By Sara Century
Contrary to popular belief and likely even in contrast to creator intention, Iceman has always been at least lightly queer-coded. In the earliest days of the X-Men, Iceman’s masculinity is easily spotted as performative for a lot of fans. Readers were not the only ones to notice this, and over time increasingly less-subtle hints were dropped. Before he ever came out, Iceman’s status as a mutant was often used as a queer allegory (notably in the second X-Men film), but across comics as well.
Still, if you ask most modern X-Men readers, it was the mid-90s when the queer-coding became overly apparent to a lot of fans. Stories in which Emma Frost took over his body and challenged him on his general repression of his abilities seemed to quietly ask Robert what it was he was attempting to hide from himself. His seeming inability to connect even with women who seemed perfectly suited for his personality was recurring. A friendly road trip in matching booty shorts with Rogue may have inspired some shipping, but ultimately he was emotional support to the women in his life. Active viability of him as a romantic partner was rarely on the table.
Yet, before any of that, there was significant coding in the years before that often goes unmentioned. Perhaps nowhere so noticeably than in The New Defenders, in which hints to Iceman’s sexuality weren’t dropped so much as gleefully flung into the ether. When Beast, Iceman, and Angel joined the New Defenders, it was from the ashes of The Champions. Completely without purpose without a super-team in their lives, they joined the struggling Defenders. Admittedly, the team was more or less in shambles in the moment. Though the series took on a significantly different tone with the three O5 X-Men, it was a welcome one.
Looking back, the New Defenders era is baffling in the amount of queer coding and content it got away with in its time. There was definitely an editorial mandate in the ‘80s that prevented queer couplings from appearing on the page, yet somehow characters like the gender-switching Cloud and the pansexual Moondragon made their preferences at least somewhat clear.
Series writer J.M. DeMatteis admits that he was feeling burned out on the concept of the New Defenders, so even adding three O5 X-Men to the roster didn’t help pique his interest and he ended up leaving the series not long after. Though the comic sold fairly well, it was definitely on the backburner for a lot of people, including, at times, the creative team behind it. That nonchalance around the book may have been what allowed follow-up writer Peter B. Gillis to get away with the amount of flirting and queer subtext that appeared consistently for his stint on the book.
Bobby was at an influx when he joined this team, having tried and failed to maintain his life as the accountant his parents wanted him to be. One notable moment early in his arc here entailed a visit to his parents, who raved about how glad and how proud they were to see him putting life as a superhero behind him. When he reveals that he has returned to his Iceman identity, his father starts shouting and his mother literally faints. Though many people might chalk this up to standard “parents just don’t understand” fare, queer readers have a different understanding of the kind of secrets and revelations that might warrant such responses from conservative family members.
There are many bizarre hints dropped that imply there might be something more at play with Bobby Drake in this series. His friendships with Hank and Warren often teeter into open flirting. When a young woman is attempting to talk to Beast at a college, Warren says that he is Hank’s manager, while Bobby introduces himself as “his boyfriend, Lance.” While this is played off as a joke, this scene holds a lot of interesting context for the queer reader. Bobby joshes about crushes on men, flirts openly with his friends, and is unwilling to have serious conversations about his interests. Beast cries out, “Why did you say that? What if she believes you?” and completely fails to see that Bobby might be trying to tell him something.
Despite all of this subtext, perhaps the most telling moments of Bobby’s repressed sexuality come into play when his teammate Cloud first reveals their ability to switch to a male form. After Bobby had flirted with Cloud extensively in previous issues, he becomes angry and aggressive towards Cloud when he discovers their ability to transform into a male body. He demands to know how Valkyrie can feel so comfortable sitting next to Cloud, and calls them “your regular average guy/girl” despite Cloud’s pleading for him to try and understand. Though Bobby does apologize, this is perhaps the one time we see him genuinely respond with anger through the entire run of this series.
There are many layers to this, and none of them are easy to parse. Transphobia among binary gay men and women is certainly prominent today, and Bobby’s aggressive reaction to Cloud’s more fluid sexuality is difficult to watch as it plays out. “Gender-switching” characters of the ‘80s and ‘90s also have their problematic side for a lot of trans readers, as the premise simplifies the complicated subject of gender identity and reduces it to being nothing more than the flip of a switch.
Valkyrie’s insistence that Bobby attempt a greater understanding seems to mirror her experience of discomfort and aggression with Moondragon, and reflects some growth in her own queer evolution. Moondragon is later implied to have simply influenced and manipulated Cloud into loving her with her own psychic abilities, which is an intensely questionable element of her own character that has thankfully fallen by the wayside in more recent stories. Meanwhile, perhaps most problematic at all, Cloud is repeatedly confirmed to be only seventeen in this series and all the characters that have flirted with them are significantly older, including Bobby Drake.
Though these issues are far from perfect when it comes to their usefulness to queer readers of today, there is yet no denying that these stories were hugely impactful for many queer fans of their day. For the sake of this article’s focus, Bobby’s immaturity and aggression here are surprising. His general lighthearted tone and inability to maintain seriousness are shown to have a more troubled underbelly than we initially knew. Though it would be years before we would see another serious look at his sexuality, his identity in X-Factor as the goofy sidekick of the Beast would never quite click so easily as it had before. Their aggressive and childish flirtations with women moving forward would not erase the context that we saw in New Defenders, and Bobby’s once seemingly unconflicted identity would never read quite so one-dimensional ever again.
Naturally, very little of the gender discourse that occurs in New Defenders would be considered unproblematic by today’s standards, but there is still something to it. Valkyrie, who is uncomfortable and threatened by Moondragon’s seemingly open queerness, later comes out as bisexual. Moondragon goes on to have relationships with Marlo Jones and Phyla-Vell. Cloud completely vanishes from continuity, but Iceman goes on to be outed by Jean Grey. Generally, the amount of queer subtext that appears in this series is fairly outrageous for its time. Though Bobby does not respond well to his own burgeoning queerness in these pages, they are still an important part of his evolution as a gay man.
The New Defenders #136
Written by Peter B. Gillis
Drawn by Don Perlin
Inked by Kim DeMulder
Coloured by Petra Scotese
Lettered by Janice Chiang
Sara Century is an artist, writer, and filmmaker, among other things. She’s the co-founder of the Queer Spec publishing company and its anthology Decoded Pride as well as being a cohost of the podcast Bitches On Comics. Check her website for more or follow her on Twitter here!
The column title “Out Cold” was chosen by JP Jordan!
This post was made possible thanks to the Shelfdust Patreon! To find out more, head to our Patreon page here!
Thanks for this. I have been meaning to go back and check out these comics again. I had a bunch of them as a kid, but I just didn’t get it. . . It is a strange era of a team known for its strangeness.
But there is one thing I want to ask about. You claim, “There is yet no denying that these stories were hugely impactful for many queer fans of their day.” Is there evidence for this? Letters columns? Critical retrospectives? Fan reflection? Creator testimony? I’d love to know how/where/when this was expressed and the ways it was impactful.