Intimate X-Aminations: Transcending Boundaries and Finding Queerness in the X-Men

Written by BlackbirdGo November 21, 2018
The History

Conceived in the 1960s as just another one of Marvel Comics’ various superheroic imprints by writer and artist duo Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, the X-Men were dreamed up in response to the success of characters like Spider-Man, Thor, and The Hulk, whose popularity was undeniable at the time. In developing the concept for the X-Men, however, the property took on a different tenor from its peers, in part because Stan Lee sought to eliminate an “origin story” trope (e.g., Spider-Man being bitten by a radioactive spider or The Hulk being blasted by gamma radiation). Lee decided that he would eliminate the power-related “origin story” from the structure of the X-Men’s plot and instead state that they’d simply been born different, with an “eX-tra power” for which the group was originally named.

The X-Men’s earliest adventures were the typical superheroic fare detailing the struggle between good and evil and did not appear to carry any particular sociopolitical implications at first, at least if one didn’t consider the fact that the franchise featured an adult man taking vulnerable (but powerful) youths in to train them as child soldiers in his (well-intended) private war against forces he deemed to be evil, which included his former best friend and current mutant freedom fighter (or terrorist, depending on the day and the vantage point) Magneto.

That mutants were treated as fairly commonplace members of society (albeit with hidden, powerful abilities) who cooperated with the authorities to stop villains and who were otherwise completely average, perhaps even boring teenagers, had a negative impact on the books’ sales. The shipping of the books lagged massively behind the publisher’s other properties and, toward the end of the 1960s, Marvel opted to stop publishing them entirely.

That might have spelled the end for the X-Men were it not for a 1975 re-tooling of the franchise originally masterminded by writer-author duo Len Wein and Dave Cockrum (and later, most notably, by Chris Claremont and John Byrne). These authors sought to—in contrast to the original take on Marvel’s mutants—lean heavily into sociopolitical concepts, to explore superheroism through lenses that embraced racial and cultural difference, allegorized societal issues through mutant stories, and focused on dramatic concepts that were often risqué for the time. This was a particularly radical move, as the books were still being published under the rule of the Comics Code Authority—a “ratings” body not dissimilar to the video game industry’s Entertainment Software Ratings Board (ESRB) that penalized comic book publishers for straying from conservative thinking and, for many years, banned depictions of miscegenation, queer sexuality, anti-patriotism, and other concepts. The Comics Code Authority, through actions seemingly based on Fredric Wertham’s accusations of pop culture “depravity” in his 1954 monograph Seduction of the Innocent, acted as the comic book industry’s de-facto censor.

The Wein-Cockrum and Claremont-Byrne eras breathed new life and cultural relevance into the X-Men franchise, introducing conversations about race and racism (mainly through the character of Storm, or Ororo Munro, who often faced dual prejudice due to her status as a mutant and as a black woman and who was often fetishized for her “unusual beauty” by Marvel heroes and villains alike; and also through allegorizations of racism that substituted prejudice against racial minorities with prejudice for mutants), cultural difference (though not reflected in the modern X-Men films, this era introduced the X-Men’s long-standing tradition of featuring international teams made up primarily of immigrants, minorities, and women), and—less overtly due to extremely strict editorial policy—the broad spectrum of human sexuality.

While many (perhaps rightly) argue that queer readings of published works in which the queer implications are subtext can be dubious work. In the case of the X-Men—in which many queer geeks found a home—it would be hard to divorce notions of queerness from the source material, even if much of the early works were subtextual. Byrne and Claremont, in particular, intended to introduce Marvel Comics’ first openly gay character in the form of Alpha Flight’s (a group of Canadian heroes originally conceived to rival the X-Men in pursuit of Wolverine’s alliance) Northstar—an attractive Olympian skier who secretly possessed the mutant powers of flight, super speed, and the ability to generate an intense light when in physical contact with his sister, Aurora.

While Claremont and Byrne were forbidden from overtly referencing Northstar’s sexuality—and were forced to imply that his disinterest in women was due to his single-minded focus on his duties as an Olympian or as a superhero—the writers were adamant about retaining this part of the character’s identity and used subtext, as well as tongue-in-cheek artistic depictions, to imply Northstar’s sexuality over a sustained period until, after a landmark storyline (following the departure of Jim Shooter and the dissolution of the Comics Code Authority) in which the character cared for a child infected by HIV and used his public platform to advocate for the research and treatment, Northstar announced to the world that he was gay. The character would go on to write a memoir about his experiences as a gay man and a mutant, titled Born Normal—an intentional reference to the X-Men family of comics’ allegorization of queerness and other innate factors of being.

Northstar was not the only X-Family character whose queerness was subtextually implied or later revealed to be canon.

Mystique, the deadly, shape-shifting femme fatale known for her extreme militancy and deceptive ways, was another character developed by Claremont and Byrne originally intended to be portrayed as a queer woman. Introduced in the X-Men comics as the surrogate mother to villain-turned-hero Rogue an as a regular thorn in the X-Men’s side, a softer aspect of Mystique’s nature was revealed in her relationship to mutant soothsayer Destiny, with whom she lived, worked, and raised her child.

Mystique’s romantic connection to Destiny was not explicitly stated, though the character often described the woman as the “only person besides her daughter” that she loved, and they were frequently implied on-panel as sharing sleeping quarters. When, in the nineties, it was revealed that Mystique was not only the surrogate mother of Rogue but also the biological mother of Nightcrawler, some queer readers saw this as an attempt to undo perceptions of Mystique’s sexuality, while others considered it an affirmation of her bisexuality. Mystique’s chief architect (Chris Claremont) asserted that, while a story had been invented tying Mystique to a throwaway character who made a single appearance to justify her connection to Nightcrawler, it had always been his plan to make Destiny Nightcrawler’s mother—implying that the conception would have been possible through Mystique’s temporary assumption of masculine biology. That idea was forbidden when he’d come up with it and forgotten by the time Jim Shooter and the CCA were relics of the past.

Queerness has been heavily implied for a number of other X-Men characters, too, including Kitty Pryde (about which this beautiful must-read essay by Sigrid Ellis has been written); Iceman (whose inability to grow as a superhero and profound self-deprecation were long implied to be a part of an inability to accept a part of himself that was finally revealed to be his status as a closeted gay man in 2013); Psylocke (whose bisexuality was explicitly revealed in 2013’s X-Force); Deadpool (who is said to be pansexual by some authors and not so much by others); Storm (whose bisexuality has long been the stuff of legend and was heavily implied by Claremont in a storyline in which it was revealed that her heart’s “truest desire” was to live an idyllic life with her intimate friend and mentor, Yukio [as described in Carolyn Cocca’s Superwomen: Gender, Power, and Representation chapter, “X-Women: No Such Thing as Limits”]); as well as Shatterstar and Richter, two bisexual men who have been in an on-panel relationship for nearly a decade in the X-Men Universe.

Though often read into and implied—or stated after the fact—queerness appears to be a part of the X-Men’s DNA. While the X-Men’s queer history has often been muddled due to editorial mandate, censorship, or unwillingness on the part of creators to touch such storylines, the recent trend of subtext becoming text offers a promising embrace of what has long been a part of the X-Men’s essence: an understanding that there is much to celebrate about being different.

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