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.

How the Genre Community Restored My Faith in Humanity

On January 10th, Catherine Schaffer and Mary Robinette Kowal organized a fundraiser to raise money for a genome sequencing procedure for fellow writer, Jay Lake.  Lake, as you might know, has been battling cancer for years, and recently received some terrible news about his future.  Having this procedure done could very well suggest new treatments that could extend his life.  The fundraiser offered a lot of amusing perks for different goal levels -- Paul Cornell, for example, offered to sing "Wuthering Heights" by Kate Bush (goal reached!):

You can find many of the other amusing examples, from ancient trunk stories to Mary Robinette Kowal's amazing rendition of "Mother Goose" in her "phone sex" voice.

Needless to say, the cause is a good one.  When I had the fortune to have Jay Lake on my podcast last year, he shared a great deal about his personal life, which had the effect of convincing me that I should write about my own travels with cancer (which I started here).  While it's not fair to offer up one of those "if anyone deserves it" statements (almost everyone deserves the right to a long, healthy life, as far as I'm concerned), I have to admit that I'm extraordinarily happy that so many wonderful people stood up to raise money for Jay.

And that fundraiser has, at the time of writing this post, raised over $36,000 in under 48 hours, with numerous bits of joy added on as previously unexpected financial heights were reached (the fundraiser has now become a way to help Jay pay for his medical bills).  I imagine Jay is overwhelmed for very good reasons.  After all, the community came out en mass to help him get a potentially life-saving procedure he otherwise couldn't have afforded.  I can imagine he's ecstatic and emotional over this.  I would be too if I were in his position.

But I've found myself overwhelmed too, for different reasons.  Folks who know me have been, shall we say, gifted to my perpetual cynicism about our culture.  Barely 12 hours before this fundraiser went live, I recall telling my friend, Adam Callaway, that our culture is a painfully selfish one, and that we are capable of so much good if we could only get over our desperate need to hoard wealth and back-stab one another.  I still believe that, but the enormous success of this fundraiser (one that still has a month left) has made me realize that there is a strong pocket of what I'd call "true humanity" right here in the genre community.

That so many people who don't even know Jay would pour out their support for him, and at such a rapid pace, has taught me that maybe I shouldn't be so cynical about everything.  After all, fundraisers happen all the time, for very good causes, and some raise massive amounts of money too.  The genre community is relatively small, though.  The people offering to embarrass themselves in public or donating their money have done something extraordinary, as they have done many times before.  This time, it was too obvious to ignore.  Too big.  Too amazing.

That's more or less how the genre community restored my faith in humanity.  You've shattered my view of the world in all the right ways.  And I thank you for that.

For those who haven't helped yet, please head on over to the fundraiser for Jay and give a little money.  The stretch goals have since been, well, stretched to the $100,000 mark, in which someone will produce a Jay Lake musical (after Howard Taylor draws a picture of Jay beating the crap out of cancer).  I'd love to see that musical, and I'd love to see Jay ride out the rest of his life with a little less stress.  Go donate!

Cloning Myself?

Would you clone yourself if you have the opportunity to do so?  I sometimes think it would be strange to clone myself (the scifi kind of cloning, where clones are literal, full-grown copies).  What kind of strange conversations would we have?  Would we each develop differently over time so that the only resemblance between us was physical?

Science fiction writers have asked these questions for decades.  Why?  I don't know.  Maybe we're secretly narcissists?  Or maybe there's just something fascinating about the idea that humanity is duplicable.  After all, if science fiction is, as many suggest, a genre deeply concerned with the human condition, then cloning is merely a "new" avenue through which we can interrogate what it is
that makes us human.  Cloning rests alongside intelligent robots, aliens, androids, and all manner of intelligent non-humans to remind us that whatever it is that makes us human and unique is hard to pinpoint.  If our minds and bodies can be duplicated, then what makes you "you" and me "me"?
This is why I find narratives about cloning, androids, aliens, and so on compelling.  Dawn by Octavia Butler, for example, considers whether humanity still exists when its genetics have been tampered with by an alien race (even for its own good).  Butler's narrative is rife with deep questions about human existence:  Is there something inherently wrong with humanity on a genetic level?  Do we cease to be human if we fix those genetic errors and mix ourselves with other species?  Does humanity deserve to exist if its genetics lead it toward self-destruction?
Or there are books like Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick, Marseguro by Edward  Willett, or Tobias Buckell's Xenowealth Saga.  Each interrogates the human condition in unique and vibrant ways, from questioning our compulsion towards enslavement and extermination (Dick) to the place of genetic modification in the human spectrum (Willett) to the integration of humans with machines and computers (Buckell).  Science fiction loves these sorts of questions.  It thrives on them, more so now than ever before -- because we're already asking ourselves these questions in real life.  If you clone a person or modify their genetics, are they still human?  Why or why not?  When we create artificial lifeforms with free will, do we have to rethink our legal framework?  If so, how do we change it?  If we're not already asking ourselves these questions today, we will have to sooner or later.  Humanity will have to change as we "play God."

