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 Murphy Leigh
I got into X-Men comics in 2014, by way of the X-Men: Deadly Genesis trade paperback, and then whatever I could cull from my local library at the time. One of the books I picked up was the first volume of the Marvel Masterworks set collecting the original Lee/Kirby run of X-Men.
As a gay person with a fondness for midcentury aesthetics, it was kind of inevitable that I’d get emotionally invested in the original five X-Men this way. I devoured that volume, and then the second, and, of course, got deeply invested in what I read as fun, unintended homoerotic subtext caused primarily by the cultural drift that inevitably occurs over the course of fifty-one years. A gay person in 2014 is going to read things differently, after all, than a straight audience in 1963, and that’s okay.
Then, in April of 2015 — just one week after my twenty-first birthday, in fact — All-New X-Men vol. 1 #40 outed Bobby Drake, retroactively recasting all that subtext that I’d joked about in a new light. Particularly, it made me think about X-Men #7 in a new way.
X-Men #7 is the issue that opens with the O5 getting their class picture taken after they officially graduate from the Xavier Institute. Charles lets them all know that he’s got nebulous stuff to take care of, appoints Scott as leader, and, before he leaves, introduces Cerebro for the first time. This is the first thing that kind of hits different now: Cerebro more firmly reads as an outing machine. It’s the way we as the audience get to know about new mutants, but, in the context of an LGBT reading of mutation, it’s a way for strangers to know you’re different without you knowing either about them, or even about yourself.
It reminds me a little of the way that, in ANXM #40, Teen Jean knows about Bobby’s gayness before he’s really ready to come to terms with it himself, and how she’s the mechanism by which we, the audience, find out that he’s gay.
We also get the first explicit instance of someone wanting to be cured of their mutation, when Scott says:
You know how I fear the power beam which emanates from my eyes–! I shudder to think what would happen if it ever accidentally gets out of my control! I had hoped to visit various doctors — to seek a cure! But, the Professor convinced me it is my duty to remain — to use my power against all evil — no matter how I dread the task!
Pathologization of mutation, and the idea of a ‘cure,’ is one of the major reasons I’ve always felt that a queer or disability allegory is the most fitting allegorical axis of marginalization by which to interpret the X-Men mythos overall. Especially taking into account the fact that homosexuality was, in this period, often considered to be a mental disorder. It wasn’t until 1973 that homosexuality was removed from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, or the DSM. To this day, “conversion therapy” — the practice of abusing queer people until they think or are willing to pretend they’re straight and cis — is still legal to perform, even on children, in 32 states.
That said, I’m here to talk about Bobby, and the stuff in this issue that reads differently now that we know he’s gay comes to a head in this scene, about halfway through the issue:
Bobby invites Hank down to his favorite coffee shop in Greenwich village, which is full of weird poets and artist-types who – immediately after finding out about Hank’s feet – basically adopt him as their new muse, leaving Bobby alone to flirt with Zelda, the waitress, very badly.
Let’s take a closer look at that final panel:
— It looks as though your broad-shouldered buddy has made a hit with the crowd, Bobby!
— That’s right, Zelda! And while everyone else is marching around, I’d like a few words with you, pretty girl! Y’know, if you twist my arm, I think I could learn to like you!
In 2014, the last bit was something I kind of glossed over, because, y’know, it’s basic goofy sixties flirt-patter. I didn’t think too hard about the implications. Looking back on it now, though, knowing that Bobby’s gay and deeply closeted, it just hits different now.
Do I think Lee and Kirby meant for us to read Bobby as a closeted gay teen? Not sure. The story was written pre-Stonewall, so, if Kirby, Lee, et.al. weren’t familiar with the Village, they might not know just how much it was a gay scene in the early sixties. Basically, I have no real way of knowing how much Kirby and Lee knew about the Village in 1963. What I do know, however, is that the Village in ’63 is the Village where Warhol Superstar Jackie Curtis grew up, where LaMama Experimental Theatre Club was in its infancy, where Allen Ginsberg sat through the stale beer afternoon in desolate Fugazzi’s a decade earlier.
