For the past 52 years, Iceman has been a stalwart member of the X-Men. And for all those years, he's been living in a closet.
Iceman, a.k.a. Bobby Drake, is one of the team's powerhouses. The X-Men count on him. His sense of humor has made him a major fan favorite. And on Wednesday, November 4, he came out as a gay man in the pages of Uncanny X-Men No. 600 (a follow-up to last April's reveal that a younger version of the character was gay — more on this in a bit).
This editorial move makes one of Marvel's most iconic and high-profile heroes a gay man — a testament to the company's ongoing mission to include more diversity and make sure its comic books reflect the real world. But Iceman's coming out is also an homage to the X-Men's legacy. The X-Men story has always and will always be imbued with the fight for civil rights. Iceman's sexuality and where he goes from here is just the latest chapter.
How Iceman came out
Iceman's coming out is actually the end of a complicated story, and the end of writer Brian Michael Bendis's run on the X-Men. Bendis has long been one of Marvel's top writers (he created Jessica Jones, who makes her Netflix debut later this month), and in 2012 introduced the idea of bringing the original X-Men (Beast, Iceman, Jean Grey, Cyclops, Angel) back to the present day.
Thanks to the power of time travel, there are now two Beasts, two Cyclopses, two Icemen, two Angels, and one Jean Grey — it makes for weird interactions because the younger versions of these original X-Men are often at odds with their older selves.
One of the conflicts younger Iceman faces is that he's gay, while the older version of himself isn't. In All-New X-Men No. 40 (April 2015) we found out, by way of telepathy, that the younger Iceman is a gay man. This leads to confusion because his older self is dating Kitty Pryde, a female teammate:
With younger Iceman being gay, older Iceman dating women, and Jean Grey calling it "a unique situation," there was a question of whether the X-Men would ultimately get into the nature-versus-nurture debate — a story that could get really messy. But Bendis's plot turned out to be a lot simpler than that. It's not even the thrust of the issue; rather, it's a small B-plot within a larger tale about an X-Men intervention with Beast.
In Uncanny X-Men No. 600, younger Iceman confronts his older self and asks him about his sexual orientation. What we find out is that Iceman has been living in a closet for his entire life, and just shut that part of himself off to the world and to his teammates. There is no nature-versus-nurture situation, no time-traveling hitch; older Iceman just didn't want to be persecuted and judged for another part of his life:
His coming out is as touching as it is quirky and awkward. Jean Grey, a mind reader, is on the scene to provide a play-by-play and fill in the gaps. There's also a play on Iceman's power, as you can see his coming out affect how his ice-manipulating powers work. And in the end, what's supposed to be this monumental moment is treated in a really funny, casual way:
Bendis makes Iceman's sexuality — to his fellow characters, at least — no big deal, and ends with a funny joke. As we grow more tolerant of one another and see LGBTQ people as equals, coming out gets easier. Coming out today is a lot different from coming out 52 years ago. Perhaps we'll all get to the point (some people may already be there) where coming out becomes a quip about hot boys and hot girls — that's Bendis's humor and idealism shining through.
The X-Men and Iceman's history of acceptance
At New York Comic Con in October 2015, I talked to many LGBTQ comic fans, editors, and writers. And each one, without fail, pointed to the X-Men as the comic that got them into comics.
"When you have a story like the X-Men, with characters as rich and varied as they are, who all share a single strangeness, an otherness, it's hard not to equate that with the LGBT community," said Allison Kolarik, a member of Geeks Out, a group for LGBTQ comic book fans. "The sense of being apart, the isolation, and the divisiveness, both within the community (Magneto was right), and externally — politicians, scientists, religious groups, etc., all run shoulder to shoulder with the LGBT community."
The X-Men, created in 1963 by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, explored a different side to heroism by making heroes out of mutants who were disliked, distrusted, and even hated by the people they were trying to protect, just because they were born mutants. The X-Men, like the Avengers or the Justice League, came from different walks of life — but unlike those super teams, all the members of the X-Men shared an empathy that cut through their differences, because they each knew what it was like to be a mutant and to be hated.
"In fifth grade, one of my friends handed me Uncanny X-Men 277 and was like, 'Read this.' I did and was hooked instantly," Rex Ogle, an editor at Scholastic and former editor at DC Comics, told me. "It was like crack. Though admittedly I've never done crack, so that may be a bad metaphor. But I've been reading X-Men ever since."
The allegorical messages the X-Men came to represent changed throughout the years. In the past 20 years, the X-Men have become the focus of a government surveillance; have seen themselves hunted down by religious zealots called purifiers; overcame a plague called the Legacy Virus, which killed hundreds of mutants; struggled with leadership; and, yes, celebrated a same-sex marriage between Northstar, a mutant with super speed, and his African-American boyfriend:
Considering the characters' history as a civil rights allegory, and what this comic book means to LGBTQ readers, seeing a character as high-profile as Iceman come out makes a lot of sense.
His coming out is also a wink and nod to a lot of fan theories. In the comic books and in the movies, Iceman has had storylines that revolved around not living up to his potential and dealing with a bigoted family member. He's also had love interests who were shape shifters, a possible signal that his sexuality was fluid. And in Uncanny X-Men No. 415, Northstar admitted to being attracted to Iceman.
Though Iceman wasn't explicitly written to be a gay character, his storylines and his history could be interpreted as allegories for LGBTQ life.
Iceman isn't Brian Michael Bendis's only gay character
Bendis is one of Marvel's more progressive writers. Aside from Iceman, he's been credited with creating Miles Morales, the black-Latino Spider-Man, and Jessica Jones. But he also created another gay X-Man named Benjamin Deeds.
In Uncanny X-Men No. 14 (2013), Deeds, like Iceman, comes out as gay:
And to his teacher Emma Frost, it isn't even an issue.
"I don't care," she says, explaining that she just wants him to use his powers. "What does that have to do with this?"
Deeds is a bit of a heavy-handed character. We find out he's a transmorph, and that his mutant ability is to chemically induce an ease around the people he's with. It borders on the power of suggestion. It isn't difficult to imagine LGBTQ teens who would love to have Deeds's power.
To his credit, Bendis doesn't make Deeds a saint. He's stubborn, whiny, and can even, depending on how you look at it, be a liability on the battlefield.
"The fact that Ben has come out as homosexual is just a small facet of who he is and what he is going to bring to Cyclops’ select team of X-Men," Marvel spokesman Joe Taraborrelli told the Huffington Post in 2013.
There were already many fans in April who celebrated Iceman's initial coming out. The new issue of Uncanny X-Men is just a matter of completing a portrait. But there are, no doubt, some comic book purists who will feel like this is a slight against their sensibilities (see: the racism Michael B. Jordan endured when he was cast as the Human Torch).