Sensitivity, Tolerance, Equal Rights, The New Defenders
by Travis Hedge Coke
“I know I’m just a kid – both in my male and female form – but that doesn’t make my feeling any weaker.”
1983 to 1986, The New Defenders was my X-Men comic. Bear in mind that I was in my extreme preteens at the time, when I tell you that Uncanny X-Men seemed unfriendly to me and New Mutants gave me no anchor, no security or sense of place. I do not truly remember New Defenders not being in my home, in my awareness, though I understood, in those years, very little. Really. Really little.
But, Cloud was intersex, Cloud was queer, and everyone else felt their own forms of queer and interestingly-gendered, unlike Uncanny, which felt very masculine to me. I had surgeries from birth relating to my own intersex condition and those spurred by other health concerns, and I grew up around queer people, with an awareness of my condition in ways which doctors or family could frame it for a small child. Cloud made it make sense. And, the way the other superheroes might be frustrated or confused but would – if they were rude about it – be upbraided by other superheroes, spoke to me in a clear, kind way that no other entertainment was.
Cloud, being Cloud, being female and male, being uncertain of sexual attraction, of romantic attraction, of friendship. did not do anything wrong. Cloud, by being in the world, even by coming to the world of Earth, did nothing wrong. Whatever made Iceman or anyone else uncomfortable was in them, not in Cloud.
I slept easier sometimes because of Cloud and because of Gargoyle, Moondragon, and Beast.
In one issue of The New Defenders, I saw people hide disabilities, hide illnesses, out of hubris and guilt. I saw the aged worry they were too old and the maturing worry that they were too young. Uncertainty of gender and queerness. Set against school debates on civil rights that, like any time we see framed, “the Jewish question,” “the transgender question,” the “I’m playing devil’s advocate and just asking questions,” are not truly debate or asking questions. Always attacks.
Half the New Defenders team had previously been X-Men, a genetic minority who all went to school together in a private institution set up – and set apart – to keep them safe from oppression and bigotry in the extant America.
The New Defenders began as a revamp of the comic, The Defenders. The New Defenders #125 had J.M. DeMatteis writing, Don Perlin and Kim DeMulder drawing, and colors and letters by Christie Scheele and Janice Chiang, respectively. Over my life, I have become devotees to Chiang and Scheele’s work, and particularly adore the landscapes she does now. Absolutely fulfilling. The final issue was drawn by Perlin, inked by Dell Barras, lettered by Chiang, colored by Ken Fedunieiwicz, and written by Peter B Gillis, who wrote the majority of the title during its brief existence.
Kevin Nowlan. Alan Kupperberg. Ann Nocenti.
The brilliant and friendly Peter B. Gillis is a constant inspiration to me.
Occasionally, I interview comics professionals for background or publication, and I try to be conscious of them as autonomous, real human beings, with lives completely separate from mine. The inkers, writers, pencilers were not sitting beside me as I read. Colorists do not sit in my dreams and know whether or not a comic helped me sleep at night or inspired nightmares. They are not all geniuses, though some are, and it is important to me not to embarrass or distress anyone because I need to ask about an issue of Amazing Spider-Man or a particular color hold technique.
I have told comics authors when they have saved my life. I have told comics talent when they inspire me; if they changed my trajectory. And, my editors know how excited I get when there is a chance for an exchange. [They ain’t foolin’. And we love Trav for it. – ed.]
That is what rereading The New Defenders feels like. I know that Gillis’ New Defenders changed and saved my young life, before I was even mature or educated enough to understand some of it, but I know it was not made to save lives. For me, it is not hero worship, I just think these people are keen. Marge Simpson’s, “I just think they’re neat.”
I think it is hilarious, now, that this was my childhood comfort and it opens with a pun I did not understand, a summary of a comic I did not read, and a mass suicide. I thought that was just stuff. Everybody read or watched things that told you hundreds of people killed themselves, right? Grimm’s fairytales were violent and I adored Finnegans Wake as a kid (I wrote a book review on it in first grade the week after my book report on an issue of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles), a novel which still has puns in it I do not understand.
