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. In “Out Cold”, critics will be looking back at old Iceman appearances to see how they read today.
By Tim Maytom
Content warning: this article discusses parental/emotional abuse.
I didn’t take part in the online discourse back when I first read Uncanny X-Men #319, bundled with two other issues in a UK reprint in 1997. I certainly wasn’t on the messageboards in 1994, when the issue was originally published. However, my understanding is that, if I had been, the main question I would have seen people asking was “Did Bobby Drake just come out?”
Obviously, with our current context, it’s easy to read this issue as Bobby attempting to broach his sexuality with his bigoted father – after all, this entire series is about going back and re-examining Iceman stories through the lens of his queer identity. But even without our knowledge of how Bobby’s fictional life would progress, a significant chunk of the audience at the time was able to pull that reading out of this issue.
This issue came out during the height of the Legacy Virus story, and the mutant-as-LGBTQ+ metaphor had never been more transparent. Two years earlier, Northstar had come out in the pages of the X-affiliated Alpha Flight. I’d imagine there was something of an expectation among readers, both queer and straight, that a gay X-Man was just around the corner. Unfortunately, this issue didn’t explicitly explore Bobby’s sexuality, but if you’re looking for signs that Iceman could always be read as gay, this issue is an all-you-can-eat buffet.
It’s one of Scott Lobdell’s trademarked ‘quiet issues’, giving the X-Men a breather between Phalanx Covenant and Legion Quest (and the subsequent Age of Apocalypse). The issue is split between three stories – Iceman and Rogue visiting Bobby’s parents, Archangel and Psylocke on a date, and Professor X having a dream (or is he?). The Archangel and Psylocke story gets the cover, but receives the least pages, serving mostly to move their relationship from flirtation to official couple. Charles’ dream dialogue with a version of Magneto (that turns out to be Legion) is largely there to establish Legion Quest. Our Bobby and Rogue story is arguably the most disposable in plot terms, but gets more than half the pages.
Lobdell had been doing some interesting things with Bobby at this point in time. After encounters with Mikhael Rasputin and, more notably, Emma Frost, he’s being confronted with just how little he’s actually explored the potential of his powers. With those two previous stories establishing that Bobby is far more powerful than he has ever actually demonstrated, this issue starts to explore why he’s never pushed himself. In mutant terms, why isn’t he living his fullest, most authentic life? Turns out, part of it’s due to his overbearing, bigoted father. Like I said, the subtext isn’t exactly sub in this issue.
This issue opens with Bobby creating a gorgeous sci-fi cityscape on a beach near his parents’ Long Island home. This stunning creation, drawn by Steve Epting, is clearly an impressive application of his powers, brimming with detail and complexity, but in a lot of ways it’s simply a refinement of his usual ice slides and walls. When his body was taken over by Emma Frost in Uncanny X-Men #314, she was able to survive shotgun blasts and teleport through the Hudson River. The issue’s narration tells us that the ice vista is “clearly the product of a troubled mind”, and with a little prompting from Rogue, who has joined him on his journey home, Bobby relates a story about his father chastising him for making sandcastles when he was a child. According to Bobby, his father was “never really a big fan of me”.
Bobby’s choice of Rogue as his companion for dinner with his parents is an interesting one. While Bobby tells his parents that he and Rogue are “just friends”, the dinner is nonetheless treated like he is bringing a girlfriend home to introduce her to his folks for the first time. Bobby clearly feels the need to at least play at being in a ‘normal’ heterosexual relationship for his parent’s benefit, but rather than picking Jean, one of his oldest friends, or Ororo, one of his teammates from the Blue Team, he picks Rogue, who he’s barely shared any non-action panels with before this issue.
While I really like the Bobby and Rogue friendship that develops after this issue (the two go on a road trip post-AoA after Rogue absorbs Gambit’s memories, and she later picks him for her first ever team during Mike Carey’s X-Men run), it seems to come a little out of nowhere here. Was she really the only one available to drive him to Long Island? Or is it easier for Bobby to go on a quasi-date with a woman if he is literally forbidden from touching her?
