I Rule Me: Managing Mental Illness In Simon Spurrier’s ‘X-Men: Legacy’
“The best moments in reading,” Alan Bennett writes in The History Boys, “are when you come across something -- a thought, a feeling, a way of looking at things -- which you had thought special and particular to you. And now, here it is, set down by someone else, a person you have never met, someone even who is long dead. And it is as if a hand has come out, and taken yours.”
These “hands” can be found in any form of literature, from novels to poetry to journalism to, yes, comic books. One such hand reaches forth from the pages of X-Men Legacy, published by Marvel, written masterfully by Simon Spurrier, drawn by various artists and covered to routinely breathtaking effect by Mike Del Mundo. Instead of being an action-packed affair, this book was a character study; a very literal glimpse into the mind of a young man searching for his place in both the mutant world and the world at large.
Legacy concluded its 24-issue run in February. Under previous creative teams and in previous volumes, Legacy focused on the characters Charles Xavier and Rogue. This most recent iteration starred David Haller, the son of Charles Xavier. David, also known as Legion, is one of the world’s most powerful mutants and perhaps its most mentally unstable. He has a near endless range of powers at his disposal, but he’s never been able to control them -- if anything, they've more often controlled him. In the past, he’s been everything from a villain to an ally of the X-Men. In Legacy, he’s simply an extraordinarily powerful, extraordinarily insecure young man trying to find himself.
This quest for kinship, for belonging, has always made the characters in Marvel's X-Men titles uniquely empathetic.
“The X-Men books have always worked for me because the explodo derring-do tends to revolve around matters of social, tribal and racial equality (or, more recently, survival) rather than anything more arbitrarily moralistic,” Spurrier said on his blog. “In the mutant context you can play with politics, justice, car-chases, dragons, space-born monkeyslugs, etc… but it all comes down to ‘the us’ and ‘the them.’ Doesn’t get more elegant than that.”
Spurrier applied this concept on a micro level to Legacy.
Yes, Legacy was about arguably the world’s most powerful mutant trying to find some semblance of control over his unlimited powers before he destroys all of mutantkind. But it was also about a boy coming to terms with the death of his father, dealing with unrealistic expectations set upon him by those who hardly knew him, finding his place in the world, and, perhaps most painfully, falling in love.
The single-character focus of the book prevented it from mirroring current social issues, but that same small focus allowed it to be a parable for more personal afflictions. Because of the presentation of Legion’s powers -- thousands upon thousands of split personalities running amok in his head, trying to control him as he tries to do the same to them -- Legacy couldn't help but be a metaphor for dealing with mental illness.
Both the words and art captured the sensation and struggles of mental illness. Spurrier's writing could shift in a second from whimsical to profound, light-hearted to deadly serious -- eerily similar to racing thoughts or a manic-depressive episode. The art, by Tan Eng Huat, Khoi Pham, and others, was in the best way possible never quite stable. The characters always seemed to slightly swirl, proportions ever-changing.
There’s a scene early on in Legacy in which Legion has finally had enough. He’s done being jerked around and led by others; he's through with not being in control of himself. At that instant, he’s trying to save a girl he’ll eventually fall in love with, while also trying to save himself from being stabbed by a very angry child.
Up to this point, Legion has had trouble controlling his powers.You see, Legion doesn't just have one or two powers -- he has thousands of them, from telepathy to reality-bending to “plasma-explodo-whooshiness” (to quote the character himself). The problem is, every one of those powers manifests itself as a different personality inside his head, and every one of those powers constantly vies for control of Legion’s mind. He’s always had problems controlling them, but given the recent passing of his dad and the resulting psychic trauma, the inmates in Legion’s head are running the psychic asylum. Right now, Legion needs those powers.
In this time of frustration and desperation, Legion concocts a simple, yet powerful mantra that helps him gain control, however momentarily: I Rule Me. This becomes Legion’s war cry, a way for him to access his powers and “drown out the noise,” as he says.
At first, Legion’s ruling style is that of submission and dominance. He literally wrestles with the powers inside his mind, “drugging” them to channel their powers. While it grants Legion temporary control, it exacerbates the adversarial relationship between him and his thousands of personalities. They exist in conflict, rather than harmony.
It’s only when the fate of the entire universe is in peril that Legion sees the error of his ways.
“Tell me: do you know the best way to cure a sickness of the mind?” Legion’s most nefarious personality asks. “You don’t, you idiot. You just find ways to live with it.”
With mental illness, there’s a tendency to think that the disease is the one that rules you. It tells you when you can be happy, when you can be sad -- cruel permissions granted at its behest. But you don’t have to let it rule you. You can stand in defiance of it, reclaim governance of your mind and soul.
This is what Legacy teaches. You may never obliterate the depression or anxiety or whatever else may plague your mind and soul. The truth is, they never disappear; not fully. But they don’t need to. Ruling doesn’t necessarily mean dominating or suppressing, but controlling -- co-existing, while making clear the chain of command.
You rule you.
For those who have yet to reach that realization that they rule themselves, it’s an “a-ha” moment. And for those who have re-established “rule,” it’s the hand that reaches out and takes theirs.
X-Men Legacy is available in collected editions in finer comics shops and bookstores as well as digitally from Marvel Comics.