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My Pretend Girlfriend: A Rant About Why I Stopped Reading Comics
Peter Tatara - November 23, 2006

It's Thanksgiving Day. I'm sitting in my childhood room in my childhood home in Upstate New York. My family's all gathered, and after a whirlwind of cooking, we've done the turkey, the gravy, and the mashed potatoes. We've all now retired for a bit before the pumpkin and -- my favorite -- sweet potato pie. I'm, as I've said, in my childhood room. I'm surrounded by dusty trophies and boxed-up memories. A good portion of the room is filled with books, but not the thick, timeless tomes praised by the scholars every successive age. No, instead, the bane of parents and proper society, the slim pulp of comic books.

I was a ravenous comic book reader in my teens. I collected Image, Dark Horse, Top Cow, and -- most of all -- Marvel books. I devoured the full spectrum of X-Men yarns, my absolute favorite being the Scott Lobdell and Chris Bachalo helmed Generation X. A tale following a class of teenage mutants training to be the next generation of X-Men at a school in Boston, I read it from Issue #1. The school was run by veteran X-Men Banshee, a Irishman with a set of super lungs allowing him to shatter ear drums and -- somehow -- fly, and White Queen, a sultry telepath with a wont to walk around in public in a white leather teddy. The school's students included the plama-fireworks-firing Jubilee, reimagined as an Asian lesbian, Husk, a midwestern girl with skin that could change into anything from diamond to gas, Chamber, a Brit whose chest was a swirling ball of nuclear flame, Synch, a mutant capable of absorbing the abilities of any other mutants close by, Skin, a Spanish boy with six feet of extra skin, and M, a spoiled girl from Monaco with super strength, the gift of flight, and the power to read minds.

My favorite of Generation X's students, though, was Penance, a deaf-mute from Yugoslavia whose skin had constricted, atrophied, and crystalized into a crimson shell capable of cutting through solid adamantium. This blood-colored girl once called Yvette was distant, tragic, and beautiful. And my imaginarty comic book girlfriend.

(It's only as I write this now that I realize the number of Generation X mutants whose powers involved their skin. It's an interesting and apropos theme for the book.)

Generation X was about turning from a child into an adult. Sure, there were laser guns and evil robots, but beyond these set pieces, the comic followed the evolution and maturation of Banshee and White Queen's wards. And, while I lacked razor sharp skin, Generation X's stories otherwise proved to be a close analog to my own adolescence. I ate it up. And did I mention I had a thing for Penance?

The isolated and unattainable Penance was, to me, an embodiment of my own teenage angst as well as my budding feelings for the opposite sex. Was it odd for me to develop a crush on a comic book character who would rip me to ribbons with the slightest embrace? Considering that I read comics, Penance was no more faraway than the flesh and blood girls I went to school with.

I read every issue of Generation X, following the exploits, loves, and lessons of Jubilee, Chamber, and especially Penance, but then, the book's creators left to pursue other projects, and with the introduction of artist Terry Dodson and scribe Larry Hama, the comic went in a radical new direction.

Feeling the need to angst up the yuppie M, Dodson and Hama decided she was actually two sisters who had magically bonded together. Further, while the M known to Generation X readers was truly two sisters, there was a real M, a third sister cursed with scarlet skin by a spell cast by Generation X's arch nemesis Emplate -- also revealed to be the three sisters' brother.


I remember when the whole, meandering M story was revealed. It was the last Generation X book I ever read. I threw the issue down and canceled my subscription. I was appalled. Dodson and Hama's Penance origin not only threw out Lobdell and Bachalo's back story for the character -- the above-mentioned Yugoslavian girl named Yvette bit -- sprinkled throughout Generation X's early issues, but it also replaced it a convoluted, unsatisfied origin explained away in large part with "magic."

Wikipedia tells me that I wasn't alone in my disgust with the Dodson and Hama handling of Penance, the team's new direction leading to reduced readership and the eventual cancellation of the book.

Wikipedia also tells me the Xavier Massachusetts Academy was closed, Banshee, Synch, and Skin were killed, the school's other members went on to join other mutant teams, and the twins masquerading as M ultimately freed their sister from the Penance spell, but that Penance -- an empty body -- remained.

I've been flipping through my comic collection a lot today. I used to love comic books, and re-reading the early issues of Generation X, I still do. But, just as the remaining Generation X members have become members of other X-Men teams, I've grown up myself, gone to college, and become an adult. Still, I've just learned the M-less Penance will be part of the cast of C.B. Cebulski's upcoming The Loners, and Blink, my other comic book girlfriend, is apparently back from the dead. Maybe the kid in me will start to pick up a few comics.

Then, again, I've got a real girlfriend now.

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