A few years ago, comic readers were excited to hear that a major character from the DC Universe was going to come out of the closet. DC revealed the character that was going to come out was the Green Lantern. This meant that Hal Jordan, John Stewart, Guy Gardner, Kyle Rayner, or any of the other mainstream Green Lantern characters were poised to change the universe. Instead of having any of the dozen well-known Green Lanterns in the main universe come out of the closet, Alan Scott, the Earth-2 Green Lantern, came out as gay. Choosing Alan made a statement: Gay characters are welcome as long as they don’t affect a primary universe’s continuity. This was the last time the comics community was promised a major gay character reveal and were handed a letdown. Since then, many have taken the promise of a major character being revealed as gay with a grain of salt.
This week Bobby Drake came out as gay…sort of.
Wait…Bobby Drake was outed as gay…kind of.
Marvel’s bold move to reveal a major character in their main universe is gay should be lauded. Despite the many issues some have with the way the story was handled, this is an incredible step forward. There is no going back, and that is exciting. This is Bobby Drake, one of the original X-Men. The X-Men continues to stand as a title in which GLBTQ persons see themselves. It has stood as a story for the struggle for equality and a story of social outcasts. Bobby Drake coming out of the closet should be heralded.
However…there were a few problems with the way All-New X-Men presented this newly-outed character (spoilers ahead – you’ve been warned!).
The first problem is Jean Grey and time travel. Both of these factors leave this development open to being retconned. Jean Grey is the mutant you would find sitting with the Plastics. She is an Omega-level mutant with psychic abilities, and that makes her an unreliable character and a shoddy plot device. In All-New X-Men #40, Jean Grey reads young Bobby Drake’s mind and outs him. Many queer people can speak to the pain of being outed in an intrusive manner; it is an important narrative in the strange ritual of coming out of the closet. The problem with Jean Grey outing Bobby Drake by looking into his mind is that this now makes Bobby Drake’s coming out easy to retcon. Leaving this revelation to a high-powered, Omega-level psychic mutant is problematic because down the road, Marvel can reverse this at any time since it is easy to say Jean Grey altered Bobby’s mind and made him believe he is gay. Psychic mind control is often the loophole used for retcons (Xorn, anyone?) In fact, Bendis himself proved the mental influence of psychic mutants in the recently wrapped up a storyline in Uncanny X-Men in which Professor X had worked to put mental blocks into place in order to prevent the world from being destroyed by Matthew Malloy, a high-powered, destructive mutant kept secret from the world. This shows how easy it is for a powerful psychic mutant, like Jean Grey, to manipulate the way a person behaves and perceives themselves. Psychic X-Men characters routinely alter characters, and this fact could come back to erase Bobby Drake’s sexual orientation should Marvel decide to take a step backward.
This retcon could also come from the fact that outed Bobby Drake is young, disoriented, time-traveling Bobby Drake, not the adult, mainstream Bobby Drake currently working with the X-Men. Using this specific Bobby Drake means that time-traveling Bobby Drake is gay, but it could turn out that he is not the same as adult Bobby Drake. As far as we know, the X-Men from the past are from the 616 past, but that could change once Bendis is out of the driver’s seat or if Marvel decides that it’s time to shake things up a bit. We have no proof that young Bobby Drake is indeed the child version of adult Bobby Drake other than Bendis’s word. Time travel, like psychic influence, is an easy catalyst for a retcon.
Another problem is that the whole execution of this revelation is a huge mess. The exchange between young Jean and young Bobby is in a filler issue that really advances nothing. The issue itself is a patchwork of plot set-ups to be explored in future issues. Whereas this does allow Bobby’s story to be completed in future issues, it leaves a lot of important questions unanswered. The outing is abrupt and ham-fisted. Young Bobby salutes Magik’s “unbelievable hotness” and Jean Grey decides that the proper response to that is to reveal that she’s been reading Bobby’s mind, pull him away from the group, and then tell him that he should not make such comments because they are inappropriate and sexist because he’s gay. This is just sloppy writing, and it is only remotely forgivable because this is a delicate situation handled by characters who are children with no real social experience.
The issue never consults adult Bobby Drake which is incredibly problematic. By not addressing adult, present day Bobby Drake with this “revelation,” we are left with a lot of ambiguity on this issue since, up until this issue, Bobby Drake has been straight. When young Bobby begins to question how he can be gay but adult Bobby is not, Jean suggests that this is a “unique situation.” Young Bobby suggests that his adult self could not handle the pressure of being a mutant and being gay and that perhaps he found it easier to “put away” his homosexuality. When the two are discussing adult Bobby Drake, young Bobby says that his older self is not gay, and Jean, the Omega-level psychic who reads minds on a regular basis, says, “I know.” She knows that young Bobby is gay, but she also “knows” that adult Bobby is not gay. When Bobby suggests that he might be bisexual, which would also be a wonderful revelation for GLBTQ persons, Jean says he is “full gay.” This is dangerous because it implies that homosexuality is a choice, something one can repress or switch off simply because it’s too difficult to be gay. This is a dangerous implication since the “choice” of homosexuality is the backbone of every anti-GLBTQ argument. Though this issue does not bring adult Iceman into the conversation, it does leave a lot up in the air, and that is irresponsible when the idea of the “choice” of queerness is on the table.
This conversation about Bobby Drake’s sexual orientation could have been handled better. Marvel and Brian Michael Bendis surely only have the best intentions for this character and wanted to present a progressive storyline in a comic book series that has always felt like home to social outcasts. Iceman coming out of the closet is an amazing step forward that was tripped up by poor writing. Marvel is on the right path with good intentions, but the execution is a mess of ambiguity and forced character development. In the end, the lesson is that perhaps it is time for queer narratives to be crafted by writers other than straight white men who have no concept of the closet.