This is a love story. This is also a story that begins in Walmart. I would kill to have a more story-shaped life, with events that unfolded from beautiful places in beautiful ways. But we get what we get. And my love story starts under the harsh, greedy light of Walmart. I had gone looking for love at the source—in the dark, secret and sacred temple that was the comic book store. If you have ever been to one, especially before the days of Hollywood’s obsession with super heroes, then you know how warm and welcoming they sometimes aren’t. I had walked through one, very bashfully, because I had a little crush in my heart that I thought might be enough to one day become the real deal. But my full-blown, lifelong romance would have to wait in the shadows with the geeks and the collectors. I wasn’t ready, and I fled. If you have ever been to a Walmart, then you know how secret and sacred a temple it isn’t. I felt comfortable there; it made sense, and I could see where everyone was at all times. I stood in front of the weird nook that sold baseball cards, dice games, and Magic the Gathering supplies. And comics.
They had a grab bag full of assorted back issues, and right up front was the object of my desire: X-Men (vol. 2) issue 1. I had never read a comic book, and only knew of the X-Men because you could not eat lunch at any school cafeteria lunch table between 1992 and 1997 without seeing at least eighty-six Wolverine thermoses from matching lunchboxes. And I had a handful of action figures, including an emaciated-looking Cyclops, a Wolverine (I’m a sellout, okay, and stick to whatever’s popular, all right?) with a mask you could remove from his surprisingly ugly face, and Magneto with the world’s weakest magnet built into his chest so that his chintzy accessories could, in theory, stick to him. It never worked in practice, but what did I care. He was just a dude in a maroon costume to fill in plot holes during my adventures with cooler toys, like GI Joe. And yet, I did care. These characters carried with them a sense of history, and a sense of mystery—I wanted to know their backstory, who they were beneath their masks and helmets, where their super powers came from. The answer was within the pages of that X-Men (vol. 2) issue 1 that stared me down. So I plucked it from the rack, returned to the line my mom and dad were in, and I placed it on the conveyor. My allowance was meager but the price was right, and soon it would be mine all mine. I had just started getting an allowance that year. What I did to earn it, I will never know. I didn’t take out the trash, or pick up the droppings of our pets, and I was paid extra to mow the lawn, so that couldn’t have been it. I got paid for turning ten, I guess. It was my first step through the doorway between child and societal worker bee. My life is measure in baby steps, of course. When I got home, I tore open the package and slipped out the contents. Behind X-Men (vol. 2) issue 1 was an issue or two of X-Force (a cousin series half as interesting and twice as violent as X-Men), an issue of Ghost Rider (lame) and issue of X-Men 2099 (don’t even ask), and two more issues of X-Men. It was my humble little library of Alexandria, containing all the knowledge of comic books in my entire world. And then, one by one, I read them. It was love. I wish my love of reading had started years earlier, in some quiet and sunny library during some quiet and sunny summer in which all I had before me all day every day was six hours and a stack of books to tear through—Tom Sawyer and Boxcar Children, the rodents of Redwall Abbey and also of Nihm, the Pevensies, Bilbo, Ozma of Oz, all. It hadn’t. My reading diet was so dilapidated that I probably had the literary version of rickets, scurvy, polio and the vapors all wrapped into one. If you stacked all the books I read between ages 5 and 10, it would reach only about six inches away from where you began stacking them, and even that’s only because I had a favorite book of classical mythology that was a real clunker and occupied a lot of space. But I read me those comic books, probably in a singular swoop that cannot be descried as fell because it only took me less than an hour. But it was a start—the place my love story with books begins, I am sure.
