MUTANTS AND MAGIC: A LOOK AT AMERICA’S HOGWARTS
By Kevin Derby
Rating: G (suitable for all ages)
Summary: Kevin Derby discusses the similarities between Harry Potter and X-Men.
Having been born in the first days of that glorious period in American history when Gerald Ford strode the earth like a colossus, I was a little too old for Harry Potter when he burst upon the scene in the late 1990s. I eventually read the books and saw the movies, but they left less of an impression on me than the countless children who grew up on them.
Even with J.K. Rowling’s vivid imagination, lively characters, and fantastical setting, Hogwarts was familiar. In fact, I had first visited a similar school more than a decade before Rowling published the first Harry Potter book.
Finding that school was admittedly the high point of a pretty terrible month. September 1983 started off on a downer as the Soviets shot down Korean Air Lines Flight 007, killing almost 270 people, including Congressman Larry McDonald. For an awkward kid who turned nine that month, the real bad news of the month included starting third grade at Baker Elementary School in Moorestown, New Jersey. That and the members of KISS appearing for the first time without their trademark makeup and making music that sucked.
I wouldn’t know it until more than a quarter of a century later, but one of the pivotal moments of my life occurred that September when I picked up a comic book. New Jersey is a very divided state, looking to both New York and Philadelphia, and my third grade class reflected it: Catholics and Jews and Quakers; Yankees and Phillies fans; Giants and Eagles fans; Flyers, Rangers and…..I don’t remember any other Whalers fans, actually.
One of the bigger fault lines for third grade boys in that heady era of Thriller and The Return of the Jedi was over comic books. The tribal battles between Marvel fans and DC readers were often more fierce than our attempts to play kickball or soccer. I was a loyal Marvel man, enjoying the far more realistic–for superheroes at least–characters and real world settings. Metropolis and Gotham City meant nothing to me but New York, the city which even then I knew stood at the heart of the world, and was an old friend. Already addicted to U.S. history and enjoying the glow of Reaganism, my favorite superhero was Captain America, the flag bedecked defender of what I saw as our nation’s values–honesty, courage, loyalty, protecting the weak. Spider-Man was right behind Cap and far more relatable. The socially awkward Peter Parker had problems paying the rent and balancing work and home life with doing the right thing. Now that was a character I could relate to. Reading Spider-Man produced the same reaction I would experience listening to U2‘s “The Joshua Tree” later on that decade: I felt less alone in a world that increasingly bewildered me.
One day that September, I picked up the 135th issue of Marvel Team-Up, written by Bill Mantlo. While not one of the leading Marvel titles, I enjoyed Marvel Team-Up, which always featured Spider-Man working with another, usually far lesser known hero, in stories that rarely extended beyond a single issue. That issue featured Kitty Pryde, a hero I didn’t know. Kitty was one of the X-Men, easily one of the most popular comics from that era, but not one that I ever read.
There was something intimidating about the X-Men. A team of mutants–meaning they were born with their powers instead of receiving them by flying into spaceship accidents involving cosmic rays or being bitten by a radioactive spider–the X-Men were different and rarely interacted with the rest of the Marvel Universe. Even more of a puzzle, despite being heroes, the X-Men were scorned for being mutants and were generally despised by regular people in the Marvel Universe. With Chris Claremont writing their stories, reading the X-Men required a deeper background than what I had. There simply seemed no good jumping-on point in 1983, years before Wikpedia and collected trade paperbacks of their past issues hit bookstores. Years later, in tenth grade, I tried to slog my way through August 1914 by Solzhenitsyn for a world history class. Despite a good history background, even knowing about the battle of Tannenberg thanks to reading Barbara Tuchman’s Guns of August, I couldn’t make heads or tails of August 1914, and it would take a second reading nearly a decade later for it to really sink in. There were too many mixed messages, strange asides, plot threads never followed up on, and characters who made brief but memorable appearances before vanishing for hundreds of pages. As strange as it may sound, trying to read the X-Men comics was like that!
Despite those challenges, I had an easy time with this issue of Marvel Team-Up. The plot seemed simple enough. Spider-Man had to stop an out-of-control subway while, up north in Westchester County, a teenaged girl named Kitty Pryde was babysitting two kids. Spider-Man saves the people on the subway but gets knocked out and kidnapped by the Morlocks, a strange group of mutants who live in the tunnels under New York. Even worse, the two kids end up falling into a pit….and in one of those serendipitous plots so common in comic books, get kidnapped by the Morlocks. Spider-Man teams up with Kitty who is, in fact, Ariel, the youngest X-Man, to free the kids and get out of the Morlock tunnels.
It was a fun enough comic with some nice action scenes as Spider-Man and Kitty teamed up to battle the Morlocks. Spider-Man, as usual, saved the day and livened things up with his witty banter and irrepressible spirit. But Kitty–a pretty Jewish girl with courage and brains to spare–stood out even more. The fact she could “phase,” change her body’s density to walk through walls, was actually one of the least memorable things about her. Kitty came along at the right time, just as I was experiencing my first crush on Heather, the proverbial girl next door. I kept rereading that issue and realized that Kitty–unlike most superheroines– reminded me of girls I actually knew.
