The original X-men animated series that aired on Saturday morning confused me. I had heard of the X-men, of course, and knew it was about a group of superheroes. The trouble was that my community had left me with a rather askew idea of what proper heroes were. A hero fought evil, right? And they were always upstanding citizens of their communities who treated everyone the way Fred Rogers would, right? They always knew the difference between right and wrong, were kind and decent to all no matter what, and were eternally outgoing, friendly, and engaging. They had secret identities. Just as sure, every villain could be easily spotted by their black clothes, horns, curly mustaches, and evil cackles. And within a short time frame, any hero would take out a villain and leave them unambiguously defeated and rethinking life decisions in a jail cell.
X-men was my first encounter with the true Stan Lee. It wasn’t my first technical encounter with Stan Lee; that would be the Spider-man Saturday morning animated series. But the trouble with that Spider-man series was that it followed most of the same template that I had come to expect from my stereotypical superheroes: Spider-man was a light warrior who fought villains with distinctly nefarious motives. Yes, the show was presented in a serialized format, and yes, Jameson was there to try to give the show some sort of gray area. But the problem was that Jameson was so over-the-top in his fight to catch Spider-man that he came off as a villain himself. The other characters were also presented in ways which gave them moral clarity. So as far as the Marvel universe went, the point of Spider-man soared right over my head. (This wasn’t the first time black and white morality wrecked my view of comics. I was weaned on the Adam West version of Batman, so I missed the point of that too. It wasn’t until my mother finally explained to me that the original Batman – the one I didn’t know about – was a vigilante that something finally clicked.)
X-men was what gave me a colored view on the world of superheroes and my introduction to the kind of work Stan Lee really did. I remember looking forward to that show and being left in a state of shock by how weird it was. When I was that young, the standout figure with the X-men was Wolverine. So naturally, I pegged him to be an ultimate hero in the Superman mold… So why did he spend half the time acting like such a prick? And the great leader of the X-men was Cyclops. So why did he come off as so lost, indecisive, and stuck in his own head? Why did the show seem to spend as much time with the bad guys as it did with the good guys? Why did the show seem to be presenting the bad guys in a neutral light? And why did so many of the non-powered characters seem to hate the good guys?
This was new, and to a kid looking for action popcorn for a lazy Saturday, it was also extremely radical. There was no room for the flawless superhero in Stan Lee’s world. The good guy/bad guy dynamic was still in play, but it was blurred. The few flawless superheroes that did show up were in the habit of getting screwed, and trying to be one rarely if ever meant a happy ending. It took a bit of time for me to understand that X-men wasn’t there to present kids my age with the animated version of Commando every week. It was difficult for me to take at first since everything about X-men’s good guys was an antithesis to everything my community taught me about what being a good guy meant. X-men’s good guys were often good guys for one reason and one reason alone: They fought against bad guys. And I was frequently taking the show’s word on the good and bad guys as well, because a few of the bad guys at least had understandable reasons for being bad.
It was a bit longer still before I figured out that someone behind these characters was trying to get through to me. In my hometown, there wasn’t very much room for anything or anyone that was out of the ordinary, and the ordinary had a narrow definition. X-men was a sign that, somewhere out there, there were people who understood the sort of isolation and loneliness I felt. It dealt with emotions I understood at the time, and others I wouldn’t come to understand until I grew up a little more. In a way, X-men turned into a sort of right of passage, because I began to see that many of the people I was taught to look up to weren’t necessarily good. The kinds of peers that I was constantly striving to be like so they would think I was cool might not be worth the effort. Of course, I didn’t realize the implications of what I was watching until hindsight years later, but X-men was showing kids why they should fine-tune their bullshit detectors.
There’s an irony in the fact that Marvel has hit the mainstream the way it did, because most of the people who took to Stan Lee’s work way back in the day were outcasts who saw much of themselves in it. With the recent success of the Marvel Universe movies, one could make the case that more people were touched by Lee than anyone would have thought. All of the people introduced to Stan Lee’s work the way I was are grown up now, and yet they have favorite Marvel Universe characters and series, and many can eloquently argue and describe their preferences. All of us have seen something in those movies which touches us on a primal emotional level. And those of us who are different have all felt something in it which made us feel like we were understood somewhere.
Mock us for our geek outlets, but don’t try to insist they don’t matter.