The Confusion of Change
I’ve been rereading old X-Men comics lately. Back in the late seventies and early eighties, when there weren’t quite as many amazing and varied comics out there as there are today, Uncanny X-Men was pretty reliable for a bit of soap opera moralizing and intrigue—a big action sequence was never far away but those setpieces always seemed secondary to the complexities of the various characters’ lives. Back then, the X-Men seemed different from most other Marvel books. Amid the superpowers and spaceships, the players agonized a lot about their moral choices in a hostile world, the female characters, while often adhering to the usual physical stereotype for superheroines were strong; each had inner voices.
In the U.K. where I grew up, there wasn’t a lot else around at that time in the way of adventure comics with characters you could really believe in—Alan Moore’s work in 2000AD and soon on Swamp Thing maybe, and certainly Love & Rockets but I wasn’t to discover those for another few years. Looking back, some of the earlier X-Men stories might seem a little hokey to a sophisticated modern reader of standalone graphic novels but at the time, writer Chris Claremont was doing things no one had ever really tried before in mainstream comics.
Indeed, when Claremont took over the writing of the X-Men, he introduced a lot of elements that became the basis for many and various stories by later writers, who riffed upon the rich themes and characters he set up within the established Marvel Universe. Where what had gone before was undoubtedly special and abundant with ideas, it was arguably Claremont, with his tales of the lives and loves of mutants, who paved the way for many of the soap operatic and arc-plot led aspects of comics storytelling that are commonplace today. Claremont’s writing had an emphasis on the inner lives of his characters, on their conversations and relationships as well as how hard they could punch.
During what would become one of Chris Claremont’s most celebrated story arcs, the Dark Phoenix saga, a character was introduced that would change the face of mainstream comics. Much as I loved the travails of young star-crossed lovers Jean Grey and Scott Summers, whose passions would be consumed by the fiery cosmic entity called Phoenix in this galaxy-spanning epic, it was the quiet arrival of Kitty Pryde that most interested me.
Kitty would change first the X-Men within the Marvel continuity and then, with the success of the character, Marvel Comics itself. What was it that made her so special, so interesting? What had Claremont hit upon, what was it he was exploring so well? Kitty Pryde is accorded a rare status by both her fictional teammates and fans who recognize her firstly by her given, “real-world” name. This is both a clue to how her character is perceived and what functions she often performs in the Marvel Universe.
Kitty could walk through walls. Her powers didn’t seem world-shaking, so was it her persona? On her initial induction into the X-Men, Kitty tried out various codenames. All the X-Men, all superheroes had one, so surely she had to have one too—Ariel, Sprite, Cat, Shadowcat. None of them stuck. Only the pet names the other X-Men called her—Pun’kin, Katya—seemed to have any resonance. This was partly because, at thirteen years old, Kitty was the first “X-Baby.” Many have followed, but if she hadn’t worked, it’s a reasonably sure bet that the powers-that-be at Marvel would’ve pursued more traditional, tried and trusted methods of introducing new superheroes.
Without Kitty there would’ve been no New Mutants (and arguably the excesses of Marvel in the 90s might’ve taken an entirely different shape), Wolverine and Storm wouldn’t have had anyone to mentor and Peter Rasputin’s love life would look a whole lot different. But those are details—as the first X-Baby, Kitty led a long line of mutant teenagers who, in turn, represent the disaffected and disenchanted, the rebellious and the geeky. But Kitty was the first and somehow remains the archetype.
Her powers initially seemed a secondary element in the appeal of the character, whose intelligence and Jewish ancestry were highlighted. Yet Kitty’s ability to “phase” was, to a degree, an ingenious metaphor for that teenage desire to sometimes just disappear. Who, at that age, hasn’t sometimes felt dumb and socially awkward enough to want the world to just swallow them up? Kitty could do it—and it was so cool. She could (and still can) also lower her density to such a degree that she can literally walk on air, up away and out of trouble—another way of escaping unwanted attention or social embarrassment.
With her precocious academic gifts, she should’ve automatically been a bratty, audience-alienating boffin (see: Wesley Crusher). Yet, in spite of these, Kitty represented the intelligent everyman probably more than any other Marvel character since Peter Parker, whose rooted, everyday humanity she echoes. In her love of comic books and computer science, she ushered in the era of the cool geek, the knowing nerd. Like Parker, her intelligence doesn’t occlude the charm her creators managed to endow her with. And, in making her so likeable, Claremont and artist John Byrne raised the level of the game. Claremont was already heading somewhere new but now they permanently shifted the focus of storytelling from straightforward superhero derring-do to a world seen through the prism of this child’s emotions; a kid with emergent superpowers.
It was brilliant, adolescent soap opera about the confusion of change: Kitty provided an emotional conduit for the reader to experience what it might be like to become a mutant, an X-Man, her training and power of phasing embodying that confusion. Outside the X-Men the reader, through Kitty, caught further glimpses of what it might be like to be a mutant—or, crucially, a member of any minority group—which, in turn, helped elevate the comic book from simple monthly melodrama into an ongoing saga and pop cultural phenomenon. Byrne left the book, but Claremont would continue to pursue this creatively fertile path with numerous artistic collaborators.
Was Kitty’s romance with Peter Rasputin a.k.a. Colossus just soap? Maybe, but the raw yearnings of a pubescent kid had never been detailed in mainstream comics like this before. Kitty came into her own as a kind of superpowered everyman, not so far removed from the real world that we couldn’t identify with her. She’s never lost this appeal. Unlike Peter Parker, Kitty was never lonely, surrounded as she was by her unlikely extended family who provided, along with the kinship and support, plenty of danger and that vital, first love. In Lockheed, her alien dragon companion, she even had an imaginary friend in whom to confide—except that this is comics, so he didn’t have to be imaginary. Lockheed plays the part of devoted animal sidekick: instead of making witty asides, he breathes protective fire, playing Snowy to Kitty’s intrepid and emotionally-aware Tintin.
Kitty’s Jewish background provided a sharpness to her observations on anti-mutant prejudice (certainly, all the X-Men have their own slants on this), but it wasn’t just that—readers now had a connection through to the allegorical nature of it all. And, arguably, the phasing thirteen-year-old with a pet dragon opened up that aspect of X-Men storytelling in earnest.
Eventually, I moved on from the X-Men and The New Mutants as I moved away from reading mainstream comics. At that point, I’d already worked as an editor for Marvel U.K., had learned a few tricks and was beginning to create comics of my own—but that’s another story. I did look in on Kitty Pryde and the other Marvel characters I’d loved as a kid from time to time and knew she was “growing up” (as much as anyone ever ages in the Marvel Universe). But I missed Claremont’s nuanced feel for the character, his unique mix of superheroics and drama. When he was at his peak, he was unstoppable.
It took me a while, but eventually I came back when I heard that one of my favorite TV creators, Joss Whedon, was writing a new book, the Astonishing X-Men. He eschewed years of continuity and reset the characters to something I recognized—it was easy to jump aboard. Whedon quite brilliantly demonstrated that Kitty’s powers weren’t the low-key abilities I’d thought; they were in fact world-saving. As an adult, Kitty Pryde retained all the qualities that made her so endearing from the outset. And now she was older, he had her properly explore her love of Peter Rasputin and made it an element central to the story he was telling (as I’d always believed it should be). Ultimately, it’s this sense of romance and exploration of the best aspects of humanity that underscores the character. As far as I’m concerned, it’s still easy to love her.
Nick Abadzis has written a story about Kitty Pryde for Marvel Comics with very lovely art by Steven Sanders—available in X-Men—To Serve and Protect #3 on sale January 26.