As a kid, I didn’t know anyone else like me. My parents got divorced when I was 4, and I only saw my father for 1 week a year if he decided to drive across the country (spoiler: he stopped deciding to when I was ~11). The only piece of him I got to hold onto (and the only piece I really wanted to) was my ancestry. Through his side of the family, I am Cajun and Cherokee. That meant everything to me. Most of my young life, I felt pretty “unspecial”. From elementary school forward, I got picked on, bullied, and abused almost everyday. I went to a small 99.9% white school in rural Wisconsin, and being even a little different made things difficult. But despite the racial slurs and insults (among countless other affronts), I remained proud of what I was: Cajun, Cherokee, and German (from my mom’s side).
Being picked on isolates you, especially when part of what you’re being attacked for is looking different from everyone else. And don’t get me wrong, I don’t look that different. I know that innumerable others have suffered so much more than I have because of something so superficial as appearance. But I suffered nonetheless, finding myself desperately lonely though I could pretend to be happy with terrific aplomb. From within that loneliness, I took solace in fiction.
I read voraciously almost every day. I loved it all: classics, literary, sci-fi, fantasy, and comic books, too. From amidst the pages of the latter, I found something special: Forge.
I’m going to take a wild guess that most of you don’t know who I’m referring to. Birth name unknown, Forge is the preferred name of a mutant that first appeared in the mid-80s and later joined the X-Men in time for my childhood. His story has always been rather convoluted, if I’m being honest, but that didn’t matter to me as a kid. What mattered were two incredible aspects of his character that I will never forget:
1: Forge’s mutant power is a gift of invention or intuitive genius. Imagine the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s Tony Stark, Bruce Banner, and Shuri combined; someone that can one day wake up perfectly understanding how to create time travel or infinite clean energy. In short, Forge was smart. He spoke intelligently and other characters went to him in order to get the newest equipment or create a new technology that could save the day.
2: Forge comes from the Cheyenne nation. In fact, an enormous part of his backstory revolves around his being trained to become a traditional healer (sometimes called “medicine man”) but taking a different path due to his mutant gifts.
Forge meant so much to me. He was NOT the most popular X-Man. Not even close, but his existence felt so incredibly special because he was Native American. Just like me. I had (and have) no tribal affiliation. I don’t connect with that side of my family. I didn’t know anyone else that felt the same as I did. But Forge was out of place, too. He never fit into the situation, and flowed through countless storylines like a ghost on the battlefield. Even better, he was smart. Part of why I got bullied so mercilessly in school was for trying hard in classes. I needed to do well, so I pushed myself. I answered questions in class and did all the homework. I was smart, just like Forge…a hero who fought with the X-Men.
As a child, you don’t know that you’re dealing with anxiety and grief and depression. You can’t understand those terms or the greater concepts to which they allude. You just feel wrong, and search for anything to make it feel even a little better.
So many children today don’t look like most of the heroes on TV or in movies or in books (comic or otherwise). They get picked on for their appearance or for being smart or for any other thing that makes them seem different, even though those differences are ultimately what makes each of us beautiful. Having a hero that mirrors ourselves back to us can make a world of difference. It bridges the gap between depression and courage, reminding us that we are not forgotten.
To myself as a child, Forge proved that being smart and Native American were as cool as I told myself they were. His existence helped me justify my own, when I felt like nothing.
That’s why we need diverse characters. Not to “cater to liberal interests” or “comfort snowflakes,” but to remind every child that they have value and are not forgotten. That no matter who they are, they can be a hero if they want to be. I may not be a part of the X-Men like Forge, but I’m trying to be a hero by writing books that feature diverse characters. My newest novel, Iri and the Spirit World, features and celebrates a 16-year-old Native American girl who takes on the most difficult challenges her unique world has to offer. She comes from a culture of people like her: people with rich, tan skin and a society different than our own.
I hope more than anything that my Iri can help even one child feel less alone. That would make all of the effort in the world worthwhile.
Thanks for reading!
If there are any characters that helped you like Forge helped me, please let me know in the comments below or on Twitter.
And if anyone was curious, my second favorite X-Man was the Cajun, Gambit.