Something’s happening these days in comics.
Can you feel it?
There’s a real shift in the way audiences react — and how comic creators and companies react to audiences — to the idea of representation. It’s not enough to be able to project our stories onto Superman or Batman and be satisfied that they represent our personal troubles and triumphs. Those of us who aren’t the decades long dominant orientation of a comic book hero (Caucasian, male, heterosexual) need to see ourselves more literally in the characters on the page. We’re not satisfied by the metaphoric leap of imagination it takes to project anymore.
And that’s not a failing on our parts as gay or Black or female or trans or Muslim or Asian or disabled or asexual or Latino or Jewish or anything else one can name in panoply of identities most commonly relegated to “Other.”
What it is, in fact, is a sign that we’ve evolved in our self-confidence, grown in our security, as individuals and as a community. We want to see diversity on the page, and not because it’s politically correct or meant to be antagonistic, but because it’s time and in many cases, our lives depend on it.
For decades, the gay community comforted itself with camp imagery of strong women to bolster our self-confidence, to try to see some element of who we are in a culture that couldn’t give us what we really needed: a mirror. Finding ourselves in Judy Garland or Liza Minnelli wasn’t wrong. Far from it. It was necessary and it was good and it was lovely. But a time came (a particularly deadly time, unfortunately) when that wasn’t enough anymore. We needed to see gay men in media, in books, in public. That’s the next step that both the other and the center needs to grow past its differences and pain points.
That’s where we are in comics. And it’s proven to be very difficult to say the least.
Last week, Bobby Drake, the young Iceman of All-New X-Men, had a frank discussion with one of his best friends about who he is: a gay man. It was difficult. It was complicated. It was messy. And it was 100% my story.
A month before that, Selina Kyle kissed a woman, confirming the comic community’s long standing belief that Catwoman is bisexual. Harley Quinn continues to flirt with the concept of a fluid sexuality in her book. Midnighter is striking out on his own in a solo title focused, in part, on his experience as a single gay man. The new Oracle, Frankie Charles, featured in Batgirl is bisexual (and a woman of color with a disability), as is John Constantine, the Hellblazer.
And now, so is Tony Stark.
With the arrival of yesterday’s Superior Iron Man #8, we get a Tony Stark who is not gay as I demanded in my last Crisis column, but bisexual. He is shown amid a celebratory evening — into daytime even — in bed with both men and women.
Which is exhilarating. And problematic. And fascinating. And a confirmation of something I felt about him that I hadn’t seen on the comic page or movie screen until now.
And since I didn’t physically do so above, let me underline problematic, because wow — this is likely not the representation of identity I imagine the bisexual community has been looking for. But it is Tony, or an aspect of him unleashed in this moment, and like toothpaste in a tube, it can’t so easily be squeezed back in.
That’s not to say that this story, predicated on the unhinging of Tony Stark’s moral and ethical compunctions — which in itself is a huge can of worms for this revelation — can’t be retconned away or editorially undone. It surely can. And surely there are those that will try, if not succeed.
But we (and current and future creators) have something in our hands now that’s workable, that exists in the world for exploration. Something that — if one chooses — can be latched onto for dear life, because as I have said, Iron Man is now one of the most recognizable characters in the world. And if it’s just a little bit easier to recognize yourself in him, then all the better.
It should be said that a good part of my positivity about this event derives from the man who is steering the ship, Tom Taylor. I know Tom. Not enough to, like, pick out a wine he’d enjoy or send his kid a birthday present. But I’ve talked enough with him over the course of the last few years to know how deeply committed to these ideas of diversity and representation and SEEING YOURSELF directly on the page he is. My underline of the problematic conditions doesn’t strike at his storytelling (because quite honestly, this IS how Tony Stark would express his bisexuality, at least at times, having committed relationships be a very small portion of his recorded history), but of the condition of the landscape as a whole.
We don’t have enough stories yet. We simply don’t. When Iceman coming out as gay enflames straight, gay, and bisexual readers alike, it’s a symptom of a real problem. Not every (rare, still) coming out story can reflect every reader’s experience. And that’s what we want now. We demand it because we need it. That’s the space we are occupying at this moment in time.
Like I said, I was lucky that Brian Michael Bendis (another writer who I trust believes deeply in the need for representation) chose to tell Iceman’s story to reflect — almost uncannily, no pun intended — my experience. Tom Taylor wrote Tony as Tony, which isn’t me. And that’s OK. But maybe it’s someone else, if even just a sliver. And as the story evolves, my hope is that it touches those in need of that representation, and inspires other creators to continue opening up these worlds we read and expanding on what they do so well — providing a place for us to anchor our hopes and fears, dreams and nightmares.
To see us on the page.
Side note: there’s also a fascinating story brewing with Kid Abomination, also rife with potential pitfalls, surrounding his sense of being in the wrong body for most of his life. An allegory? A development of the next trans character in mainstream comics? Too soon to tell. But it’s worth keeping your eyes peeled.