I imagine that all the recent hubbub about Iceman coming out as gay in this week’s #40 issue of All New X-Men (and by hubbub I mean “Oh, Facebook Trending updated itself again”) is interesting to comic book fans who grew up reading X-Men comics. Perhaps not because it’s astonishing or new or uncanny, but maybe because it represents the return of a plotline that cropped up in a little-remembered Almost Very Special Issue of Uncanny X-Men published in 1994, more than 20 years ago.
First, though, let’s familiarize ourselves with this week’s admission of Iceman-related sexual preference from All New X-Men:
It’s a little weird to have someone else really insistently state/define your sexual orientation as if they’re the expert. But okay, Jean’s a telepath so she might actually know for sure. And regardless of what Bobby “Iceman” Drake’s sexual identity really is, the exploration of it is absolutely intentional, as confirmed via this MTV interview with Marvel’s Editor-in-Chief Axel Alonso:
“Well, Brian [Bendis] wrote it into a script. He’s been teasing at it for a while, he sent it on in to his editor, who in turn sent it to me, and we started a discussion.”
As an X-Men fan I don’t particularly care if Iceman is gay or not. Some readers will, and that’s fine. However, in some instances readers may believe that this is a new development for Iceman, and that Brian Bendis is just pulling the “gay” ticket out of the Box O’ Unique Character Traits without any respect for the character’s previous history. That kind of switcharoo is upsetting for a fan of, well, anything, not just X-Men characters. (For some reason, making Jubilee a vampire and an adoptive mother comes to mind, for me. What was up with that?) But I don’t think that’s what’s happening here. For one, Axel and Bendis are outright stating that:
After Bendis was “honestly persuasive” on the issue, Alonso took a look at the history of the snow-powered X-Man, passed it up the chain and the decision was made. “That’s the whole boring process. He had a good story to tell, and we think it’s worth telling,” Alonso added.
And for another, this almost happened already in Uncanny X-Men issue #319, written by Scott Lobdell and published way back in 1994.
Even as a kid, I remember thinking that #319 was a weird comic. It took place in this two-issue lull between the Last Big X-Men Crossover (The dreadful “Phalanx Covenant” aka “X-Men Fight the Borg From Star Trek.”) and the build-up to the Next Big X-Men Crossover (The Still Awesome To This Day “Age of Apocalypse”). The comic before it, issue #318, concerned itself with mopping up the mess of the Phalanx crossover: checking in on newly battle-scarred characters and shipping Jubilee off to a new school where she couldn’t annoy the X-Men anymore. And the next crossover wasn’t kicking off until issue #320, leaving the lonely little issue #319 to tell a trio of short character vignettes.
The story about Angel and Psylocke gets the cover because KISSING but the most interesting one by far concerns Iceman and Rogue. In fact, it kicks off the issue with this impressive visual by artist Steve Epting:
As we find out later in the issue, the subtext of this scene isn’t so much “sub” as it is “text.” Bobby has brought Rogue to have dinner with his parents, despite the fact that Bobby has never spent any time with Rogue and has never really shown an interest in doing so. Rogue even comments on this during their drive to Bobby’s parents’ house and the implication is that Rogue is there because she is the most visually “acceptable” woman in the X-Men.
The story is largely about Bobby’s father and the effect that his father’s bigotry and small-minded worldview has had on Iceman. Bobby and Rogue show up to dinner and Bobby’s mother is pleasant, but his father immediately comments on how he’s happy to see that Bobby’s new girlfriend isn’t Asian. (At this point in the comics, Bobby’s previous girlfriend was an Asian woman by the name of Opal.) The confrontation continues as Bobby’s father makes use of racial code words to ask if Rogue is “another one” like his son (i.e. a mutant). Before the discussion can continue onwards, Iceman acts out by using his powers in front of his father—something seemingly forbidden in the household—and storming out. Rogue lands a nice burn before following by calling Bobby’s father a devoted husband, father, soldier, and “bigot.”
Now that we know how the story rolls out, let’s go back to the opening scene. We know that Bobby’s father is unaccepting of his son’s status as a mutant, but that doesn’t seem to be the entire story motivating Bobby to bring Rogue out to Long Island and build a huge ice castle. The story makes it apparent that Bobby even showing up is an attempt by Bobby to mollify his father and fit into his limited worldview, which implies that Bobby has felt obligated to do so throughout his life, regardless of his own feelings. The flashback sequence regarding sand castles is telling in this regard; young Bobby stops building the castle after experiencing his father’s disapproval. Present day Bobby, in response, builds an enormous and elaborate ice castle. He feels a deep desire to express his true self at the beginning and at the end of the story in this issue, although he seems to need Rogue’s support to feel brave enough to do so.
Does this mean that Bobby’s sense of difference extends beyond his status as a mutant and into his sexuality? This isn’t stated outright, and I can’t speak in regards to the intentions of this issue’s writer, Scott Lobdell, but the presence of Rogue is telling. Why wouldn’t Bobby ask Jean along on this trip? Jean Grey is a woman he has been friends with throughout his entire tenure in the X-Men, after all. Why wouldn’t he ask Storm, who at the time was mentoring Bobby in his powers and was more than capable of standing up to racists? Why would Bobby ask Rogue, a teammate that he never really talks to? Is it because she’s an attractive woman with an obvious, downright medical, reason to avoid human contact, providing a handy excuse for why Bobby wouldn’t attempt to touch her?
To me, the story is implying that Bobby is hoping that Rogue will act as his “beard.” He expresses himself fully around her in the beginning of the story, brings Rogue to his family so she can see firsthand the limits he must live within—and so Bobby’s family can see him with a woman—and relies on her for emotional support afterwards.
And while Bobby’s homosexuality is only present in this story via implication, that implication may have been strong enough to influence Bryan Singer when he constructed this notable scene from X-Men 2:
Bryan Singer has spoken publicly that he feels that the experience of being gay and coming out is analogous to how mutants must feel in the X-Men universe when they “come out,” and that the above scene is inspired by that. In fact, pointing out this general parallel between homosexuality and the X-Men is what convinced Ian McKellen to play Magneto.
(Also, hi there supportive-movie-Rogue! Where oh where might Bryan Singer have gotten the notion to make you supportive of Bobby?)
By the end of issue #319, although Bobby makes no statements regarding his sexuality, he nevertheless declares himself ready to leave his father’s limited worldview behind and to start expressing himself more fully. Unfortunately, the X-Men universe gets reset only three issues later, and when it goes back to normal six months after that, Iceman’s storyline shifts focus to Rogue and some boring secret she’s keeping about Gambit, so Bobby’s sexuality doesn’t really get explored any further.
So as we see, and as Axel Alonso and Bendis most likely discussed before publishing All New X-Men #40, the development of Bobby’s sexuality doesn’t come out of nowhere. Repression was built into Iceman’s character at least two decades ago, and there have been other hints throughout the years, as well. Iceman has, for instance, dated not one but two shapeshifters that have spent some of their time onscreen as men. Taken together, these instances create a pattern that suggests that Iceman is, if not homosexual, at least explorative with his sexuality. All New X-Men #40, therefore, remains respectful of the history established for Iceman as a character while exploring new facets of that character. This kind of approach often makes for great, iconic stories.
But comics are ever-changing in their continuity, and there appears to be a big reset button of sorts on the horizon for the Marvel Universe, so will this stick? Maybe! Or maybe there’s more to come. As Bendis and Axel tease, the story only really gets going in May’s Uncanny X-Men #600.
Chris Lough writes for Tor.com and can remember buying Uncanny #300 in a mall. Remember malls? Whatever happened to those things?