at that beach setting up the top of this post, let’s not ignore Cyclops or Wolverine and the knowledge that buff, sexualised bodies were not limited to one gender.)

These characters could have been role-models or ciphers into the adult world, a world where you weren’t quite the same as everyone else, but you were still able to deal with that. That was my life. Because I wasn’t the same as everyone else. I was a little bit taller and I was developing body-hair a few years before my peers and I wore glasses and I was pretty shit at sports (and I didn’t want to be good at sports, nor was I the least bit interested in sports.) It took a good decade or so before I considered my sexuality, and how that applied in the world of the X-Men: in “good Catholic Ireland,” being gay was frowned upon, not truly understood and was really fucking scary.

Just like being a mutant, eh?

The characters of the early/mid-90s drew me into this world, and I was acutely aware that they had ~history.~ Over the coming years, I would binge on that history, consume the stories about them, buy the trades that told their stories. I forgave the characters for their sins and their dalliances with the dark side; I relished in their little rivalries, desperate to see who would be next to fall to temptation; and I admired their ability to forgive because of all the things they have in common.

I’ve stuck with the X-Men for these 24 years, always dipping out and back in to their world to catch up with these characters. The X-Men have also been my portal into other characters, giving me cause and reason to visit the Avengers or the Fantastic Four and how well they all get on with each other.

Every time I stepped away from the world of comics, I came back and I caught up; like you do with old friends, there were some things they didn’t talk about (and things you didn’t need to know.) But they were still ultimately the same people, and you wished them well.

I’m not sure if that’s still the case.

I’ve tried to revisit the world of the X-Men recently, and I’ve found that world cold and unwelcoming, the characters a little bit too different to what they were. People change, I know that; but people also tend to smile and discuss the stuff from several decades ago just as readily as they discuss the stuff that happened yesterday. That stuff from the 80s and the 90s might not be relevant any longer, but it’s still important in your friendship and your relationship.

I don’t think I know these characters any longer. I don’t recognise them, and they have changed so dramatically from what they were that I don’t know if I want to be friends with them any longer. The X-Men are reminding me of the worst types of acquaintances in real life, the people who are more than happy to be your friends while you’re of use to them, but then turn their back on you, unfriend you and laugh behind your back because they’re one of the cool kids now…and you’re not.

I wouldn’t usually do this: but I feel like calling out those people.

Let’s name and shame, shall we?

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Jean Grey

I like the Jean Grey character, probably far greater than I have any right to. Her mix of powers (telekinesis and telepathy) are my ideal power-set, and her role as one of the original X-Men is important to me. She is a powerful woman who is nonetheless kind; fiercely proud of and protective of her friends, deeply in love with Scott Summers. And she has a dark side, a dangerous part of her personality that might destroy the entire world.

Jean has grown and developed as a character; she has come back from the dead multiple times, faced her own death and the deaths of her friends and family. Above all else, she has sacrificed herself to save those people. And yeah, Jean has a ~thing~ for Wolverine, a thin line between lust and soul-mate that is never truly consummated in a way that would destroy her relationship with Scott.

But

That Jean is dead and gone, and every time she’s on the verge of coming back, we’re teased that maybe she will return to save her friends once more. And she doesn’t. Despite the fact that Jean dances around the universe, potentially making small changes to reality as and when required, Jean doesn’t do the things that she ultimately needs to (ie, look at her oldest friends in the face and tell them to stop being dicks.)

Jean is no longer the emotional anchor of the X-Men, and maybe there’s resonance in that because they’re wild at sea at the moment.

But nobody talks about it.

In fact, the only thing they talk about is the ~new~ Jean, the Jean that’s been brought from the past to the present day and now can’t return. This Jean is not the woman that the world of the X-Men has fallen in love with; this is the surly teenager who wants things her way. This version of Jean doesn’t have the history of the ~real~ Jean.

That’s all part of her point. But it also means that she doesn’t have the long-standing girl-power friendship with Storm; she doesn’t have a challenging relationship with her first love Scott Summers, nor a tempestuous lust for Wolverine. In fact, this Jean has a weird crush/love for Hank McCoy that, let’s be honest, is just a little bit like pairing her up with every one of the original X-Men.

All but one, anyway. Because Jean isn’t going to be getting with Iceman any time soon because she’s just proven herself to be the greatest supervillain of them all and outed this friend (in past, present and future.) This Jean hasn’t kept any secrets or modesty: this is the Jean Grey who demands that a character be honest with everyone just because she’s fed up with listening to his gay thoughts. (I’m paraphrasing, but that’s that I’m summing up the characters to here.)

Jean Grey: you’re a bitch.

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Iceman

Forever the joker of the X-Men, forever unwilling and unable to take things seriously, Iceman was one of my first action figures. He came with a box that suggested he changed colour if you put him in the freezer. While I associated with Jean’s powers to move things with her mind and understand people’s thoughts (while still respecting their secrets), I admired Iceman’s ability to control all of his body, to have power over (one of) the elements, and to keep his cool (hah!) under the most serious of circumstances. Bobby’s biggest problem was his inability to take anything seriously, and that was annoying, but relatable.

