When I started Secondary School, I had something of a social crisis. It had become clear to me that my best friend since childhood was, for want of a better description, growing up in a different direction to me. We both saw our new school as an opportunity to reinvent ourselves. Unfortunately, he reinvented himself as someone interested in girls, clothes, smoking and drinking, and I reinvented myself as a bitter outcast who fantasised about mass murder. Personally, I blame computer games. And puberty.
As it was, I effectively lost the only friend I had who engaged my interest in the X-Men, even if it was through the medium of action figures and cartoons, rather than comics. This is the point in the story when most people go “yeah, I drifted away from comics for a while.” But not me. Perhaps, if I had continued to enjoy comics in isolation, I would have let them go – but any chance of that changed the day my then-new friend Josh reached into his rucksack and produced a copy of X-Men Unlimited #8. Far from scraping his supply of US comics by scouring the country’s newsagents, Josh had actually BEEN to America that summer. He’s been to comic shops, and he’d brought back X-Men comics. It’s no surprise we became fast friends.
Although X-Men Unlimited was often full of unreadable trash, I remember this issue as being quite good. The story goes for a fairly straightforward treatment of one of the X-Men’s high concepts – mutant powers as adolescence. The lead character, Chris Bradley, is an emergent mutant with electricity-based abilities. As his powers manifest, he struggles to deal with the changes in his life, finding himself confused, angry and distanced from his friends. Eventually Gambit and Jean Grey show up and invite him to join the X-Men, who give him confidence in who he is and send him back home to the renewed acceptance of his friends.
Reading that back, it’s not hard to see why I identified with X-Men comics. Of course, I understood the general adolescence metaphor at the time, but what I didn’t appreciate about this issue in particular which, in retrospect, is what made me love it, was the escapist aspect. The idea that a group of people would one day turn up, remove you from your loneliness and tell you that actually, you’re special. Or even further than that – you’re not special, you’re just a different kind of normal, and somewhere there are others like you. What could be a more appealing idea for a teenager unsure of his place in the world?
Proof that the story was well-written emerged when demand from fans saw Bradley pulled out of obscurity and cast as Maverick’s sidekick in the latter’s ongoing series. Yes, the market once supported a Maverick ongoing series. When that finished, Bradley was shoved in one of the many failed New Warriors relaunches under the codename “Bolt”, and ended up being “ironically” killed by Maverick in the awful “Weapon X” series. He was last seen attacking Utopia as one of Selene’s transmode-animated corpses in Necrosha X, metaphically shitting all over my treasured memories in the process.
Eventually, I bought my own copy of X-Men Unlimited #8. It’s one of the few comics that’ll survive any purge of my collection. Through it, I am linked to my friend, one-time housemate, and the artist of the comic I wrote for this Phonogram fanzine. Even the fact that it’s written by Howard Mackie can’t stop it from meaning a lot to me.