By: Michael Rhett
In 7th or 8th grade, I bought my first comic book. This was 1991/92. I was with my dad at the Elks Lodge in Florham Park, NJ, where he was a trustee. After the meeting, we went across the street to a little convenience store, and on a small spinning rack that didn’t really spin were some comics. I pick up an X-Factor, which at the time featured the original five X-Men: Jean Grey/Marvel Girl, Cyclops, Beast, Iceman, and Angel/Archangel.
The Endgame story arc, beginning in X-Factor 65 and ending with issue 68, is vital to Marvel, more so mutant lore and continuity. X-Factor was battling the eugenic Apocalypse, who had infected Jean and Scott’s young son Nathan with the techno-organic virus. For their son to survive, he needed to be sent into the future with the Clan Askani, so Scott and Jean did something I can’t imagine, as a father, ever doing. They said goodbye to their son and watched him disappear into a portal. Then, again, if it meant saving his life, I might do anything for him. This boy Nathan would, of course, grow up to become the time traveling leader of X-Force, Cable. Following the Endgame arc, X-Factor and X-Men teamed up and the teams switched around, so I became a geek during a fun transition.
At some point within the next year, my dad took me to a comic convention, and we stayed for a good few hours. I eagerly flipped through the white boxes filled with colorful covers hiding under plastic covers with white backs. I bought a lot of Fantastic Four for some reason and Marvel Two-In-One, which featured The Thing teaming up with various characters. X-Men. I bought a couple Avengers comics and saw X-Force number 1, but for some reason I didn’t get it. I also saw an error Venom card and wondered why it was displayed so prominently. The Amazing Spider-Man 312 intrigued me because it was the Green Goblin v. the Hobgoblin and my dad recommended The Incredible Hulk 376 because the cover saw Green Hulk fighting Grey Hulk. I became obsessed with What If… and eventually, my desire drew me to team stories, especially the Infinity Series and the X-Men.
In 8th grade, I read the story that would become the anticipation of every MCU fan and geek, the Infinity Gauntlet, and I specifically remember my dad giving me the final issue of the series after football practice and letting me look at the first page, but only the first page because I had to finish my homework first. This was strange because my parents never had such rules. It was my first exposure to Thanos, who became my favorite villain and one of my favorite characters overall. I admired his determination to achieve his singular focus, even though it was destroying half of all life. I’ll talk more about Thanos later.
I can’t say for certain why I liked the X-Men so much. Wolverine was the coolest, and Gambit became my favorite down the line, but I was enthralled with both the current and classic runs, the latter which recounted the early All-New, All-Different X-Men, most of which first appeared in Giant Sized X-Men 1. My connection with them might be because they were the freaks, the mutants whom so many people hated simply for being who they are. Some have likened their battles with humanity to the civil rights movement, going so far as comparing Professor X to Martin Luther King Jr. and Magneto to Malcolm X. Perhaps I related simply because I was different, a theatre kid who played football and was, and still am, a Christian. Perhaps I saw the righteousness of their fight, to just be treated like everyone else, not othered while at the same time facing evil mutants who wanted to other the humans and hurt the just cause. Maybe it was because their powers often came during puberty, in middle school which were the worse years of my life. In fact, my brother used to half joke 7th grade was of the devil, and there is some merit to that. Everything changes, physically, emotionally, relationally. Bullies run the social dynamic, and put down those kids who can’t, or won’t, defend themselves, or who don’t have self-esteem or self-worth. For me, I had none of these, because my dad never taught me.
My dad’s father left when my dad and his three siblings were only 11 years old. From what I was told, it was to be with another family. So, there is some grace and understanding why my dad couldn’t be the father, the man, I and my siblings, needed. Nor was he the husband my mom needed.
It was worse for my siblings; they are much older than me. He would flip out and go crazy, throw stuff, break stuff. One time, when I was walking to my dad’s car after I left a friend’s house crying, my dad saw me, sprinted up to the house and started banging on the door. He was scary.
My sister, the only family member with whom I still have a relationship (mom passed 10 years ago), told me there was no money growing up. My dad was a gambler, and the rest of us have some kind of addiction. He was also emotionally absent. When my friend Matt passed away and I was crying, I don’t think my dad said anything, let alone give me a hug or something. Now, he only calls when he needs something, and he lies constantly to try and get what he wants.
There were some positives. He wouldn’t let my brother in the house when he came home drunk. He coached my 7th and 8th grade baseball teams, leading the latter to the championship, though my mom took behind the scenes credit. Summer of 89 we went to see a slew of movies, including the Michael Keaton’s Batman, still the best one. Oh, and Nicholson was the best Joker too. And he took me too my first comic show. I love him, and most importantly, I know where he’ll be when his time to leave the earth comes, and that brings me joy.
Thanos impressed me, as I mentioned, because he was so determined to meet his genocidal goal. Interestingly, Annihilus, traditionally a Fantastic Four enemy, did also, because he was so obsessed with the cosmic rod that gave him life. As I got older, I wondered why. At one point, only a few years ago, possibly after Thanos’ first cameo in the MCU, I spoke to my counselor about it. The final summation is that I’m someone who has trouble setting and meeting goals. Now, I am not a victim, nor can parental blame last a lifetime, and at that point in life, I was blaming no one. However, what happens, or doesn’t happen, to us when we’re can still impact when we’re older. Since that talk with Jim, my counselor, I’ve moved past my fascination for Thanos. I still like him as a character, but the pull towards him is gone.
Moving forward to become a leader, a man, and a better husband and father, a journey that began 22 years ago when I first read John Eldredge’s Wild at Heart. I learned about father wounds, and why I was the way I was. Never wanting to marry because everyone adult I knew was miserable, I stepped up and asked out my now wife. Never wanting kids, I delight in being a father to an amazing five-year old for whom I would do anything (he’s actually named after Gambit). Never wanting to lead, I now embrace leadership.
Ultimately, what I loved about the X-Men, or the Infinity Series, I think, is the unity. A group coming together to better themselves, as individuals and as a group. Perhaps that’s why I enjoy teaching diverse groups, with people who have been underserved, and why, when disparate groups come together, I smile. I like to surround myself with people who build me up and I avoid toxicity like mutants avoid the legacy virus.
Simply put, comics are fun, and they expose us to art and creativity. Socially, comics are a cultural phenomenon that has provided numerous fun arguments over who would win in a fight: Hulk or Thor, and has turned being a geek into something cool. More deeply, though, comics touch something inside of us, something inside our minds and hearts. It took this article for me to fully flesh that out, and there is probably still more to unlock.
Compared to most people, I’ve lived a great life thus far, being warn and well fed. Most of us in the Western world have little to complain about and the things we do complain about are often trite and trivial, but this does not dismiss our trials, struggles and dysfunction. For many of us comics provided an escape, an inspiration, and an outlet, and while I may not ever fully know what comics have meant to me, I do know it started when my dad took me to a convenience store and bought my first comic. One day, I will take my son to buy his first. And hopefully, they will mean as much to him as they have to me.
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