I did get the “chicory” and “cherry” puns, early, and someone explained, “chakra,” for me.
I did not know what “equal rights” meant in its contemporary political sense, but I knew what equal meant and rights. I knew that “Mutants Only Need Sensitivity, Tolerance, and Equal Rights” did not mean that only mutants, only fictional minorities or the fictionally oppressed needed these.
I knew the song Beast and Iceman sing, drunk as skunks, in the first issue, though I did not understand they were skunked. I think I knew the Band’s standards before I knew The New Defenders.
The stuff that bothered me was always small. I was uncertain of some stereotyping. I could never work out how Beast cut through a monster’s wrist – ten or more feet thick – with a sword only a few feet long.
I did not understand, in my middle single digits of years, why “Assistant Editor’s Month” was funny, and elsewhere took in Spider-Man’s Aunt May becoming a cosmic herald of planetary death, the Golden Oldie, like I would any superhero; however, the New Defenders issue gave Ann Nocenti adorable button eyes and let that transform with power into a devious Cheshire Cat mania and I have been an Ann Nocenti fan ever since.
Cartooned Nocenti put on aviator goggles and got a blast ray the moment her boss and the other bosses were out of sight.
I wanted to be manic like button-eye Nocenti. I wanted to crouch up on the furniture like Hank McCoy. I practiced rolling my eyes because I thought if superheroes do it, it is a thing you do. Tried to walk tall like Moondragon and Valkyrie, to repeat the obvious when it stood out, because I did not understand comedic gags do not always translate to random life.
I learned visual continuity and conscious discontinuity from Don Perlin.
The New Defenders taught me all kinds of things, and things I would only work out functionally much later. Drunk is in the latter category, while, “I wonder what it’s like kissing someone who’s bald?” came right away and that sometimes someone’s ex was always bad and they could not tell, but that is no reflection on them.
If felt natural to me, as a child, that the comic portrayed an acting US senator as a bigot of the highest – and most dangerous – order.
Without The New Defenders, would I have thought, so early, that people just hung out in swimsuits or underwear with groups of their friends? That Beast was being uptight when he got annoyed Iceman told some women they did not even know that he was Beast’s boyfriend, name of Lance?
The related Gargoyle miniseries would go on to encourage my belief life was a Gothic Romance during my middle school years. What sturm! What drang! What psychosexual anxiety and conviction that at eighty or ninety years old you will still be haunted, traumatized, bewildered and stalk the abandoned family property (not that my family owned any property).
I understood that socialization was weird. That body and mind were guided by feelings and feelings were complex. And, that you have to ask yourself, when socialization is weird or you feel bad about someone or something, is it the situation or is it you?
The New Defenders also justified by sense of fashion and entertainment. Adam Ant is visually referenced and I loved Adam Ant. (I still think we should all be a lot closer to the video for Puss ’n Boots.) Angel, blind and wearing cheaters, looks like Lou Reed. Candy Southern encouraged me to Terry Southern, and, though probably less intended, Candy Darling.
Candy Southern made sense. When the Defenders make her, a non-super, non-superhero, their leader, their boss, their president and manager! it made sense.
Beast wearing his political pins and making his panel appearances and swag. The public face of an oppressed minority trying to do it all right.
Moondragon and Angel doubting themselves. Gargoyle and Dolly Donahue feeling the world’s immensity from the small rooms they try to stick with. Atlanteans and wanderers walking into new lives, next chapters, soon-to-bes.
Cloud just being Cloud. Male and female and star and love.
Sassafras, the dog filled with fear.
People having to tell Iceman or Moondragon, nearly all of the characters at one point or another, that they are not evil – maybe a jokester, maybe foolish, or sensitive, or afraid, but not evil – is a thing that made deep sense to me. I knew and know about feeling like you are doing wrong or disappointing everyone.
I needed it affirmed for me, in narrative, in a way that felt organic, that being a mutant or intersex or queer or afraid or traumatized or hairy or short or tall or bald was just a thing you were, not a moral judgment upon you. That my natural existence was not a moral judgment on me.