Last night I had The Wolverine Dream again.
You know the one; you start in a sort of nebulous dream-place, surrounded by nebulous dream-people, when suddenly, things start to take form, there’s an air of urgency, the people with you start to feel familiar, and then – attack! You’re under attack by unseen forces! You aren’t sure what to do, then you look down at your hands and… snikt!
It was pretty cool. The Wolverine Dream is always cool. After I woke up and established that my skeleton had not, in fact, been fused with Adamantium (I’ll spare you the details on how I determined this), I got to thinking. The students at Charles Xavier’s mansion have, as far back as I can remember, captured my heart and imagination to a degree unmatched by any other fictional characters, comic-book or otherwise. Forget the Planeteers and the Power Rangers – what is it, exactly, about the X-Men?
The teenager factor. I have no doubt that this has been written about all over the place. The most powerful and least subtle appeal of the X-Men comics lies in the comics’ far-reaching metaphor for adolescence. As these teens near adulthood, boys and girls with the mutant gene discover that their bodies are changing in strange ways that they can’t control. They’re developing frightening, uncontrollable, and often dangerous new powers. They try to hide their new-found differentness and almost always fail. Their physical appearance undergoes radical changes, often for the freakish. They become social outcasts. If any of this sounds eerily familiar to you, well, that’s not an accident. These stories resonate with us because to one degree or another, we’ve all been there ourselves.
They’re misfits. You’ve got to give credit where credit is due – Stan Lee understands his readership. As a result of the emotional trauma brought about by mutation, many youngsters arrive at Xavier’s school emotionally damaged misfits – slow to trust, easy to anger, and angsty as all hell. It is this damaged beginning that makes the sense of belonging that most mutants eventually find at Xavier’s academy one of the most emotionally resonant aspects of the X-Men universe for me, and I’m guessing that I’m not alone on that. Not only are these outcasts given a home and a similarly-affected peer group, they’re given a purpose to boot, and all in one fell swoop. In all the comics, TV episodes, and movies, my favorite moments are always when a young mutant is first rescued by the older X-Men and brought back to Xavier’s academy. That slowly dawning realization that “I am not alone”… it speaks to something deep within me, to my own yearning for belonging and purpose.
Their teamwork is organic. One of the fundamental rules of any team of superheroes is that they must be able to unite to become more powerful than any of them could be individually. Many writers force this on their characters – power rings that must be combined, small robots must become working parts of a larger robot, psychic powers need to be simultaneously focused to call forth Psi-Hawk – the list goes on and on. In contrast to that sort of gimmickry, the X-Men define their team dynamic on the fly by adapting to their their unique and often complimentary power-set. It’s a good thing, too – due to the character’s ever-shifting loyalties and allegiances, the group is constantly changing, leading to some really exciting change-ups and power vs. power contests. Fighting a gigantic Sentinel? No sweat. First, Gambit charges a up a card and blows a hole in a nearby dam (X-Men rule #423 – there is always a nearby dam), filling a hole with water. Storm then electrifies the pool of water and causes a lightening bolt to fell a tree. With the trap set, Cyclops blasts the Sentinel in the back, sending it stumbling over the felled tree and into the electrified water, short-circuiting it. Wolverine then jumps up onto the stunned robot, cutting into its head and disabling its CPU. Bam. No combining to form Voltron necessary. The process is incredibly appealing to me as a reader because this kind of organic, strengths-based teamwork is a super-charged version of what I strive to foster in the real world. Each team member’s strengths compliment the others’, allowing the group to overcome obstacles that for any single member would have been insurmountable.
The romance feels romantic. While super-powered romance is certainly nothing new to comics, the tawdry, tortured triangles at the X-Mansion are in a class by themselves. Stan Lee and the rest of the writers make wonderfully clever use of the characters’ super powers, and often those very abilities are the single greatest obstacle standing between them and true love. Thanks to her mutation, Rogue and Iceman could not touch, and the resulting years of pining, longing, and starry-eyed gazing made the Twilight series look like Gears of War. Jean Grey transformed into The Phoenix, whose burning, universe-devouring rage so dwarfed the fire in the hearts of the two men who loved her that any chance for a happy ending was all but extinguished. When Rogue finally found Gambit, a man whom she could actually touch, the joy and relief of their prickly romance was almost heartbreaking.
The powers are cool. And okay, okay. Touchy-feely stuff aside, when it comes down to it, the most important thing about any collection of super heroes is whether or not their powers are cool. And the X-Men’s powers? Are COOL. The main players have, without question, the most interestingly balanced, groovily displayed super powers in history. (I challenge you. I really do. Name me a fictional character cooler than Gambit.) The smaller characters, however, more than held their own. Kitty Pryde, a.k.a. Shadowcat, is my all-time favorite X-Man (or, I suppose, X-Woman). Her powers were a brilliant mixture of super-cool and tragic: Kitty’s default state is one of intangibility, allowing her to walk through walls and float through the air, which is, you know, awesome. The flip-side of that, however, is that she can only maintain corporeal form with huge amounts of mental focus, causing all manner of headaches, sickness, and other ill effects, and forcing her to spend the majority of her existence as little more than a ghost in the world. Her more central role in the offshoot supergroup Excalibur was one of the main reasons I loved their stories so much – Nightcrawler and Phoenix were cool, too, but Kitty was the main attraction for me. Captain Britain? Eh.
In closing, I can think of only one other place in literature that has captured the public imagination in the same way as Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters; one other school to which children are whisked away after learning of their specialness, a destination that is both an escape from drab adulthood and a metaphor for adolescence. It, too, is a gigantic, labyrinthine building brimming with wonders and intrigue, where romance blossoms, the truest of friendships are forged, and new mysteries await around every corner. A place where the wise headmaster leads an extra-curricular fight against a former comrade who has fallen to the dark side, a battle in which loyalties tragically shift, friendships are put to the ultimate test, and the fate of the non-special, square world hangs in the balance.
But long before we fell under the spell of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, many of us spent hours on end imagining ourselves in a sprawling compound in upstate New York where they kept a jet under the basketball court, a set of cool suits in the basement, and where feelings of both longing and belonging held far more power than any genetic mutation possibly could.
I hope I have The Wolverine Dream again soon.