The (Dis)Abilities Of The X-Men

Last night I had a dream about being on stage at an open-mic standup comedy event. Since I have never been a comedian, I was woefully unprepared for the stage, the crowd, and the burden of being entertaining. Yet, for some reason or other I started talking about the X-Men, and in particular the argument my fiancée and I always have: who is a better match for Jean Grey, Cyclops or Wolverine? I had always been in the Cyclops camp, despite how outnumbered we are by the Wolverine camp, and because of that I had grown accustomed to weathering disdain from the other camp, even from my own fiancée. Yet, as I mined the lines of debate for any jokes that might be employed for the dream-stage, I began to realize how damaged everyone in the X-Men universe is. Soon enough I was recalling that Cyclops had suffered brain damage while parachuting with his brother from a crashing plane. This brain damage led to his inability to control his optic blasts and, so, forced him to either be blind (keeping his eyes shut forever) or to wear his ruby quartz “safety glasses” to safely function day to day among other living beings. Wolverine also had his fair share of problems, despite being everybody’s favorite “manly man”.  He had lived a long life and fought in many wars, and, of course, he had been tortured by the experiments of the Weapon X program. His psychological and emotional scars tortured him on a daily basis, and his past trauma was not unlike PTSD. As for “Red”, Jean Grey had sought Professor X’s help because of her burgeoning telepathic and telekinetic powers. She was “hearing voices” and experiencing poltergeist-like episodes where things would crash around the room as she lost control of her mind and suffered mental break drowns. Eventually she becomes possessed by the cosmic entity known as the “Phoenix” and, in gaining so much power, loses even more control, destroying whole planets during her psychotic breaks. The parallels for these characters’ disabilities went hand-in-hand with the abilities they claimed as their mutant powers.  This romantic triangle was one of remarkable debilitation, especially when considering their glamorous comic book lifestyles.
As a child I found superhero comics to be exciting mediums for escapism. Through their illustrated pages and dialogue bubbles I was able to experience other worlds beyond the dull earth of our birth and vicariously enjoy harmless power fantasies that elevated my imagination and quickened my heart. In this way was I much like any other American kid growing up in the nineties who had no self-agency or freedoms except those allowed to him by the adults in his life. Not to be too flippant, but being a child is something of a handicap, too, especially in a world controlled by adults. Every child is an underdeveloped adult, even if we withhold certain liberties for semantics from the premise of the argument. A child is a human handicapped by lack of time on earth, by lack of growth, lack of experience, lack of self-agency, and by physical limitations (when compared to the average adult). It is no wonder that superheroes are revered by children. What little boy didn’t want to have powers like Superman? What little girl didn’t want to be as independent and strong as Wonder Woman?
Yet, unlike Superman or Wonder Woman (DC, I know), the icons of the X-Men universe are defined as much by their physical, mental and emotional impairments as they are by their powers. Making perfect men and women who possess no flaws is a recipe for dull reading, and indeed, a convincing character requires flaws to render them more sympathetic to the average mortal with his or her debilitating limitations. Yet, what is more to the heart of the matter, the X-Men are a perfect merger of power and powerlessness, creating a symmetry of meaningfulness in each character that allows a reader to see them as both empowered and vulnerable. Professor X is a telepath with staggering mental powers, yet he is confined to a wheelchair. Beast is a man of great strength in the beginning of the comics whose strength depletes his intelligence until an experiment goes wrong and imbues him with great intelligence at the cost of his human form, changing him into his widely recognizable blue and hairy form. Even Angel, with his enviable wings and his inherited wealth, is eventually made a slave to Apocalypse, thereby twisted and disfigured into a mentally scarred creature devoted to vengeance. The X-Men comics are rife with people who become powerful despite, or because of, their disabilities. Legion, who is Professor X’s son, is an Omega level mutant who suffers from multiple personality syndrome. Often he spends more time fighting himself and his own powers (or illness) than he does the villains he encounters.  Incidentally, the Legion tv series is an excellent adaptation which I much prefer as X-Men canon to Bryan Singer’s rather Wolverine-centric universe.
Villains in the X-Men universe are also motivated by their disabilities and their suffering. Magneto, who is both Professor X’s foe and friend, is motivated in his genocidal plans against humanity by his experiences in the Holocaust as a Jewish boy whose family was exterminated by the Nazis. He is a man haunted by the evils of other men, similar to Wolverine’s PTSD, and so seeks to prevent another genocide as he sees it occurring in its new strain of anti-Mutant rhetoric. The modern prejudice against Mutants further informs his ongoing war with humanity as he sees in it the same vein of violence and blind hatred that compelled the Nazis to commit atrocities to the Jewish peoples. That he cannot see himself as the Nazi leader he has become, is a greater irony. Mystique, who is often allied with Apocalypse, also suffered as a child at the hands of ignorant prejudice due to her blue skin. She aids Apocalypse in the destruction and reformation of the world, likely because she sees in it an opportunity to better the world so that people like herself are not persecuted because of their “physical deformities”. Her foster daughter, Rogue, whose touch can literally be death to anyone if contact is sustained for too long, has had to evolve from villain to hero as she has navigated a life fraught with danger due to her “handicap”. Now she must wear a suit that prevents any bodily contact with bare skin. The Southern girl therefore becomes an embodiment for diseases like Hepatitis and Tuberculosis, albeit one done with compassion rather than tasteless parody. She must be “sanitized” by her full-body suit, and suffers loneliness because of her “disease”.  She is a perpetual patient-zero within her own life.
There are heroes and villains in the X-Men universe that do not necessarily reflect or progress the metaphor of handicap and disabilities— heroes and villains that do not suffer because of their powers or their personal histories—but the best characters are the ones whose actions and personalities can be understood in terms of their personal suffering due to their disabilities. Marvel’s X-Men, therefore, are not heroes because of their super powers and runway model looks, but because of the adversities they must overcome every day, whether it be Rogue’s physical isolation, Cyclops’s reliance on ruby quartz glasses, Wolverine’s “therapy sessions”, or Beast’s stoicism in enduring the gawping looks and whispers and japes as he walks along the street, trying to live a normal life under unique circumstances. These are the “disabilities” that make the X-Men so important to not only children seeking escapism, but children with disabilities of their own.
As a personal aside, I should mention that I discovered the X-Men when I was also suffering from my own developmental problems. Growing up, I was an epileptic and could, at any moment, collapse to the ground, suffering convulsions which I was powerless to prevent and could not stop once started. I also had short tendons in my legs which caused me to walk around on my tiptoes, like a ballerina. The other children were not so mean as to bully me for my problems, for which I was grateful, but I could easily see how a disability of greater prominence (and greater consequence) could ostracize a child from the other children and make life for them quite unbearable. And while I outgrew my epilepsy, and gradually stretched my tendons so that I no longer walk on my tiptoes, I am ever mindful of those people whose handicaps and disabilities will challenge them for the rest of their lives. My fiancee, in fact, has suffered much worse than I ever have, and still suffers to this day. Since she was thirteen she has suffered from fibromyalgia and spinal damage that has limited her physical movement. For a while, proceeding directly after her injuries, she could not walk and was bedridden for months. Gradually through physical therapy she overmastered her disability so that she is presently capable of reasonable mobility, though she will always be categorized as “disabled”. Because of this I think of her as my own X-Woman.  She has been ingrained with the suffering of her disabilities and, due to that suffering, has attained that all-important power of PERSPECTIVE. There are days when she does not want to get out of bed, due to chronic pain, and yet she does anyway, saying she should never be ungrateful because there are people in the world who suffer much worse than she ever will. Who needs Wonder Woman when your woman is a wonder unto herself?

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