Welcome to The Issue, where we look at some of the strangest, most interesting and most distinctive single issue comic stories ever to grace the medium. This is normally the bit where I try to pithily sum up the gimmick of the story I'll be talking about, but this this time it's going to be a little different.

When I was asked to contribute an appropriately themed edition of The Issue to ComicsAlliance's Pride Week, I cast my mind back over the thousands of comics I've ever read. Surely there'd be a standout issue in there somewhere, a smartly-told standalone tale of coming out or transitioning or just living as a queer person that you could push into someone's hands and say: read this, no background needed?

In this, I failed completely. Maybe that says something about my reading habits as a cishet male --- by far the most pandered-to demographic in this industry --- but I think comics have to shoulder a portion of the blame. One of the most notable things about queer characters in comics, especially in the heart of the superheroic mainstream, is their absence, at least on a textual level.

Queer subtext, though? There's plenty of that, whether it's same-sex relationships that read as romantic --- which too often go frustratingly unconfirmed by the creators and editors behind them --- or even, in the form of the X-Men, a metaphor that can be applied to LGBTQ experience, as broken down by ComicsAlliance's very own Andrew Wheeler a couple of Prides ago.

Which brings us to Generation Hope #9, “Better”, by Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie. It's not an issue explicitly about the LGBTQ experience, but it uses the mutant metaphor to tell a standalone story about real-life events that very much are.

 

 

In late 2010, four young gay men in the US committed suicide within a single month. The most widely reported was the story of Tyler Clementi, an 18 year-old student in New Jersey who killed himself a few days after being secretly recorded kissing another man. “Better” puts those events through the filter of the X-Men, but it doesn't work hard to disguise them. The story focuses on a student, Zeeshan, whose mutant powers manifest in front of two friends who choose to record the transformation and post it online.

It's an imperfect analogue, as mutants always are. Using a group who are defined by their frequently world-threatening powers as a stand-in for an oppressed minority or community is troubling because it casts them as a threat. There certainly are people who see the LGBTQ community that way, but it's not a worldview you want to ally yourself with. And, as recent events have brutally reminded us, it's pretty much the exact opposite of how it actually works in the real world.

In this issue, Zeeshan's mutation is presented as a disfigurement, which also sits uneasily with its real-life analogue, though it's entirely possible that this is just a difficult first stage of the transformation. The suggestion also seems to be that it's his awakening, which muddies the question of whether what happens next is motivated by his enforced public coming-out or the self loathing of discovering he's a mutant.

 

 

The big advantage of the mutant metaphor, though, is that it creates a little distance from real-world events. While it's unacceptable to force queer readers to comb through subtext for representation in comics, when you're handling painful topics like this, it acts as a protective layer. It's hard to imagine a way this story could be told without the metaphorical filter that wouldn't feel disrespectful to the real victims.

“Better” keeps that layer as thin as possible, though, by rooting its presentation firmly and clearly in the real world. This is the magic of what McKelvie and Gillen do when they work together. They're both great at finding small real-life touchpoints, whether a location or a pop song, that make everything around them feel credible.

 

 

The issue transplants its events from the US to the UK. More specifically, the University of Sheffield in the north of England. More specifically, the university's Opal 1 halls. This is a real place, one you can find on Google Maps. Sheffield isn't where I studied, but I lived a few hundred metres from the near-identical Opal 1 building in my university town. I graduated in the year this comic was set, and I recognize the clothes its student characters are wearing. I wince remembering having the kinds of conversations the teens have before the incident, clumsily pushing taboos and thinking they're brave.

Even if these aren't your experiences --- the same way that Zeeshan's pain isn't mine --- I'd bet you can tell that these details are stripped direct from real life. And that just makes the story hurt all the more.

For all that grounded realism, though, the book also has a foot in superhero tradition, in the form of its nominal stars, and the book changes up its structure to match that.

Just as Zeeshan's mutant powers manifest, the comic switches to widescreen panels --- the default language of '00s superheroics --- stacked five to a page, with events in Sheffield filling the middle three and the Generation Hope crew, racing in the Blackbird to save the day, constrained to the top and bottom. The two are visually separated by Jim Charalampidis' choice of colour palettes: earthly browns for the former, otherworldly blues for the latter.

 

Click to enlarge

 

Over the three pages, the layout builds a comforting sense of forward momentum until --- with a panel showing Hope and crew sat calmly in the Blackbird --- the layout is unceremoniously thrown away. Zeeshan's story takes over the whole page as, his mutation melting away more and more of his features, he grabs a knife from the communal kitchen. They're too late.

All that's left to do is show the impact on those left behind, and McKelvie serves up some reliably expressive silent panels of the team. Study this panel closely and you'll notice that each character is reacting differently:

 

 

The expressions range from shock to devastation to self-blame to... look at Kenji, the bald guy on the left. He doesn't seem to be reacting at all, and maybe that's what you'd expect from a character who started the series as its villain. Next to Hope on the next page, screaming at Luke, the roommate who did the filming, he looks incredibly cold.

The issue's epilogue, though, makes it clear that Kenji's response is not how it first appears. In a scene set four weeks later, Kenji returns to assassinate Luke, but is talked down by Wolverine. This final scene feels like Gillen working out his own reactions to the real events on the page, as the two debate what Kenji is about to do.

 

 

The world is broken, Kenji argues, and this is the best way of fighting back. He reveals his own experience, a father who committed suicide after being found having an affair with another man --- the only time the issue steps outside the protective shell of its metaphor --- and we're bonded to him, as if his rage at these events wasn't already easy enough to empathize with.

“It gets better, kid,” says Wolverine, echoing not just the issue's title but the mantra of the 'It Gets Better' project that grew up out of the same suicides that motivated this issue's creation. And Kenji replies:

 

 

Neither Wolverine nor the comic nor, seemingly, Gillen has any retort. It's a point that clearly stung when it was written. For anyone reading the issue a couple of months late, in September 2011, having seen the headlines about Jamey Rodemeyer --- the bisexual high school student who, months after posting an 'It Gets Better' video on YouTube, took his own life due to bullying --- it would have hurt all the more. Here in 2016, staring down the barrel of yet another tragedy in the LGBTQ community, it's practically unbearable.

The world is getting better, we tell ourselves, and I think overall that's true, but it's not nearly enough. Not just at the level of out-and-out atrocities like the one we saw earlier this month in Orlando, but all the way down, through the conversations we have when we're young and dumb like the kids in this story, to the lowly comic book itself. We need more representation, so that queer teens have someone to look to as their own powers manifest.

Hopefully next time I'm trying to pick a standalone issue with a smart gimmick for Pride Week, the difficulty will be narrowing it down. The smallest possible thing I can do as a reader is broaden my pull list to make sure that's the case.

 

If you’re a young LGBTQ person in the United States and you're thinking about suicide, get immediate help by contacting The Trevor Project or calling the Trevor Lifeline at 866-488-7386. You can also find resources that may help answer any questions you have. If you live outside the US, here is a list of international suicide support helplines.