January 7, 2015
by Andy Waterfield

On Wednesdays We Wear Ink is a weekly column on comics and comics culture. For past columns, click here.

It’s a new year (if you’re a fan of the Gregorian calendar), and it’s traditionally a period when people reflect on their lives, and resolve to make a change to improve those lives, or indeed themselves. We make decisions about who we are, and who we wish to be in our futures.

All New X-men (Brian Michael Bendis and Stuart Immonen)

Transformation of the self is an enduring motif in storytelling. Indeed, there are some theories of story that posit significant change to the protagonist as the true root of all stories. We discover new knowledge, new capacities, and we either incorporate them into ourselves, or we don’t. That’s the nature of much of story, the nature of much of our shared culture, and indeed, the nature of life.

As a species, we don’t deal well with stagnation. While we might fear the unknown, humanity has a tendency toward exploration, toward new knowledge and capacities, and toward meaningful and lasting change.

That’s the subtext of our lived experience, but in so much of our most enduring fiction, it’s also the text. Superhero fiction, playing as it does with archetypes, the very building blocks of myth, is extraordinarily good at providing us with clear, stark metaphors for our own capacity to change, and the hopes and fears that come with it.

If we take the classic Marvel origin stories of the early 1960s as our exemplars, we can see numerous examples of individuals transformed physically, forcing them to confront their insecurities, and change at a deeper level to match their external form.

Amazing Fantasy 15 (Steve Ditko and Jack Kirby)

Perhaps the most iconic example is that of Peter Parker. The classic nerd archetype, Peter is bookish, slight, and is bullied ceaselessly by his peers. When the bite of a radioactive spider gives Peter superhuman powers, his first instinct is personal gain, with little or no regard for the impact his choices will have on others. Peter is an orphan, poor, and harassed, and is angry at a world he feels has wronged him. Parker’s story, at that point at least, is almost a revenge narrative. It’s only when Peter’s failure to act to stop a robber results in the shooting of his beloved Uncle Ben that Peter changes internally to match his external change, understanding once and for all that immortal mantra:

“With great power comes great responsibility.”

The X-men, too, are transformed by forces beyond their control, in this case that most maligned and dreaded force of all, puberty! As they learn to cope with the external changes thrust upon them, they internalise the deeper change, and the lesson that defines their story too, the legend every X-fan knows by heart:

“Sworn to protect a world that hates and fears them.”

It’s ultimately the same lesson that defines Spider-man, in that power comes with a duty to exercise that power in the cause of good. It’s why Magneto and his Brotherhood were such excellent foils, and have sustained in one form or another ever since. They too believe in using power to build a better world, but they differ a good deal on what that world might look like, and what they’re willing to do to get to it.

The X-men, too, and far more firmly rooted in the concept of change itself. They have, at various times, been used as allegories for youth rising up to replace the old, and for humanity’s great and enduring fear of the new, and the unknown. The X-men are societal change and upheaval expressed as living, breathing fictional people, and can be used to explore those themes in a variety of ways.

Giant Size X-men #1 (Len Wein and Dave Cockrum)

More specifically, they have been used as a lens through which to view the various civil rights struggles in US society, and have, over the course of their 52 year history, been used to explore racism, sexism, anti-LGBT bigotry, and xenophobia. The X-men team which relaunched the title in 1975 consisted of a German acrobat, a Japanese hothead, a Native American athlete, a Kenyan-American weather goddess, a Russian poet, a Canadian drunk, and, well, Cyclops. For a generation whose fathers had returned from a global war against two of these countries, and were waging a cold war against the other, this must have been a powerful read. Even if they did bump off the Native American bloke almost immediately.

I’m not about to write a spoiler warning for a forty year old story, kids. Suck it up.

Our world changes, and we must change with it, or face stagnation, or worse, death. That’s the lesson we learn from superhero comics, and so many stories besides. Unfortunately, it’s a lesson our fictional worlds have often been slow to learn. Part of the problem of returning to characters who’ve been knocking around since the ‘40s, ’50s, and ’60s, is that you wind up with fiction in the 21st century that looks like the fiction of 70 years prior. That is to say male, straight, heterosexual, and white.

Young Avengers (Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie)

Fortunately, there are titles like Young Avengers, Batwoman, Miles Morales: The Ultimate Spider-Man, and Ms. Marvel slowly turning the tide at the big two, to say nothing of the huge gains in female and minority representation at Image, Dark House, and elsewhere, but there’s still a long way to go before the stories we tell ourselves as a culture match the richness of human variety we see in our daily lives.

Like I said at the beginning, it’s a new year, and it’s a time to think about renewal, to think about ways we might become better people, and build a better world for ourselves and each other. Like our superheroes teach us, change is going to happen whether we like it or not, but it’s the way we respond to that change, and incorporate its lessons, that defines us.

Happy new year.

New X-men (Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely)

Andy Waterfield is a retiring data analyst by day, but by night he writes columns about the fantastical world of comics as… Andy Waterfield. Hmm. Last year he met some rad people, climbed some mountains, and went out in pin-up-themed Poison Ivy drag. He hasn’t figured out how to top that yet, but he’s working on it.