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Saturday, January 19, 2013

Guest Post: Sassy Gay to Super Gay -- Marvel’s Re-Definition of the Supporting Gay Character by Benjamin Kissell

I remember being 9 years old and buying my first issue of Uncanny X-Men; my Mum had worked in a bookstore when I was little and had brought home rare gems, well-worn back-issues and cover-less comics [she couldn’t stand the sight of any book, comic or otherwise, being tossed into the garbage] so the sight of them on a newsstand was nothing new to me, however, this was the first issue I had bought of my own volition with my own money. And it? Was glorious.

Newsprint paper supported an array of colors most reminiscent of the Kirby-era, bold primes leapt off the page, and the cast of characters? Larger than life. A vibrant team of misfits and underdogs – each imbued with fantastic powers which set them apart from the everyday, yet
personalities which connected them to people I knew, even in my suburban Virginia daily life in elementary school and daycare. Their leader Cyclops, in bold blue and red; the mischievous Nightcrawler in India Ink wash and swashbuckling indigo; the stalwart Colossus in naked-comic page-white, yellow and red; the cantankerous Can-nucklehead himself, Wolverine, in his distinctive yellow/blue costume and, of course, Storm commanded the page in her diaphanous black and yellow ensemble, her cascading white hair billowing in the Cockrum-inked wind.
I couldn’t put it down, the introduction of Alpha Flight, a super-hero group from that far-off cousin of ours, Canada [What, I was 9? The furthest I had been at that point was to the various Smithsonian Museums in DC and the Baltimore Aquarium – Canada was foreign AND mysterious. Plus? It was the end of the ‘80s, who didn’t think Canada was cool back then?]. I instantly had to get my hands on more comics show-casing these unique team members. True, Snowbird’s costume and diadem were like a white-chick knock-off of Storm, but, who didn’t wanna emulate Storm? I mean, she’s STORM! And Vindicator was a prick, but … Northstar’s douche-y ‘tude, Sasquatch’s cool-as-all-get-out look and Snowbird’s awesome powers made this team something to read and watch in-action.

After devouring the issue and reading it three times through, I snuck into Mum’s Sewing Room where she kept her stash of comics.

Found, bought, rescued – her collection may not have put the fear of foreclosure in the hearts of comic book stores, but to my eyes it was a Solomon’s Gold Mine. A veritable treasure-trove of new reads [I’ve always been a voracious reader, books, comic books and mini-comics that came with He-Man or She-Ra toys] with art that leapt off the pages and pulled me into the worlds Marvel and DC built for me. Mum found me, several hours later, splayed amidst a sea of open, half-read and varying titles and chuckled at the sight.

Issues of Amazing Spider-Man [Cool art from Charles Vess], Uncanny X-Men [Classic X-Men re-prings as well as the Silvestri-era in the Australian Outback! Which of course I’d long-since read … repeatedly], ElfQuest, The Dark Knight, House of Mystery, Detective Comics, Rom: Space Knight and others ringed me. But what held my attention most? Two comic titles sat in my lap: The New Defenders and Alpha Flight.

These two ended up holding my attention, not merely because of interesting stories and art, thank you John Byrne, but because of the rich (and confusing) development of two separate characters in their respective titles [tho’ Alpha Flight writers, what were you thinking with Marrina? Seriously, I’ve never understood that, even 20 years later]: Moondragon and Northstar.
Moondragon was a Persis Khambatta-esque beauty [if you don’t know who that is, Google Star Trek Ilia]; powerful, intense, brave, with a touch [*cough*] of smug and a whole lot of re-writes. In the 20-ish issues Mum’s collection allowed me access to she bounced from angry-scorn-filled martial artist to floating-dragon-thingy to bisexual female all on top of fighting off bad guys like Thanos and dealing with young adult angst while the team tried to lived together. This soap opera was not to be missed. If I’d been of the mind [read: not so lazy], I’d have grabbed some popcorn and just sat back to watch/read it unfold.

Marvel’s writers weren’t afraid to see where this character development would take her – and they ran with it. True, she did fit the cliché as a mildly butch non-heterosexual woman skilled in martial arts and mildly man-hating (she really just didn’t like much of anyone, to be fair), however she ran around in what can affectionately be called a costume consisting of cape, gloves, mid-calf high-heeled boots and a open-bodice one-piece thong [ouch] much like her completely off-the-rack heterosexual counterparts. The writers allowed her character to explore a range of highs and lows in those few issues – including her mind-violation whose effects were tempered by the love of a fellow Defender, Cloud [who had her/his own sexual identity issues – Oy vey].

I sat there confused, yet felt an odd kinship for this angry, lashing-out-at-the-world and oft-times lonely character.
From the pages of that classic Uncanny X-Men battle, the French-Canadian Northstar caught my eyes (for his complete and total unlikability). In the first few issues I read I couldn’t help but mutter under my breath how much of a freaking asshole he was, but, those Marvel scripters are crafty bastards – it wasn’t long before I was rooting for the jerk [despite his first appearance having him deck Storm – my admiration/mild comic geek obsession with her should be discussed elsewhere] and when, to my surprise, the Olympic-medal-holding skier came out of the closet? Well, I was already 7 random issues in. And I was well-and-truly reader-hooked.

The writers had created yet another well-layered character whose sexuality was not the issue, yet set him apart. He did not fit the cookie-cutter gay-best-friend-full-of-lonely-angst-and-fueled-by-catty-remarks-who-dresses-better-than-you-ever-could so lauded in literature and movies at the time, he was an athlete held in esteem and admiration for his feats of national heroism. Yes, the writers had him quipping bitchy and caustic remarks, but let’s just assume that’s the whole FRENCH-Canadian thing and not because they had a gay man unwilling to mince words.

At 9, I was picked on a lot at school. I was a geek [and still proudly am, ask any of my friends], a loner not by choice but because I wasn’t cool, I used big words and a heavily sarcastic tone [word bandying I may or may not have emulated from my favorite comic characters], and I didn’t like to do rough’n’tough ‘boy’ things like throw dirt clods at one another or talk about what was happening in the world of Wrestling … instead I read, hung out with girls occasionally and was known for my thinking She-Ra was cool. I was labeled ‘gay’ early on – the school guidance counselor actually wrote a report when I was five declaring me “a homosexual, but perhaps this can be worked with” because of these differences.
I was labeled this long before I knew what being gay was; whether I was gay or not wasn’t the point. [And the national advertising campaigns for Bengay so did not help, thanks.] The X-Men drew me in as an outsider trying to fit in and become part of a world that feared and hated what they called me. Comic characters like Moondragon and Northstar showed me that being different from those who were different was still an option – something even lauded. They showed me hope.

The marriage of Northstar recently, in Astonishing X-Men vol 3 #51 was one of the most touted and pleasantly-received Comic publicity maneuvers in years (by dint of an actual actor-portrayed reenactment and a slew of online campaigning) shows how far such ground-breaking characters have come – allowed by their writers and fans.

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You can read more of Benjamin's writing on his website.

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