Iceman (Bobby Drake), one of the original X-Men characters, was outed in the latest issue. Even though a more and more comics are adding or revealing gay characters recently, making a premiere character in a comic book with a 50-year history is still a huge deal.
Even if you don't read comic books, the increasing popularity of blockbuster movie franchises makes it impossible to deny how crucial comic books have been to our cultural development. The characters in these books often reflect our greatest points of pride (Captain America) and our deepest shame (go ahead and look up Tyroc, DCs first abysmal, racist attempt at an African American superhero), but more than that they reach huge audiences.
Children have long been the foundation of the comic book buying experience since it's easy to spend your allowance on a $3 book filled with cartoons, and last year comics sold over $540 million worth of product overall. It's a huge industry with a long reach, and for people who are socially stymied in some way (geographically, family values, etc.) comics are often one of the first ways kids learn about difference in a format that normalizes it.
Iceman's gay revelation is a big deal, even though lots of characters in the Big Two (Marvel and DC) have come out lately. He's an original character of a long-standing series, but he's also had relationships with women the entire time. He flirts with women all the time, and you could write a thesis on his complicated history with Polaris. This is more than about being gay; Iceman's sexuality seems to be more in line with the importance of reflecting sexuality on a spectrum.
Even though his outing seems to come as a surprise to him (in the exclusive panels given to CNN you can see him wrestling with the idea and rooting himself in denial), it doesn't automatically erase his history with women. In that way, Iceman's outing is much more revolutionary—it sets the groundwork for sexual fluidity that isn't rooted in shame. That's important for consumers, but particularly important for young readers who may not know how to address their own sexuality if it's not a clear-cut line from gay to straight.
In an interview published at Vulture today, writer Ta-nehisi Coates talks to Abraham Riesman about the prolific nature of the comics that affected him as a child as well as what he reads as an adult. Contrary to popular opinion, Coates thinks that comics have always been more diverse than the overwhelmingly white, male superhero image it carries.
There’s a sentiment lately that comics had rarely responded to the culture at large, but now they are. That’s totally untrue. We had drug-addiction issues in The Amazing Spider-Man; the politics in X-Men are pretty clear.
But comics companies have started to explicitly say, “We are being more diverse and inclusive,” which is much less coded than a lot of the efforts at diversity in the past. Marvel opened the doors, right? You have Storm, there’s a black Iron Man in the ’80s, the second X-Men generation — you have the Native American Thunderbird. You have heroes that look all sorts of ways. When I was a kid, I knew that superheroes were not exclusively white and male. And if you have fans who grow up with that, they reach a certain age and they expect you to go to another level. Beyond that, it costs comic books way less than movies to do diverse things. They ain’t got to worry about casting somebody who is going to bring in box office.
Comics may have addressed race and gender politics in the past, but homosexuality, while not entirely taboo, has rarely been explored as much. Archie Comic's Kevin Keller was the series' first openly gay character, debuting in 2010, and the first comic book character to have a gay wedding. At the time, Archie Comics co-CEO Jonathan Goldwater said that introducing Keller was a way to keep the 70-year old comic "current and inclusive." Catwoman recently came out as bisexual, Earth 2's version of the Green Lantern is gay, and the creative team behind Batwoman quit after DC Comics told them she would never be allowed to get married to her partner, police officer Maggie Sawyer. Batwoman also left her military academy training rather than hide the fact that she was gay. Comics are addressing the same social issues they did back in the 70s, but the inclusion of sexuality is a hugely necessary wave to include in their ocean of influence.
Brian Michael Bendis, who wrote this X-Men issue, has a deep history of bringing diversity to Marvel through is books and characters. He created Miles Morales, the Black Latino Spider-Man from 2011's Ultimate Spider-Man who caused an uproar among the series (apparently) more racist fans. Takio, a comic aimed at a younger audience, included characters who were not only different races but part of an adopted family, and Powers, the upcoming TV series based on his book of the same name, stars African American actress Susan Heyward as Deena Pilgrim. He told CNN that he really didn't want Iceman's outing to be a big deal, and he engaged with critics and fans alike over on Twitter when the announcement was made.
"There are thousands if not millions of stories of people who, for many different reasons, felt the need to hide their sexuality," Brian Michael Bendis, who wrote the issue, said in a statement to CNN. "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."
When you have an influential creator who naturally normalizes difference, suddenly a lot of fans realize that some of their (often unexamined) prejudices are kind of ridiculous. Funny how that works.
Danielle Henderson is a lapsed academic, heavy metal karaoke machine, and culture editor at Fusion. She enjoys thinking about how race, gender, and sexuality shape our cultural narratives, but not in a boring way.