Gay Per Saying: Penguin, Iceman, and Queer Discovery

A few months back, I went on a little bit of a Twitter rant about the monoculture that’s grown up around what a gay narrative is. At the time, I was railing against Robin Lord Taylor’s assertion that his Penguin wasn’t “gay per se” because the character didn’t recognize a gay sexual attraction until his late twenties.

Twitter was enough spleen venting for me at the time, but recent responses to the new Iceman comic over at Marvel have brought the whole thing bubbling back up for me. In a turn which should surprise no one, the usual suspects are railing against the notion that an adult Bobby Drake is “suddenly” gay. Because it’s the usual suspects, I want to bat them aside and ignore them, but I keep coming back to Robin Lord Taylor, a gay man, supporting a very similar narrative about queerness:

Honestly, I feel that part of the reason why I don’t like to say that Oswald is gay per se in the sense that I’m a gay man, I’ve known I was gay my entire life, and for someone at the age of 28, 29, or however old he is to just suddenly question his sexualization wasn’t something I totally understood.

The “gay per se” is fine, because despite hard lines drawn in conservative social settings, there’s plenty of sexuality that falls between homosexual and heterosexual. If The Penguin acted to reverse erasure for bisexuality, pansexuality, demi-sexuality, sapiosexuality, all of that would be wonderful. That, however, isn’t where Taylor’s coming from.

No, Penguin isn’t “gay per se” because, ostensibly, the character hasn’t experienced this kind of attraction in his youth, like Robin Lord Taylor and many other gay people do.

That? Is a problem.

The Closet Isn’t the Only Room In My House

The fact of the matter is, I wasn’t much of a sexual being at all until my late 20s. When I started feeling sexual attraction, it was toward men. What the majority of people hear when I tell them that is that I was in the closet until my late 20s, but that’s not accurate. It’s the easiest story for them to tell, however, because that’s the one they always hear. A large swath of queer people will tell you that they always knew. I can’t count the number of gay men who tell some variation on, “When I was six I saw the neighbor with his shirt off and it was all over for me.”

It’s a prevalent story. It’s a valid story. It’s an important story, the closet, because we need to acknowledge the pain and despair of people who know who they are but choose to hide that because of societal pressures and fears, who may never come out, or who make tragic choices to escape lives of repression. I don’t want to minimize that narrative in any way. I just want to make the point that it’s not the only one.

When I say I wasn’t attracted to men until my late 20s, that’s not a euphemism. I don’t mean that I wasn’t comfortable approaching men until my late 20s, or that that I was afraid to acknowledge my attraction to men until my late 20s. I mean exactly what I’m saying: my queerness wasn’t a tangible part of me until then. The only thing shut behind my closet door was my winter coat.

Some Doors Are Riskier to Open

I get it, I really do. A large part of the queer rights movement is predicated on the notion Gaga anthemed: we do not choose queerness, but are born this way. The logic follows, then, that if queerness is inborn, it should also always be there, right? Drooling over a TV idol shortly after being able to form complete sentences is primal reinforcement of that. Beards and girlfriends from Canada allow for late-stage gay reveals without robbing people of the core reality of their sexuality.

Saying that people may not discover a queer identity until later in life risks opening a door. If queerness can appear late in life, then the same logic as above can insist that queerness may be quashed at a later point, as well. Enter torturous “conversion therapy” and other such nonsense.

Tract Housing Isn’t the Only Kind

If people were robots, I might agree with the logic of the above constructions. If who we are happened to be nothing more than a string of indelible code with predictable responses, then sure, everyone’s queerness would express the same way, at the same time, and follow the same patterns.

I don’t subscribe to that. I’m a gay man. I’m queer. My queerness is a part of me. The fact that I didn’t discover it, that it didn’t let itself be known to me until later in life, doesn’t make it less integral to who I am or less innate a part of me.

It doesn’t fit the more commonly expressed narrative, and by doing so it makes the wider arguments about that narrative trickier to navigate, but that doesn’t make my narrative any less real or deserving to be told.

