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Why Queer Characters in Comic Books Matter

September 22, 2016

 

Last year, when longtime X-Men character Iceman came out as gay after more than 50 years of Marvel Comics history, I, along with many of my fellow gay geeks, was elated. In that moment I felt as though we gay geeks had collectively raised a glass to welcome this rather prominent Marvel character to the gayborhood of mainstream comics.

 

To have the ice-wielding mutant proclaim his gayness and have it widely covered in the media was an important moment.

 

After all, he has been a key part of superhero media for decades, from appearing in classic comic books series as X-Men, X-Factor, The Defenders, and The Champions to being in numerous cartoons series — Spider-Man and His Amazing Friends was Saturday morning appointment TV in my home — to, of course, being portrayed in the successful live-action X-Men movies. Iceman is a very well-known character in pop culture. He joins an ever-growing list of queer characters in comic books.

 

I applaud the fact that Iceman is a character fans have known for most, if not all, of their lives. I would argue the fact that he is not a random character, the fact that he’s been enjoyed — maybe loved — for years makes his coming-out resonate more. His queerness is more impactful because it’s hard to hate someone (even a fictional character) you’ve welcomed into your life for years.

 

In case anyone was worried Iceman revealing his homosexuality was just a gimmick to sell comic books, this past week, in All-New X-Men issue 13, Iceman visits his first gay club. Two of his straight mutant friends actually drag him to the club in effort to help him meet another guy.

 

An entire issue spent on a gay character trying to meet, flirt with, and date another man in a major mainstream comic book? Progress never felt so wonderful.

 

This comic book is pretty special in just how nonspecial it actually is. It features just a regular, straightforward story. It wasn’t touted as a “very special” issue. It wasn’t polybagged to protect impressionable youth. It didn’t have a parental warning label on it. Its cover was as typical as anything else on the comic book stands. We’ve come a long way since The Rawhide Kid, baby.

 

As a child I longed to see something so simple as this story: just a human tale of a superhero boy meeting a superhero boy. Of course, there were often allusions to queer characters in the comic books I read as a kid, but these allusions never connected with me. Allusions are all well and good, but I needed — I need — something more concrete.

 

Perhaps seeing a gay character in the X-Men (my favorite book as a kid) like Iceman would have helped me not to feel so alone and isolated growing up. I wrote about it my love of the X-Men and how the comics saved my life here. 

 

The first gay hero who I made a connection with was also the first homosexual character in comic books: Northstar. He came out in 1992, well into my later teen years. Even after he came out he wasn’t shown kissing another man on panel for another 20 years.  

 

I’ve been lucky enough to be in a few panel discussions on the importance of LGBT characters in comic books. Last year at a panel at ComicCon in San Diego I was asked by a member of the audience why my fellow panelist and I didn’t include trans characters in our books.

 

In my response to her, I realized why representation in comic books matters — because the telling of our stories openly and honestly on the comic book page is an act of empowerment. When queer writers and artists create queer stories, it’s how we own our images. It’s how we give life to our truth, to our identities. We humanize who we are.

 

When we create a story, a comic book, based on our LGBT perspectives we are giving a powerful representation to who we are and showing our value as vital members in society. We are no longer a “them” or an “other,” but someone our readers know; someone they can relate to.

 

It’s also the reason I was inspired to include a lesbian, bisexual, trans, and asexual Mormon hero in my gay Mormon superhero comic book series Stripling Warrior. As a gay Mormon myself, with lesbian, bi, trans, and asexual friends, I wanted to give a voice to the wide and beautiful spectrum within the LGBT community.

 

Given all the anti-LGBT doctrine my Mormon faith teaches, I want to present a positive and affirming alternative. I seek to use the myths and stories within the church as the framework for my comic book to celebrate queerness in all its forms.

 

For we LGBT people are not broken. We are not unworthy. We are too can be superheroes, we too can be blessed and uplifted. We too are deserving of respect.

 

So does this mean you need to be gay to enjoy Iceman’s trip to the gay club? Do you need to be queer and Mormon to enjoy Stripling Warrior? Nope.

 

A good story is a good story, whether its main character is trans, gay, bi, or straight. A good story will resonate with anyone who reads it. I’ve read and loved comic books with straight protagonists my entire life, so I believe straight readers can and should try a book with a queer lead. 

 

Those of us who are lucky enough to have a platform to reach a wide audience — or semi-wide, if you’re an underground comic book creator like myself — need to continue to stand up and tell our stories.

 

Because it’s when we tell our stories — even if they are draped in capes, costumes, and outlandish code names — that we have the power to shape society. 

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