Northstar’s Nuptials: The Only Same-Sex Marriage I’m Opposed To [Opinion]
Northstar is getting married to his boyfriend Kyle. Rumors have been circulating for a while, but yesterday Whoopi Goldberg and the ladies of The View confirmed it. Said Goldberg; "In Astonishing X-Men #50, openly gay X-Man Northstar will propose to his boyfriend Kyle, with a gay wedding to follow in an upcoming issue." That would presumably be Astonishing X-Men #51, the cover for which was shown on-screen. Both issues are by writer Marjorie Liu and penciller Mike Perkins.
The announcement took less than a minute of airtime, but it marked a milestone; this will be the first same-sex superhero wedding since marriage equality became law in some US states, including Northstar's current home state of New York. (DC Wildstorm's gay supercouple Apollo and the Midnighter held a commitment ceremony back in 2001, but apparently only under the authority of "television network sponsors.")
It's also a milestone for another reason. By announcing this comic on The View on ABC, Marvel Comics demonstrated that it means to heavily promote the book and leverage the assets of Marvel and ABC's owner Disney to do so. That's a stark contrast to the days when Marvel kept gay characters and gay relationships out of their superhero books because they thought they were for mature readers only. Marvel must now believe that any controversy stirred up by this event will be dwarfed by positive coverage and a growth in sales. That's amazing progress.
So why is it that I don't want to celebrate this marriage?I do not want Northstar to get married, but it's not because I have any objection to same-sex marriage. On the contrary, I'm a gay man who would like to get married one day -- and I choose to live in a country (Canada) where I can -- and I think all of the arguments against marriage equality are facile and irrational. There is no single enduring definition of marriage that has held since the early days of the Abrahamic religions. There is nothing about same-sex marriage that could ever undermine other relationships, other families, or society as a whole. On the contrary, extending access to the social glue of marriage will strengthen relationships, strengthen families and strengthen society. I am loudly and belligerently in favor of same-sex marriage.
I also don't object to Northstar's marriage because it's a stunt. Comics is a business, and I understand how that works. I don't think the wedding was concocted by editorial as a demonstration of the company's love for diversity or character or because it has a big burgeoning heart with too much love to give. I think Marvel did it because it knows it will drive up sales, and it thinks it can weather the resultant controversy. Marvel has seen what the anti-gay boycotts of Starbucks, JCPenney and Toys R Us achieved -- in every case there was a groundswell of support and positive coverage for the boycotted company -- and they've decided they want some of that attention.
Maybe Marvel editorial also sees the positive social value of this stunt -- I'm sure the creative team does -- but I don't kid myself that this is why the book exists. And that's fine. We'll take progress where we can get it. If gay characters are now something the bean counters run towards and not away from, that's a change I can support. It's surely no coincidence that DC has been riding the coattails of Marvel's announcement by dropping timely hints about outing one of their established characters (a possibility I wrote about just two weeks ago). Marvel and DC both think that gay characters are marketable now.
This is clearly going to be one of the most heavily publicized weddings in superhero comic history, up there with the wedding of Clark Kent and Lois Lane in 1996 and the wedding of Peter Parker and Mary-Jane Watson in 1987. But look at how those marriages turned out. One was erased from history when three timelines were merged together; the other was wiped out because Spider-Man made a deal with the devil. I think that the way those weddings were annulled was sloppy, but I also think that letting those characters get married in the first place was a bigger mistake, because the writers and editors at those companies found those marriages limiting. That is why I don't want Northstar to get married.
Weddings force endings on characters who aren't meant to have endings. It ties up love stories and limits interactions. Marriage does create some new story ideas of its own, but perhaps not enough to balance out the story opportunities that are lost. Certainly Marvel and DC both believe that marriage shifts a character's status quo in a way that is fundamentally reductive. That's why they undid the marriages of their biggest name marquee characters. (Apollo and Midnighter's commitment ceremony was also wiped from history.)
Northstar is not a big name marquee character. Northstar has never had four ongoing titles simultaneously, because Northstar has never even had one ongoing title. Northstar has never had his movie series rebooted, because Northstar has never had a single movie. Northstar has never starred in a cartoon, or been immortalized as a Happy Meal toy, or had his costume turned into a pair of footie pajamas. According to ComicVine, Northstar has appeared in 86 issues of the original Alpha Flight and 35 issues of Uncanny X-Men, and had maybe a few dozen significant appearances elsewhere, including his four-issue 1994 mini series by Simon Furman and Dario Carrasco Jr. Since his 1979 debut in Uncanny X-Men #120 by Chris Claremont and John Byrne, Northstar has been off the board more often than he's been on it. Whatever fame he possesses has less to do with the stories he's featured in and more to do with the fact that he is the first openly gay superhero in comics.
