Like boy bands, sentai teams and sitcom pals, the X-Men thrive on fan identification. Mutants aren't just the outsiders, they are in many ways just like us. They've been multi-gender and multi-racial, with backgrounds as rich and diverse as they are simplistic and stereotypical. Just enough to give the reader something to identify with and hook them into the rest of the story. While it might seem odd since I certainly can't 'relate' to being possessed by an innate cosmic power only to be resurrected while my genetic clone has had a baby with the boy I crushed on in high school, you have to admit that the X-Men, above all other Marvel comics, find a way to relate to all of us and we likewise see ourselves in Xavier's students.
They have grown with us pop-culturally, from Kitty Pryde's interest in home computers to Jubilee's rollerblading mall-rat 'tude to Pixie's 'Chemical Romance' so to speak. They have loved and lost and grown older (but not too much older) and wiser (but not too much wiser) as we grew up along with them, each generation it seems getting their own freshmen class of mutants. They've been heroes, they've been villains and then they switch around in that gray area for a story or two, I could go on. But today is not for the X-Men as a whole, but one particular member not cited on Marvel.com or listed by the inexhaustible uncannyxmen.net. Someone I got to know through the talents of Joe Casey and John Paul Leon... and the funding of Steven Spielberg and General H. Norman Schwarzkopf.
Yeah, not often those guys come together for a Marvel Comics classic, but this is a special case. They chair the Starbright Foundation, now called the Starlight Children's Foundation, an organization that provides both education and entertainment for children who've gone through traumatic injury or severe illness. Through the years, the Starlight Children's Foundation has done everything from providing information and support groups for children and teens to connect with one another for support to giving them space to heal from their injuries or illnesses, whether that's on family outings or in hospital escapism through just letting them be kids again, playing with toys or watching TV. They've honestly done some amazing work when you think about it and in 2002 (or so I gather), the Starlight Children's Foundation contacted the House of Ideas for something new. This comic would not be sold on retailer shelves and would be provided to children and teens who've suffered traumatic burn injuries and now we come to where the reader connects to the character at hand.
I'll admit, the title does nothing for the contents: The X-Men in Life Lessons. I've nearly fallen asleep right then and there. The artwork is certainly surprising; stylized and deep, Mr. Leon's pencils are not exactly your usual 'kid's special' fare. When often these Very Special Issues come along, there's normally a very flat, almost coloring book style to the art, a very heavy-handed message given in an overly childish fashion and in the end, we're all supposed to learn a very special 'life lesson' that we couldn't have avoided if it were an oncoming Mac truck. Being, as he put it, "the X-Men writer that *wasn't* Grant Morrison", Mr. Casey was given the job to write out this story and worked with the Starlight Children's Foundation to make sure it was told right. Mr. Casey joins me in my aversion to the 'After-School Special' and actually wrote something that could easily fit within the run of the (at the time) current X-Men.
Terry Raymond, aka T-Ray, fills the role of the team's newest recruit is is the same typical invincible spirit we've come to know in our youngest X-Men. Full of slang ("Sheeyah--! This one's goin' down hard, baybee!") and a need to show the team what he's really made of, T-Ray heads into the Danger Room late one night to train on his own and winds up getting burned in an electrical explosion. No Shi'ar tech quick fix, no light scolding for being careless, Terry goes through surgery and hospital rehabilitation. Physically scarred by the accident, he also seems to have lost his mutant powers as well; retreating from his teammates and teachers, Terry tries to make his way in public school on his own and finds himself a source of ridicule and revulsion. Eventually, probably using the same moxie that got him through being a mutant outcast, Terry learns to stand up for himself, accept what has happened and, more importantly, accept help from family and friends to do both.
And then Magneto shows up. If only he had gotten there a few pages earlier, he might have gotten an angry new recruit for the Brotherhood of Mutants, but Terry's not that gullible. Besides, the X-Men have his back, bursting into action from his school's gym side door. He's got friends, he's lost that fear of himself and he's gained his powers back, T-Ray fights alongside the X-Men to drive off that dastardly Magneto to fight another day. By the last page, he's back on the team and rushing off the help another mutant teen in need.
This book is not only an excellent way to help kids cope with traumatic burn injuries, it's also a darn good read. Only Terry's use of the phrase 'Awww YEAH!' reminds me that I'm not this issue's target demographic and the important parts are so well stated that at no time do we feel that the cameras are really 'turned on' to make sure we get the point. From the very start of the book to its final pages, the important theme is teamwork. From the start, Xavier tells young Terry of self-acceptance and how the X-Men are there to help him through the trails of growing up a mutant, something they've all dealt with in their own way. After the accident, Terry's given space to remember this for himself, coming out a stronger and wiser character than when he started without having some mythical revelation halfway through the story. The tools were there, all he had to do was use them.
The artwork is understated and powerful, Terry's scars are quite visible, but sketchy enough to look like anyone's. He's not hideous, he's just a kid who's been burned in an accident and the quiet beauty of the art says all it needs to. After he gets his courage up to face the other kids at school and makes a friend at the lunchroom, Terry's fitting into himself better and, while I have no idea what 'bio-vibrational powers' do, there's just something in the silent page of T-Ray using them to shoot a basketball that speaks a lot about confidence and lets the reader know he's going to get better. And he's totally going to help the X-Men beat the snot out of Magneto on the next few pages.
No matter what, T-Ray's part of the team; the X-Men are with him every step of the way and not once does he turn out to be 'Mary Sueishly' better than any of them, simply equal. He struggles through his injuries but comes out a better person, well on his way to getting back on his feet. Not only was this book given to kids to help them through incredible odds, but I'm certain there's something for any reader in the messages of hope and family written here. We get through hard times with our friends, whether that's dealing with the fact that your mom and dad aren't hooking up in this timestream thanks to a devilish diamond blonde who's put your very existence at risk or understanding how to live in your own skin again, escaping isolation and accepting help from others. Mr. Casey and Mr. Leon did an incredible job with this story and I hope that somewhere, Terry Raymond's doing okay out there.