Like the concussive force beams that fire continuously from my eyes (hypothetically), the 24-hour news cycle is both a blessing and a curse. Propelled by the immediacy of social networks, we have unprecedented access to news no matter how material or mundane. Of course, said news is delivered and consumed by human beings, whose ambitions are often in direct competition with their attention spans. We’re all guilty of this. It’s the race to first place; whether to break the news, or the rush to judge in its aftermath. Very quickly it begins to feel like a race to the bottom.
What’s getting lost is thoughtful consideration of the information being presented. Lost because this can come only with time; time to digest and to reflect. Time is a luxury we are rarely afforded, a sad commentary that has become old hat. I’m paying lip service to this state of affairs in light of the revelation from All-New X-Men #40 that original X-Man Bobby Drake, aka Iceman, is gay. It’s an understated, straightforward disclosure that raises a ton of questions – and with the issue hitting shelves just last Wednesday, there’s not been an abundance of time to process the implications.
Funny enough, my first thought was, “Why are we only now hearing about this?!” Oh no, not in the context of the preceding 50-plus years of the character’s publication history. I mean why wasn’t it known well in advance of the issue divulging the details? Don’t the publishers like to get comfortably out in front of such “bombshells?” Did I miss the big press release? That was the case in Marvel’s handling of the massive shake-ups on Thor and Captain America last year. As a longstanding supporting player, Iceman’s profile isn’t on that scale – but he is nonetheless a Lee/Kirby original and visible presence since his creation in 1963. Why, there was nary a peep from foremost comics industry news outlet The View! Marvel eschewed widespread publicity, with the leaked (or “leaked” ?) pages first making the rounds outside of mainstream sources and less than 24 hours before the book went on sale.
That’s fitting, given writer Brian Michael Bendis’ subsequent Tweet:
i swear on my dogs, i wanted the issue to come out and just be. no press. no sensational headlines. no leaks. oh, well.
— BRIAN MICHAEL BENDIS (@BRIANMBENDIS) April 21, 2015
There’s no way that was going to happen, but I’m astonished that the reality came as close as it did. As these things go (and as they should), Bobby’s coming out was as a decidedly low-key event. The great Thor gender flip of 2014 felt a lot more calculated by comparison. I still defended Marvel’s objectives then as fundamentally pure. In contrast, sensationalizing such an intimate, deeply personal story as Bobby’s would have felt icky. I once again find myself in the position of giving Marvel a pat on the back, this time for knowing the difference and exercising restraint.
I guess that’s all to say I’m part of the problem, weighing in before we’ve begun to scratch the surface here. I didn’t plan to. Truly, I didn’t (lest I garner a reputation as some kind of self-appointed authority on all things hot-button in Marvel Comics). I was slightly feeling the pull out of a sense of obligation, sure, but that’s usually a shitty motive to do anything. No, I was with Bendis – let this speak for itself. And then I read some comments online.
I keep telling myself not to do that.
Insular fan communities have a tendency to attract the very best and worst of humanity. The online chatter closes in like a fish bowl and can warp the noblest intentions, sapping both spirit and sanity. This go-round… hasn’t been too bad, actually. Some of it has been downright polite and sensible. Huh. I’m not so filled with righteous anger as I am mild annoyance and occasional confusion. If there’s one term I would use to describe the naysayers, it’s “tone deaf” – far from the most damning appraisal.
Be that as it may, the thoughts just kept percolating. You know how it goes. Inevitably I found myself with a need to put it all somewhere. The first reason for breaking my (half-hearted) vow of silence is admittedly self-indulgent and easy to articulate. The rest of it is rather more complex and touchy. I do seem to be in good company, which is reassuring. And in keeping with the subject of this piece, I will do my level best to maintain my cool over the course of a civil, contemplative discussion.
For starters, All-New X-Men #40 gives me an excuse to talk about X-Men. Let me make clear, given the option to talk about X-Men or literally any other topic, I will choose X-Men, all day, every day I draw breath. More pointedly, it allows me to talk about Iceman, one of my favorite underappreciated (and underutilized) characters. The exploration of this character’s sexuality speaks directly to what I am predominantly drawn to in X-Men as a concept. Realistically, there was no sitting this out.
When you mull over what exactly the X-Men are about, it goes something like: “Mutants. Feared and hated by a populace they are sworn to protect,” et cetera, et cetera. People born different, yet making the best of the cards they were dealt. Handily, “mutant” has been used as a stand-in for nearly any real-life persecuted outgroup. Where this becomes thorny is when the metaphor gets latched to a specific minority. We can certainly look to the stories from the ‘60s as having some parallels with the civil rights movement. In fact, Professor Xavier and Magneto perfectly line up with Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X!
