At Comic-Con International in San Diego, Chance Whitmire of gay-centric FanboysOfTheUniverse.com moderated a panel discussing the evolution of Phil Jimenez ("New X-Men," "Wonder Woman"), Marjorie Liu ("X-23," "Astonishing X-Men"), writer Scott Lobdell ("Uncanny X-Men"), writer/editor Jase Peeples ("The Advocate," Gay.net) and Marvel Comics SVP of Sales David Gabriel.
Introduced in the pages of "Uncanny X-Men" in 1979, Jean-Paul Beaubier AKA Northstar was an Olympic athlete with mutant powers who became a superhero. Though he was always intended to be gay, different factors led to him not coming out about his sexuality or directly referencing it for readers until 1992 in the Scott Lobdell-scripted "Alpha Flight" #106..
"In the old days, we used to have [single-issue] inventory stories," Lobdell explained. "You would write them and put them off to the side in case something happened with the scheduling. I gave the editor a choice of three stories...and one of the stories was Northstar coming out. Northstar was [often portrayed as] this really angry jerk. I thought, okay, he's an Olympic superstar who's hiding...his homosexuality. So the idea was that Northstar was probably always trying to make you as annoyed with him as he can, so you never got past the general sense of oh, you're the Olympic star.
"By bringing him out of the closet, it would help me as a writer start to deal with his interactions with the other characters," Lobdell ocntinued. "Sure enough, three months went by, and when it came out, we didn't think anything of it, it was just another issue. But right on the cover, you can see it says 'Northstar -- As You've Never Known Him Before!' And it blew up. The NY Times picked it up, and the LA times picked it up, which is interesting, because there was no build-up. The marriage is the exact opposite."
As far as reader reaction in 2992, Lobdell recalled, "In those days when you only had the letters column [instead of the internet], it was three months before we started seeing reaction. I'd say about 98% thought it was awesome and maybe 2% thought we should burn in Hell."
"But not because [Northstar's] gay," Phil Jimenez added with a grin.
"Right, just because I suck as a writer," Lobdell replied, laughing.
Lobdell also remarked that he received strange reactions from some when he announced he was creating the teenage gay superhero Miguel Jose Barragan AKA Bunker to be a member of the newly rebooted "Teen Titans."
"'Don't make him too gay,' " Lobdell said, mimicking a remark made to him. "As if there are levels of 'gayness.' I wanted to make him, because [my feeling was] every time we see a mainstream gay superhero character... you wouldn't even know he was gay to look at him. I wanted to create a character based on my friend who has the same name as Bunker. He's just happily gay, he's always been gay. There are very divided camps, saying a flamboyant character is stereotypical and shouldn't be portrayed in comic books and that's all they get. My feeling is, it's usually portrayed as the opposite of that in comics."
Though Northstar was groundbreaking in being a superhero who came out and directly stated that he was a homosexual, some readers criticized Marvel when years passed and we never actually saw him with any kind of romantic partner. Phil Jimenez pointed out that at CCI just a few years earlier, a fan had passed out buttons and flyers reading: "Northstar -- Deaths: 3, Kisses: 0."
Following an extended absence from comics, Northstar eventually re-appeared, this time with a partner named Kyle, who has been at his side ever since. As for who decided to finally marry off Jean-Paul to his partner Kyle, David Gabriel joked, "It was the Marvel/Disney gay mandate!" before crediting Marjorie Liu with the story's creation. As Liu explained, "It was part of this long discussion about where to take these characters. Characters have to evolve and a beautiful way of evolving them is through relationships. It's not the end of the story. Before they got married, they had problems and that hasn't gone away.
"Anytime I start writing a story, I'm intimidated," Liu added. "This one, I knew going into it, was going to have a bit more media attention. Northstar is really complex. Kyle, too. I focused on their individual needs. What do they want from each other? What do they want from life? I let that guide me instead of worrying about the [outside world.]"
"All this happened without getting any marketing or sales people involved," Gabriel added. "Nobody raised an eyebrow. 20 years later, it's a lot easier to do this stuff. Our only word was, let's just be cautious and considerate of the story and of what the media attention's going to be and let's be careful on how we announce things. Marjorie came up with the story, [marketing and sales] did not. But in a crass way, I wanted to, of course, make sales off the story, and I wanted to get the message out because, to me, it was a great message.
