I was 10 years old in 1993, the year X-Men Unlimited #7 was released. This was when you could still buy comics at gas stations, before the direct market completely took hold and prevented young kids like me in rural areas from discovering them. My dad and I were driving to visit family an hour north of where we lived, and, on the way we stopped at a convenience store. He asked if I wanted something to drink, but I was already standing in front of the comic rack, flipping through the issues on the stand. I asked if I could have a comic instead. He conceded, and I grabbed the one that stood out the most.
I've been reading comics for as long as I can remember. Even as a small child, there were little stacks of Archie Digest, Hot Stuff and Uncle Scrooge all around the house. I lived in what could politely be termed as “the middle of nowhere,” so anything anyone sent to me was rapidly devoured by my eager brain. What was it that made this comic stand out? What changed my vague interest in comics to a full-fledged obsession overnight?
In a word? Storm.
The cover of X-Men Unlimited #7 is a drawing of Storm by John Romita Jr, who does the interior art of the issue as well. She has her head thrown back against the wind, her fist in the air, and lightning flashes all around her. I had never seen anyone that looked even remotely like her. The incredibly white bread characters in Archie couldn't hold a candle to a character like Storm.
For those unaware, Ororo Monroe's parents were killed in a bombing when she was a small child and she was trapped in the rubble with their bodies for days, which led to a lifelong fear of tight, enclosed spaces. Claustrophobia is her Kryptonite, more or less. After she freed herself she wandered the streets, lost and alone. The thief Achmed El-Gibar, who runs a very Charles Dickensian crew of child pickpockets, adopts Storm, and she becomes his most prized pupil. Eventually tiring of the thieving lifestyle, Storm ultimately leaves Achmed's crew to be worshipped as a goddess. That, however, is a story for another day.
In this particular issue, the story begins with Storm, Jean Grey and Gambit arriving in Cairo to find Storm's old mentor, who is dying. A young girl named Karima steals Jean Grey's wallet, only to find herself face-to-face with the three X-Men. Storm demands the girl deliver a message to El-Gibar that she is in town and wishes to see him. The villain Candra also arrives with a plan to steal away El-Gibar's young ward, a boy named Jamil with a terrible attitude problem. When Storm shows up at El-Gibar's doorstep, Jamil threatens her with a fight to the death. She knocks him to the side and enters anyway, commiserating with her old mentor on his deathbed in what is actually a really touching scene. The party is broken up by Candra, all of which ultimately culminates in a majestic fight scene - which Storm ends by just popping her one upside the head. It is AMAZING.
When I first got this comic, I went home and read the issue, then read it again, then read it again. Every time I dove into it, I came back out with more questions. I was officially obsessed.
Upon reading the issue again for this piece, a few things stuck out to me that I had missed before. To begin with, I have never been a fan of Gambit. Reading this issue as an adult 24 years later, I can completely understand why I was turned off by him from the start. He spends most of the issue talking down to Jean Grey. Jean and Storm are my two favorite X-Men, so his presence in this issue where he mansplains how to walk around a city to Jean, then perpetually antagonizes her and pretends that she isn't literally the most powerful X-Man of all time, really grinds on me.
I've often been asked how I can reconcile my feminism with superhero comics, which so consistently objectify women. In this issue, my introduction to superhero comics, the women weren't particularly objectified. Again and again in this story, we see the female characters as not only more powerful, but much more wily than the male characters. The times when Gambit condescends to Jean Grey, she not only proves herself far more powerful than he, but delivers this incredible line, “Don't speak down to me, Gambit. I was an X-Man while you were still robbing houses for a living.” Romita Jr. has a solid history of not drawing the women in objectifying poses, and all the female characters are fully clothed from head to toe throughout the issue. This issue also passes the Bechdel Test, unlike so many superhero comics. You see Storm stand up for Jean Grey when Gambit insults her, and Jean holds Storm and talks her through her crisis with patience and love. The female friendships in X-Men are some of the best in fiction, and it is always a delight to read interactions between Storm and Jean. X-Men is well-regarded for its friendships, from Nightcrawler and Wolverine to Beast and Iceman, but my friendship ship of comics is undoubtedly these two:
The complicated nature of the X-Men, while a turn-off for many, is what initially dragged me into the comic. Candra appears with no clear explanation of who she is or why she's there. Gambit alludes repeatedly to his past with her, which is likewise not explained. Besides that, the character of Jamil, introduced in this issue, has made only a few appearances in X-Men since, but his story grows into a convoluted mess in those few brief appearances. We discover that he actually doesn't exist, and that it is the young girl Karima who created him with her own psychic energies. Every throwaway X-Men character, appearing for only an issue or two, seems to have their own bizarre and convoluted backstory. As a child, it was this maze of characters and plot points that helped to seal my fate as a young nerd.
What makes this comic most important to me is that, at the time, I was a kid that was reeling from trauma in my early life. X-Men Unlimited #7 very explicitly revolves around a young woman who was traumatized at a very young age, but who overcame her fears and eventually came to be known as a hero. There wasn't anything like this in my world at the time, given that most culture that made its way to rural Missouri consisted of horror films, sit-coms, and romantic comedies. For me, the X-Men were so important, and Storm especially, because she was getting over a dark past but she comes out through all of it a hero. As a kid and as an adult, I want to heal, and I want to be a good person. X-Men was something that I clung to because, even if it was fictional, it helped show me that it was possible to rise above your pain and be a better person for it.