Recently, Marvel has created some stir in the fannish community by the revelation that X-MEN founding member Bobby Drake (Iceman) is gay. Not being a long-time follower of the X-Men myself, and being more familiar with later incarnations of the team, I couldn't say if this particular ret-con is out of character or not; but I thought that the scene in ALL-NEW X-MEN #40 in which the reveal takes place was well-written and touching. But it put me in mind of another mutant who came out of the closet; the first Marvel character to do so, in fact.
So let's take a look at Northstar.
Northstar was a member of ALPHA FLIGHT, a team of Canadian superheroes introduced in X-MEN #120 in 1979 as part of Wolverine's backstory. Northstar, and his sister Aurora, were mutants with the powers of super-speed and light generation. Northstar was aloof and arrogant and tended to be kind of a jerk.
A few years later, in 1983, Marvel had the team's creator, artist and writer John Byrne, write an ongoing series about the team. Byrne wasn't crazy about the assignment; he had created the team as a one-off group whose sole purpose was “merely to survive a fight with the X-Men.” He felt the characters were too one-dimensional. One of the things he did to try to give them more variety was make Northstar gay.
Byrne had drawn a super-hero parody called "Gay Guy" for his college newspaper when he studied at the Alberta College of Art and Design in Calgary, which poked fun at gay stereotypes.
He could not explicitly say Northstar was gay, of course. Marvel's Editor-in-Chief at the time, Jim Shooter, was vehemently opposed to having openly gay characters in Marvel comics; and in any case, the Comics Code, which was still in effect at that time, prohibited That Sort of Thing. Still, even without coming out and saying it, Northstar's gender orientation was pretty easy to pick up on. Byrne was not exactly subtle.
When Byrne left the book, Bill Mantlo took over writing it. Mantlo began a subplot in which Northstar develops a mysterious illness which is slowly killing him. Well, mysterious to his team-mates, maybe; but it's pretty clear Mantlo was working up to revealing that Northstar was dying from AIDS.
The Higher-Ups at Marvel would have nothing of that, and had Mantlo re-write the story so that Northstar was a magical being and his illness was due to him being too long separated from his home. As writer Peter David later observed: "Yes, that’s right… he wasn’t gay. He was just a fairy. That’s muuuuch better."
In fairness, Byrne had always drawn Northstar with slightly pointed ears and Namor-like facial features, so making him an elf is not as completely out of left field as it might seem.
Well, Northstar got better. And time passed.
In 1992, Scott Lobdell, who was writing ALPHA FLIGHT at the time, wrote a story in which Northstar finally came out and said what fans had long suspected. This time, the writer had the full support of his editor and of Marvel’s E-I-C.
It played out this way: Northstar finds an abandoned baby left in a garbage can and takes the baby to a hospital. Tests at the hospital shows that the baby has AIDS, and the tragic story about the baby makes headlines. This outrages a retired superhero named Major Mapleleaf, (Canada, remember), whose own son had died of AIDS, but “because he was gay, he didn’t rate.” Mapleleaf takes out his anger at an unfeeling Society, which only embraces the ill when they’re cute, in true comic book super-hero fashion: by trying to beat the snot out of Northstar.
In the heat of the slugfest, with both men trading punches both physical and rhetorical, Northstar tells Mapleleaf that he is gay too. Mapleleaf is not impressed and lectures Northstar on hypocrisy.
One the battle is over, Northstar, shamed by the encounter, gives a press conference to admit to the world that he is gay.
The story caused a brief stir in the real world too. This was the first Marvel hero to be openly identified as gay. Granted, I’m sure most people in the general public had no idea who Northstar was, but still, he’s a Marvel Hero and the news media took notice.
At the time, I couldn’t help but compare Northstar’s coming out with that of a character over at Marvel’s Distinguished Competition. Earlier that year, in the FLASH, one of the supporting characters also announced he was gay, albeit in a much less public and more understated fashion.
The issue started out with Wally West, who had taken on the role of the Flash after the death of Barry Allen during the Crisis on Infinite Earths, hanging out with the Pied Piper, a reformed villain who, it had been recently revealed, was now working to help the poor and homeless. After learning about about Piper’s change in careers, Wally and he had become friends.
Since Piper used to hang out with other super-villains, Wally asks if the Joker was really gay, like everybody said. Piper replies that he never hung out with the Joker – the Joker isn’t the kind of guy you ‘hang out’ with – but that as far as he could tell the only person the Joker loved was the Joker. Which seems to me like one of the more accurate observations I’ve read about the character.
The Piper goes on to say that the only super-villain he knows for a fact to be gay is himself. “But of course you already knew that,” he adds with a smile.
Wally didn’t. He gapes for a panel, and then suddenly “remembers” a lame excuse why he has to run off.
Piper ruefully watches him speed away. He expected Wally to react this way, but had really hoped he wouldn’t.
In the course of the issue, Wally has the chance to think things over and realize that he was kind of a jerk to Piper; and by the end of the story he apologizes. Oh yeah, there was a fight scene involving the Flash in the middle; gotta have a fight in there somewhere; but the “coming out” subplot was handled on a personal and sensitive level.
In Northstar’s case, the writer never had the opportunity to really follow up on the character’s public announcement. The book got a different editor about that time who hired a different writer. The change doesn’t seem to have been because of the Northstar story; but regardless, the new creative team never returned to that particular story and wasn’t for a couple more decades that Northstar got a steady boyfriend and married him.
Like the FLASH story involving the Pied Piper, the scene in the recent ALL-NEW X-MEN issue in which Jean Grey talks with Bobby Drake about his orientation is a quiet vignette; (well, quiet for a super-hero book, anyway); a personal conversation between two friends.
In re-visiting the Northstar story, I think I’m willing to cut it a little more slack than I did back then, despite its gratuitous slug-fest and Northstar’s Big Public Confession. I suspect that the writer and his editor were very conscious that they were creating a Milestone and wanted to make it Significant.
But I think it’s the personal moments like the one between Pied Piper and Wally, or between Bobby and Jean, that are most meaningful and make the better stories.