Like hardcore drug use and street gang membership, the practice of comic book reading is a culthood into which you are inducted, always, by someone close to you. My recruiting officer was Chad Easton, pitcher on my fourth grade little league team. We knew each other from baseball but had bonded over our love of drawing. Chad was the one to take me into Comics Galore, the shop a few blocks down from his house, one town over.
Once inside the store, he didn’t mess around. He took me straight to the top shelf of superhero teams and, as he carefully explained who and what the X-Men were, he guided me into the turbulent and vivid prism of comic book fanhood that has been claiming souls since the 1930s. Of every colorful character and crack squad of superheroes, I would argue that the most artful and thoughtful characters are these mutants sworn to protect a world that hates and fears them.
Even if you’ve never read an issue of the X-Men, you still probably know who they are. Maybe your acquaintance with them is through the current film series, or the trilogy that begat it, or (like me) the stunningly sophisticated 90s animated TV show, or before that, the deep and weirdly mature comic books of the 80s, or before that, the revivalist X-Men team of the 70s, or, before that, the original, WASPY teenaged team of the 60s.
After that first visit to Comics Galore, I waded in the X-Men universe throughout adolescence and early teenagerdom. Like many, I wavered as a young man and eventually fell out of the habit of reading comic books regularly. But, as they say of decades-long cigarette smokers, you never really quit. Throughout my late teens and early to mid-twenties, I drifted into the occasional comic book store, just to “check in” on the Marvel, DC, Image, and Dark Horse universes. I wanted to know what was happening with Superman, what crises (infinite and finite) were befalling the Justice Leaguers and the Avengers, but my truest fan-self was always concerned with the X-Men. They were my family, long-estranged, but never fully divorced from my heart.
I’ve always felt like an X-Man (and that’s not B.S. It’s actually, kind of the central point of the X-Men. What preteen hasn’t ever felt like an outcast, a misfit, a reject glowing with a secret fire?). I’ve thrilled to their crossover events and epic crises. I’ve deeply admired the stoicism of Professor X, the social grace of Gambit, and others. I’ve loved and lusted after Rogue and Psylocke. I’ve claimed expertise of their annals, understanding of their themes, appreciation of their relationships. But a thought niggles: Do I really know them? Do I really get it? Or do I just get my experience of the X-Men (absorbed through a relatively small window of mid-90s comics, TV shows and a few back issues from before my time)? How can I proclaim the X-Men if I haven’t studied their history? How much of them do I really know? And how much have I simply constructed from the memories and images that have washed over me during the past decades. What I aim to do here is answer that question. To revisit and study the X-Men and to learn about them, about 20th and 21st Century America, and fandom in general, issue by issue.