Superhero comics address, and empower, straight white nerdy boys. That’s been true of most comics, for most of their history. But is it the genre’s central truth? For some of us, it never was. As Ramzi Fawaz, a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, has pointed out, superhero comics are the only popular genre in which anomalous bodies are not just tolerated but celebrated: The same thing that makes you look weird means you can save the world. Moreover, comics — because they involve stories of human (and superhuman) conflict and change; because they show hand-drawn pictures, with stylized faces; because they often appeal to us first in childhood — invite identification: We read them in search of ourselves, or our future selves.
These facts about comics explain — in part — why the X-Men became the most successful superhero franchise of the 1980s. Mutation, the source of X-powers, could stand, well or badly, for stigmatized real-world identities, as well as for the outsider status most kids, at some point, feel. The best X-books integrated real-world diversity too. Under Chris Claremont (who wrote many of them from 1975 to 1991) the core cast included a few women of color, one of them a virtual god, along with very strong hints of queer sexuality. More than almost any other gaudy bang-pow-pop cultural property, X-books offered — then and since — an imaginative space where L.G.B.T. readers could feel at home.
That wasn’t the same as depicting us overtly. The first Marvel character to come out as gay, in 1992, was the quarrelsome Canadian mutant Northstar, with whom few readers identified; his 2012 same-sex wedding (the first in mainstream comics) did provide a welcome spectacle. Christos Gage wrote a prescient conversation between Northstar’s new husband, Kyle, and Iceman — Bobby Drake, one of the very first X-Men — about whether Northstar ought to quit the team. “I’m not saying you can’t have a life outside it,” Bobby told Kyle, but “if you’re in it, you’re in it, no matter where you are.” If you’re an X-Man — or, Gage implied, an X-fan or a gay man or a trans woman (like me) — then be who you are. Don’t abandon your people, who won’t abandon you.
Now Iceman himself has come out — that is, both of him have. A much younger version of Bobby, brought into the present by time travel, told the X-Men that he was gay in 2015, after a teammate read his mind. That story (written by Brian Michael Bendis) made him the first out gay core Marvel character, the first one whose history non-obsessive fans know, and the first with a counterpart in the movies. Jay Edidin, of the podcast “Jay and Miles X-Plain the X-Men,” wrote then that Bobby’s coming out “fundamentally changes the landscape of queer visibility” for superhero stories. The two-Bobby problem also spoke to older readers: What if you had grown up in another, less difficult, time? Who could you have become? Adult Bobby said little about it.