Now he'll be Marvel's first openly gay married superhero, and I do think that will be limiting, because Marvel finds marriage limiting. This is a character who has never gotten much attention anyway, except when he's grabbing headlines for his sexuality (as he did when he came out twenty years ago). Northstar was a problem character for most of his existence: a gay character at a publisher that didn't really want gay characters. Before his current boyfriend he never had a long-term lover. (In his 1994 miniseries his "friend" Raul appeared in about four panels, and was introduced as a shadowy figure lurking in the back of a room like a supervillain.) Northstar has never had a love story -- by which I mean a story in which two characters are seen falling in love -- because even his relationship with Kyle has largely happened off-panel (though the Ultimate universe version of Northstar fared slightly better until they crippled him).
Assuming Northstar's marriage works out, he will now never get that love story. He will never be a romantic leading man. I'm not saying that marriage is the death of romance, but it doesn't offer the frisson of uncertainty that energizes romantic stories.
And if Northstar's marriage doesn't work out, that's even worse. Marvel couldn't have Spider-Man get divorced because they thought it would send a negative message, so they came up with the single worst plotline in the history of comics: a superhero sacrificing his marriage to Satan. Think how much greater the stigma will be if Marvel undoes its headline-grabbing first gay marriage. It would imply that gay marriages are less stable than straight marriages. They can't set that precedent. This marriage is a one-way street.
Marriage could also put Northstar's sexuality in a lock box. Sex was always the thing that frightened Marvel about gay characters, as if putting Northstar in a book would lead to unexpected penises popping up in the gutters of the pages. Northstar has never been allowed to be a sexy, flirty, sexual character with multiple courtiers or a Black Cat-style nemesis. Putting him in a presumably closed and committed relationship would be putting bromide in the ink and repressing Northstar's sexuality for good.
Maybe I'm wrong. Maybe this marriage elevates Northstar to a higher tier in the Marvel universe, and maybe this married man will be a much more sexualized character than he was before. I happily admit that, in setting up this wedding story, writer Marjorie Liu has done more to showcase the romantic and flirtatious aspects of the character than any previous writer, so I have absolute faith in her ability and her intentions.
But I don't know who will write the character after her. And I'm worried that no one will.
Northstar is a character ripe with potential. He's arrogant. He has swagger. He's an orphan; he's gay, and he's a mutant, so he's been angry his whole life at a world that doesn't love him and he still fights to save it. He doesn't want to rely on anyone but himself -- he plays on teams, but as an athlete he prefers solo sports. And he's a former brainwashed Hand assassin. That was a terrible storyline, but it can't be ignored; he's a trained killer with a dark streak, and that makes him a bloody-handed badass. Any writer who can't find good stories to tell about a character with that complexity lacks the imagination to do the job, yet Northstar has spent most of the past thirty years on the bench. This is a character who is ready to step up to the spotlight, and we're finally in an age when Marvel might conceivably do it, but marrying him off feels like a good way to push him back into the shadows, and this time for good.
In a Huffington Post interview with the Astonishing X-Men team, Marvel editor-in-chief Axel Alonso described the storytelling possibilities of a married Northstar as "endless." That's in stark contrast to his predecessor Joe Quesada, who said in a 2008 interview at CBR that marriage "cuts off too many avenues for good soap opera." In the same interview about the annulment of the Spider-Man marriage, Quesada also added:
While marriage makes for an okay story, there is less drama in a (healthy) marriage than in a single relationship. That's one of the many reason we get married -- we want stability, we want comfort, we want kids, etc., etc. No one gets married because they want more drama in their life. What's good for one's life doesn't always make for great stories when the heart of your character's universe is drama.
Either Marvel no longer believes that, or Marvel doesn't have a problem cutting Northstar off from drama. He's the company's famous, totemic, pioneering gay hero, but he's spent so much time in a drawer that Marvel has no concerns about sticking him back there once he's delivered a two-month sales bump.
I don't want to be a curmudgeon about this. I want to put on my Jean Grey School pompoms and cheer for Northstar's wedding day, because I think Northstar getting some attention is worth celebrating, and I think marriage equality is definitely worth celebrating. But everything about this event makes me worry that it is using Northstar for a short-term return at the expense of his long-term value.
Assuming that DC really is going to out a hero who is as iconic as they've implied, that suggests a level of commitment to gay characters that isn't matched by a one-time stunt. But ultimately, both Marvel and DC will need to do the work over the long-run to convince me that they really want to integrate major gay characters into their stories in ways that really matter. They need to give them a chance to become icons -- not just headlines.