Super: Out and About With Bobby and Angela
Bobby Drake, aka Iceman, became comics' biggest gay superhero last week — again, but also for the first time, because nothing is ever simple in superhero comics. In a scene by Brian Michael Bendis and Mahmud Asrar in the pages of Uncanny X-Men #600, the older of two Bobby Drakes (from two different points in time) acknowledged his gayness to the other, younger Bobby. The younger Bobby had previously come out in a very similar scene in All-New X-Men #40 back in April — also involving an unsolicited confrontation, an intrusive Jean Grey, and an acknowledgement of teammate Angel's good looks, and also by Bendis and Asrar.
While I have a few problems with how all of this was executed, from Jean's willingness to violate people's privacy to Marvel's willingness to taunt readers with an inexplicable six month delay between the two coming out scenes, I think that how Bobby came out matters much less than the fact that he came out at all. It's an especially welcome step forward coming less than a week after Marvel editor-in-chief Axel Alonso fumbled the coming out of another Marvel character.
That other character was Angela, an angelic/Asgardian bounty hunter. Her relationship with another woman, Sera, has seemed intimate for a while, but it was only with the recent publication of Angela, Queen of Hel #1, by Marguerite Bennett, Stephanie Hans, and Kim Jacinto, that readers were shown unambiguously that the women are lovers.
Angela thus became the only one of almost four dozen solo titles in the All-New All-Different relaunch to feature a readily identifiable LGBTQ lead character, placing people like me at the same level of visibility as ducks, raccoons, and androids. We're about half as important, as a class, as Tony Stark, and less likely to get a book than a member of the Squadron Supreme. (A gay Inhuman might have better odds.)
Angela's status as the only irrefutably established LGBTQ solo lead lasted all of two days. That's when CBR, in its weekly Q&A with the Marvel Comics chief, asked; "[I]s it accurate to say that Angela is the first gay or bisexual lead character in the All-New, All-Different Marvel era?"
This was a very easy question to answer. 'Yes', and we all move on. 'Yes', and it's a quick win for a company in need of wins when it comes to LGBTQ representation. 'Yes', because Marvel is making a big push towards diversity, and books with queer lead characters sit very comfortably alongside a black Captain America, a black Spider-Man, a Korean-American Hulk, a Pakistani-American Ms Marvel, a female Thor, a female Wolverine, and promising new titles starring Black Panther, Moon Girl, Mockingbird, Scarlet Witch, and more.
Axel Alonso did not say yes. He said, "That's a question for readers to ponder and answer for themselves. We're not looking to put labels on the character or the series. We'd prefer that the story Marguerite, Kim and Stephanie are telling — all aspects of it — speak for itself."
'Queen of Hel' is an accepatble label. 'Gay or bisexual' is where it gets tricky. Maybe they're just good friends?
The irony here is that the last time Alonso fumbled a softball on LGBTQ representation, it was because he did insist on putting a label on a character. He declared Hercules straight in the face of all the evidence of antiquity. And Hercules' new comic came out (but he didn't) on the same day as Uncanny X-Men #600, making Iceman's announcement a net gain of zero for gay superheroes in the Marvel Universe.
To give Alonso the benefit of the doubt, he perhaps didn't realize that "no labels" is one of those phrases that are used to erase the struggles of marginalized people with a seemingly benign shrug, like "I don't see race," or, "I think all lives matter." It's not helpful, but it's what one can imagine helpful might sound like.
An individual has every right to refuse to label themselves, but when writers or editors make that choice on behalf of fictional characters, it robs readers of the chance to see themselves represented. The trope is used especially often in relation to bisexual characters, among whose number Angela probably counts. When even a kiss can't be considered compelling evidence of a character's sexuality, LGBTQ people are pushed ever further to the margins.
Queer identity stands hovering in the doorway of the Marvel universe, as easy to push out as it is to invite in, and far too quickly ignored or dismissed. Deadpool is a strange example of the problem; he's a character regarded as queer by some fans and even some writers, but all the evidence that might be used to support the claim can plausibly be dismissed as jokes.
Even the elder Bobby Drake didn't actually say that he's gay, though I don't think anyone would be so craven as to claim that he isn't. My hope is that we'll see Bobby's story unfold in earnest and with clarity; that Bobby will pursue romances alongside his adventures, and not be rushed into the sexless permanent pair-bond that seem de rigueur for gay superheroes. Alonso admits that Iceman is now the most high-profile gay superhero in comics, and though Marvel doesn't much care for mutants right now, an Iceman solo title is such an obvious next step that one would trust any other publisher in this position to take it.
Back in June, Axel Alonso told the Los Angeles Times, "Marvel Comics'driving philosophy dating back to Stan Lee is to reflect the world outside your window, and the world outside your window has changed since the early '60s. ... We're following that mantra. Our new stories reflect the world outside your window in all its diversity."
That's both a mission statement and a sales pitch. Marvel wants to use diversity to reach new readers, and it isn't shying away from using labels when it comes to books lead by women or people of color. Only LGBTQ characters — and readers — are engaged in this strange little dance; Hercules is straight, Angela doesn't do labels, and the biggest gay hero in comics doesn't have his own book.
Just this past week, Axel Alonso spoke to the New York Times (in an article that kindly linked back to my own previous writing on this subject), and used familiar language. He said that Iceman's coming out "fulfilled our mandate to reflect the world outside the window."
'Fulfilled' is a poor choice of words, because that job is far from done. When it comes to LGBTQ people, the world outside Marvel's window — and inside Marvel's offices — looks more diverse than the books Marvel is publishing. The more Marvel boasts about diversity, the more inexplicable it becomes that Marvel lacks high profile LGBTQ content, and the more conspicuous it becomes that the publisher seems uncomfortable with characters like Angela and Hercules.
Marvel has not fulfilled its mandate. Coming out is only the beginning of this story.