But

Now he’s a card-carrying member of the gay club, and all because Jean Grey went rummaging in his brain and outed one of her best friends. But Bobby doesn’t understand this world: does anyone around him get that?

I don’t think I’d have a problem with this storyline if it didn’t just get thrown out there as if it were easy. The X-Men stand for adversity and diversity at their best and worst. Just because a straight creative team think that a character can face his demons after forty years and wave their hands and nod and smile because it’s not as hard to be gay now as it was forty years ago.

That’s not how it works.

Will Bobby face being rejected by his family and friends (again?) Will Bobby face dealing with what type of guy he likes and why they don’t like him?

A hand-wave.

“You’re gay now. Deal with it.”

Poor Bobby didn’t even get a full issue to deal with it.

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Cyclops

Cyclops is  fucking nerd; there’s a reason he gets called “boy-scout” and there’s a reason he gets called “slim.” He’s a skinny tactical genius who wears glasses and is afraid to tell the girl of his dreams how he feels about her and doesn’t really face up to his emotions. He’s the guy who had a psychic affair with Emma Frost, and yeah that turned into a physical thing because she led it that way and this played out over several years.

But

Scott has just been portrayed as a dick for 10+ years now, turning from a shy guy into the face of a mutant revolution. Scott does press-releases now; Scott does speeches and makes bold, brash decisions.

Scott’s also a villain. Scott’s more Magneto than Magneto himself has ever been.

Scott covers his face all the time; he’s no longer the nerd in the glasses, but the guy who wears a (nearly)-full face mask and has a ridiculous pose and a motion that’s supposed to look and feel and be cool.

Scott Summers is not cool. He can lead the X-Men all the wants, but he is not cool.

There are other characters too. Shall I continue?

fu95-137Rogue

The all-powerful “I can’t touch nobody” but I’m still going to fucking deal with it chick who can punch demons and monsters and aliens and carry her own book and face her demons and after decades of powerlessness, became able to touch people and deal with her own life.

But

Rogue was reduced to the emotional power of an angry goth teenager whose powers quickly returned to what they had been and whose relationships were reduced to angry snide remarks rather than the leader of her own team.

Ms Marvel

Or Captain Marvel as she became. Carol Danvers wasn’t really in the X-Men, but her stories interacted with Rogue’s many a time. The woman who was incapable of controlling her own life, who dealt this her body image, her brain tumour, her family and her enemies and her inability to move out of the shadows of the man who acted as the origin of her powers.

But

Now she’s the same cold military figure she always was and nothing else. I adored Brian Reed’s take on her character and her stories and her transition into Captain Marvel was brave and finally gave the character the power and confidence she deserved. Not a drop of fear there; not a drop of relatable realism.

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Colossus

Dumb pile of meat with a body to die for and a heart of gold. Remember that time that Colossus single-handedly sacrificed himself to cure mutant-kind of the not-AIDS Legacy Virus (and also atone for the fact that he was working with Magneto for a while?) Remember how every story since then has laboured the issue of how, without Kitty Pryde or Magik by his side, he’s just a thick fuck with zero emotional resonance.

And while we’re at it…

Is Magik a magic-based character or a mutant? Does Kitty Pryde give a fuck about any of her friends or family, or does she just fly off into space to be with a guy that she had a minor flirtation with and is now her husband (bet it won’t last long; she won’t be allowed in the second film)? Emma Frost has played the hero a hell of a lot longer than she played the villain, and why does everyone forget that?When did Psylocke go from being a bad-ass ninja with body issues to a woman who likes to cover-up, talks through her teeth and is physically incapable of smiling. (For a character who gets re-invented every couple of years, she never gets to linger on one identity for long.)

Once upon a time, I thought I had answers to these questions. And I was perfectly happy to have my opinions challenged provided I got a chance to learn about these characters. But now, these characters are turning on a dime: the individual story arc doesn’t exist anymore and their grand revelations are limited to a couple of pages in a larger arc, pages that will never be addressed elsewhere and are just expected to be the new status-quo for them. And every single fan who has invested in them.

I could go on, but I don’t need to. Nor do I want to. I’ll just go and read some classic stories: at least they have some sense of longevity to them.

  • I know how you feel. I’m a longtime “classic” comics fan and I take breaks too. Every time I come back to a title, usually because of a news story or a tv/movie tie-in, I’m disappointed. I’m not sure whether it’s because the characters appear to have changed SO much, or that it’s becoming clear that this medium I absolutely love just doesn’t seem to be for me anymore.

    As much as I love the fact that writers and artists are finally learning that women can lead books and that non-white people exist, the direction the books are taking at DC and Marvel are honestly either boring rehashes of the same old stuff, or wild forays into new plotlines that radically change everything about characters who, to the readers, have decades-long established personalities and motivations.

    I still read comics, but they’ve definitely changed. (I also had… still have… that trading card set!)

    • Ken

      *breathes a sigh of relief*

      I am SO happy it’s not just me and a few other people have said this. Your words and thoughts are so close to my own that I am so bloody glad someone out there thinks similar.

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