The Village has a huge impact on the artistic culture of New York in this period, and I can’t discount the likelihood that Kirby and Lee knew things — at the very least, they must have known about Ginsberg’s Howl and the attached obscenity trial; considering the nature of the beatniks in this page, they had to know at least a cursory amount about that artistic scene. And yeah, while there were straight Beats (Kerouac among them), the most lasting piece of beat poetry is the deeply and explicitly queer Howl. No matter what Lee and Kirby intended — the author being quite literally dead, in this instance — what they wrote has a damn near explicit allegorical relationship to queerness when it comes to this scene.
As a result, looking back on it now, knowing that Bobby is gay, it’s a subtextual and allegorical queerness that becomes kind of tragic. Considering Bobby will become characterized by hiding his angst and pain with comic relief bits, that’s how the moment hits, now. Bobby doesn’t mean to admit it, but it comes out anyway in the joke: he could learn to like a girl, if she twists his arm enough.
And what queer person can’t relate to that?
The scene proceeds with Zelda asking Bobby why she never sees him around, and him claiming to be busy, right before Warren — looking extremely broad, likely due to his wings being bound down — arrives to let Bobby and Hank know they’re needed for the A-plot of the issue, which involves Magneto recruiting the Blob into the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants in an attempt to get the X-Men’s attention so he can maybe possibly kill them all. Y’know, classic Silver-Age hijinks.
For me, this reads as Bobby’s real identity — as Iceman, as a mutant, as an outsider — preventing him from effectively engaging in the heterosexuality he’s expected to perform. He can like Zelda if she twists his arm enough, maybe, but that’s ultimately never going to be enough, and, with Warren arriving in his bound state to remind him of that, it all feels very metaphorical for being closeted.
The metaphor gets even more blatant during the scene where the X-Men change out of their street clothes; Bobby is the one blocked as helping Warren out of his binder — this is the first of two times in the original Lee/Kirby run where Bobby helps Warren dress or undress, with the other coming in #12, during a conversation where Bobby’s rather put out that Warren can’t have his wings out all the time.
Also relevant is the fact that Bobby freezes himself out of his street clothes, including a shirt that Zelda apparently likes. Once again, the reality of Bobby’s identity, the secrets he keeps, act as a direct counter to the way he’s expected to look, behave, and date, even on a symbolic level.
Again, I don’t think one can necessarily conclude that Kirby and Lee meant to write Bobby, or any of the X-Men, specifically as gay. We just don’t have the information to confirm or deny that speculation, and the authors are quite literally dead, like I mentioned above. But there comes a point where what they wanted to convey becomes less relevant than what the text actually conveys, and I think X-Men #7 could actually be that point. Too much in this issue is specifically queer for me to interpret the story — and, of course, Bobby — in any other way, and it was always like that, even before Bobby got outed.
Overall, going back to this issue nearly five years after Bobby was outed makes for a way more nuanced and kind of heart-aching experience. Bobby, closeted, probably even to himself, tries to perform heterosexuality, and is rebuffed by circumstance and, in that telling piece of dialogue about arm-twisting, his own nature.
As a queer reader who also didn’t come out about certain aspects of my identity until I reached adulthood, this issue hits a little harder and a lot closer to home than I remember, now that we know that this is what’s happening here.
X-Men #7 – “The Return of The Blob”
Writer: Stan Lee
Artist: Jack Kirby
Inker: Chic Stone
Letterer: Artie Simek
Murphy Leigh is a writer, videographer and digital artist who can often be found writing about the X-Men over on their blog No More Metaphors, which I recommend you check out! You can also find them on Ko-Fi here, and follow them on Twitter here!
This post was made possible thanks to the Shelfdust Patreon! To find out more, head to our Patreon page here!