Wham Bam!

The X-Men are here. But behind the violent action of this summer blockbuster lies a sophisticated tale of belief and identity. Ekow Eshun recalls the childhood solace he found in his comic-book heroes
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

I started reading The X-Men when I was eight years old. For the next ten years, during the late Seventies and Eighties, I followed the gang of teenage heroes devotedly until teetering slag heaps of comics blocked the light out of my bedroom. During that time, the comic evolved into a complex saga with numerous spin-off titles. Characters got married, raised children, died, become murderers or madmen and saved the earth countless times.

I started reading The X-Men when I was eight years old. For the next ten years, during the late Seventies and Eighties, I followed the gang of teenage heroes devotedly until teetering slag heaps of comics blocked the light out of my bedroom. During that time, the comic evolved into a complex saga with numerous spin-off titles. Characters got married, raised children, died, become murderers or madmen and saved the earth countless times.

The X-Men began in 1963 as a tale of five teenagers, all of whom were mutants. Their genetic abnormality didn't reveal itself until adolescence when they began to manifest strange, sometimes alarming, attributes. Angel for instance, had five-foot-long wings growing out of his back, while Beast had the strength and loping stature of an ape - not to mention the same outsize hands and feet. Of the rest, Iceman could turn anything to ice, but looked in early issues like a walking snowman. Marvel Girl was a telekinesist, who could move objects with her mind. And Cyclops, the team leader, wore a special visor to control the powerful blasts which would otherwise shoot from his eyes.

The X-Men had been brought together by the wheelchair-bound Professor Charles Xavier - the most powerful mutant telepath on earth. Xavier ran a private school in Westchester County, upstate New York. But this was a front for his real enterprise, the drilling of his five pupils into the X-Men, an elite cadre that could play a decisive role in the coming war between mutants and humans. The former were hated and feared by the latter, who saw in them an unwelcome reminder of the price of atomic progress. But war might also be sparked by Xavier's former friend turned nemesis, Magneto, who led his own band of mutants against the X-Men. Magneto believed that mutants were "homo superior", the next stage of human evolution. As such it was their destiny to dominate and ultimately supersede homo sapiens. Although they were hated by humans, the X-Men were pledged to defend them against the kind of intolerance expressed by Magneto. Although as mutants that was what they faced every day in ordinary life.

Unlike most big summer movies, Bryan Singer's new film adaptation of the X-Men isn't stuffed with the sugary treats that Hollywood studios normally use to entice kids. It is a film about a team of super-powered heroes, so naturally there's the requisite amount of fight scenes and special effects. But these are simply backdrop. And in the foreground is a far more compelling drama about belief, identity and loss of innocence.

The film opens during the darkest moments of the 20th century. At a Nazi labour camp in Poland, Eric Lehnsherr, a young Jew, watches his parents being shoved into a line of wretched, older prisoners that is snaking its way toward an ominous-looking building. Smoke starts to billow from its tall, narrow chimney. Lehnsherr watches them walk to their death in impotent horror. In the following scene, we meet Lehnsherr again, as a white-haired, mature man (played by Ian McKellen) who has discovered that he has the ability to control magnetism. He can bend steel bars, levitate cars and bring planes crashing to the ground. He calls himself Magneto and he plans to use his power to end the kind of suffering he witnessed as a child.

But Lehnsherr doesn't intend to become a champion of the weak. He aims to be the oppressor of the strong. He will conquer armies, subjugate nations and establish his own new order. Singer has done a remarkable job in capturing the dark world of the comic - a morally ambiguous place where good and evil are relative states and even the most tyrannical of villains bears the scars of a frightened child.