After memorizing every image and every word those comics could offer, I needed new material. I was still scared of the comic book shop, so I returned to Walmart with more hard-earned free pocket money and I started buying up as many packs of ’94 Fleer Ultra X-Men trading cards as I could afford or carry. Now I had flashcards to study, complete with beautiful portraits painted in oils by the steady and artful hands of Julie Bell, Bill Sienkiewicz and others I can’t remember. Also included at no extra cost was a short blurb about each character’s history, which I discovered sometimes reached all the way back to, like, 1963. That was three times older than I was. How the heck was I expected to catch up on the story that had been plugging gingerly along as long as my parents had? By buying more comics, trading cards, posters, VHS episodes of the animated series, and playing the still-awesome arcade game, for which one could trade a quarter for a turn to beat up robots as either Colossus, Cyclops, Wolverine, or the Dazzler (who was even worse than X-Men 2099, trust me). That’s how the heck I was supposed to catch up. But you know what happens when you’ve got three decades on continuity to sort out? Everything starts sounding like a soap opera, another medium with a long history and more characters than is recommended. Let’s play a short game I just invented called “Is This Plot from X-Men or Days of Our Lives.” The rules are easy. The rest? Good luck. Okay, here goes: Scott Summers finally meets his estranged son, Nathan, who he conceived with his wife, Jean. Except Jean had recently died, and the woman he married was in fact not Jean at all but an imposter named Madeline. All is revealed when Jean returns from the grave. It should also be noted that Nathan suddenly ages several decades since we last saw him. Take a minute to think it over. Did you guess Days of Our Lives? You’re probably correct, but I can’t verify your answer because I only watched The Young and The Restless by proxy as my mom prepared summertime lunches. (Victor Newman forever, am I right?) Not only are the pages of X-Men filled with marriages, divorces, deaths, resurrections, amnesia, alien abductions—all the usual stuff soaps are made of—but there is a healthy dollop of romance. I brought my newfound love of X-Men to Mr. Oberstar’s fifth grade classroom, where I evangelized my passion well enough to convince just about everyone in the class to play along at recess. The characters were divided up, dibs were placed, arguments were made, and we fought imaginary battles on the plastic tubes and swings and beams we played on each day. Dan took Beast, Jared was Colossus, no one took Cyclops because he always sounded sort of like a parent when he talked, Aaron was Wolverine, Jill took Storm, Rachel took Jubilee, whose powers we didn’t understand so she inexplicably would “put people in bubbles” when under attack. Nicole took Rogue, and I chose Gambit. Let’s talk a little about Gambit. I’ve seen him crop up on lists of “Worst Things Ever,” and I take offense. Not as much offense, I’m sure, as actual residents of Louisiana take when they read his implied Creole dialect. (“I don’ t’ink dey mind da way I be talkin,” his writers would have made him say). Gambit was everything I was not: tall, dark, handsome, Cajun, unfat, and a major hit with the ladies of the X-Men teams. His super power is fairly creative; it’s the ability to tap into an objects potential energy (science!) and turn it into unstable kinetic energy. Most of these objects were the playing cards we carried around in his form-over-function trench coat. He’d chuck these cards into enemies, and then say something awfully sly when they exploded. Man oh man, he was so cool. But the most creative of his powers was the one I coveted most: a superhuman hypnotic charm. This dude could talk anyone into anything, basically. Can you imagine? I could. Can you imagine my surprise when I talked a cute little thing named Nicole (who sat in the same pod of desks as me) into being my girlfriend for the school year? I can. She was spunky and kind of sassy, and I liked her a whole lot. She played X-Men with us, too, and her character was the spunky and sassy Rogue. Can you imagine my surprise when dug through a bin and I pulled out a copy of X-Men (vol. 2) issue 24, on which Gambit and Rogue stood locked in a Chinese finger trap of a gaze, on the verge of kissing. They were in love. They were Gambit (me) and Rogue (her) and they were in love (us, duh).
Sometimes, in my unstory-shaped life, things are story shaped. Art and life imitated each other, and I bought it immediately and was happy and somehow validated. Their (our) relationship was doomed from the start. Rogue’s mutant power was the ability to absorb the power and memories of anyone she touched with her skin. It was a brilliant pairing: the one member of the team who could talk any lady he wanted into getting frisky, with the one girl with whom he could not have exchanged even the most chaste of kisses with. Brilliant. My passion for spandex clad mutants eventually cooled, but I don’t believe passions ever die forever. For this week’s time spend doing something I love, I pulled out my favorite story line from all the years I spent following them. It’s called “Fatal Attractions”. And it contains no nude scenes of Glenn Close. (The power of singular vs. plural in titles, I guess.) Fatal Attractions (plural, remember) is a mediation on what happens when peaceful people are pushed to violent measures. Professor X—the team founder and mentor—rallies his past and present students against his old friend and often enemy, Magneto. Magneto, who is often described as the Malcolm X to Professor Xavier’s Martin Luther King, Jr, goes on a rampage to protect the much persecuted mutants from their human oppressors, and in his path, he does a lot of really terrible things including ripping all the metal off the skeleton of Wolverine, leaving him for dead.
It was intense for its day. The badly wounded Wolverine actually has a near death experience, depicted quite beautifully, from which he comes back because he hears the voice of a woman he once loved calling him back to the land of the living. It was good comics then and it’s good comics now, and though I am taller now, darker now, but no more Cajun, hypnotic, or trench coat wearing than I ever was, there is a part of me that will always be interested in what’s going on in the mansion full of mutants in upstate New York. I spent some of my favorite years in upstate Minnesota in Bemidji, not far from Itasca State Park, where the Mighty Mississippi is born as a mewling little trickle of a stream. You can walk across it on a summer day, easily. A kid can do it, if they wanted. The name Itasca is a hybrid of two words from Latin, fused together by Henry Schoolcraft as he searched for the source of the greatest river in our country: veritas caput. It means the true head, the source, the font of all the rushing things to follow. Sometimes its good to return to the true head of your passions, to remember that it started as something so small and so safe that a child could tiptoe across it. It’s good to go back to the source.