I freely admit that I read comic books. Granted, I don’t read them as often as I did back in high school, but I’ll still pick up a graphic novel once in a while. Though DC has grown on me over the years, Marvel is my nostalgic fave.
The X-Men in particular, movies notwithstanding, still have a special place in my heart. Like many other marginalized teens, I identified with the idea of being a mutant. While I loved many of the female characters, Storm and Kitty Pryde in particular, I felt close to most of the characters. In later years, I realized it stemmed from my experience as carrying that “disabled” label from a young age and spending a good chunk of time with others with the same tag.
Hidden in Plain Sight
Physically, I look like everyone else. Once you get to know me and learn about my history, you know I’m not quite as “normal” as first thought. I get a lot of disbelief when I disclose my disabilities, especially since I currently attend college and write.
Anyway, when I read comics as a teen, I saw characters go through something almost identical. It took them a while to master their differences, and sometimes, they never did. If strangers found out about their differences, they were shunned and bullied. They were seen as sub-human – something to be hidden away.
So, like those of us who are neurodivergent, many of them tried to “pass” as “normal humans”. In the case of the Xavier Institute, they found a place dedicated to teaching them how to control their mutations. That has some powerful parallels to charter and private schools dedicated to teaching dyslexic or autistic students.
Sometimes, They Can’t Hide
Visible disabilities and so-called abnormal body structures are also covered. Yes, there’s the group the Morlocks, hidden away in the sewers, hiding from the world of normalcy out of a justified fear of what humans would do to them. That could easily be paralleled with the forced isolation many folks with physical disabilities suffer in areas without transportation services or a lack of understanding of their worth.
But there were also characters like Professor X, Beast, Nightcrawler, and Mystique.
The Professor lost the use of his legs, so he uses a rather cool wheelchair to get around in. Professor X is really the only character I can think of off the top of my head with an actual physical disability, but I’m not up to date in what’s going on in the comics. Most of the story lines I remember with him didn’t fall into the trap of self-pity or learned helplessness. He’s generally maintained his independence, and his disability didn’t take over his identity.
Mystique is an interesting character, because she literally changes her appearance to fit in with the rest of the population. She has naturally blue skin, but when she was young, she made herself appear “normal” to fit in with everyone else. When she got older, she only used it as a way to further her agenda, and spent most of her time in her natural form.
Beast is another interesting character. He was originally a big guy with an amazing brain and physical powers. He attempted to get rid of his mutation with a type of medical serum he’d concocted to become “normal”. Instead, it made him grow blue fur all over his body. I believe he had ways of hiding his appearance at points in the comics, but eventually, he became an advocate for mutant kind.
I see the two characters as more representative of chronic illness or variable disability. Some folks only need assistance moving when their symptoms are flaring up, while other times they can walk unassisted. There’s no way they can hide their cane, walker or wheelchair when they need them, but there are other times when it’s impossible to tell they have a disability or illness. This can also apply to those of us with learning disabilities who are well compensated. Most of the time, my dyslexia and ADHD don’t cause problems, but there are still days where I just can’t function.
Then there’s Nightcrawler. Ah, my favorite Elf! I’m not sure what the character designers had for the color blue, but he’s another one with blue skin, except he also has a tail and pointy ears. He can’t hide what he looks like without either lots of clothing or specialized technology. Yet, he refused to live in hiding. When he was young, he turned his perceived weaknesses into strengths by performing in a circus. After he joined the X-Men, he lived his life as best he could, only attempting to hide is difference when in anti-mutant public for his safety. Otherwise, he seemed pretty comfortable in his own skin.
Striving for Self Acceptance
Over the years, I’ve come to be a bit more like Nightcrawler in that regard. People are free to think of me what they will, but their opinions won’t sway who I am. I absolutely do weaknesses, but I also have strengths. Sometimes, the two are so tightly entwined there’s no telling them apart.
At the same time, I can understand why people with the same labels I have see them as curses. They absolutely can be, especially before you know how to live with them. Just as no one can realistically tell me how to think about my identity, I can’t tell anyone else how to think of theirs.
That said, I think I’ll always love characters like the X-Men. They may fight death defying battles I never will, but the war they wage against a society poisoned by hate and fear is just like the ones many of us face every day.