I used to read The X-Men as escapism. But often the comic felt more real than the world around me. Here were outsiders, mistrusted by a bigoted majority, who had learnt early about the capricious unkindness of life. It all seemed achingly familiar. In the mid-Seventies my family returned to Britain, where I had been born, having spent the first part of the decade in my parents' homeland, Ghana. From life under the equatorial sun I found myself in a drab suburb of north-west London. Nothing made sense. At school my friends insisted I must have been living in a mud hut. Adopting a tone of excruciating solicitude, their parents would ask me what tribe I belonged to. In the late Seventies, NF logos began appearing on the school walls. Ten-year-old kids started shaving their heads, wearing braces and DMs, and calling themselves skinheads in imitation of older brothers. Playground banter was peppered with talk of Pakis and coons, wogs and sambos and nig-nogs. In the changing rooms after PE, Dean Ellis called me a "cola-coloured bastard" and tried to start a fight. I walked away, burning with shame. How could I expect to win when the same words echoed round the whole school? It felt as though there was no escape. At home I'd switch on the TV to find the leering faces of the Black & White Minstrels. Or else there'd be a studio audience laughing like mad at sitcoms like Love Thy Neighbour and Mind Your Language. A black stand-up comedian once wandered onto a variety show clutching a bunch of bananas. "No need for wages after the programme," he quipped, brandishing the fruit. "I've already been paid in advance." The crowd practically killed themselves at that one.

As a child you enter the world expecting to be embraced. Parents sing nursery rhymes to you and when you're older, there are fairy tales with happy endings. With adulthood, you learn that virtue and courage are not automatically rewarded. But to discover this when you're young, to lose faith in the beneficence of life, brings a pain that's hard to ever salve. That's why the characters in The X-Men, all of whom bore this knowledge with fortitude, caught my imagination so profoundly. Being born a mutant meant growing up alienated. But there were also rewards. Mutants could fly. They could read minds or call down lightning bolts from the sky. In the pages of the comic, being different offered far more than the security of sameness. Each day I hoped that this would also be true of real life.

I doubt the creators of The X-Men had much of this in mind when they first developed the comic. The X-Men is a franchise owned by the American publisher Marvel. The company began producing comics before 1939, but seemed destined to always play second fiddle to its better-known rival DC, home to Superman and Batman. Only in the Sixties, with a creative team led by editor Stan Lee and artist Jack Kirby, did Marvel make its mark. Instead of DC's chisel-jawed, men of steel, Lee and Kirby developed characters that were flawed and vulnerable, whose powers didn't mean they could escape from the problems of their everyday life. Spiderman could climb walls, but as teenager Peter Parker he still had to dodge the school bullies. Bruce Banner was a scientist with a raging id complex which always chose the most awkward moments to manifest itself as the Hulk. The X-Men were adolescents with bubbling hormones locked up in a school together. When Scott Summers (Cyclops) started dating Jean Grey (Marvel Girl), Warren Worthington III (Angel) could barely control his jealousy. But in Sixties America The X-Men could also be read as political allegory. The struggle between Professor X and Magneto was a mirror of that between Martin Luther King and Malcolm X. Xavier believed in peaceful coexistence between mutants and humans. Magneto wanted to fight anger with anger.

Bryan Singer's movie is a weaving together of those two strands, the personal and the political. The X-Men in his film are more mature, later recruits rather than the original Sixties line-up. Cyclops (James Marsden) and Jean Grey (Famke Janssen) are there. But so, too, are Storm, (Halle Berry), who can control the weather, Rogue (Anna Paquin), who can absorb the powers of other mutants by touch, and Wolverine (Hugh Jackman), whose violent, feral nature is matched by deadly sharp claws that spring from his knuckles. The film centres on Wolverine's attempts to piece together his fragmented identity, his memory having been mysteriously wiped clean. But Singer also gives due weight to the ideological conflict between Xavier and Magneto. Still, my favourites scenes are none of the big set-piece confrontations. I prefer the movie's smaller, incidental moments. Xavier's school is full of pupils who revel in their duality as normal teens and extraordinary mutants. A girl heads off in a hurry to her next class, walking like a ghost through the nearest wall. A boy makes a snowball out of thin air and hands it as a love token to the girl he's smitten by. A teenager playing basketball throws the ball, whizzes down the court at superspeed, catches it and makes a basket before his fellow players have even moved. Watching those scenes I thought of my desperate longing as a child for difference to be honoured instead of scorned. And I felt a rush of nostalgia. Not for my actual childhood. But for how, through reading The X-Men, I imagined it might be.

'X-Men' (12) is released on 18 August