The Marvel Universe is designed to be reflective of the real world, partly to make current storylines seem more relevant to the way we live, and partly because having President Obama giving orders to the spandex set is an amazing way to grab headlines. Whatever the exact reasoning, over the years it’s led Marvel to run with storylines and characters off the beaten path of expected super heroics, laying the groundwork for what are arguably some of the more forward-thinking representations in mainstream entertainment today.
Though in the case of Peter David's work on Marvel's "X-Factor," working minority issues into the plot as part and parcel of the series' ongoing character arcs ended up making waves in an unexpected manner. As many who follow the comics blogosphere know, Shatterstar and Rictor – two mutant characters hinted at having a “special bond” for almost twenty years – finally put all rumors to rest in the first on-panel kiss between two major male superhero characters in last fall’s issue #45.
"Honestly," explained "X-Factor" editor Jody Leheup, "we knew this was going to be a cool moment for the fans, but it hadn’t really occurred to us that it would be so important to gay (and heterosexual) comics fans as a whole. But we are all extremely pleased to see that it means so much to so many. That said, we didn’t want to market around the kiss or play it up too much, because we all really want things like this to be seen as normal."
"There was absolutely no trouble getting it approved at all," noted David. "The approvals process consisted of: I wrote it and a few months later it saw print. This may sound naive, but to me it just wasn't that big a deal. Or at least I didn't know it was going to be as big a deal as it became. As for fan opinion, it was certainly the storyline that I got the most requests for. I had certainly been aware of the subtext present, but it really could have gone in either direction. But it seemed to me that the time was right, and so decided to embark on it."
Perhaps adding more relevance to the kiss is that fact that Rictor and Shatterstar are not what you would consider token queer characters. Shatterstar comes from a dimension where power is measured in ratings, and spineless executives manufacture genetically perfected performers that tantalize their show's viewers with their charm, grace, and physical perfections. Shatterstar comes from the warrior end of the warehouse line, being primarily a fighter, but always a performer.
Rictor is a Mexican born into the worst situation in society – being a mutant who could make the earth move – with a history spanning two major-selling titles. A long stint in limbo led to being a member of the noir-styled mix of detective and super-hero pulps which is the current version of "X-Factor." Suffering from bouts of depression due to the loss of his special gifts, Rictor has been the voice of sarcasm and reality checks for the past 50 issues, and the one question fans having been asking since his return was "When would Shatterstar come to visit?"
"Peter mentioned that he wanted to bring Shatterstar back, and we thought it was a really fun idea," Leheup recalled. "Rictor and Shatterstar aren’t household names, so to speak, and the fact that they aren’t as visible on the radar enabled Peter to have more freedom to interpret them. The kiss, in this instance, wasn’t really something that we needed to run up the flag pole."
"Am I the first writer to explicitly state it? Yes. But various writers have been laying trackwork for this development for going on 20 years," David said. "There's been so much speculation about subtext between the two of them that there are entire websites dedicated to 'Ricstar,' as he and Shatterstar are called (which, as combo names go, is unquestionably superior to Ricshat). And with Rictor in the series, I thought it would be interesting to bring back Shatterstar in this more modern day and age when one didn't have to hide such relationships behind nudge-nudge, wink-wink, don't ask, don't tell policies. Initially, I was only bringing Shatterstar back for the duration of the storyline, but response has been so positive that I decided to keep him around."
Since neither Shatterstar or Rictor were originally envisioned as gay by their creators, many fans wonder how long it will be before the characters revert to earlier representations or different spins are added to the current set-up.
"I think it's far too premature to speculate what Rictor would do should he and Shatterstar break up," said David. "I mean, we only just definitively got them together. I think the more interesting dynamic will stem from the fact that Shatterstar, who spent most of his life having no interest in or concept of sexuality, is now the equivalent of a kid in a candy store. Here's Rictor, fully prepared to commit seriously to this relationship, and there's Shatterstar, who wants to explore all manner of possibilities and wants Rictor to be his companion and guide in that regard because he loves him and trusts him. To some degree, I'm keying his personality off Captain Jack Harkness from 'Torchwood': swashbuckling, enthusiastic and sexually curious about anything with a pulse." And those traits are something shown in how everyone seems slightly drawn to the warrior-performer who greets old friends with passionate kisses aplenty.
It had been earlier suggested that Rictor was primarily bi-sexual, explaining many years of romances with women alongside his on-going friendship with Shatterstar. With this idea now canon, David sees Rictor settling down. "He had his involvements with females, sure, just as women who eventually decided they were lesbians had involvements with men that they ultimately considered unfulfilling." David points out, "at this point, at least the way I'm writing him, he's fully committed to the gay lifestyle. He's become honest about it both with others and himself."
And David doesn’t take the "yay-gay" angle, where everyone is instantly comfortable and unquestioning of the character’s new relationship. Fellow cast member Guido, also known as Strong Guy, surprised many with a very visible discomfort to the idea, especially for a character whose long X-history includes being the bodyguard for a galaxy spanning rock diva.
"My feeling is that, as far as Guido is concerned, he grew up in one of those tough neighborhoods where no one was gay,” the writer explained. "Which is to say that guys didn't cop to being gay because they'd get the crap kicked out of them. And sure, Guido is a liberal guy who's open minded, or at least likes to feel that he is. His attitude is that whatever some dudes do in the privacy of their bedroom is their own business. But now here's someone who he thought he knew, and it turns out he didn't know him as well as he thought, and now he's got a mental image of Shatterstar and Rictor going at it, and the whole thing just leaves him feeling kind of squeed about it. He doesn't hate them for it, but it's outside of his comfort level, and he's even frustrated by that because he didn't know it was a problem for him. So he feels guilty about feeling the way that he does, but he can't help how he feels. Consequently, he's dealing with it in a way that comes naturally for him: Making jokes about it."
In the end, the biggest detractor to the relationship has been Shatterstar’s creator Rob Liefeld, who posted several deterring remarks about the shift in a character he feels was always too involved with swordplay to worry about his sword-play.
"I was saddened by it, really, because I thought it brought out all the worst possible sentiments," said David. "First there were the Liefeld fans who believed that I 'made' Shatterstar gay because I was trying to somehow hurt Rob, which just goes to show you how people view someone being gay; that it's some sort of insult. I'll bet you if I'd killed him off, people wouldn't have seen some sort of personal enmity behind the move. But follow-up on subtext created by other writers for nineteen years and, hoo boy.
"If I'd brought Shatterstar back and had him get involved with Monet [a girl], my suspicion is that he'd have had nothing to say about it. There wouldn't have been any of this 'But he's not supposed to be interested in sex' stuff. I think it's foolish to expect a character to remain frozen in creative amber for decades. What makes a character last is his ability to change with the times. That said, I have to add that, just as a rule of thumb, if you're going to contend that your character isn't gay, don't compare him to ancient Greek warriors (as Rob did), because anyone who has the slightest awareness of history is going to start laughing uncontrollably. We've seen good characters turned bad, evil characters turned good, characters killed off, change gender, etc. But the line is to be drawn [and] the squawking starts when one of them kisses another of the same gender? I don't buy it."
Rictor and Shatterstar’s relationship continues to evolve within the newly renumbered "X-Factor," with issue #202 hitting comic shops on February 24. "My attitude is, regardless of your sexual orientation, you should read ['X-Factor'] simply because it's a great comic with an exciting tale and compelling characters," concluded David. "I'm not out to cater to lovers of gay relationships per se anymore than I'm out to cater to lovers of straight relationships. I just want lovers of good stories, and let the rest be sorted out for itself."