That is, except for all the times when they don’t, or outright contradict said reading, which is frequent. The analogy is a well-worn cliche, but it’s always struck me as reductionist. And trivializing. And gross. It’s a bit of a pet peeve.
Alright, so, mutants aren’t a proxy for African Americans. They’re totally gay people. Yep, X-Men is definitely about the gays. The team even hung out in San Francisco in the ‘80s where they got along a lot better and later dealt with a deadly mutant virus that (badly) mirrored the AIDS panic of the early ‘90s. Replace the word “mutant” with “homosexual” and there you have it.
It’s not that I’m trying to be snarky or contrarian, merely drawing attention to the tightrope X-Men must walk in adhering to the outsider allegory. Narrow the focus too precisely, and it resonates with one group to the exclusion of all others; go too broad and, well… that’s courting an entirely different problem. If mutants are a catch-all for any person who has ever felt “othered” in daily existence, then what’s the point in having any true diversity within their ranks? Why do we need black mutants, gay mutants, or Hispanic mutants? They’re mutants, that’s what makes them different! And… the same! Because we’re all still human, and isn’t that the takeaway? It may sound terribly precious, but such a rationale isn’t far removed from various historical periods when it was deeply unfashionable to depict particularly maligned groups – or practically anyone not cut from a prototypical WASP cloth – in American mass media. This line of thinking doesn’t have to be so institutionalized though. It may simply betray a well-meaning, yet Pollyannaish attitude towards inclusiveness. One need not actively espouse bigoted views for them to inform his beliefs, borne of limited life experience and a homogeneous background.
Damned if you do, damned if you don’t, then, in putting forth mutants as a metaphor. I don’t regard that as a conceptual weakness, however. The willingness to navigate these extremes actually makes for a more fascinating reading. It’s just a difficult quality to use in encapsulating the message of the X-Men as a whole, due to unevenness in depiction throughout the years.
Peel back every layer and the soul of X-Men, to me, is the notion of identity. Not so much what it means to be a member of some one-size-fits-all “other,” but what being a Native American; a homosexual; a teenager; a Muslim; a mutant – or any number or combination of other descriptors – means to the individual. The labels one claims and the labels one discards, they’re all fair game. Rather than flattening the stories of everyone born different under a blanket generalization, the study of identity absolutely values and requires the contributions of individuals in all of the ways they define themselves. The dimensions that make up identity are remarkable, and as myriad as there are people. Indeed, the malleable role of identity, even in opposition to the characteristics we cannot change, is downright poetic. A healthy sense of self and personal identity certainly does not preclude empathy or the search for common ground with others; on the contrary, the ever-changing nature of identity is critical to appreciating the nuances of human interaction. I can think of no better antidote for narrow-mindedness than knowing this wondrous truth of sentient existence.
So yeah, that’s what I get out of X-Men. A journey a self-discovery that never really ends. Neither turning a blind eye to the reality of prejudice, nor permanently painting oneself into the corner of a given demographic cohort. Labels exist, but only to the extent that the individual finds them useful in defining her identity. In the fictional tapestry of the Marvel Universe, being a mutant entails different things to different people. So too does being gay. Moreover, it might entail different things to the same person over time. Bobby Drake’s story offers the potential to examine that evolution in a kind of time-lapse human photography.
Now, Iceman’s coming out (and I’m using that as a shorthand for now) includes something of a caveat, and I suppose this is as good a time as any to call attention to that fact. I have previously lamented the tendency of publishers to couch major changes behind derivative echoes of their iconic characters. Spider-Man is now a black Hispanic teenager, except oh wait, it’s not the “real” Spider-Man. Green Lantern is gay, no, no, the other guy. Not to disparage the characters I’m alluding to, but you know the drill. It lets the companies have it both ways, grabbing headlines whilst preserving the “integrity” of the original characters. On the one hand, we can say this move has that same cynical stink. The Bobby Drake coming out is among the five time-displaced founding X-Men, scooped out of the past and dropped into the present-day, because… hey. Comics. His adult counterpart, the Bobby Drake we know and love, co-exists with history intact, and is thus far oblivious to this latest wrinkle.
Anyone uninitiated may understandably need a breather to absorb all of that. What’s peculiar about the fledgling, time-lost X-Men’s situation is that they both are and aren’t the same characters as we view them today. Upon arrival in the present, their histories and personalities were identical to those of the X-Men proper – but truncated. As they’ve spent longer and longer divorced from what the timeline says they should be doing at this juncture, they have grown in markedly different directions. The thinking holds that a mind wipe and ticket back to their proper place in the chronology will close that loop, but it is becoming increasingly difficult to justify on both moral and practical grounds.
