Why Iceman coming out matters more than you might think. A commentary on the generation gap between the Bobbys and the necessary effects on identification and representation.
June is Pride Month, so it seemed like the most appropriate imaginable time to share my thoughts on the extremely controversial coming out of the X-Men’s Bobby Drake, Iceman. First, a little background.
Iceman is the youngest original member of the X-Men, debuting in X-Men #1 all the way back in 1963. In 2012, following the massive Avengers vs. X-Men crossover, the original five X-Men were pulled out of the past and dropped into present day, where they have been since. Each of these original, time-displaced X-Men have faced their own challenges in adapting to a modern world, and young Bobby Drake was no exception. However, being unhinged in time did afford young Bobby at least one advantage. In the 2015 issue, All-New X-Men #40, following some remarks about Illyana Rasputin, the mutant known as Magik, and her level of ‘hotness’, young Jean Grey pulls Bobby aside and outs him to himself. Among his immediate questions is how he can be gay but the older Bobby Drake is not. With the release of Uncanny X-Men #600, young Bobby, again with the aid of young Jean, comes out to older Bobby, prompting older Bobby to also come out.
And therein lies the controversy. For many older fans, this news was a bitter pill to swallow. After all, most of us grew up with Bobby. He has been a mainstay of the Marvel Universe for over fifty years. We have seen an endless parade of girlfriends on the arm of Iceman over the years. How could he, all of a sudden, now be gay? I will admit to being among the skeptics when the news first broke, but hopefully reading this essay will help you, dear reader, to understand how I made a complete turnaround.
Comics as a medium has always been a space of above average reader engagement and identification. Whether we’re talking about Umberto Eco’s assertion that Clark Kent becomes an analog for the powerless to engage in a powerful fantasy or Scott McCloud’s analysis of the gutter and masking in comics narrative*, comics have long served this role. In the history of comics, however, perhaps no series has better-exemplified identification better or more often than the X-Men. This ragtag band of mutants has been used as a stand-in for nearly any and every imaginable minority group in the world—any group that has to experience living in a world that “hates and fears them” for nothing more than the way one was born, be that in terms of ethnicity, nationality, sexuality, gender, etc. In a genre dominated by straight, white characters, there is an X-Man for nearly every demographic.
Bobby Drake is not the first gay X-Man. Not by a longshot. But in having both young and older Bobby come out, the X-Men universe gained representation for two distinct groups in the LGBTQ+ community, even though on the surface, it appears to be the same demographic. What I’m referring to here is the generation gap between the two iterations of the character. For the young Bobby, transplanted into modern day, the story is familiar. Teenagers are coming out in this contemporary era to an increasingly accepting world. That is not to say that there aren’t still a great many challenges and scenarios in which new members of the queer community are shamed, feared, and hated. It is merely to say that in 2018, the visibility for queer communities is widespread enough that the story is not an unfamiliar one. For the older Bobby, however, there is a story present that is much less familiar to many—that of the older generation queer who remained closeted for decades, attempting to live as a straight person. The more people I talk to, the more common this story seems.
The social pressures manifest differently between closeted lesbians and closeted gay men, in terms of hetero-normative societal expectations, but the stories at the surface appear similar. A man born in the 1950s gets married, has children, and then, as society develops and becomes more open, he finally reaches a point where the mask no longer fits, where the necessity of being a “manly man” is no longer imperative. Decades of being silenced, not by others, but by yourself, leaves trace imprints of trauma that must be dealt with. The relationships you held while hiding your true face become indictments to be used against you in the social media court. The woman born of the 70s, twice married, twice a mother, following the path of a patriarchal social structure that instills the necessity of procreation and the need for a male care provider comes out to a hailstorm of unnecessary questions. “Don’t you miss it?” No.
Enter the elder Bobby Drake, a herald of a less enlightened era. The parade of failed relationships, the off-hand jokes, and posturing, all a mask for the real Robert Drake, closeted gay man. That is why choosing a character that was already established, rather than a new character, was such an important move. We have known Bobby for decades, yet we never really knew him. We only knew the version of him he felt he could safely project. With the mask stripped away, we watch Bobby attempt to learn to be Bobby all over again, and the Sina Grace Iceman solo series focuses mainly on that sort of subject matter, while also incorporating plenty of action. The cancellation of that series came as a blow to many who identified with Bobby’s story as the first real representation of their own experience in comics, but the recently announced revival of the series illustrates the depth of that community.
Representation matters. Have a lovely rest of Pride Month, and remember, above all, that its easier to love than hate.
*For further reading, check out Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art (1993) and Umberto Eco’s “The Myth of Superman” (1972).
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