The Iceman Cometh Out: On Representation in Comics

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Image from All New X-Men 40, Marvel Comics, art by Mahmud Asrar
Image from All New X-Men 40, Marvel Comics, art by Mahmud Asrar

So, if you’re a Marvel Comics fan, and even if you’re not, you might have heard the news that Bobby Drake, Iceman, one of the original X-Men, has been revealed to be gay. It’s a surprising development, but one that many fans have either suspected or hoped for based on his past failures in relationships. At least one other writer in the past seems to have attempted to hint at it subtextually, but it never went anywhere.

It’s a pretty big move for Marvel and the X-Men, even if it was not meant to be getting the press it has gotten. As just part of an issue and the ongoing character drama of All New X-Men, it feels like just an extension of the story. You see, the Iceman that made this realization is a time travelling Iceman from the past, whose teenage self traveled into the current day Marvel Universe with the rest of the original X-Men and got stuck there. Each of the characters has had to face some harsh truths about their lives and reactions to who they have become and the world they hoped to change, but is just as hateful of mutants as ever. So yeah…comic booky time travel shenanigans. But why do people care? Why did this relatively brief moment in an issue matter so much that fans have responded both positively and negatively? Why did major news outlets pick up on it?

Well, because superhero comic books are really pretty terrible at representing anything except straight white dudes. Just…terrible awful. The X-Men have been a stand-in for all sorts of discrimination. When they got big in the 70s and 80s a lot of it was in regards to civil rights. The mutant hate became an allegory for racism. In recent years many people in the LBGTQ community have latched onto the fear and hatred of mutants as an allegory for their own experiences. And both of those take-aways are valid. What Chris Claremont did in his time with the X-Men, one of the most significant and pioneering runs on a superhero book of all time, was explicitly utilize the X-Men as a placeholder for real world prejudices.

But for a book about discrimination and acceptance, the X-Men are across the broad pretty darn white and pretty darn heterosexual. As far as I can tell, the only other gay X-Men character is a guy named Northstar and reading that you probably just said, who? I barely know who he is, so that tells you something about the representation lacking in mainstream superhero comics.

Brian Michael Bendis is one of those truly good dudes that you hope your favorite creators are in real life. He has a deep abiding love for Marvel Comics and superheroes, and has been a major force in reinvigorating Marvel’s publishing line and has helped to shape the last decade of the Marvel Universe. He is also a creator dedicated to making sure Marvel Comics reflects the world we live in, as has always been one of the publisher’s stated missions. He brought Luke Cage, a blacksploitation character from the seventies into a place of prominence as one of the most interesting members of the Avengers. He created Miles Morales, the black hispanic Ultimate Spider-Man. He’s the father of a multiracial family. I think his track record in comics and just in  life buys him some trust in his intentions with the current journey Iceman finds himself on.

Bendis is in fact one of many of the current crop of writers in mainstream comics that have been dedicated to increasing diversity. Marvel has especially made a push for diversity in its books, throwing both Sam Wilson as Captain America and a new female Thor into the spotlight. Not to mention the work Kelly Sue DeConick has done with Captain Marvel and the breakout character Ms. Marvel (a teenage muslim girl) by G Willow Wilson.

Bobby Drake’s newest development should really be taken in context of what I hope and truly believe is a trend toward inclusion in superhero books. Our society is defined by our pop culture as much as our society defines pop culture. Major superhero characters being more representative of the world that we live in is essential toward making change. Having a prominent X-Men character, one of the founding X-Men come out as gay is a huge gesture for the X-Men line that has been at its core about diversity and inclusion for most of its history, without including much actual diversity or inclusion.Iceman 2

Bobby has always been my personal favorite X-Men character. It was never my interpretation that the dude was gay, but I also know people in real life that I didn’t know that particular aspect of their life at first either. I think it’s brave of Marvel to take an established character that has had some hints (some intentional, some not) toward this particular revelation. The question becomes, how can teen Bobby be gay if adult Bobby isn’t? It’s too soon to say that is the case, for one thing. As Bendis has already had to restate over and over, the story isn’t finished.