The original X-Men’s adventures in the present day exemplify the persistent nature versus nature debate. In the real world, our framework is limited to hereditary and cultural factors, but in a universe where time travel occurs with alarming regularity, there’s an optional road to take. To what extent is our make-up preordained, whether by genes or by fate, and to what extent can we change what awaits? I know where I stand, but there are social drivers in addition to the creative endeavors that Marvel will have to responsibly address.
Iceman’s coming out at 15 is one of the many, many things that was not “supposed” to happen in the X-Men’s formative years. This is hard to write off as an alternate-universe Bobby whose character holds no bearing for the present-day Iceman. Genetically, these characters are indistinguishable. There is a tension between nature and nurture, sure; sexuality is undoubtedly pushed and pulled by seminal events. But the biological aspect shouldn’t vanish via the magic of time travel. That facet of sexuality seems like it ought to be an unbroken thread winding throughout any temporal duplicate of a given character across the time stream.
Brian Michael Bendis has confirmed that Bobby’s younger self coming out will absolutely have ramifications for both iterations of the character. While it sounds like quite the mindbender, this makes it all the more intriguing to me where Bendis is steering the story. The time travel wonkiness buys him some latitude, but there are definitely routes he can take in utilizing that component to the maximum advantage of the plot rather than as a security blanket. Bendis hasn’t obligated himself to any one outcome so far; if he’s careful, he can convincingly reconcile both Bobby Drakes past and present through a number of satisfying solutions. With so such of the story still up in the air, it would be premature to condemn as more of the same with respect to the handling.
I must say, the scene itself greatly plays to Bendis’ strengths as a writer. Bobby doesn’t so much come out as he is called out. Jean Grey, having heard one juvenile remark too many from her teammate, discreetly pulls Bobby aside and casually throws the “revelation” in his face as a bit of a passive aggressive take-that. If anything, it comes off more as an indictment against Jean’s continued, casual invasion of her friends’ private thoughts through the unscrupulous use of her telepathy. She poses it as though Bobby’s nonstop mental broadcasting made it impossible for her not to know, but her behavior is problematic all the same. It’s worth noting that the unethical usage of powers angle is a deliberate characterization by Bendis that looks to be reaching some kind of catharsis. More importantly, Jean does appear to be coming from a genuine place of concern for her friend. Her approach could do with some finesse, but she made her point by letting on why exactly she didn’t find Bobby’s sexist comments to be at all sincere. Ultimately, these are super-powered kids trying to find their way in the world and having a painfully awkward conversation. They get a pass. Plus, tired though you may be of seeing the ubiquitous panels that comprise the scene, credit to penciler Mahmud Asrar. He nails the body language, turning in figures that slip hand-in-glove into Bendis’ script. It is such a synergistic marriage of writer and artist. As the execution goes, I dig.
Depending on who you talk to, there’s either a wealth of canonical support for this development, or none at all. As originally envisioned, Iceman was obviously a traditional example of the American superhero – white, male, and straight. Not because these attributes were especially informative of his character, but due to the fact that any alternative was sadly unthinkable in 1963. Consequently, the “not what Stan would’ve wanted” dispute holds no water here. Scrutinizing more substantive evidence over the years gives us.. still not a lot to go on, to be honest. There’s no smoking gun, and even the subtext is pretty inconclusive. There are moments that can be taken as innuendo or clues, but the same can be said for any decades-old character confronted with internal, existential struggles. The “always there” basis for Iceman’s closeted sexuality is circumstantial, amounting to: a history of troubled relationships with women, clashes with a cartoonishly bigoted father, crippling self-doubt giving rise to an inferiority complex, and a tendency to deflect with humor. I’m not saying it’s nothing, but I mean… welcome to superhero comics. All this is to say I don’t think Iceman’s characterization conveyed an intent by any previous writer or regime to reassert him as anything other than heterosexual. Up until now, readings to the contrary have seemed like more fanon than canon.
I’ll concede that Scott Lobdell might have been going somewhere in the ‘90s, but mainly it felt like any hints dropped into the writing made for a convenient red herring in service of an entirely different end goal (which went unfulfilled all the same). This, again, illustrates the risk in presenting mutants as the generic metaphor. Write a tale that approximates the experience of coming out, but arrive at a separate destination and it is inevitably going to result in some disappointment within the readership. Ah, but isn’t the moral of the story that we’re essentially talking about the same thing? What’s important is the journey, right? Eh, not necessarily. Not when you’re dealing with an incredibly charged and delicate issue that the audience has a huge investment in seeing through to a very specific closure. It’s stringing people along on subterfuge – despite technically sticking with the supposed motif of the series – then yanking the rug out. There ought to be a better way.
