Diversity Fail by Marvel (Again)

marvel logoIn comics, when something needs to be changed in a character who has already been established for whatever reason, it’s called a retcon. This is short for “retroactive continuity”, and it comes in two broad flavours, hard and soft. DC favours hard reset retcons that rebooted the entire universe, and until recently, Marvel preferred soft ones that occurred in book. Until recently, I preferred the soft ones too, since when I saw them previously, they were used to gently “bump” things to help keep the system on track. For example, Professor X was turned into a Vietnam veteran from a Korean War veteran to bump the X-Men forward in time because the Marvel Universe doesn’t deal well with the passage of time (the original X-Men should all be in their sixties, and Iron Man should be well into his seventies or early eighties). I’m writing about this because comic books are an easily accessed medium for people interested in SFF.

So what’s my issue here? In the last seven or so years, writing quality in the X-Men comics has gone from okay if predictable to shitting the bed lazy. Bizarro quasi-religious themes have been dominant, and terribly executed, and, consciously or not, Marvel has been using them to advocate for very real racist “solutions” to minority “problems” as I talked about earlier. What has also happened is the thoughtless and crude use of retcons. One was the insertion of one writer’s fan fiction into the continuity with the fabrication of a relationship between Black Panther and Storm. This is another one, that Bobby Drake, Ice Man, is gay. [1]

Now, before you spool up, I don’t care that the character is gay. What bothers me is that instead of investing time in telling a story and building the background, they just have Jean Grey read his mind and announce it. It’s bad storytelling. What’s worse is that this younger Ice Man is the younger Ice Man of modern comics, not an alternate version or anything, and they acknowledge in the comic that the adult Ice Man isn’t gay. So, effectively, they’re trivilizing sexuality, treating it like light switch that can be flicked on and off. This is problematic because it supports the very wrong and rightfully discarded idea that homosexuality is a “phase” that can be grown out of. In his comments on the story, Brian Bendis says that this is a chance to explore a larger story via the time displaced X-Men. [2] This rings hollow to me though, because this is a terrible approach to take on such a sensitive topic, because I’m pretty sure it’s a story where Ice Man has a variety of sexual crises before not being gay anymore (as they acknowledge that future Ice Man is not gay). This sends a lot of wrong messages.

Several friends of mine who exist on other parts of the sexual spectrum have pointed out some other serious issues with this issue coming out tomorrow. Among their points were that Ice Man has his agency taken from him by Jean Grey. He doesn’t come out on his own terms, he’s outed. There was also note taken of the profound ignorance of the writers around bisexuality and homosexuality. One blogger was fairly explicit in their assessment of the comic’s treatment of bisexuality.[3] This indicates to me that the staff at Marvel couldn’t be bothered to actually do any serious research on the topic, or to prepare a nuanced plot. Instead they roll in hard with serious biases and blindspots, and publish them.

So why am I making so much noise about this? I’m a straight male who barely reads anything X-Men related anymore, so why should I care? I care because narratives and perceptions are formed based off of what we see and experience. This comic is going to partially inform and/or reinforce the ideas, opinions, and perceptions of the readers, many of whom are not going to be gay, or understanding of the problematic elements in it. It presents Ice Man as a stereotypically overcompensating closeted gay man, misrepresents bisexuality and the human sexual spectrum, and presents an all too fast confrontation/discussion/acceptance cycle. It perpetuates bad information, bad stereotypes, and pretty much supports the status quo ideas on the subjects at hand. This is the same as shows like “Blue Bloods” perpetuating the idea of malicious minorities out to frame police for brutality. [4] This is an issue in gaming, literature, and popular media of all sorts not just in the SFF realms.

So, in short, for a comic that theoretically is supposed to explore the issues of social justice and diversity, the X-Men have once again shit the bed and done more to support the status quo or regressive ideologies and concepts than to actually meaningfully explore anything. Well done Marvel.

UPDATE:

I have been informed that the younger Jean Grey goes on to tell the younger Ice Man that the adult version of him isn’t gay, but it’s because he hasn’t “figured it out yet”. Having worked with several people who were closeted for long periods of time, and having talked with them about it, there was no “figuring it out”. They knew they were gay. Implying that homosexuality is something people need to “figure out” implies that it is, in a way, a choice as opposed to a biological or natural state. This is not so. [5] The defences that his homosexuality is shown through his womanizing, short term and failed relationships, and general douchebag behaviour is also a slap in the face to many members of the LGBTQ+ community, since it’s the perpetuation of harmful stereotypes. The unfortunate fallout is that because these fit the ideas and stereotypes held by the straight community, they’re getting an uncritical pass.

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