And so I have to ask myself what I'd think if I met a clone of myself.  Would I react with violence, as so many humans in SF narratives have done, or would I react with philosophical confusion and curiosity?  I don't know.  What about you?

Airport Shuffle — Or, Hey, Airports in X-Files are Weird Places

I've been re-watching X-Files lately and it dawned on me how strange the world looked back then. For example, in one of the 1st season episodes ("E.B.E."), Scully walks right into an airport terminal and purchases two tickets (one with her credit card and one with cash). The desk lady says to her "You can catch your plane right over there," pointing to the actual gate at which Scully would board her plane.

Think about that for a moment. When was the last time you could do that in an airport? Granted, some of you are older than I am, so you have better memories of the pre-9/11 world. I, however, didn't do a lot of flying pre-2001 because I was a) not quite an adult yet, and b) not financially well off (by that I mean my mother didn't have a lot of money, as we spent part of my youth on welfare
and the rest as lower middle class). So while I have some memories of flying pre-2001, more of my flight memories take place after.

For me, then, seeing someone waltz into an airport, do something fishy, and then get pointed to their gate without having to go through a giant x-ray machine or without TSA agents staring them down is a little bizarre. That world doesn't exist anymore (and in a somewhat ironic way, it's the exact world Mulder and Scully were fighting against...only their "terrorists" were aliens and their agents, not human beings with a political/religious agenda of destruction). I'm not even sure that world can _ever_ exist again. How could it? The world Mulder and Scully fought in died on 9/11 (one of my professors actually sees the end of the collapse of the Soviet Union and 9/11 as two rupture points in U.S. history, framing, I would argue, a long-not-quite-decade of utopian thinking).

Has anyone else had this experience? You're watching some show from the 90s or whenever and realized that things are different. Not because the cars are from a different era or they have strange hair or use different slang, and so on and so forth, but because the ideological landscape is almost alien.

I wonder what the world of film will look like in 20 years...

What Star Trek Desperately Needs

I'm currently enjoying Enterprise, one of the least-liked of the various Star Trek incarnations.  I won't say that Enterprise is the worst of the lot; in many ways, it has the great adventure and anthological introspection commonly found in everything from Star Trek to The Next Generation to Voyager (and, I suppose, DS9 -- my least favorite).  Yet despite that, I think the problem with Enterprise is precisely that it maintains the format Star Trek fans have become familiar with in every single previous incarnation available.  It's an anthology show.  Every episode offers some new idea, which has to be explored and resolved, more or less, in 45 minutes.  What little overarching plot the show offered was pretty much irrelevant, except at random junctures the creators decided would serve as "connectors" to the series premiere.

Think about it.  The original Star Trek set the stage.  Captain Kirk and his crew set off to explore the universe, discovering new species, different cultures, and so on and so forth.  The Next
Generation:  same basic idea.  Voyager tried to mix things up by having the ship get lost way out in the middle of nowhere, but that plot point didn't change the basic format of the show.  And neither did Enterprise.  It gave us the same format, the same basic concepts, and so on and so forth.  It was a repetition, like everything else before it.

What Star Trek desperately needs is to break format -- or, as I like to say, it needs to have its BSG moment.  If we are to enjoy another series, that show has to be more than just "humans and a couple of aliens running around in the galaxy finding shit."  It certainly needs to be more than the same cliche character types too.  What we need is a story set in the Star Trek universe which explores the intense personal relationships formed on spacecraft or even the traumas of space flight.  It might even be an interesting idea to jump into the future of ST's established timeline and show the trials and tribulations of characters fighting a major war.  It doesn't much matter how a set of writers gets to the deeper relationships; what matters is that they avoid the weak gestures we so often see in anthology-based TV series and actually explore who these characters are.

That, in my mind, is what Star Trek needs.  Not flashy new movies.  Not new series following the same old format.  But a new show which crosses the boundaries of its familiar community and gives us a show we have to watch every week just to know what happens next.  Next.  As in the continuation of a single, overarching plot, in which each episode contributes to the whole.  In which each episode shows us a little more about the characters we love, or hate, or love to hate.

That's what I'd like to see anyway.  What about you?