Framing Bobby’s coming out as the payoff to of some long-simmering subplot is a tad disingenuous. That said, the underlying show-don’t-tell principle at work in the most effective character-driven storytelling stipulates that anything not explicitly spelled out is open for interpretation. On that level, these things are whatever the audience makes of them. There’s an element of “reading too much” into the stories, but there is likewise the matter of Marvel playing coy with a popular fan theory for years. Iceman coming to terms with his sexuality in a fashion that was not previously acknowledged negates none of his history. It is not an invention of whole cloth since plenty of readers independently came to the same conclusion long before the publication of All-New X-Men #40. It’s refreshing to see what I’ve always held to be a teasing (and borderline insensitive) running joke officially adopted as a means of legitimately livening up a chronically stale character. That’s to say nothing of the artistic choices in how this new set-up is being explored in-universe, which I find tremendously more compelling than any mangled earlier attempts to communicate the idea subliminally.
To those who insist that Iceman “going gay” invalidates his opposite-sex relationships, I must stress: that’s not how it works. Bobby can be attracted to men. He can also be attracted to women. He can be exclusively attracted to men, but have meaningful, loving relationships with women. Anyone who has similarly experienced a process of growth will attest that there’s nothing phony or superficial about such complex interpersonal dynamics. The sentiments are very, very real. All of Bobby’s romantic interactions, even if hetero-centric, should be taken as earnest and significant in shaping his identity.
Sexual orientation – who we are attracted to – lies far outside the domain of conscious decision-making. Sexual identity, though – how we think of our sexuality – that’s up for grabs. These can flow on separate continuums and be quite fluid over time. If one cannot perceive a difference between the two, look at it like this: a person’s sexuality is a not a choice, but so what if it was? That person is whatever he identifies as. Imposing any conflicting external evaluation is ignorant, disrespectful, and asinine.
These issues are woefully misunderstood or rejected altogether in the world we live in. They are virtually nonexistent from the standard tropes of superhero comics. Science fiction, however, offers a singularly unique opportunity to simultaneously explore, educate, and entertain. The mode through which Bobby’s sexuality is being – expanded, shall we say – enables the character to literally have a conversation with himself. It’s the old thought experiment, “what would you say to 15-year-old you, if given the chance?” made manifest. This invites the kind of discussions that regrettably do not get the time of day, in fiction or in reality. Discussions about being gay, or straight, or bi – or all of the above. Truly that is an extraordinary and unprecedented realm of possibility for the genre.
Not to get lost in idle speculation, but there’s all sorts of avenues this can take. Maybe adult Bobby recognizes in his younger self all that he could have been under different circumstances, and is inspired to embrace feelings he has long repressed and denied. Then again, it is conceivable that he will not consider himself beholden to dogmatic statements made by a version of himself at a very different stage in his life – or even necessarily see teenage Bobby as an extension of his being. That would draw a line under the two Bobbys as distinct, equally valid individuals, setting them on their separate respective paths. While tragically true to form, it would be narratively cheap to end the story on such an underwhelming note. Let’s also not rule out the possibility that the resolution lies somewhere in the middle.
The great thing about the human condition is that we don’t have to declare a major when it comes to our sexual identities. If we do, we can change it without prior approval. No big deal. Iceman’s current arc looks to tackle this prerogative by demonstrating that the manner in which an individual goes about expressing himself at one point in time does not irrefutably speak for his future, or vice-versa. He is, in Jean’s estimation, “full gay,” though we can’t exactly consider her an authority on the subject. That might suit this Bobby well – insofar as “full straight” comprehensively describes the adult Bobby’s perspective. It’s Bobby alone who will come to terms with and try on the labels as he pleases, deciding which fit and which do not.
I think partly why many fans perceived an ambiguity to Iceman’s sexuality and so badly wanted it to lead to something definitive is because he has perpetually come across as frustratingly one-dimensional. It’s puzzling that this still holds true for a character with such longevity. Inertia has so dogged his existence that it eventually had to be incorporated as an actual trait – the underachieving class clown who never grew up. Despite being a fixture since the Silver Age, there’s always been a piece missing, holding Iceman back from being fully realized. For some, any conclusion short of a total reinvention of adult Bobby’s sexual identity would be a bait-and-switch. It’s an argument that’s not without weight. The ride itself does promise to be plenty thought-provoking and worthwhile on its own. But if it amounts to an extended detour circling adult Iceman back to where he started, that would be a wasted opportunity to complete the portrait of Bobby Drake. There are enough characters in comics as it is leading conventional (or nonexistent) sex lives, so introducing some flexibility into Bobby’s would go a long way towards differentiating him and escaping the dead end he’s been stuck in creatively. There’s no good reason not to do it.
