In the 1982 graphic novel X-Men: God Loves, Man Kills, Kitty Pryde gets in a fight with a boy in her dance class. The dance instructor, Stevie Hunter, along with Peter and Illyana Rasputin, who come to pick Kitty up from class, break up the fight and discover that the boy hates mutants (ignorant that Kitty is a mutant, herself). He calls Kitty a “mutie-lover,” but Stevie, eager to diffuse the situation, laughs it off and tells Kitty “they’re only words, child.” The boy runs off before Kitty screams at Stevie “suppose he called me a nigger-lover, Stevie? Would you be so damn tolerant then?!”
Kitty storms off full of teenage rage, but we have to turn the page to see Peter’s awkward apology to Stevie, reassuring her that Kitty didn’t mean what she said. It’s only after Peter leaves that Stevie says, “of course she did… she meant every word… and she was right,” with a tear and a clenched fist. It’s the first and last time we see Stevie in the comic. But she stole the whole damn show.
Aside from Storm, there weren’t many mutants of color when I was reading the X-Men, unless you count the British-turned-Japanese Psylocke (which could be its own essay). So I always welcomed the appearance of characters like Stevie Hunter who reminded us that the X-Men needed to interact with the real world from time to time. Consider, when was the last time you saw the X-Men taking night classes for anything? But Stevie was also a reminder that even though the X-Men served as a great allegory for what it means to be othered, to be discriminated against, the X-Men were still mutants who — for the most part — were attractive white folks who could pass as normal.
That scene from God Loves, Man Kills reminds us that despite being mutants, there are other people who probably have it just as rough, and don’t have superpowers. Sometimes allegory isn’t enough in a comic. And if comics are meant to reflect the world we live in (and I argue they are) while at the same time providing an escape for those of us who find comfort in their borders and four-color exploits, then it’s only right that we’re reminded that, sure, being a mutant is hard, but so is being a black woman, and even a British-turned-Japanese woman.
Peter’s fumbled apology and Stevie’s reaction remind us that mutants aren’t the sole recipients of “a world that hates and fears them.” But in a comic book, maybe that’s too easy to forget.
Hell, not all comics are created with the intent to reveal something about human nature — some really are just for children to pass the time, but I’ll say this: Chris Claremont and Brent Eric Anderson played a trick on me that day. I was a kid expecting to read a story about superheroes and villains and mutants and superpowers and monologues and brightly colored spandex, and found something that cut a little too close to home. The world had changed.
I imagine the folks that write comics must have experienced that same change as well: the lightbulb flash that compels them to write their own comics. In his introduction to The Dark Knight Returns (after being republished as a trade paperback), Frank Miller wrote about a time in 1963 in “a department store in Vermont. I’m 6 or 7 years old. I come across an 80-page Giant comic starring Batman. I open it. I look it over. I fall in.” He continues, “I got to send a gift back in time to that kid in Vermont who opened a Batman comic and fell in, never entirely to emerge.”
I feel the same way about The Uncanny X-Men, about X-Men: God Loves, Man Kills.
Maybe, then, the poems in my book Missing You, Metropolis operate in a similar manner — sending that awkward black kid living in Topeka, Kansas a token of gratitude for falling in the same way. I’m sure it was hard for a kid on the cusp of adolescence to read such things in a comic book that’s meant for escape. Difficult to confront the very things he’s trying to escape from and run right into its embrace.
But I’m sure as hell glad it happened.