And it makes particular sense for Iceman to have not accepted this part of himself. It’s a tragic fact of life that people have lived their whole lives having to deny a certain part of themselves. With Iceman, a character that is defined by his inability to be in touch with his emotions or honest with himself or others, I can see him hiding this truth from himself because of his experience and shame at being a mutant for so much of his life. Having to deal with two levels of discrimination was too much. Bobby Drake is more or less defined by his emotional coldness and the jokes he tells to distract from that pain. To utilize a time displaced Bobby for this realization to come to light makes extra sense because this version comes from a time when being gay was even less accepted than it is now.

As Bendis explained in a statement to the Hollywood Reporter, “There are thousands if not millions of stories of people who, for many different reasons, felt the need to hide their sexuality. The X-Men, with the conceit of time travel, give us a fascinating platform in which to examine such personal journeys…This is just the first little chapter of a much larger story that will be told.”

 

Obviously this is a bizarre “coming out” story, but it’s a very superhero way for something like this to develop. Some concerns are valid, like Jean’s insensitivity, but in context she’s a teen who can’t control her ability to read minds well, and she’s trying to be accepting even though she too is coming from a particular worldview.  Anyone jumping on Bendis about trying to force a social issue on the readers or somehow being dismissive of bisexuality miss the real point of this story–and is jumping to conclusions. This move comes from a desire to shepherd these long established characters on a human journey, to tell dramatic stories, and to make the Marvel Universe a little more real. Jean is trying to be supportive of a friend. You’ve got to read the book to understand this moment in context.

On a purely fan note: I hope that this leads to Iceman becoming a more prominent character with a clearer identity. So many people have had no idea what to do with Bobby Drake, and I’d love for someone to come along with a clearer angle of who Bobby is. Maybe this is the push he need to become a bigger player in the X-Universe, and is just the development writers need to understand his personality.

It’s far overdue for superhero books to expand their horizons of inclusion. I think as readers, we should give Bendis and the X-Men editors the benefit of the doubt that their intentions are admirable and honorable. To judge the entire story of Iceman by one issue or just a couple pages sells the intention and emotions behind this move short. What really matters is where Marvel goes from here in the story. How will the adult Iceman react to this development, and how will future X-Men writers treat Iceman? I’ve been fortunate that I have had plenty of characters with which to identify in superhero books. My hope is that Iceman, my favorite X-Man, becomes a character that other people are able to relate to in a new, more personal way. I give Marvel credit for this move, in making an effort to make their comics more representative of the lived reality of its readers. We are as good as a society as the stories we tell, and it takes brave writers to make changes in the stories.

Representation is something that  is often on my mind because of my experiences working with inner-city high school kids. At a film club meeting, one of the boys straight up asked our guest, the director of Paranormal Activity, why there weren’t more black people in movies. I’m not gay, so I can’t speak for the authenticity of the moment, but I have to believe that the intention will come across to most readers and that somewhere this was a scene that was in some way therapeutic or meaningful for many people who relate to Bobby’s situation.

We need more representation in our pop culture, because these stories have a profound influence on our perceptions. I look forward to seeing how this development shakes out, and I certainly hope that the comics community, future writers, and society as a whole embrace this new facet of a character that has been a part of Marvel from the start. And I surely hope that this story helps bring comfort or relief, or something to other people who have faced confusion or frustration with their own identity. Maybe it’s the story some teen needed. Bendis has already seen some of those reactions through his tumblr page.

And what more can one really ask for in a story, but something to move and impact them?

 

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2 Comments Add yours

  1. Tina M Cairns says:

    There are a few other LGBTQ X-Men: Anole, Mystique, Destiny, Daken, Karma, Bling (and maybe Mercury…haven’t seen that brought up again). But having one of the originals come out is huge, as other than Mystique the rest are small fries. BMB said that the Iceman story will continue in Uncanny #600, I’m willing to bet it will be young Iceman having a talk with adult Iceman.

    Like

  2. urbaneturtle says:

    I legitimately forgot about Daken, but I don’t consider him and Mystique ‘part’ of the X-Men. Even though Mystique has been one of the more notable LGBTQ characters in comics. I don’t know any of the other characters other than Mystique which speaks for how obscure those people are. Having it be Iceman, who has been a consistent presence on the team I think is an important step.

    Like

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