My views on the topic are unavoidably shaded by a degree of bias. As a queer reader myself, this hits pretty close to home. For all the deconstruction and psychoanalysis, what I found at the end of the day was a scene that made comics feel a little more inclusive. It incrementally nudges Marvel towards resembling the universe where I reside. Hasn’t that consistently been cited as the company’s competitive advantage? Reading All-New X-Men #40 brightened my day ever so slightly, during a time when that has been particularly difficult (for reasons not germane to this article). But that’s a pleasant bonus. I am, decidedly at this point in my life, a grown-ass man. That the scene was able to strike such a chord with me gives hope that it will be many orders of magnitude more beneficial to the readers in a position to get the most out of it.
If you believe something is being taken away from you in Bobby’s coming out: nope, sorry. I won’t hear of it. This isn’t for you. It’s for the kids who, like Bobby, are scared out of their minds and walling themselves in. Doubting every action and impulse because the overwhelming message they receive is that their feelings are sick and wrong. Fear, shame, and isolation make for a lethal concoction – especially in a child who has not yet honed the coping skills and lacks the resources to combat these destructive forces. While homosexuality is less-stigmatized in contemporary society, growing up gay still makes for an unfathomably lonely childhood. This is why positive portrayals of LGBT people in the arts are so vital. For some kids, it’s the only source of validation they’re going to get. Bobby’s coming out, much as I applaud it, doesn’t speak precisely to my experience. It can’t possibly speak to everyone’s. Nevertheless, it’s a light in the darkness, and that is far better than none at all. Its power to help anyone feeling lost and hurt fuels the demand for more stories of this kind, spanning the range of experiences and emotions in coming out.
“Changing” the sexual orientation of an established character is always controversial, with critics suggesting that comics publishers should do a better job of creating new queer characters as the answer that will make everybody happy. And yes, let’s do that – not in lieu of, but in addition to. Sadly, the market isn’t at all conducive to getting any new characters off the ground these days. Perseverance is important, but new characters almost invariably fall to the margins and wallow in obscurity. It’s impossible to rely on brand new heroes and titles as the exclusive channel for diversifying the line. Visibility is key to representation, so releasing a book headlined by a new gay protagonist which no one reads (irrespective of its quality) – or is cancelled midstream – won’t cut it.
Fact is, the established characters command enormous cultural cache and staying power. Iceman is a founding member of a classic comic book superhero team whose global popularity and recognition is second only to the Avengers. This distinction means that his coming out has instantaneously repositioned Iceman as the most talked-about character in all of comics, even in spite of his perennial second-stringer status. That has a hell of a lot more reach and makes a bigger impact than any character new to the page. In addition to validation, young people need role models; these are in desperately meager supply for the LGBT population. When fiction is turned to as an individual’s sole recourse, it is nothing short of a lifeline.
To anyone who remains dismissive of the merit in Iceman’s outing, I would implore you to look beyond your own experience and realize how so small a thing can signify so much for so many people. That value is not diminished simply because it doesn’t resonate as strongly within you… and neither is your existence. There is a dreadfully underserved minority with a need for these kinds of stories that trumps the absolute sanctity of archetypes. (Because, heaven forbid the heterosexual superhero population declines from 99.5 percent to 99.4 percent.) What they are gaining is worth more than what you are losing. What you are perturbed by has the capacity to change – and save – lives. Your world will keep spinning even if Iceman is gay. So too will that of a 15-year-old queer kid who now feels less alone in said world. Yes, it can be that transformative.
This discussion is going to appear awfully quaint one day, as well it should. It seems a tad silly to exhaust so many words on so encouraging a development. Time and again, I’m faced with the unfortunate reminder that acceptance is not an outlook shared universally. Intolerance can be offset only by knowledge and compassion. Increasing the number and the profile of relatable, affirming LGBT depictions throughout all forms of entertainment media is extraordinarily beneficial in opening hearts and minds – a lot more than this blowhard’s soap boxing.
All-New X-Men #40 is barely the beginning of a new status quo for Bobby Drake. What we have to go on so far is a well-composed, appropriately subdued scene between two friends reaching a mutual understanding. Regardless of what happens going forward, Brian Michael Bendis is mining some real uncharted depths in the superhero genre. It’s a story that directly engages with the theme of identity politics that I find most appealing in X-Men comics, and organically makes the Marvel Universe a more progressive place. That’s got to be counted as a win-win.