I’m not going to lie, a few weeks back, I had not the slightest inkling of the emotional sucker-punch I would soon be reeling from, nor that it would be delivered by the medium of animation.

How the hell could a 30-something minute cartoon leave me hollowed out and in a full-blown flood of tears? I was tempted at first to ascribe it to the replacement medication I’ve been taking. The world of neurospicy meds is a merciless beast at present, as many of us know, and the constant changing, trialling and absence of prescriptions can play merry hell with the emotions. On reflection though, a couple of weeks after ‘that’ episode, and barely being able to see even a clip from it without the feeling the gnawing pangs of grief welling up inside me, I finally understand that it is just not that simple.

The hurt wasn’t an after-effect of treatment or a consequence of too many life pressures and not enough sleep, it was because of the nature of the show and two very special characters it contains.

X-Men 97’s debut in March was already enough to get this woke, lefty geek writer excited, but adding fuel to the fires of expectancy was that starring front and centre would be two of my favourite characters, not just in comics but across fiction: Anna Marie and Remy Etienne LeBeau. Rogue and Gambit.

To my teenage son, a bloke in his mid-forties confessing  excitement for a cartoon is a touch on the tragic side but I suspect I am not alone. Thirty years ago, X-Men was essential viewing for a generation, praised by comic book fans for its treatment of beloved characters and by casual viewers for its animation, action and its surprisingly mature emotional intensity. For so many of us, animated Xavier and his team’s fight for peaceful mutant coexistence, against Magneto’s forces and a cavalcade of human intolerance, was not only a gateway to the joy of comics but also a reflection of the bigotry grimly prevalent in the real world. In the UK alone, something as simple as gay marriage was still a long way off from legalisation, and racially motivated hate crime was on the rise when the original show was on our screens. I like to think that some of the advances we’ve made since then are down to shows like X-Men and their emphatic message.

But, sadly, for every step forward humankind has made, there are those that seek to drag us three steps back. Weaponised intolerance and the wilful othering of anyone different have been the hallmarks of too many in politics and punditry in recent years, with the finger of blame feverishly pointed at whichever marginalised group makes the most convenient scapegoat. In the UK and elsewhere, it feels like those three steps back have led us into a downwards spiral. The time was right for the X-Men to return, and, hopefully, inspire us anew to unwind the regression and celebrate, not just accept, that this is a shared world, that should have outgrown the evils of petty prejudice.

At the heart of the returning team are Remy and Anna Marie, who have been in my heart since the first day I met them. Gambit, the Cajun thief from New Orleans, with his dark past, easy charm and charged-card throwing mastery, and Rogue, a southern belle with an inner strength outmatching even her absorbed abilities, and a past as painful as Gambit’s. Two powerful mutants, equally matched in wits, fun and capacity for true heroism, and both on a path to redemption from the lives they once had. If there’s such thing as the perfect comic-book couple, it is these two, their bond as soulmates challenged but never overcome by their inability to physically touch. Their partnership is romantic, tragic and above all, the perfect example of the truth behind Virgil’s ancient maxim: love conquers all.

Maybe I’m waxing too lyrical for some, but this pairing has generated a whole lot of love in each iteration of their characters. Gambit and Rogue are difficult to get right, and while I adore the performances of Anna Paquin and Taylor Kitsch in the various cinematic instalments, and their beautiful takes on the roles, for me, the characters have never been better realised than in the original 90s series and its sequel. Lenore Zann simply is Rogue. A phenomenally talented voice artist, Lenore imbues her gloriously animated character with such depth of emotion, conflict and personality that she can have you laugh out loud and bring you to tears in the turn of a scene. Likewise, A.J LoCascio, who has inherited the role of the Ragin’ Cajun from the equally marvellous Chris Potter, from his first line, is Gambit through and through. With every word, A.J makes us feel the duality of his character, giving us an outwardly confident hero, refusing to allow his pain to be seen by anyone but the woman who knows his heart. The lady’s man, inwardly agonising over the fear of losing the lady he loves. Lenore and A.J inhabit Rogue and Gambit so perfectly, it’s as if the characters themselves are speaking to us out of the pages of a comic.