After pulling up outside his parents’ house, Bobby and Rogue have a brief chat about her evolving relationship with Gambit, and what begins with a snide comment from Bobby actually evolves into a tender moment where Bobby tells Rogue “there’s nothing pathetic about wanting to be loved”. Of course, this brief moment of emotional intimacy (and Rogue and Bobby’s sole moment of physical contact, as he supportively touches her shoulder) is interrupted by Bobby’s father, who immediately accuses them of “making out in the drive”.
William Drake’s introduction in the issue, heralded with a flash of light from the porch lamp and followed by the man himself, backlit and wreathed in cigar smoke, seems to position him as a villain. While the page soon dissolves into standard suburban chatter about Bobby and Rogue being late for dinner*, the issue is getting us ready for a confrontation. It’s also worth noting that while the issue is largely about the ways in which Bobby and his father are different, both take a moment to bitterly mutter, “Oh, this is going to be fun” to their respective partners for the evening. Bobby may be trying to move beyond his father’s shadow, but the influence of growing up there is clearly evident.
As dinner begins, we get into the real meat-and-potatoes of Bobby’s relationship with his father. Almost all of William’s comments are attempts to undermine Bobby, touching on everything from his lateness to his appearance, then saying that “I guess we should just be grateful you didn’t bring that Topal girl around again,” referring to Bobby’s most recent love interest, Opal Tanaka. This comment proves to be the final straw for Bobby, who tells his father that “the way you carry on, so help me, it’s a wonder I invite anyone here”.
William makes an under-his-breath comment asking Bobby “is it too much to ask that you bring home a normal girl” and Bobby responds by freezing and shattering his father’s newspaper, escalating their argument as they clash over Bobby’s use of his mutant powers. William calls Bobby’s activities a “sideshow” and refers to his dating life as a “circus act”, and Bobby storms out, telling his father that “you’re just disgusted by anything that doesn’t fit into your limited definition of normal. Sorry if I disappointed you, Dad.”
This argument, which ties together William’s bigotry with Bobby’s powers and his dating history, paints a fairly compelling picture of why Bobby has been hesitant to explore the wider range of his powers and, with a contemporary reading, why he might have kept his true sexuality bottled up for so long. There’s even enough evidence to support a reading that Bobby’s untapped potential is tied directly to his sexuality, and that in repressing this element of his personality, he has cut off access to the full range of his powers.
I’m not entirely convinced by that argument – Bobby’s power level has advanced reasonably steadily since the mid90s, while the hints at his sexual orientation have been far more sparse, and it’s not like when he finally came out, he suddenly went Super Saiyan – but I think the two both stem from the same insecurities. As the youngest of the original five X-Men and the perennial jokester of the group, Bobby has never been one for self-examination, and compared to his classmates, who have suffered and been transformed by trauma over the years, he’s never really been forced to challenge his own sense of identity.
At the start of the issue, Bobby laments to Rogue that “it’s obvious to everybody that I’ve been kind of a slacker over the years”. After they leave his parents, the pair return to the beach and Bobby admits to Rogue that he always thought he’d got his sense of right and wrong from his father, and now he has “no idea where I learned it all”. Bobby might not actually come out in this issue, but it still feels like a major milestone in his development as a character, suggesting that he is finally ready to dig into what lies underneath all that ice.
*if nothing else, this issue seems to imply that Bobby can’t drive and is always late, both of which strongly hint towards his future coming out
Uncanny X-Men #319 – “Untapped Potential”
Writer: Scott Lobdell
Artist: Steve Epting
Inkers: Dan Green & Tim Townsend
Colourists: Chris & Audra Buccellato
Tim Maytom is a writer and critic who has spent a lot of his time thinking about The Wicked and The Divine. You can find more of his writing here alongside Alex Spencer – and you can follow Tim on Twitter here!
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