A History of Tolerance: A Look at Literacy, Literature, and Life, Featuring the X-Men

An essay on a book, or literature that has influenced me. A History of Tolerance

Large, heavy balls rolled on slick smooth surface with dastardly determination. Thunder rolled down the alley ending with the clacking and clattering of up to ten white, wooden pins lying about. This is how I remember it.

My first memory of reading comic books is from 1988. “Happy Birthday to you,” screeched more than a dozen seven year olds, all out of tune. At the conclusion of Tommy’s birthday party we were given plastic goody bags, which contained colorfully wrapped candies, as well as two comic books each. One of the comic books I received was Uncanny X-Men 237 (cover date: Early November 1988). I don’t think I had heard of the X-Men before then. The X-Men comic was incomprehensible to me at that time, because of the locale, the cast of characters, all with their strange personas, and the story’s placement within a larger, rich context. The comic book featured some guy with metal claws on each hand, named Wolverine, who said things like, “Yer gonna get us in trouble, Bub.” The other protagonist, Rogue/Carol Danvers (Rogue's ability to absorb the powers and minds of those she touches led to this strange situation), was having some sort of identity crisis. Also contributing to my inability to comprehend and enjoy the comic is the fact that it was the “conclusion” of a multi-issue (multi-episode if you prefer) story-arc involving a fictional African island nation named Genosha. On this island mutants were “gengineered,” transformed into tattooed mindless slaves, not unlike Holocaust victims. My seven-year-old mind could not handle all these new concepts and crazy ideas. “Comics are for kids”—I think not! I did not read comic books again for several years more.

I wonder if I remembered issue 237 of Uncanny X-Men when I again found X-Men difficult to understand four years later, at age 11. Chris Claremont, the writer, was the same writer from my experience years earlier. He's a writer who has a penchant for writing out dialects, which took some getting used to since I lived in one place all my 11 years. The variety of New York accents are one thing, but Creole from New Orleans, Mississippi twang, and Wolverine “rough neck” are another story all together regarding my reading comprehension. At the time cast of X-Men (not to be mistaken with its predecessor and companion title the The Uncanny X-Men) consisted of Wolverine (that guy with the metal claws), Rogue, Beast, in addition to Gambit (Remy LeBeau) of New Orleans, who would say things such as, “Le bete petite, chere.” Despite the difficulty I had with comprehension of the dialogue and dialects, the action was incredible and the character drawings (by legendary Jim Lee) were very animated for a static medium. The colorfully costumed characters and their super powers leapt from the pages at every turn. These latter exciting attributes, if not the overall story and themes, managed to engage me as a young reader.

The X-Men are a group of superhumans with amazing powers, such as optic force blasts, regenerative capabilities, control of magnetism and metals, and a plethora of other capabilities. The X-Men are mutants, to be technical, outcasts amongst “normal” humans. In the comics many humans fear and hate mutantkind. Over the years the X-Men characters had become family to each other (and to me, an outcast in my own way). Some of them were lovers, some siblings, and others were teachers and learners at a school for "gifted" youngsters. Beyond the flair of bright spandex costumes and paranormal energy blasts, this idea of a tight-knit family captured my interest, because I did not have many friends then. Many members of the X-Men teams, Gambit and Beast, became important to me and lived in my thoughts. In my mind the erudite Beast and the clever and mysterious Gambit were people to look up to. I felt like I belonged in that world, having been fully engaged by the characters and situations within the comics.

By age 12, less than a year later, I was completely drawn into the epic X-Men mythos, a mythos that was created over nearly 30 years of publication by Marvel Comics.1 By the mid-nineties the mutant line of comics consisted of no less than nine monthly titles featuring a rich, grand extended cast. I actively sought back issues featuring my favorite heroes and villains by scouring the dozens of comic book stores that existed in the pre-implosion2 year of 1992.

During my formative teenage years, from ages 12 through 17, I would read the latest issues as well as back issues from 20 and 30 years earlier. Within the first two years of its publication in 1963, the X-Men comics focused on (and sometimes, but not too often heavy handedly) with social issues such as racism, tolerance, poverty, the ecosystem, politics, power, war, death, coming of age, family, love, hope, education, the future, in addition to other world problems.

During early classroom discussions in English 500, a question was raised during class. Part to my group’s discussion over what “literature” had influenced the members of my group led to the idea of comics as literature. Hannah had mentioned X-Men specifically, rather than simply using the word “comics” as one of her strongest influences. Though she read The Uncanny X-Men from a decade earlier than what I had started reading, many of the same themes from the early eighties carried through to the early nineties, including a version of mutant AIDS, known as the Legacy Virus. The relevance of the story elements within the X-Men comics allows me to consider these comics as a form of literature. The X-Men as a metaphor for anyone who is different will never die so long as diversity and intolerance amongst humans exist.

What is literature? A text (the X-Men titles, or segments of them combined into a whole) that potentially includes all the socio-political human (and mutant—mutants as part of humanity, despite their genetic differences) concepts listed earlier in this essay. As a class we were asked, why do we read? and many answers were given: therapy, fun, tricks of the trade, identification, the search for justice, empowerment, and many other reasons that, as I grew older and gained more awareness of the world, I recognized existed within X-Men and comics in general. If a work can inspire people to read and join that fictional world generation after generation, whether it’s 10 years apart, or 30, then the medium those stories appear in can be defined as literature. If works within a medium can be analyzed critically and discussed for decades, by academics, and especially by the literary “novices” who frequent comic book shops each Wednesday3 and discuss the latest implications in the world of mutantdom, which is metaphorically humankind, then it is literature.

From this comic book literature I received an education in tolerance. I also gained an awareness of other social issues from reading from the X-Men universe comic books for so many years. It is a series that survived the upheaval of the comic book industry in the nineties and continues to awe and teach teenagers and adults today. The world would be a better place if more people had read X-Men growing up. Professor Charles Xavier espoused tolerance to his first class of students and then all of humankind in that fictional universe of marvels, but Helen Keller conveyed this message about humankind best when she said, "The highest result of education is tolerance.”

Endnotes: 1. Comic book historian Peter Sanderson explains the X-Men’s history and popularity as the title has expanded to include many other forms of media, such as cartoons, and video games on the dust jacket introduction to Marvel Masterworks: The X-Men Nos. 1-10, by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby (1987). 2. The early 90s gave way to an implosion in the comics industry due to gimmicky sales strategies and buyer speculation. 3. Wednesday has been “new comic book day” since the early 1990s.