And I think, maybe, this is why a lot of us, a hell of a lot of us if social media is anything to go by, are feeling the pain with our favourite couple’s journey in this new, phenomenally produced season. Throughout my life I’ve struggled, like many of us do, to fit in or feel comfortable with people, and one way of dealing with that was emotionally connecting with fictional characters. I don’t see myself as cool, mysterious or heroic like Gambit and Rogue, but I always connected with the emotional journey they went through, and I think that’s another aspect of the pair I’m not alone in identifying with. We rooted for them, in the series and comics, wanting them to overcome their challenges, their pains, their struggles and make it through the other side. Not necessarily in a parasocial sense, although I certainly understand the temptation to fall in love a fictional character, but perhaps more as an allegory, and what it means for our own difficulties. We love characters whose pains reflect our own, and there are plenty of those to be found in the world of X-Men.

Comic writers over the years seem to have derived a perverse pleasure in torturing Rogue and Gambit and vicariously, their fans. Each time the pair caught a break, their happiness would be dashed a few issues later in a tumult of trauma, frustration and rage. Heartbreaks followed kisses, dark secrets demolished trust, longed-for normal lives would be disrupted and conflicting, short-term attractions and flirtations with others would get in the way, with readers silently screaming for them to be given a rest from perpetual angst.

No matter how deep the hurt or how great the challenge, though, the pair always found their way back to each other, not letting even death get in their way.

When finally, comic fiction’s greatest couple (sue me, they are) married a few years back, the challenges didn’t end, after all, is any long-term relationship obstacle free? What their union did do, however, was solidify the importance of another ancient wisdom: faith, hope and love. Remy & Anna Marie have faith in each other, hope for a better future and steadfast belief in the strength of their love. That’s a message we need to permeate in the world now more than ever.

Without giving anything away for those who haven’t seen the series yet, Gambit and Rogue’s X-Men 97 journey is profound, and it hits from different angles depending on how you’re approaching the show. New viewers will be in pieces. Casual viewers from the 90’s who have dipped in to revisit childhood memories might even feel betrayed. Those of us who, mock me if you will, felt of the characters as friends and who continued those friendships in the comics will have felt an ominous sinking feeling as we saw how things were starting to pan out. We’ve been here before. Do we really have to go through it again?

The answer is, yes, of course. And not just because we’ve had the benefit of reading Remy and Anna Marie’s triumphs and defeats over many years, but because pain and sadness are essential, unavoidable aspects of life. Without them, love and happiness mean somehow less. X-Men, as a comic, a film series or a show, has never shied away from exposing the brutal reality that evil exists and it damn well hurts. Pain will come in life for me, for you and everyone we know and love. But it’s how we react to that pain, and those challenges that keep us moving forward so that hopefully, when it’s time for us to leave, we’ve helped make things a bit better than when we got here. We can’t cheer on the X-Men’s victories if we don’t feel the depths of their defeats alongside them.

The pace of the show is something else and huge comic storylines are picked up and resolved in a fraction of the time allowed for in comic world. That’s right and natural when telling tales in different media, but it does mean that things don’t always happen as you might expect them to, and comic lore, though inspiring the tales here is by no means religiously followed. There is no guarantee that season 2 or 3 (or 24, 25, 26…) of X-Men 97 will see our beloved Gambit and Rogue together, their cats in tow and wedding rings on their fingers, as we’ll find them in the comics, but whatever happens, we’ll feel every step of their journey with them.

I’m reminded though that one thing you should never underestimate is love. And what says love more than a card-throwing Cajun who could make anyone in the multiverse swoon but who stays by the side of the one person who, though she holds his heart, cannot touch his skin? Or a one-time runaway, who rejected the dark path she walked, and who literally dragged that same Cajun’s soul back from the gates of Heaven, to make sure they had their chance together?

Something tells me there’s more to come for our Anna Marie and Remy. Now, I really must book that tattoo…