"We actually had the first teaser campaign ready to go prior to last year's San Diego [Comic-Con]. And then we decided, twelve months is a long time to tease people -- let's hold off a little bit. And then, of course, three months later, Archie Comics announced their gay wedding. Coming right down to the solicit of the book, we wanted to make sure we were making the biggest splash that we could, and we had the idea that ,since we're now working with ABC and Disney, why don't we shop it around to some of those folks? it was Whoopi Goldberg who thought it was an amazing story and a lovely idea and she wanted to announce it on 'The View.' So that meant that we had to hold all the solicits. We really had to tease people that there was a wedding coming. A lot of people thought it was Gambit."
At this point, Marjorie Liu immediately laughed, saying, "I can't imagine anybody thinking Gambit would get married!"
While there was a large positive response overall, there was also the threat of a boycott from those who protested a gay marriage in X-Men comic books. "We were really lucky this time. Archie had already undergone the boycott and all that happened was their sales just doubled, tripled and quadrupled. So we actually wanted the boycott to start!" Gabrial recalled to audience laghter, "Just a week ago -- this Florida group was petitioning Marvel, Diamond Comics, Midtown Comics and Disney to not to publish the book that was published and sold a month ago. So, you know, glad they're on top of things."
"It was such a long time in coming for Northstar," Jase Peeples added. "We've been really hungry for representation in comics and, as everybody knows, Northstar's had a long road to hoe. It was just kind of a payoff for fans who've been there with him along the way. I actually went back and watched some old news coverage of when Northstar came out in 1992. It's interesting to see how the media was approaching it as more of a negative at the time, whereas now, it's on 'The View' and people are celebrating it."
When asked if he thought marriages would become the norm for gay couples in comics, Phil Jimenez spoke of hetero-normative expectations for gay characters. "Recently in Marvel, DC and Archie, three very prominent gay characters were quickly introduced and placed in loving monogamous marriages. Even [the Authority's] Apollo and Midnight were very quickly married off. It neuters them in a very interesting way because you never have a playboy gay character -- like a prominent A-list hero -- that isn't so quick to get married and to settle down. I'm fascinated by marriage as a concept, generally, historically, cross-culturally, what it means for men and women as political and social statement. So when we use fictional characters to talk about marriage, particularly gay ones who I think have a different history and a different sexual lineage, it makes me wonder if by marrying them not only do we fulfill fantasies for many of us who cannot [legally] be married...but conversely, it also basically says, whew! Now we don't have to deal with them dating, going through love affairs -- larger questions about sex and that sort of icky stuff because they're safe and they're married and we don't immediately want to damage their relationships by calling them promiscuous whores. The recent gay marriages and relationships introduced in comics intrigue me. Is marriage what all gay people aspire to?. I don't mean to come off as anti-marriage, that's not it."
In response to this, Lobdell remarked, "Northstar is an older guy. Bunker is 17 years old. The internet was saying, 'Oh, he's gonna get married.' Well, he's 17 years old, he's probably not gonna get married any time soon."
Responding to Jimenez's, Marjorie Liu said, "I think watching people flirt, watching people go on dates, watching people develop a relationship humanizes them in ways that some people might not be comfortable with in seeing two men or two women. And so marrying them off is a way of putting that to the side because you don't expect married people to flirt with each other."
"Right, they're just paying bills," Jimenez laughed.
"Right!" Liu replied. "I think the burden is on the creators that after these characters are married off, that the relationships are still developed and maintained in a way that is real and flirtatious and that makes it humanizing. I don't think characters get boring just because they get married. They're the same people they were before. For me, I don't work from a place of fear that they're going to get boring, I work from a place of fear that I as a writer won't be able to exploit them in the proper way."
Gabriel pointed out that the character Daken was portrayed in the "Dark Wolverine" series, written by Marjorie Liu, as a "promiscuous whore" and there was not a large negative reaction to his actions, though sales on the book were indeed low.
Jimenez acknowledged this as a good example of a different viewpoint and said, "I'm just interested, as a creator, that in creating material that people read and consume and pay for, that we also know where their fantasies lie."