There is an intriguing contradiction in comic book culture between extreme iconoclasm and extreme universality. Take something like the X Men. These folks are of course unlike you and me. We don’t actually have friends or relatives who can read minds, teleport things, change shape at will or grow metallic claws – unless the people we know are seriously good at keeping secrets. And the X Men don’t just have super powers – they generally have particularly zany and over-the-top super powers.
And that’s sort of the point. These people are mutants, misunderstood, mistrusted, dangerous in spite of themselves. The whole situation is one step from being out of control, as though any moment everything could just blow out and turn into a Sam Raimi movie (I mean the good kind, not the ones he just makes for the money).
The details of a fantasy like X Men are nutty, but the underlying feeling is deliberately familiar. The barely disguised subtext of such a tale is the experience of being a teenager – lost, misunderstood, on the verge of raging out of control, abounding in odd and embarassing physical and mental changes, seemingly a new one each day.
Even when you are well past that age, you still carry around those feelings, the potential for imbalance, the scent of blood and crazy romance somewhere in your soul. This edge between our civilized selves and the feral nature lurking just below is part of being human, part of what makes us feel alive.
Such comic books, and their various spin-offs, are not actually obscure iconoclastic works, but rather engines for making money through market share. After all, a franchise such as X Men requires a sizable audience to succeed. Otherwise it will simply cease to find its way to outlets for publication. And so here is an entire genre, huge in its appeal (millions around the world flock to see the X Men films and similar celebrations of alienation from the herd) which is, at its core, about channeling a feeling of being alone, set apart, misunderstood – precisely the reason it appeals to a vast audience.
In a sense this kind of entertainment ends up joining huge numbers of people together through a shared feeling of being unlike anybody else. We are all bond togethe by channeling our inner outsider, as identification with the quirky misunderstood individual within each of us ends up making us alike. It’s like some sort of MacDonald’s lifestyle commercial for Goths.
And then, every once in a while, such a tale breaks off the screen and enters real life. Wolverine, Magneto, Rogue and their kind are strange people indeed, with outsized powers and outsized psychic issues to match. But we know they are not real, and that makes them safe – mere objects of projection.
But Michael Jackson was a real flesh and blood human, who happened to have insanely outsized talent, as well as outsized psychic issues. I don’t think anybody could have predicted the emotional outpouring in the wake of his untimely death. As I walk around New York since yesterday, I hear his music playing everywhere I go – on the streets, in coffee shops, in department stores. I see people walking down the street suddenly break into one of his songs, sometimes seeming to surprise even themselves.
I think that this positive reaction – accepting this man as somebody who was astoundingly talented in spite of being strangely troubled – reflects a recognition that we are all, in our way, X people, and we all struggle with our demons. Every once in a while somebody like Michael Jackson comes along who found a way to channel his demons into something beautiful – at least for a while. We understand this, and we honor it.