I’m Out of Housing Metaphors: Fuck Structural Restriction, Anyway

It comes down to this: sometimes it just takes a neighbor washing his car or a ring of keys to make a person’s identity clear. Sometimes it takes encountering the time-displaced, alternate younger version of your mutant super-hero self. The thing that makes stories different and unique is that people are different and unique. So down with the universal closet and monoculture, and up and outward with queer narratives that celebrate their own variety over homogeneity. That’s half the point of diversity, of decolonization, of intersectionality: if you think you know how “these stories” go, you just haven’t read enough of them yet.

I Think She’d Be Marvelous

So apparently casting for the upcoming Captain Marvel movie is ramping up. I see the usual suspects suggesting the usual suspects for the title role. And I don’t know that anyone I’m hearing named is a bad choice, mind you, but when I sat down to think about what might make a good Captain Marvel, I came up with someone else.

I’m all in on Kerry Washington for the cinematic Captain Marvel.

I’ll stop right here and clarify that no, I’m not talking about making this film about Monica Rambeau. I’d be thrilled to see that character on screen, too, but that would involve a wholesale concept shift. I suspect the MCU gurus chose their Captain Marvel for her kree / alien / cosmic ties as they expand into outer space for their Infinity War mega-event. Trying to change the course of that monster seems so entirely outside the realm of possibility that I’m not sure it would be worth the effort.

So, yeah, I’m doing my back flips and megaphone cheers for Kerry Washington as Carol Danvers.

Since I can already hear the um actuallys starting with their But Carol Danvers is.., I’ll just stop right there and finish that sentence for you.

Carol Danvers is a woman filled with inner strength and determination.

Carol Danvers is a woman willing to fight against overwhelming odds to do what she thinks is right.

Carol Danvers is a woman whose military background suggests she’s used the previous qualities to push her way up the ranks in one of the ultimate Boys’ Clubs around.

Carol Danvers is a woman with a past of mistakes and tragedy, who’s been beaten by fate and circumstance time and again, gaining power, losing power, but who, at the end of the day, has come out triumphant and ready to keep fighting.

Um, yeah, so what I’m seeing here is someone who feels like she has a lot in common with Washington’s Oliva Pope on Scandal. Sure, her fights there aren’t nearly as physically violent as the kind Captain Marvel is likely to entail, but that’s what stunt doubles and special effects are for.

And while Washington herself hasn’t always been the punching character, her recent turn in Django Unchained, and previous roles in the first two Fantastic Four films, certainly suggest she’s not opposed to being part of a film built around things going ‘splody.

Said role in the FF films also happens to mean Washington’s already dealt with anti-diversity nerdrage and came out on top. I’ve no idea if she wants to wade into the morass again, mind you, but if she did, she at least wouldn’t be coming into the whole thing unawares.

So, yeah, if we’re fancasting that MCU flick? I’m on the Kerry Washington for Carol Danvers train. THAT would be some Marvelous casting, if you ask me.

Morituri Blog: Bloom on the Rose

Strikeforce: Morituri is largely concerned with its younger cast, and most of its Big Ideas are kind of couched in the ways in which they interact with young people, which makes sense. Everything often seems so much more intense at that age, as the entire world of Big Ideas seems to be settling on you. But none of those ideas is particularly exclusive to youth. And making it past that brash age and into what one might think of as “experienced” doesn’t save us from any of them.

Beth Luis Nion wasn’t meant to be a Morituri. She was their commander, meant to stand at a reserve and move the pawns. She had the skill. The experience. And she was just as vulnerable to the overwhelming nature of idealism as anyone.

Nion fell in love with one of “The Black Watch,” those experienced soldiers who were the first to undergo the Morituri process. In her exuberance, Nion made a brash choice, undergoing the Morituri process in order to share something unique and special with the man she loved. If I had a dollar for every time I underwent life-threatening scientific experimentation for a guy, amiright?

