The following is a guest post by Chris M. Arnone
Junior high school is a difficult time for everyone. If you’re a boy, you have hair growing in new places, unfathomable odors wafting from your body, and acne turning your face into a whitehead minefield. With all the hormones raging, some boys shoot up big and strong, while others stay trapped in little-boy bodies for a while longer. The bigger and faster they grow, the more they seem to want to fight. Being a boy in seventh grade is a gauntlet of body chemistry and fists.
For me, junior high school was most of the above, except I hadn’t shot up tall yet and I was never all that strong. I was, and have always been, the nerdy guy. Getting picked on and bullied was a daily concern for me, especially when gym class came around.
There wasn’t a lot of money growing up for my friends or me. Video games were still in their awkward teenage stage and their cost seemed enormous for those of us that didn’t get an allowance just for being a kid. I remember having all of five games for the Nintendo and most of them were terrible. I had a bicycle, excellent reading comprehension, and a comic book store in easy peddling distance. $20 could get you pretty far when issues only ran $1.25 plus the price of a Slurpee. No boy can bicycle past a 7-11 without buying a Slurpee, after all.
Best of all, I had my friend Lloyd and our shared love of the X-Men. This was the early 1990’s, when comics were printing and selling at unbelievable numbers. Todd MacFarlane and Spawn were on top of the world, Michael Keaton was playing Batman at the movies, and there were Avengers on both coasts. Jim Lee was drawing X-Men, which had just launched its new series (who doesn’t still have at least three variant covers of that #1 issue?) and to our pubescent minds, it was the epitome of awesome.
Lloyd’s favorite character was Cyclops and his comic book collection was always terribly impressive to me. Looking back, it comprised maybe two shortboxes, but it was amazing. All of my comic books fit in a shoebox, literally. My favorite character quickly became Havok: the younger, more powerful, but less popular brother of Cyclops. Our favorite characters became our nicknames for each other for most of our seventh-grade year. We bought and shared the books. We collected the trading cards (yes, kids, there were Marvel trading cards back then and they were epic).
The X-Men brought us together, but the trials of junior high school made us more like brothers. I was skinny and a target for bullies. He was athletic and stood up for me, physically intervening on my behalf more than once. He was on the verge of running with the wrong crowd, but I was his nerdy, straight-A, clean-nosed friend. When the temptations of his other, unsavory “friends” came calling, we could just hide out in his basement or my bedroom and talk about Gambit and Wolverine taking down a Sentinel. We would contrast the romances of Cyclops and Jean Grey against Havok and Polaris. We mourned Multiple Man together in X-Factor #100. We ogled the art of Joe Madureira and the words of Chris Claremont.
He stayed in school and out of juvenile detention. I made it through my seventh grade year without a black eye. We both mowed lawns and shoveled snow from driveways with more enthusiasm than was natural for a couple of young boys. Those comic books and cards weren’t paying for themselves.
Over the summer between seventh and eighth grades, Lloyd moved to Atlanta. We didn’t speak again until years later, when social media made such things possible. Adulthood has changed us both. He has a couple kids, which severely dips into the comic book budget. I gravitate more toward creator-owned books than spandex and superpowers now.
He’s told me stories of the real-life racism he’s dealt with and survived, of being run off the road by a truckload of Confederate Flag-waving rednecks. I’ve lived the privileged life of a white, heterosexual male in America. Our lives are quite different now and the world sees us in starkly different ways, but for that one year of junior high school, we were just a couple pubescent comic book nerds. After all, Cyclops can only see shades of red through his ruby quartz visor, not black or white.