Illustration by Popularium. Source images Marvel
A young, bald doctor, specializing in acute mental disorders, sits in a wheelchair looking out a hospital window. The sun sets in an orange-laced Israeli sky over Haifa. The doctor takes in the warm glow of the light as his fingers glide up and down the sleek new design of his chair. He marvels at its unique shape.
He looks up at his new friend, a domineering man of few words, and compliments him on the design. The man steps halfway out of the shadows, runs his hand through his silver mane, and without smiling, utters coyly that he’s always had a way with metal. The doctor stands to exit, and reminds his friend of their dinner plans. The silver-haired man smiles and thinks how it seems like the doctor can read his mind.
This is how Charles Xavier met Magneto. Well, at least one of the ways. As with any comic book, there are countless iterations of origin stories. Yet in X-Men: Legion Quest, the storyline which gave rise to X-Men: Age of Apocalypse, this is one backstory I read with laser-eyed focus. I’ve always heard that they were simply old friends but have never actually seen it on paper. I flip the pages with immense curiosity…
I’ve always been an X-Men fan. Avengers are cool, Batman is badass, but the X-Men have always been my favorite. They are weird. They are outcasts. They are flawed and unique and they are my heroes.
As a very young kid, the heroes my family introduces me to are all Biblical. Being raised Jewish, I get all the Old Testament stories: Jonah and the Whale, Joshua and Jericho’s Wall, Moses and the Pharaoh. But these stories aren’t presented as parables that help explain the nuanced moral spectrum of our world. No. They are presented as fact.
That doesn’t sit right with me.
I’m 13 and about to be Bar Mitzvah’d in Israel at the Western Wall. Ground zero of Judaic holiness. I’ve been studying for months to memorize the Hebrew version of my Torah portion.
But in long afternoon sessions with my Cantor learning an archaic language, I often feel alone. I am bored and uninspired. And… I am scared as hell; the thought of singing Hebrew in the breaking voice of a pubescent boy is truly horrifying. So when I get home, I quickly eat dinner, run to my room, and flip through my comic books. My refuge from the pangs of adolescence.
I find myself comparing the Bible to my comic books. It starts subconsciously, but soon I can’t read one without thinking of the other. The parallels are everywhere. Look at Moses and Pharaoh. Two brothers raised together and then torn apart by different ideologies. Professor Xavier and Magneto are like that, too. Being Jewish though, I’ve always been taught that Moses was in the right. I’ve never once thought about Pharaoh’s point of view. But because I love Magneto and empathize with his backstory more than Xavier’s, I suddenly find myself feeling empathy for the ancient enemies of my religion. It starts to get very heady and very confusing.
Then I pick up X-Men: Age of Apocalypse. The ultimate ‘what if’ scenario for any X-Men fanboy. After young Charles Xavier and young Magneto go to a dinner, something happens that changes the Marvel Universe forever. Charles Xavier’s son (in a future timeline) goes back in time (to the timeline of Xavier and Magneto’s dinner) and, while attempting to kill the young Magneto, kills his father instead. We then enter a world with no Charles Xavier, where Magneto is the new leader of the X-Men, in a desolate future with no hope. The ultimate butterfly effect.
This is the upside down! This is backwards! Unfair! Heroes are supposed to be heroes, right? Villains are evil. That’s how it is. In the Bible, the Jews are the chosen people. We’re the good guys, right?
With Xavier dead, Magneto is now leading a heroic team against the villain, Apocalypse, and the whole world is tilted on its axis. It’s an amazing story arc that leaves me applying “what if” to everything else in my life. I lie awake at night and spiral into new scenarios of morality all because of this comic book. One night I ask myself the question I’ve been dancing around for years, “What if God doesn’t exist?”
My Bar Mitzvah comes and goes. I stumble through the Hebrew as all kids do, but leave feeling empty. Without even intending it, I start to walk away from my religion. It is not a pleasant journey. I feel alone. I can’t tell anyone because everyone I know believes in God. I am an outcast. I am an X-Man.
Over time, though, I find inspiration in my heroes that gives me confidence in my worldview. It starts with the X-Men, but as I reach my later teens and 20s I find brilliant minds like Brian Greene, Neil deGrasse Tyson, Stephen Hawking, Sam Harris, Bill Maher, and even Ricky Gervais. Scientists and atheists are my new superheroes.
Finally, I have real people who are giving voice to my thoughts. Finally, I have the words to say that while I love my family and respect my heritage, I find my religion to be another outdated mythology written at a time when our ancestors were trying to make sense of the world themselves.
X-Men: Age of Apocalypse was that spark in my young adult life that started a fire of questions and thoughts in my head that have burned hot since I first read it.
Heaven, hell, mythology, humanity — it’s all shades of gray. Judaism and other organized religions often teach us of a world that’s black and white. But I don’t buy into that. I believe in people. We’re all flawed and complex. It’s a fight every day to coexist with those who are different, but it’s what we all have to do. As Xavier said in X-Factor Vol. 1 #70:
“Sometimes it seems that in mutant heaven, there are no pearly gates, but instead revolving doors.”