A year later, my family moved to North Florida and, for a few years, my interest in comics waned. But in sixth grade I met Brian, a fellow Marvel fan, and through him was once again hooked. Brian was an X-Men fan and, thanks to him, I finally jumped on board. In truth, in those turbulent last months of elementary school and the blighted years of puberty and junior high, I was more at home with the X-Men than I was with the upbeat Spider-Man comics or optimistic Captain America tales. The X-Men were misunderstood; so was I. Nobody appreciated the X-Men; well, they didn’t appreciate me either. The X-Men were different in a world that offered little tolerance or understanding of them; three decades before I was diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome, I realized something was distinctly off with the way my mind work, despite my best efforts to fit in. I was ready for the X-Men’s “us versus the world” message.
Based at a Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters in Westchester County, New York, the X-Men were a strange combination of defenders of a world that did not like them while still being students and teachers. It was the American Hogwarts, especially as young mutants attended the school as the New Mutants, basically the minor league equivalent of the X-Men.
Kitty Pryde–now called Shadowcat instead of Ariel–helped keep the X-Men grounded. In God Loves, Man Kills, one of the most memorable X-Men stories of the 1980s, Kitty is the one member of her team who speaks out the most passionately–and effectively–against an evangelical minister who tries to rally the faithful against mutants. In the Days of Future Past storyline, a middle-aged Kate Pryde goes back in time to take over her 13-year-old self to save the 21st century from a tyrannical fascist regime wanting to keep mutants in concentration camps. It’s Kitty who helps Magneto, the Holocaust survivor and rival of the X-Men who lives by the motto “never again,” realize there’s a place in the world for both their fellow mutants and humans. She was easily my favorite member of the team and was the heart of the X-Men. A computer whiz and under-aged genius, the outspoken Kitty often served as the conscience of the team–much like the role Hermione Granger played at Hogwarts.
When Kitty left the X-Men after suffering a major wound to join Excalibur, a team of mutants based in Great Britain, the comic lost much of its purpose and grew increasingly dark in the 1990s. The X-Men even abandoned the school to base their operations in Australia. Thankfully, Kitty rejoined the X-Men and has been a major player in most of their various incarnations over the years.
One of the reasons we read comic books–and cheer for Harry Potter, Frodo Baggins, Luke Skywalker, and Sherlock Holmes–is because we believe in justice. Bill Mantlo certainly believed in justice and, more importantly, lived up to his ideals. Besides writing comics, he went to law school and worked for the Legal Aid Society as a public defender in the Bronx. Sadly, while rollerblading in 1992, he was the victim of a hit and run accident which resulted in severe head trauma and full time institutional care.
But there is some justice as Bill Mantlo’s legacy lives on. The Guardians of the Galaxy was a surprise hit for Marvel, and Mantlo was one of its founders. While Chris Claremont is more associated with the character than Mantlo was, Kitty Pryde fittingly appeared with the Guardians before returning to the X-Men. Even with her new association, Kitty has been the heart of the X-Men and often serves as the writers’ voices when they want to send a message about tolerance and diversity, using mutants as a stand-in for any persecuted group in the real word.
Take the words she says in All-New X-Men #13, with Brian Michael Bendis as the writer. “I’m Jewish. I don’t have a quote unquote Jewish-sounding name. I don’t look or sound Jewish, whatever that looks or sounds like… So if you didn’t know I was Jewish, you might not know. Unless I told you. Same goes for my mutation. I don’t have to wear a visor or have blue fur all over me. I can walk around. Just a young woman of the world. But… I’m not. When I was 13, before my mutation kicked in, I was in love with this boy at school. In love. And I followed him around like a puppy dog because I was an idiotic 13-year-old girl. And one day he saw a Rabbi walking across the street and he made the worst anti-Semitic comment… ever. I won’t even repeat it. He just said this awful thing and laughed. Laughed and laughed. And – and my heart sank and then my blood boiled. I mean boiled. I turned to him and I growled: I’m Jewish.
And he – just stared at me like he didn’t even realize he said something wrong. Or he didn’t know how to compute what I just said. But when I got home, after I was done crying my eyes out, my first heartbreak… I realized I was, maybe for the first time ever, I was really proud of myself. I am Jewish. I am a mutant. And I want people to know who and what I am. I tell people because, hey, if we’re going to have a problem with it, I’d like to know.”
And that was why Kitty Pryde was the first female character to really make a lasting impression on me, the way Hermione Granger did to countless readers later on. Sure, Kitty was cute and relatable enough. Yes, she had neat super powers and was part of a cool team of high achievers who support each other: something every junior high boy wants to be part of whether it’s the X-Men, cohorts at Hogwarts, Captain Picard’s crew on the Enterprise, or Joe Torre’s Yankees. More importantly, Kitty was intelligent, principled, courageous, and outspoken, a woman who would always do the right thing when it mattered. If Xavier’s School is America’s Hogwarts, then Kitty Pryde is our Hermione Granger: a courageous and intelligent woman who could more than hold and fight for justice.
In April 2011, at a bookstore in Tallahassee, Florida, I met a woman who exemplified all Kitty Pryde stood for–and, yes, she is Jewish even if she can’t walk through walls.
What else could I do? Reader, I married her.
Thanks, Bill Mantlo. Thanks X-Men.