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 Steve Foxe
In 2001, Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely revamped the mutant metaphor, imbuing it with an edgier, leather-clad sex appeal and a more blatant parallel to queerness than most creators who had come before. For all that queerness informs Morrison’s take, on-page representation is limited to a flamboyant fashion designer (now back, outfitting Emma Frost on Krakoa!) killed by anti-mutant bigots in his first appearance, and a poorly considered subplot about Beast falsely declaring he’s gay. Most of New X-Men has aged impeccably over the last two decades, but that Beast moment…not so much.
Over in New X-Men’s sister title, Uncanny X-Men, writer Joe Casey and artists Ian Churchill and Sean Phillips at first seemed game to match Morrison edge for edge, introducing Eurotrash villains and a mutant brothel. Iceman, sporting a then-fashionable Hawaiian shirt under his new leather duds, was clearly Casey’s self-insert, there to look cool and crack jokes. But before long, Casey called it quits, and one of the most infamous creators in comics took the reigns, leading to a long expanse of X-Men stories considered by many to be the franchise’s lowest point.
I’m talking, of course, about Chuck Austen. But rather than rag on the guy, who left the industry over a decade ago to executive-produce trailblazing, inclusive animation like She-Ra and Steven Universe, I’m going to admit something: Chuck Austen’s X-Men honestly isn’t as bad as I remembered it being.
Before you write me off as a contrarian, let me clarify that I’m not here to say the Austen run is good—it absolutely is not. But binging it in 2020, I’m surprised at how much my memory had bolstered the bad at the expense of the decent. Whenever a woman is on the page, Austen and his collaborators fail spectacularly; Austen’s background in porn-y comics spills over into new human cast-member Nurse Annie fantasizing constantly—to her young son—about her unconscious patient, a galling portrayal of former sex worker Stacy X, and Jubilee suggesting that Nightcrawler is packing heat below the X-belt.
And while storylines like the infamous “The Draco” are bad, they’re not nearly as catastrophically bad as the myths around them would suggest. Austen even comes close to excelling when he explores Juggernaut’s conflicted morality, and does surprisingly well by Northstar, the openly gay Alpha Flight member who becomes a semi-regular X-Man in the pages of this run. Despite most Austen-penned Northstar scenes feeling a bit like a Very Special Episode, jokes are never at Northstar’s expense, he ends every exchange with the upper hand, and he even changes a few minds over the course of the series. For 2002 to 2004 or so, that’s decently progressive—and given that only one-time Astonishing X-Men writer Marjorie Liu focused significantly on Northstar in the intervening 15 years, the Austen portrayal remains one of the character’s best, most authentic eras.
When I volunteered to write about the Austen run for Out Cold, it was with the memory of a notable subplot about Northstar having a crush on Iceman, and Iceman reacting poorly. Like so much of the Austen run, though, I had misremembered: Northstar does privately express a crush on Iceman to the ever-present Nurse Annie, but it’s only mentioned once more, in passing. Iceman never finds out, although he does learn that Northstar is gay for the first time, somehow missing many, many clues over years of X-Men/Alpha Flight relations. Bobby is shocked, but hardly outraged. Later, without much reason, Nurse Annie accuses Bobby of being a homophobe and a racist, but cites no evidence of the former, and the accusation isn’t pressed once Bobby denies it.
I expected to write most of this essay about a plot point I had embellished in my memory – to suggest that Bobby’s cruel rejection of Northstar’s interest was a stereotypical but not altogether inaccurate trope, in which closeted men over-compensate with outward homophobia to distract from their own sexuality. But this rejection is, curiously, something it turns out I had made up. The actual over-compensation we find on the page – which reads as such only in hindsight – is when Northstar tells Nurse Annie that he knows, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that Bobby is heterosexual. Almost two decades ago, it felt borderline editorially mandated: Fear not, intrepid X-readers, this crush isn’t reciprocated! Now, knowing Bobby’s trajectory, it reads, a bit sadly, as Northstar making excuses for not acting more boldly on his desires.
The reality of Bobby in Chuck Austen’s run is much more banal than the version in my memory. Characters tend to come and go across Austen’s tenure, and Iceman frequently feels like a hanger-on – the perpetual, somewhat annoying tagalong. His role is to pester whoever is leading the squad at the time, like a little brother who just won’t grow up. That’s not to say Austen’s Bobby doesn’t raise eyebrows once or twice. In his initial issues, Austen leans heavily into questionably homophobic banter: Wolverine calls Black Tom Juggernaut’s boyfriend and Bobby “flirts” as a taunt, more than once, with male foes. Later, Bobby becomes an unconvincing fourth to the Havok/Polaris/Nurse Annie love triangle, first expressing territorial feelings over the utterly uninterested Polaris because of a past fling, and then even more briefly romancing Annie when it seems like Havok and Polaris might happily walk down the aisle. There’s even a pathetic shot of Bobby in his bedroom, staring mournfully at framed photos of himself with each woman, despite his “relationship” with Nurse Annie lasting a few (fully clothed) hours.
The most suggestive moment of the entire run, though, happens when Bobby is off-page. Despite Austen’s preoccupation with horn-doggy characterizations of everyone from then-priest Nightcrawler to the teenaged Husk (confirmed more than once to be at least 18, although Austen still deploys a few “jailbait” jokes), Polaris makes an unexpected broadcast at her bachelorette party: she and Bobby were never intimate during their relationship. “Bobby’s immature and inexperienced,” Polaris announces, cruelly. “You don’t sleep with Bobby. You endure him.”
Austen’s intent was probably just to play up Polaris’ mean streak, and to accentuate Bobby’s juvenile behavior. But the scene, buried in a run absolutely obsessed with getting its characters to bone, has entered the record as an early indicator that Bobby Drake wasn’t as interested in ladies as he portrays. It should go without saying that many queer people have opposite-sex relations during their lifetime, which are by no means “disqualifying” for their queerness. Many of Bobby’s opposite-sex pairings rang hollow for fans over the years, failing to produce the kind of iconic couplings most of his longtime X-allies can boast. From Polaris to Kitty and further back in his history, Bobby’s flings always felt throwaway, and Polaris’ confirmation that the two never progressed beyond what could be shown in an all-ages Marvel comic is an added indicator that those relationships were even less authentic than readers suspected.
Ultimately, revisiting the Austen run revealed less than I had hoped to find out about Bobby, but plenty about my own biases against Chuck Austen, and how collective fan memory has been just a bit unfair to the guy. And it’s in that unfairness that we can extrapolate why Austen’s run isn’t as fraught with unspoken queerness as some of the other storylines examined in Out Cold: for all of his faults, Chuck Austen was one of the first X-writers to deal openly, consistently, and warmly with an explicitly gay character, rather than work through metaphor.
Northstar is a cocky Canadian jerk, but he’s also a consummate hero, willing to endanger himself to help a child, lend an ear to good ol’ Nurse Annie, and rally the team when demonic danger threatens his friends. Chuck Austen’s Iceman can be read, without much of an effort, as overcompensating for his repressed sexuality – but why bother when Northstar is right there? Austen contributed a lot of infamous moments to X-canon, but he also solidified Northstar’s place within the franchise, which is surely worth a bit of collective queer forgiveness, if nothing else.
Uncanny X-Men #415
Writer: Chuck Austen
Artist: Sean Phillips
Letterers: Richard Starkings and Saida Temofonte
Steve Foxe is a writer and editor based in Queens, and has contributed to sites including The MNT, PanelXPanel, and Paste (for whom he was senior comics editor. You can find his website here, or find him on Twitter here!
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