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Growing up with the X-Men made me feel like I wasn’t alone. I guess I was lucky because whatever kind of freak I was, I wasn’t any kind of outcast and there were always friends around, but I never felt like part of anything or understood by anyone. I had an unconventional upbringing and that engendered hiding a lot of things from people, nothing really big but I didn’t feel particularly connected to the culture I was growing up in. And the other kids could tell that I wasn’t “normal”; I was small, thin, dark, I dressed all wrong, I ate the wrong food, and I liked all the wrong TV and music. I didn’t choose to be different, I just was.
As a tiny kid I was obsessed with cartoon books of any kind, I always preferred visual story telling whether it was Peanuts, MAD magazine, or the indecipherable cartoons in the New Yorker (undecipherable for an 8 year old, I can handle them fine now… mostly). Still, the first time I read the Uncanny X-Men I knew it was something completely different. I didn’t have to struggle to understand the adult relationships and strange rituals because they were young, a small group of misfit kids, and the first young, outsider group I’d ever encountered in fiction. I was immediately fascinated.
My first glimpse of the X-Men was a random, early origin story in a pocket-sized, black and white reprint. American comic books were harder to find in the UK before there were specialty comic book stores, so I’d regularly comb the newsagents shelves for the bright, glossy paper of an American comic book in-between the soft, faded newsprint of the UK ones. This one was nothing fancy, despite the shiny, colorful cover it was black and white inside, but those misfit kids were there and on first glance I could tell that they were different.
Rejected by their families and society, finding a home together, making mistakes and saving the people who hated them so much… I loved it. They weren’t like the adult superheroes I’d been reading about, I was too young to understand what was implied by Tony Stark’s drinking or Spider-Man’s girlfriends, these things genuinely puzzled me and I read them as if they were written in a foreign language. It is strange now to remember a time when those things were a foreign concept, and although I enjoyed the action and adventure of those comic books, there was too much that was going over my head. But the X-Men were different, they didn’t have money, or homes, or relationships (at that point). Most importantly, as kids themselves they didn’t have many choices or much control over their lives, they were just dealing with reality as it presented itself to them, trying to survive and take care of each other. If there was ever a group of misfits more suited to helping a little kid deal with the confusing process of reaching puberty then I never found it. (Things might have been different if I’d had access to punk rock or even Lord of the Flies.)
Like a lot of people, as I grew older those differences changed and not “fitting in” began to feel like a good thing, what began as a weakness became an asset. My individuality gave me a creative drive which has never let me down and enabled me to build stronger friendships with a more diverse group than I might have if I’d been part of a crowd growing up. The X-Men gave me a little glimpse of the future freedom waiting beyond the confusing isolation of childhood.
Over the years, as the X-Men’s comic books developed and progressed their story grew ever more sophisticated. It was a good fit to my growing understanding of the world. The analogies to race, religion, and gender politics became more overt and were played upon in myriad ways by a slew of interesting writers. These comparisons are laudable, they speak to the versatility and the importance of the X-Men as a symbol for a lot of people, but I’m glad that I was able to begin reading about them before I understood those struggles. As someone who’s never been very good at defining what I am (in any of those categories now I think about it) I feel lucky to have discovered the X-Men in a simpler, less defined incarnation, where I could simply identity with them without understanding what the implications where. The X-Men were simply my first misfit friends and when I think about it, I think I’m still choosing the comic books I love most based on whether I’ve found another misfit friend.
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