In about seven months, I along with a lot of X-Men fans will be getting to the theater an hour early, lining up, and then watching to see if Days of Future Past is what I've imagined it would be. What's kinda great for an X-Men fans, though, is that we don't have to wait until then to get an X-Men story. Pop culture is filled with them.
Stan Lee's vision for the X-Men was perfect. Not like the kind of perfect that's used when you describe something that shouldn't exist in this world, but like the kind of perfect used to describe things like sweaters and timing. Using elements from 1963 and the civil rights movement as background, and borrowing from political figures like Malcolm X and and Martin Luther King Jr., Lee created Professor Charles Xavier and his school for gifted youngsters — a place where being different was a strength, a place where ordinary was locked out, and where people learned to turn these "flaws" into saving the world.
Lee's vision was so timeless, that Ryan Murphy and FX rode it into American Horror Story: Coven's record-setting season premiere. This campy, snarly season has been called "Harry Potter with sex" but really, it's Lee's X-Men clacking around in black skirts and heels borrowed from the remains of a Flannery O'Connor Southern freak show. The similarities:
- In American Horror Story, Zoe's (Taissa Farmiga) power is a killer vagina, and manifested itself during sex with her boyfriend. The X-Woman Rogue's power manifested itself in her first kiss and sent that boy into a permanent coma. Their powers don't let them get close to people.
- American Horror Story: There is a school for gifted youngsters in New Orleans who are taught by a pacifist that preaches control. X-men: There is a school for gifted youngsters in upstate New York who are taught by a pacifist that preaches control.
- The villain you root for in American Horror Story is Fiona (Jessica Lange), who thinks these powers are nothing to be ashamed of and should be used. That's not unlike the X-men's Magneto and the current headmistress at the New Charles Xavier School for Mutants, Emma Frost.
- Fiona, like Frost, can mess with people's minds, erase memories, influence people and loves being young and beautiful.
- Trauma-induced telekinesis.
- American Horror Story's Nan is a clairvoyant with Down Syndrome. The X-Men have clairvoyants with disabilities, too, like Blindfold, who was born without eyes.
- Queenie (Gabourey Sidibe) and her human voodoo doll power ... okay, fine. Murphy wins here.
AHS: Coven isn't the only X-Men story either. The CW has Tomorrow People, where a boy finds out he has the power to teleport, and like Rogue, Zoe, everyone else, finds other people with powers who are part of an organization. "Different Is Dangerous," reads the tagline to Tomorrow People, which isn't unlike the original X-Men tagline, "The Strangest Super-Heroes of All!"
And on Tim Burton's docket is a movie adaptation of the young adult novel, Peregrine’s Home For Peculiars. The logline of that movie: "On an isolated island off of Wales, 16-year-old Jacob discovers an abandoned orphanage that was a home for children with strange powers." In the hands of Burton, we're kind of expecting moody, whimsy, gothic X-Kids. And the next book in the Peregrine series, Hollow City, is slated for a January 2014 release.
With all these X-Men stories walking around in Jessica Lange's skin and in the CW's teen dream patina underway, the unavoidable question becomes: Is there something bigger going on culturally? Are we setting into another round of counter-culture heroes? And why?
When you look at the X-men in the broad spectrum of heroes, they were first created in the 60s. And to be honest, they were kind of boring. They were three white guys (one with wings), one really white guy (Iceman), and a female ginger. That original class was a team created in response to Batman and Superman, but nowadays the description I gave you could more or less describe (sans the wings) the cast of The Avengers.
And though there were Malcolm X and MLK Jr. allegories throughout the series, I'd argue that the true height of popularity was in the 70s, when Marvel introduced X-Men characters like Storm (a strong, black woman from Kenya), Nightcrawler (a blue, furry man from Germany), Colossus (a Russian man) and his sister Magik, and Sunfire (a Japanese man) to the roster and Wolverine, the 5'3" man with a terrible Napoleon complex. They were outsiders and misfits. Of course it's 2013 now, so our misfits and outsiders are a tiny bit different, but there are still raging political debates on women's bodies (a theme for AHS: Coven), and how the government should treat minorities, like gay people and undocumented immigrants.
"These were characters that were all pretty fab looking, lived in a mansion in New York, wore sexy clothes, and traveled around the universe. It seemed pretty good!" said comic book artist Phil Jimenez during a panel on female and queer representation at New York Comic Con.
As a gay, 113-lb. Filipino kid from Orange County, Calif., with an indomitable desire to play the saxophone and overbite to match, there was nothing more relatable to me than the X-Men. Well, there was Clueless, I guess. But by the X-men, I mean Storm, a.k.a. Ororo Munroe a.k.a. the woman who carried herself like drag queen when fighting bad guys with tornadoes. And she was only the beginning. "Over the decades, there have been gay X-Men, patrician X-Men, Jewish X-Men, Aboriginal X-Men, black X-Men with silver mohawks, X-Men hailing from Russia, Kentucky coal country, orphanages and a nightmarish future," wrote The Atlantic's Tanehisi Coates for The New York Times in 2011.
But perhaps the greatest thing the X-Men did for storytelling, aside from teaching kids that different doesn't mean bad, is that they actually had feelings. And they would talk about them. Being an X-Men was kinda like being in high school, or Melrose Place. They had angst, and unlike a lot of superheroes, they spent a lot of panels talking about it. Tom Spurgeon wrote for Comics Reporter in 2008:
Fans used to say things out loud like, "I love those scenes where you just get to know the characters, where they just sit around and talk." X-Men had more of those scenes than any other comic ... No matter how such moments were expressed, the deliberate pacing and attention to character set against a backdrop of more standard superhero storytelling distinguished the book from most of what had come before.
That type of storytelling defined this rag-tag group. And it's a perfect model for television and gothic, broody, movies aimed at teens. Granted, Murphy, the CW, and Burton are probably not going to be using their shows to tell us the stories and "important" topics that the X-Men did with AIDS, the Holocaust, and the Reagan administration. But that doesn't mean I won't be watching with any less gusto.