Author’s note: This issue of Gutter Talk mentions suicide
My uncle died when I was young, late in the 1980s. I don’t remember much about him; I was still at that age where everything kind of happens around or to you but never with you. My dad doesn’t really speak of him, but my mother is effusive about how handsome and kind and well liked by all he was. I know he played guitar, that he did humanitarian work, and that he lived with his partner when he died. I know that he was gay. I know that he killed himself. These are just the facts I’ve been given.
I promise this will be about comics eventually.
The family decided to destroy the letter he left behind, any last will and testament he had to share with the world torn to pieces and tossed into a fire. I know my uncle struggled in the face of the AIDS crisis and that he struggled with the depression that compounds in your heart from stemming your very nature. The full and final facts of my uncle burned in that fire, and his boyfriend — roommate, according to my grandmother — disappeared into the wind shortly thereafter.
I promise this is about comics.
I’ll never know how much agency or decision he had to live fully as himself in public, whether he walked down the street holding hands with his boyfriend, whether they kissed boldly and with a stolen passion in the street by a produce stand selling in-season fruit by the pound.
Somehow, in all of this, I think about the X-Men.
My first X-Men comic, you’ll remember from last time, was incomplete. It was only the back half of a comic found in a box, giving me no context as to what was happening in its world. Luckily, a friend gave me a stack of comics his baptist parents deemed sinful, and in that stack, I came into possession of my first proper X-Men comics.
The X-Men fight only for a shared place in a world that hates and fears them. They are superpowered due to a shared trait, a unique genetic mutation that typically manifests when one goes through puberty. Some have concussive blasts they emit from their eyes, others control the weather. They have their own pop-star (Dazzler). They have a sovereign nation, named Krakoa, which is an island that is also alive.
Multiple members can and will cut you in a knife fight without any goddamn powers at all.
I fell in love with the X-Men in a heartbeat. They were a group that held space for all. Everyone was different by nature. Some wore their mutations on their very skin, changed forever to the outside world. And still, the X-Men found a way to live and fight and fuck (seriously, the X-Men fuck a lot).
The X-Men have been seen over time as a somewhat clunky allegory for those people society treats as others: people of color, LGBTQ+ people. Society hates and fears them, and their best chance is to stand together and fight. The allegory works best when you examine mutants as a whole. People who share a unique characteristic that can’t escape or deny themselves and look for others to share community with. Within that narrative, personalities can and often will clash, but they cannot deny their commonality.
I grew up in a small town, where everyone knows your name, your family’s name, and the deepest recesses of your business. Professional and personal. The X-Men were an escape, a world where there was an opportunity to be different from everyone around me and not stand out with such stark contrast to my fellows.
I knew I was different from a young age. My transness came to me when I was seven, and I knew that marked me as different. From that same young age, I also knew my uncle was different, died for his difference, and wasn’t it so nice to live? I thought I was choosing to live, but I was denying the parts of me that were incongruous with the part of me I chose to share with the world.
The X-Men though, they revel in their differences. It is a natural extension of their strength, celebrating and thriving from the thing that makes them unique. Finding others to share their differences with and not standing out with nearly so much boldness.
I tried three times to take my own life, because I too had a heart heavy with the burden of carrying the lies about myself through this world. In my darker moments, when I was afraid of my own hand, I pushed myself to just lay on the floor of my apartment and read comics on my iPad. Just to stay in this world for another few minutes, hiding amongst the X-Men and wondering how it would feel to be so strong.
That strength found me eventually. I came out, got help for the ways I tried to bring about my own ruin. I found the ways in which the things I worried were so different about me were in fact my strengths, that there were others like me out in the world, and if I looked hard enough outside the confines of my sheltered life I could find them. There are no X-Men I can join, but they showed me what it meant to take pride in the things that marked me as different and that I could be messy and flawed and still belong in a community of people with whom I share a common inexorable trait. Through the X-Men, I discovered the joy of living on my feet as I am instead of dying with a lie I couldn’t escape.
Every week, I’m going to end with a little wrap-up of comics and comic-related bric-a-brac that I’ve been digging lately. There’s no homework or anything here, just some stuff I’ve been digging that you might too.
Niko’s Pull List:
I’ve been reading an online comic called Blade Maidens, created by Zoe Tunnell and Valentine M. Smith. I do not want to give away too much, because in all honesty I think knowing too much about anything going into it ruins it. Imagine if the first time you ever had nachos someone painstakingly described nachos to you before you ate them. It wouldn’t possibly live up to the hype. Plus, I’m writing more about this series for the next issue of Gutter Talk…
What I will say is that Blade Maidens is a fantasy comic about Ser and Rowan. Ser is a sellsword, Rowan a runaway princess/spell caster. Most notably, Rowan is a trans character, written by a trans writer — Zoe Tunnell — and the absolutely gorgeous art by Valentine M. Smith is the kind of thing you will lose days just marveling at. Read it (it’s online!), and we’ll talk more about it in two weeks.
Cerebro & Jay and Miles X-Plain the X-Men
I’ve also been listening to a lot of comics podcasts as I’ve been opening myself back up to being a comics fan who isn’t hiding her fandom anymore. Especially pertinent to this week’s issue is Cerebro by Connor Goldsmith which, as Connor says in the intro, is a show where a homo and his friends dig deep into the history of homo superior. It’s a great, very queer deep dive into every X-Men character, and it has inspired me to do a LOT of reading back of old issues.
Jay and Miles X-Plain the X-Men is a queer and trans podcast about the X-Men, dedicated to unpacking the weird, wonderful world of our favorite superhero soap opera for newcomers and die-hard fans alike. It’s got a long backlog of episodes, but it’s a really fun, joyfully chaotic listen through a joyfully chaotic timeline of messy mutants.
Gutter Talk is a biweekly series by Niko Stratis that looks at comic books from a queer and trans perspective.
My gay uncle died of AIDS / governmental neglect before I could remember him, and I think a lot about what kind of relationship we might have had and what kind of life his might have evolved into, instead of being incomplete in his 30s. Thanks for sharing about your uncle, and yourself.
Loving this column and inspired to read the comics you linked!
I love the X-Men so so much, I’m always excited to read an essay about them. Wonderful piece.
Niko i really loved this! and i like the pull list section- i’ve fallen away from webcomics recently and have been looking for somewhere to dive back in
other comic recs: if you like horror, Oni Press has one called “Blink” that has two issues out now and Image Comics has one called “I Hate This Place” which is queer!
the current run of Moon Knight has some of the most kickass art i’ve seen in a hot minute. there’s also an anthology series called “moon knight: black, white, and blood” that is consistently gorgeous.
Gail Simone has a Jessica Jones series out rn under the heading “Variants” and if you love a multiverse story check it out
i’m eagerly awaiting Edge of the Spider-verse #4 because! we are getting a spider-person with ehlers-danlos syndrome who uses forearm crutches in their superhero persona!