By Xander Gershberg
I’m going to use this blog to talk about a cross-section of topics I can rarely find anyone in my own life interested in but know there is an audience for: poetry and comics. Specifically, poetry about the X-Men, the focus of Gary Jackson’s Missing You, Metropolis (2009) and Stephanie Burt’s recent chapbook For All Mutants (2021).
Poetry and superhero comic books are rarely talked about together for apparent reasons. While poetry is considered in many cultures to be among the “higher” art-forms, and is presently in the U.S. often seen as intimidating, inaccessible, and bound to the classroom, comics as we know them today are a newer medium, an accessible “low-art” either pathologized as threatening to society in the same way video games are today, or written off as a juvenile, market-driven art form. And while the latter can’t be written off, particularly amidst the emerging monoculture of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and its effect on written comics, still, the heroes comic publishers produce establish a shared mythology, and with shared mythologies come opportunities for reinterpretation and reclamation. The cultural significance of say, Marvel comics, can only be dictated by Marvel to a limited degree. The author functionally dies, as Roland Barthes would assert, and the interpretative power then comes from the cultures that claim the stories as their own. Stephanie Burt calls such reclamations and subsequent fan-reproductions a “transformative fandom” not independent to comics, but also Harry Potter, Star Trek, Sherlock Holmes, arguably even the Aenid and the Hebrew Bible.
Jackson and Burt use the shared mythologies of superhero comics to inhabit fan-favorite characters in order to process real-life experiences of difference. While Burt and Jackson write about many heroes, the Marvel’s X-Men make the most frequent appearances. The X-Men debuted in 1963 as a superhero team of “mutants,” humans who derive superpowers from genetic mutations that make them minorities and targets of persecution. Beginning in the mid-1970s, the comic became one of the first to star POC and international characters, including the fan-favorite Kenyan goddess Storm. X-Men comics continued to develop as a metaphor for experiences of oppression, particularly racism, sexism, antisemitism, homophobia, and ableism, or as the scholar Joseph Darowski calls it, “the mutant metaphor.”
Jackson’s Missing You, Metropolis tracks the speaker’s adolescence as a young Black man with poems that move between his relationship with his childhood friend Stuart, encounters with comic books, and persona poems from the perspective of comic book heroes. In these persona poems, the characters’ negotiations of their identities mirror the speakers’ own grappling with being othered and vilified. The most significant of these persona poems is “Nightcrawler Buys a Woman a Drink.” The hero Nightcrawler is more visibly mutant than his X-Men peers: he is blue-skinned, has pointed elf-like ears, three-fingered and toed hands and feet, and a tale. He is introduced in Giant-Size X-Men #1 (1975) running away from an angry mob ready to burn him at the stake, before being found and transported to New York to join the X-Men with the help of the telepathic and wheelchaired Professor Xavier. Throughout the comics Nightcrawler struggles with the inability to pass as human and his sometimes literal demonization. In “Nightcrawler Buys a Woman a Drink,” Jackson places the hero in a bar hitting on a woman and confronting head on the stigma of his difference:
You’re staring, jaw-dropped at my tail. And yes,
it’s a good twenty inches long and moves
like a serpent in heat. Touch it. I’m no devil, honey,
I don’t got no souls, just the smoothest, bluest fur
you’ve ever seen.
While the comics don’t specifically characterize Nightcrawler as a metaphor for anti-Black racism (he is an orphan raised by a Roma family), Nightcrawler, through Jackson’s writing, describes the mutant’s appearance as mirroring the sexualized stereotypes of Black cis-men, alluding to the tail as phallic and long, and insisting his skin color does not make him the devil, but rather makes him attractive. The poem continues to negotiate his mutation with the human woman, eventually ending the poem with “…yeah, the fangs are real /….Show me a woman not afraid / of a mutant man. Let me mix into your bloodline.” Nightcrawler loses the subtlety and describes the challenge he has in talking to her—human women are afraid of mutant men, particularly sexually, because of racist, eugenicist language stigmatizing, and formerly outlawing, interracial relationships. In the context of the speaker, a Black teenage boy contending with his sexuality, the persona poem clarifies the dangers Black men face by using the speaker’s favorite comics as a site of reflection. Beginning with the next poem “Listening to Plath in Poetics,” the speaker allows himself a real-life exploration of sexuality. The comics, for him, apparently provide a necessary catharsis.
Figure 1: Nightcrawler escaping from an angry crowd threatening to burn him at the stake in Giant-Size X-Men #1 (1975), his publication debut
Where Jackson’s Missing You, Metropolis furthers mutants as a metaphor for Black experiences of racism, Stephanie Burt queers the X-Men. Although the X-Men and their offshoot comics were the first at Marvel to represent openly queer characters, with Northstar coming out in 1991 in the pages of Alpha Flight, and have since been the queerest of Marvel comics, earlier homophobia from the editorial team prevented then head-X-Men writer, Chris Claremont, from depicting characters as openly queer.
Burt’s “Roommates” centers on two such characters whose queerness was forced off-panel for much of their publication history. The poems focus on the relationship of Kate Pryde, a Jewish teen with the ability to turn intangible and move through walls, and Ilyana Rasputin, whose kidnapping led to her developing magical powers. They are roommates and have an intimate friendship with queer subtext (analyzed in-depth by Sigrid Ellis). The speaker Kate describes their predicament as aware of the social and editorial mandate:
Let’s have a crush
that violates the spirit, but never the letter
of the Comics Code,
where what you almost
see is more important than what you can.
For Kate and Ilyana, their lived experience and identity subvert the expectations put upon them, both as cis-women compelled by society to be heterosexual and as popular characters ruled by corporate interests. In their resistance they plan for a more fulfilled queer future: “Let’s make each other toast / tomorrow morning. Get out your pocket / calendar. Let’s make our sleepover plan.” Today both characters are confirmed to be queer in the comics, with Kate recently having her first on-panel kiss. Burt ends For All Mutants celebrating the newfound openness of her queerness, putting the pride in Pryde (forgive the pun): “I used to be responsibility. Now I’m your bare-knuckle, blades drawn, power-politics bisexual pirate queen.” The pirate context Burt is referencing here isn’t essential, but if you’re interested in the campiness of an X-Men character at the Met Gala, here you go.
Figure 2: Kate and Ilyana tickling each other in their shared room
The benefit of Gary Jackson and Stephanie Burt using the same group of characters for speakers to see themselves and imagine inclusive futures is that they together are shaping a shared mythology and correcting Marvel’s omissions and improving “the mutant metaphor.” Jackson and Burt’s poems together are using the ekphrastic tradition to transform understandings of Marvel superheroes, a task increasingly relevant as Marvel and DC over-saturate film and TV screens with their characters. Poetry, perhaps, can thus be a salve against reductive blockbusters, to redefine their dominance, or like comics, as an imaginative escape in and of itself.