This essay is reprinted from Advocate.com, the website of The Advocate (glossy gay mag). I wrote this piece on parenting and fanfic for them when X2 came out and it has been on their website for two years. But they just took down all of their 2003 material. So, I'm reprinting here, behind the cut, in case anyone's interested, and so I have a place to point to for an explanation when people ask me how I came by this strange hobby. Yes, I know, to people in fandom it's not a strange hobby. But to the fannishly challenged, for some strange reason, writing stories about mutant superheroes who have sex with each other is considered not quite so everyday as my other hobby (making beaded jewelry). I published this under my real name and did not mention my pseudonym in it and declined to have The Advocate link to my website. Yet a number of readers told me they found my stories from this article. Apparently there aren't a whole lot of X-Men writers out there with stories taking place in Saskatchewan and Belarus.
How the X-Men Changed My Life
By Dale Rosenberg
An Advocate.com exclusive posted May 8, 2003
My son Doran loves comic books. He reads them, he writes them, he collects them, he discusses them. Our local comic book shops know him well, as do the online equivalents. Family vacations have included stops at comic book stores in places ranging from London to Toronto to Scranton. He'll be 15 in the fall, and this has been going on since he was 8, so I guess it's more than a passing phase. Not necessarily a lifelong passion but a persistent interest. It has been persistent enough to affect his younger sisters and me as well.
I read comics as a child, although never to the extent Doran does. My mother thought it was a waste of time that could have been better spent on more intellectual pursuits, but I thought they were fun. My favorites were the X-Men. Teenage superheroes in a special school for "gifted" youth, the X-Men were "mutants," a subgroup of humanity hated and feared by the rest of the human race. That school and those kids felt very real to me, and the stories they told in the comic books were a jumping-off point for myriad stories in my head. I realize now that reading those comics and weaving those fantasies captured and supported my preadolescent feelings that there was something different about me, long before I knew the “something” was that I was a lesbian, not a mutant superhero.
When Doran started reading X-Men a number of years ago, I got all excited and told him how much I had loved that comic as a kid. He lent me a recent X-Men comic book and I read it eagerly. At first, that is. I could barely finish it. It was boring—the characters shallow, the dialogue simplistic. What had happened to the complex, fully realized companions of my youth? They had been replaced by a bunch of comic book characters. I was outraged! I couldn't believe how much comic books had gone downhill in one generation.
Then I managed to get hold of some of the original X-Men comic books and found that it wasn't the X-Men who had changed.
I have not repeated my mother's anti-comic stance. I’ve never felt that Doran was wasting his time. On the contrary, I find that reading comics has sparked his imagination, refined his sense of plot and character, and interfered not at all with more intellectual reading or with academic performance. He and I talk about the classic themes in comic books, about literature and historical detail referenced within the books, about the science (or the scientific impossibility) behind the stories, even about the different styles and techniques of the illustrators. I've always believed that when you're 10 or 11 or 12 anything can be a rich learning experience if you love it. Comic books became a great illustration of that principle for me.
When the first X-Men movie came out in 2000, I told Doran I'd take him and his friends to it on the opening weekend. I went happily, doing a favor for my firstborn, thinking of it as a Good Mama thing to do but not something I would personally enjoy. I was surprised to find myself enchanted by the film. I got back the feeling I'd had as a kid, of being totally transported into a world where mutants were real and dealing with a world hostile to those a little different from them. I found the characters believable, complex—people I could truly care about. Hugh Jackman's portrayal of Wolverine was mysterious and multilayered and totally captivated me.
And I loved the queer subtext in the film. When a thug twice his size tries to shake Wolverine down, saying "I know what you are," I thought of all the gay men and lesbians who've had that happen to them. And wished they'd all had the superpowers needed to overpower their attackers, just like the Wolverine did.
My interest in the X-Men movie didn't lead to a renewed interest in comic books, but it took me somewhere else—to fan fiction. Large numbers of people were writing stories based on comic books, movies, novels, and television shows, imagining what happens after the movie is over or in between the scenes. They were "publishing" them on the Internet, with carefully worded disclaimers acknowledging that the characters were not theirs and asserting they were making no money out of this.
I'd been completely unaware of the fan-fic phenomenon, and it seemed like a whole hidden world—a fascinating one full of imaginative people who worked hard at this for the pure joy of creating and sharing. When I found an extensive style guide for writing comic fan fiction, I knew I was hooked. It was the adult equivalent of the games I played as a child, or the games my kids play now. I saw it as a grown-up version of "Let's pretend that you're Scott and I'm Logan and we have an adventure together."
I decided to give it a try.
Almost three years later I've written 100 X-Men stories. I use movie characters, comic book characters, and those of my own invention. My central character is a deeply closeted gay man who is also a mutant, so I get to write about homophobia more directly than is addressed by the queer subtext of the comics or the movies. I have readers all over the world who write to me, and I've met some interesting people and learned a lot about gay life in various parts of the world. Readers have drawn illustrations for me, translated my work into Chinese to expand my readership, and created a Web site with my stories.
I research meticulously before I write. Part of the fun for me is making everything as real as I can, with the exception of the mutant superpowers part. So fan fiction has had me learn about such diverse topics as the geography of rural Saskatchewan, the history of the Republic of Belarus, and the sex lives of the Samurai. I've brushed up on my French and Russian because I had characters who spoke those languages. I've learned a great deal about plotting, character, and dialogue. I've reveled in the pure joy of creation, of editing and revision, of working hard on something just for the sake of making it better. I've found that when you're 45 or 46 or 47, anything can be a rich learning experience if you love it.
My kids and I have all seen the original X-Men movie a number of times since it came out and have become staunch X-Men fans. My daughters have all the action figures from the movie and have spent many an enjoyable, creative hour inventing stories as they played. Doran has been writing fan fiction as well; we talk about our writing and share tips. His sisters come up with ideas for plots and characters: Kendra, my 10-year-old daughter, wants me to collaborate with her on a story based on the movie sequel.
We were all at X2: X-Men United on opening night, of course. While we were there a couple of people left messages on our answering machine. The outgoing message said, as it has for a while now, "Leave a message for Dale, Doran, Kendra, or Zara, and the name of your favorite X-Man after the beep."