In any case, the age of The Black Watch soldiers meant that they lasted nearly no time at all before the energies within them consumed their bodies. Nion, however, their contemporary, lasted much longer. In-story, the theory is that her low-level ability (the power to make flowers bloom) kept the consuming energies from burning too quickly.

But if we look at her power outside the story, I think there’s plenty of useful metaphor to go around here, as well. It seems small, but, come on, there’s a reason the expression is “stop and smell the roses.” Nion is the commander. She’s meant to watch. To observe. Of course her power is about the little things, which of course aren’t little at all.

I’ve said before that this is a series that manages to find hope in the midst of so much darkness. I think Commander Nion points us to some of the how. Big, crashing war and death and despair and ugliness are all around, but even here, if you look, there’s something wonderful to find. It might be glory, or faith, or art, or a painfully-brief romance. It might be a flower. But they’re all of them worth whatever joy you can eke from them.

I think Brent Anderson and Scott Williams actually sum up all of it in a really amazing page that ends the book’s first year. Click it for full size, because oh my god, this page, people.

It’s a combination of the deaths of both Robert (Marathon) and Commander Nion. At the top is the raucous explosion which marks Robert finding his moment of glory. At the bottom is the far quieter passing of Nion. And both of them cast off ripples which are just as large and just as important and just as heartbreaking and beautiful. And in between is … well … just about everything.

Which, I think, makes my point far better (and certainly more breathtakingly) than I ever can.

Powerblog: On Discovering Fandom

It was painfully obvious I was a fan of Power Pack from the get-go, but at the time, I was also pretty much alone in that. I had a few other friends who liked comics, but they all preferred the grown-ups, or at least the teenagers. Folks with X in their names, or who used a lot of guns. Such is often the nature of young boys, I suppose.1 I definitely didn’t know anyone else at the comics shop who seemed to get the book. It was me, over in my little corner, reading the book that wasn’t hot or collectible, where Wolverine might visit for Thanksgiving, but the only thing he cut with his claws were the tie lines of parade balloons.

That was probably why I always made sure to read the letters pages. See? I wasn’t alone. Here were people who liked the same things I liked. Or sometimes they didn’t like it, but they were all reading this same book. I wrote in a couple of times, myself, though I can’t recall if I had any letters printed there. If I wasn’t directly interacting with them, well, it still felt like a bit of a group discussion.

It was there, in those “Pick of the Pack” letters, that I ran across Dan Cuba’s request for folks to help him put together a fanzine. I think I hesitated at first, but after a month or two, I couldn’t resist the call to gather, and so I joined.

I was and still am pretty painfully shy. Crowds make me nervous. I’d not been to a comics convention ever, and it was unlikely I’d have worked up the courage to do so at the time. There probably were folks already gathering in the ether at this point, but I’ve always been more than a bit of Luddite. The early adopters are always rolling their eyes at me. So, it would still be several years before I had an email address. Probably a bit longer than that before I discovered usenet. So Power Pages, as we eventually named it, was my very first genuine experience with a fandom.

Here they were, boys and girls2 who all loved this little book, who talked about its details, wrote our own stories, drew our own pictures. Power Pack meant something to someone more than me. And I knew some of those people, albeit only on paper. No one thought it weird to sit down and, for example, talk about the differences between how June Brigman drew those wacky kids’ boots and how Jon Bogdanove or Brent Anderson modified the designs. We got to geek out with one another, and all our weird ideas were welcome, and goodness, but that was lovely.

I’d probably credit Power Pages for my eventually falling in and following some stuff on usenet, and later following comics bloggers and trying my hand at some, myself. The interwebs weren’t nearly the love fest the fanzine had been, but having had that group of people who understood the thing I loved enough to call ourselves fans of it, I was far more bolstered to deal with and recognize the trolls and seek out the folks who were really interested in talking about things.

I’ve completely lost track of pretty much everyone from the fanzine, as things eventually fell apart without a book to follow any more (though we did try). Still, I think I have just as much of a soft spot for that little fanzine as I do for the book which inspired it.

