"Astonishing X-Men" is the recipient of a lot of hype this week. Like, being featured on "The View"-style hype, which is a level of promotion I don't think any comic book has previously attained, nor expected to. The last time this particular comic had any hype attached to it at all was eight years ago, when Joss Whedon launched the book (I hear he's doing just fine, by the way). But this comic is on "The View"! Those chatty ladies never said a peep about Kitty Pryde or Ord of Breakworld back when Whedon was writing the book. Why now? What's so special about "Astonishing X-Men," post-Whedon?
What is so special about a single scene in "Astonishing X-Men" #50 and, judging by the cover and a "Save the Date" teaser image, the entirety of #51? If one were to read #50 in an Internet-less void, it would read like any other issue. The X-Men investigate an incident involving mind-controlled Marauders and possibly-shady S.H.I.E.L.D. dealings. There's action and humor and romance, combining to create the spandex soap opera that has worked so well for the Marvel's mutants since the Chris Claremont days. And there's a scene where Jean-Paul Beaubier, or Northstar, proposes to his longtime boyfriend, Kyle Jinadu. All of this is treated with relatively equal importance, and the issue's cliffhanger hangs on Gambit and Wolverine brainwashed and ready to rumble. If one could somehow blind themselves from Internet hype, one would simply think they are reading another well-done X-Men story.
But since you're reading this article, you obviously are not blind to Internet hype. It's an everyday part of your life. You saw the "Save the Date" for "Astonishing X-Men" #51 months ago and have been speculating ever since. The hype is telling you that this is a huge deal. Gay people are talking marriage! In a superhero comic!
The fact that this plot point is such hype-worthy news spotlights the United States' continued struggle with equality, but it just as much spotlights the way the modern comics industry machine works. If marriage equality fully existed, this would not be "The View"-worthy news. If North Carolinians hadn't come out in droves to support inequality earlier this month, this wouldn't be an issue. If the President didn't have to publicly confirm that, yes, he thinks that all humans should be equal to all other humans (you know, just one of those things our country was founded upon), this proposal wouldn't even be worthy of coverage on "The Talk" (I had to work a dig in on "The View's" competitor, I just had to). The fact that this proposal is A Big Thing shows just how far our culture has to go to before all men and women truly are treated as equal.
It also shows how committed Marvel is to being on the right side of history. Yes, gay marriage is controversial and yes, Marvel knows that two male character celebrating their nuptials is going to get attention (have I mentioned "The View" yet? Because this was mentioned on that show!) and probably sell books. Having one in "Astonishing X-Men," which is kinda on the lesser end of the X-Spectrum (it's not the flagship, it doesn't have an Architect for a writer and it's not even crossing into "AvX" territory) is only going to boost sales of a book that probably needs it. Financially, this is awesome for Marvel. DC is doing something similar right now and, man oh man, I'm sure I'm going to have thoughts about it when the news breaks (my hopes are for Ted Kord being the mysterious new gay hero BEE TEE DUBS).
But beyond Marvel knowing they are drumming up interest and sales for a book that needs it, this doesn't feel manipulative because it makes sense. This story isn't about two characters suddenly declaring their super gay love for each other and running to Vegas. This, so far, isn't plot misdirection. This is a natural progression for Marvel's oldest out character to take in his relationship with his longtime boyfriend. The proposal comes naturally and from a very real place. It feels right and it feels natural in the story, and that's exactly how a fictional marriage proposal should be handled. The message that the issue delivers is that this relationship is valid and marriage is well within reason for this loving couple. Northstar doesn't angst over marriage inequality, and Gambit and Iceman don't flinch when offering their teammate relationship advice (although, man, could Northstar have chosen worse guys to get advice from?). This is about Northstar wanting to get married, not gay-married. It's void of any politics. It's an incredibly important message for this country to see, especially at a time when the love the gay community feels is constantly under scrutiny and regulation.
There's also some concern that marriage on the whole limits a comic book character's viability for new, fresh stories, and that with Northstar getting hitched, we will be robbed of seeing him fall in love or be as romantically/sexually active as his straight peers. And yes, while comic book weddings typically don't work out, I don't feel that that is a valid reason to never do them. Marriage is incredibly tied up in the human experience. In our culture, it's kind of essential. That's why people are so fussy about it (fussy=understatement). To deny our heroes the right to marry because it doesn't fit our expectations -- that sounds a bit familiar, right? Tell marriage stories. Tell dating stories. Tell divorce stories. Tell all of the stories.
I do have a larger problem with our man Northstar being expected to represent the entire gay population. He shouldn't. He may right now, but that's only because Marvel has about 70 years worth of creating almost exclusively-straight characters to catch up on. Northstar should not be the only gay, high profile (relatively) character at Marvel. Marvel should be telling stories that depict every walk of life, including single and married members of the LGBT community. Right now it's Northstar's turn to depict gay marriage to a wide audience. That's incredibly important. Yes, it's a shame that I can't think of a character to step up and take on the mantle of Comics Leading Man's Man, but that will change as Marvel diversifies its hero roster. It will change because it has to, because our culture demands diverse representation. And if Marvel doesn't do it, it's looking like DC just might.
And honestly, I wouldn't expect Marvel or DC to shy away from trotting out gay-centric storylines to the masses, hoping for the news to round up new eyeballs. This entire story arc has been treated with the same amount of fanfare given to the New 52, or Johnny Storm's death, or the debut of Miles Morales. Comics are not only more mainstream than ever (at least the characters are), but the Internet exists. Yes, the Internet! It exists! It took a story as big as the death of Superman, a bona-fide-as-apple-pie American icon, to get mainstream coverage 20 years ago. Now, Northstar, who I'd bet most casual comic book readers couldn't pick out of a lineup, and his non-powered boyfriend are getting married, and it gets mega coverage. The comic book industry does this now. It's a thing, and it's here to stay. And honestly, comics are as valid as movies and television. I'm somewhat excited that this medium, which is nearly as old as television, is finally getting mainstream attention. "The View," "Rock Center," "The Today Show," "Conan" -- let's get our comics on all the shows!
Also, America, let's make all of our citizens equal so we can stop focusing our headlines on mushy junk like weddings and back to where it should be: totally gnarly superhero death action!