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The Patron Saint of Superheroes

Chris Gavaler Explores the Multiverse of Comics, Pop Culture, and Politics

That, oddly, is the name of a poem. One by Alice Notley, from her 2006 collection Grave of Light. I’ve not read the book, but “The Ten Best Issues of Comic Books” was featured at the Poetry Foundation website, with a 44 second recording by the author. It’s as brief as it is improbable, just a list of titles and issue numbers, no explanations:

1. X-Men #141 & 142

2. Defenders #125

3. Phoenix: The Untold Story

4. What if. . .? #31

5. New Mutants #1

6. New Mutants #2

7. Micronauts #58

8. Marvel Universe #5

9. New Mutants #14

10. Secret Wars #1

I could debate the poem’s relative literary worth (moderate), or whether it should be considered a poem at all (most definitely), but I’d rather explicate the list itself, starting with dates and covers:

1. January & February 1981:

X-Men Vol 1 141Uncanny X-Men Vol 1 142
2. November 1983:
Defenders Vol 1 125

3. April 1984:

Phoenix The Untold Story Vol 1 1

4. February 1982:

What If? Vol 1 31

5. March 1983:

New Mutants Vol 1 1

6. April 1983:

New Mutants Vol 1 2

7. May 1984:

Micronauts Vol 1 58

8. The 2009 publication date confused me, until I realized the content begins in 1982 for Iron Man, 1981 for Spider-Man, and 1987 for X-Men:

9. April 1984:

New Mutants Vol 1 14

10. May 1984:

Marvel Super Heroes Secret Wars Vol 1 1

First thing you should notice: Ms. Notley and I went to high school together. How else to explain our nearly identical, late adolescent reading list? I attended high school from 1981 to 1984, the exact years covered by the list. And yet if you google Notley, you’ll see she was not born in 1966 like me, but 1945, putting her at 39 the year I graduated.

So, if we read the list as autobiography, why was the poet reading so much Marvel in her late thirties? And not just Marvel, but specifically X-Men. Nine of the ten issues feature team members. Six are written or co-written by Chris Claremont, the longest running writer for not just the X-Men, but for any comic book series ever. Even the New Defenders include three Old X-Men–plus one of Bill Sienkiewicz’s earliest painted covers. I would have thought that at least one of the three New Mutants would have featured Sienkiewicz too, but they’re all before he began drawing the series. Notley also departs twice from official Marvel continuity with an alternate version of Wolverine’s debut and Claremont and Byrne’s alternate version of the Dark Phoenix Saga in which Jean Gray survives. Secret Wars, by the way, is by far the worst comic on the list–and I say that having not read Micronauts, the true outlier here. I remember my brother had an issue or two of the series, tie-ins to the toy franchise. Sadly, marvel.wikia.com has no synopsis, but no X-Men are included on issue #58’s character list.

So what to make of this poem? It’s an aggressively obscure ode to the mostly early 80s X-Men, with a couple of turns inexplicable to even this professorial fanboy who was right there at the time. Though only an obsessive googler would know even that much. Is Notley a supervillain sending me on a diabolical mission to nowhere? On its surface, the poem is just that, its surface. An impenetrable list of references. No content, personal or otherwise. Its title suggests objectivity–favorite lists usually do–but the list itself is exceptionally subjective, the top ten of a very specific person who would have read comics at a very specific moment with a very specific reading bias. Yet the speaker (and I don’t think it’s an autobiographical version of Notley after all) gives us no hints about her criteria–and therefore no hints about herself either. We only get her pop culture skeleton. She remains invisible.

Or maybe intangible–like Kitty Pryde on that line-one cover of “Days of Future Past.” Apparently some timelines really can’t be saved.

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