The Importance of Bobby Drake

xmen40

I don’t normally start out my column with a spoiler alert, but since the nature of today’s column is from this week’s issue of New X-Men, I thought I would state one here, especially if you’ve lived under a rock and haven’t been on like Facebook or anything. Of course, now, I’m just typing enough text so that I know the little textual preview on Facebook won’t spoil the first official line of the column, which is coming…

Now.

This week, Bobby Drake came out of the closet. What’s most impressive is that he managed to do so without the typical press release hype and fanfare that traditionally accompanies such controversial “events.” (For an example, look no further than the time the mainstream press spoiled the death of Captain America the day before the comic was released.) This information, however, was not provided by a press release, but leaked to the Internet through a couple of pages that most likely originated in a review copy of the issue, or a direct email from some marketing manager who was disappointed because he couldn’t write a press release to announce this.

What’s slightly less impressive, but still impressive though, is how well the reveal works, from a historical, cultural, and literary perspective.

The reveal itself comes about in an interesting way. Within the story, Beast goes back in time to bring the original five X-Men to the future to stop future Cyclops, who is kind of acting crazy. The original X-Men meet up with their future counterparts, and wacky sitcom antics ensue. During one particular scene, telepath Jean Grey pulls young Bobby Drake aside and essentially outs him. She points out that she can read thoughts, and she knows he’s gay. The conversation is a little hokey, but ultimately ends in a hug, albeit one in which Bobby says he has no idea what he thinks of all of this.

(You can read some of the pages over here.)

As with most events like this, the reaction from fans has been mixed. Some people are praising this decision, especially since Iceman IS one of the original X-Men – this is as OG as you can get, in this regard. For these people, this announcement also follows years of speculation as Iceman’s personality and relationships have always come across as more bravado than anything. Overcompensating much, maybe? For these people who speculate on a fictional character’s sexuality, this confirmation has been very much welcome.

Other people haven’t been so excited, however, as many people see the move as further pandering to a political correct society that is trying to force us to be tolerant of others, a novel concept I know. Others still see this as nothing more than another publicity stunt designed to snag the brief surge in sales that inevitably follows the announcement hitting the mainstream press. (It has hit the mainstream press, by the way. It remains yet to be seen whether this will affect sales or not.)

I went back and forth on how much I wanted to write about all of this, because I think that plenty of people have already written about it, and most likely, they’ve written about it more eloquently than I can. I do, however, feel compelled to talk about how awesome I feel all of this is, and why I think this particular story arc works so well.

First, on a cultural level, representation matters, guys and gals. Was this a publicity stunt? Maybe. Was it done to increase sales? Probably. Corporations rarely do anything that isn’t intended to make money in some sense. However, none of that really matters. This move increases visibility, diversity, and representation within comics, and all of that is important. Additionally, it’s representation of a group of people that is rarely represented in comic books. Bobby Drake suppressed his sexuality years ago, because it wasn’t accepted. Additionally, it wasn’t accepted in a time that humanity hated him for being a mutant. As his dialogue shows, it might have been too hard to be both, and one was certainly easier to put away than the other.

How many people over the past few decades have made this very decision, because they felt like they had to? How great is it that they now have someone in comics that represents them and their struggle? How awesome is that? Publicity stunts, and pandering, and etc, etc, etc, aside – how great is that??

And, I’m sorry if it feels forced, but sometimes we have to force diversity. We have centuries of literature that has been filled with characters that are remarkably white, male, and straight, and that doesn’t look to be stopping any time soon, as evidenced by any media that ever comes out, ever. We are all consumers that have been surrounded by and indoctrinated by that ideology, and made to believe that this is all normal, and that ideology is difficult to overcome. Sometimes, it has to be forced, because if it’s not, it will never change. (Thankfully, you can think of “forced” diversity [which I think is in itself a problematic term, but that’s a debate for another column] as a pendulum. As diversity increases, so does representation and visibility, and eventually, we can overcome that embedded ideology, and it begins to lessen and lessen, and the pendulum can swing back to a more level and adjusted pace. Until it does, though, “forced” diversity is a necessity. It just is.)

And, because they’ve chosen this route, how awesome is this on a narrative level? Suddenly, you have a younger Bobby who is processing all of this, while you also have an older Bobby that is still trying to suppress it. That is a unique take on this conversation, and while I have a lot of problems with Brian Michael Bendis, he needs to be praised for this move on a literary level. This is interesting.

Additionally, he’s written the reveal in such a way that doesn’t ruin the past fifty years of continuity. Those stories still happened. Bobby still had all of the heterosexual relationships he has had. He has still been a man-whore for all of these years. But, man, doesn’t this make all of those stories that much more interesting? Because of this shift, we can suddenly re-read these stories in a whole new way, and that is awesome. We have fifty years of continuity that can suddenly be re-read, and in doing so, the text can present entirely new meaning and analysis. On a strictly story level, this is fantastic.

(Now, I’m not saying that the retcon is as smooth as, say, James Robinson’s Starman, but let’s face it: No retcon is as smooth as Robinson’s Starman. This is still pretty darn great, though.)

And, really, guys, if this doesn’t belong in the X-Men, I’m not sure where it belongs. This is a comic that has never hidden its “agenda” of social progressivism. The writers haven’t always been great at it (I have a grad school paper on Thunderbird I should post sometime), but they have always tried. And they should always be commended for at least trying to increase diversity in comics and bring about social change, regardless of whether or not they succeed.

Now, I’m not saying anything that hasn’t been said by other people, and honestly, writing this, I think I’ve echoed other people a bit too much. So, I do feel a need to add something to the conversation. So, I think I want to talk about Jean’s role in all of this.

To be fair, there has been some valid criticism of the entire dialogue, and that has centered around how Jean brings all of this about. Specifically, she reads Iceman’s mind and badgers him until he admits it. Essentially, she outs him, which is very problematic. There is also some troubling dialogue concerning gay versus bi. And I think criticism of this dialogue is absolutely valid. (And, really, should be laid at the feet of Bendis, whose dialogue has always felt stilted to me.) However, I think there is another consideration that must be made. This is a Jean from the same period as the young Bobby, to whom all of this is happening. This Jean has been raised in the same environment and culture that has created the need for Bobby to suppress his sexuality.

While her part in the conversation is awkward and troubling, she has also been raised in a time in which the appropriate conversation has not yet been established. In this sense, Jean becomes an analogue for the very world that has forced Bobby to become what he has become over the past fifty years. So, while yes, outing someone in the way that Jean Grey outs Bobby is never okay, in doing it in this way, it becomes a snapshot of the hegemonic status quo that existed at the time (and still exists today). While she can be praised for her acceptance and tolerance, her actions and dialogue also reveals the depressing lack of understanding at the time, and the desperate need for such an understanding, a need that continues fifty years later.

Maybe I’m giving Bendis too much credit, but I like to imagine that this was all intentional. Even if it wasn’t, though, it continues to create additional layers on this already awesome narrative cake. Hooray!

Ultimately, I don’t know where this will go. Maybe Iceman has this moment and promptly forgets about it. Maybe his younger self helps his older self come to grips with his identity. Maybe he doesn’t. I don’t know. But, what I do know is that the events of New X-Men #40 are important, and I think they’ll have a pretty potent impact on the future of diversity in comics. And for that reason, I am excited.

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Christopher David Lawton

Christopher David Lawton likes to put words into sentences and sentences into paragraphs. Unfortunately, the entire process tends to fall apart at that point. He is a professional writer, who lives in Bellevue, Nebraska, with his beautiful and remarkably patient wife, April.

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