Although it might seem like we have lived with superheroes for a rather long time I can remember when they were rather new to Britain. It was back in the late 1960’s that I first discovered this American genre of the costumed hero. I can remember a garishly coloured comic book titled ‘Fantastic’, which reprinted Marvel comic strips from America and presented them as new to a British audience.
I know that I bought several copies of ‘Fantastic’ with my pocket money and that I was probably introduced to the likes of Spider-Man, Iron Man, Thor, and the Fantastic Four but it is the original X-Men that I remember best. In fact I can recall even now the curious excitement I felt looking at the imagery of this strange bunch of people in their weird costumes and peculiar appearance.
At this time I would have been around 8 years old and I had already become aware of the fact that I was not quite like other kids my age. I had been born with two congenital conditions that still impact on my life today. Now I have the advantage of knowledge and experience, back then I had nothing; neither did my doctors. I am a sufferer of a rare muscle condition called Becker’s Variant Mytonia Congenita. This is a disease that arises from a mutation occurring in the CLCN1 gene on chromosome 7. The mutation inhibits the relaxation process leading to prolonged stiffness and occasional temporary paralysis. The Thompsen’s version of this condition had been diagnosed in 1878 but it was not until 1977 before the version of the disease that I have was diagnosed.
I also have Spina Bifida Occulta, a fairly common complaint that is regularly treated soon after it is identified and, today at least, correct while the fetus is still in the womb. Unfortunately my Spina Bifida went untreated until I was an adult and by then damage to the spinal cord had occurred. This damage began to present itself very early as I developed a club foot, high arches, and tendency to walk on the outside instead of the flat of the foot. By the time I discovered the X-Men I was wearing a metal brace on my left foot to try and correct a slowly progressive deformity. This brace was quite obvious because the fashion then was for boys under 13 to wear short trousers.
I did not know that I was a mutant too but for some reason I felt a kind of affinity for the X-Men. They looked different, acted different and yet they were also human and wanted to be treated as such, with respect and acceptance I mean. I may have only been 8 years old but I seemed to have this yearning as well. I was growing up in a time when terms like ‘spastic’, ‘cripple’, ‘peg leg’, were openly bandied around to describe disabled people and, as if to add insult to injury, there was a presumption that anyone who had a physical disability had some form of mental impairment as well. Sympathy was in short supply from all quarters, especially medical people. Tough love they might call it today. My parents were always supportive and I never had problems at home, which is may be why I feel reasonably well adjusted.
School-life was somewhat different. I did not know what wrong with me, neither did the teachers because the doctors could not tell my parents anything about my condition. I seemed to have plenty of friends and most of my memories of school are happy ones, certainly I was not subjected to bullying, but I was different. I could not rise easily after sitting crossed-legged on the floor and it was not just because of the brace on my leg. Steps were a nightmare for me, both going up or down, even with a handrail. I could not move quickly without first warming up my muscles, a process called the ‘warm-up effect’ today by Myotonia Congenita sufferers.
Yes, I was different. And so were the X-Men. I quickly identified with them, and why not; they were heroes! Here were a group of people who had mutations that set them apart from others, made them objects of scorn, anger even, and yet they used these abilities to save the world from evildoers. Their blue and yellow costumes gave them a kind of uniform and consequently an identity. They belonged to something greater than their individual selves.
I cannot remember what the quality of the story writing was in those early adventures, probably not too deep compared to today’s more polished works I expect, but it made an impression on me. In these comic strips the heroes always won, as you might expect, but life was not always that simple. They continued to suffer the hostility directed at them from the very people who they were trying to protect. I may not have suffered direct bullying at school but I know that I was subject to a certain degree of hostility by adults, or indifference, which can seem very similar to hostility to a child. I think that people did ignore me because it is one of the few mis-treatments that causes me to be angry today. I can imagine that after reading the X-Men I became a little bit more mature about this hostility, consoling myself with the wisdom of Professor X; it was not their fault, these people who discounted me, they just did not know what abilities my mutation had given me. One day they would come to understand that I was not a disabled person but a person of ability with a disability…or two.