1. I didn’t know any girls who read comics at the time. Don’t worry, it wouldn’t be long, though. [back]

2. I believe none of us were out of high school when we started? If I’ve got that wrong, then there were men and women mixed in, and that was just fine, too. But in my head, we were all around the same age, even if we weren’t. [back]

Morituri Blog: Find Your Moment

It’s kind of impossible to have a story with so much imminent death and not explore the idea of finding one’s purpose. Mortality in general pushes us to find a meaning in our existence, of course, but the hyper-condensed lifespan of the Morituri heightens this drive. Nowhere is that more apparent than in the person of Robert Greenbaum – Marathon.

In most other books, Robert would have been the lovable, big, protective lug. Even in Strikeforce: Morituri he plays that role as the series begins. In that fairly brief period, he’s content to be The Big Guy who lets other folks do the thinking and tries to keep everyone safe. But after first Lorna, then Harold, fall to the ravages of the process these young folks have undergone, it becomes clear that there is no more time to be complacent. With so very little time left to live, Marathon begins in earnest to seek out his purpose, to find that moment which might give his life and his sacrifices meaning.

Like a lot of young people, he falters in that quest. He tries to go out in a fighting blaze of glory, but while there is much blazing, Robert’s clumsy attempts send him quite literally plummeting back to Earth. To be sure, it’s an epic fall.

And, unlike those normal humans who were subject to the “Highdive” previously, Robert miraculously survives. But in surviving, he finds himself faltering even further. He was the big one. The strong one. Surely he was meant to die in bloody battle? And yet, here he is, largely unscathed. Having no scars, or rather showing none, Robert seems to feel the need to make it clear exactly what he is. This, I think, is what leads to the rather unique method by which Robert marks himself. It’s as if he believes that what he needs to finally be a hero is a scar, a mark that screams “I matter.”

From Strikeforce: Morituri #11
Art by Brent Anderson and Scott Williams
Words by Peter B. Gillis

Here’s the thing: Robert’s struggle with purpose isn’t exclusive to him any more than genius is only Harold’s, or faith belongs solely to Jelene. It’s just that I think Robert provides a really focused example of the exploration of this particular theme in the series.

The nature of Robert’s powers is one of the things that I think makes him such a good candidate for exploring this notion of purpose. He’s strong and tough like all the Morituri, but Robert’s own physical might is far in excess of that of his teammates. Indeed, as Gillis clarifies a few issues in, Robert’s strength actually builds, but only for as long as he chooses not to use that strength.

It’s one of the odd things about that bridge from childhood to adulthood, when you wander into the middle ground, when you can see there might be an endgame, and it becomes dreadfully hard not to rush toward it. I don’t think Gillis is by any means suggesting that people sit on their backsides and wait for the world to serve up their destinies. This is a story about people who are living with the constant reality of their mortality; time is precious, and shouldn’t be squandered.

But that doesn’t mean it’s all a race, either.

It’s precarious, to be sure, and Robert’s up-and-down attempts to find the right time, to prepare himself to seize his moment, make that clear. But when Robert holds back, when he finally, fully steps back and not only waits, but watches1, he gathers the power he’s been after. Fulfills his purpose. Finds his moment.

And finally, finally, has that painful, bittersweet piece of meaning he’s been chasing for so very long.

From Strikeforce: Morituri #11. Art by Brent Anderson and Scott Williams, Words by Peter B. Gillis

1. I think this is another reason for Robert’s tattoo. Yes, he wants to be seen, but also — whether consciously or not — he’s discovering that finding one’s moment requires a special level of vision, as well.[back]

Morituri Blog: Divine Puzzles

That weekend reprint does seem to have gotten my Morituri brain going at least a little bit. No idea if this will turn into a fuller series of posts, but we’ll do this one and see if more happen to present themselves. This time up it’s faith, in the person of Jelene Anderson.

Developing the ability to understand the way just about anything works if she touches it and / or focuses her attention on it, Jelene takes the name Adept. It would have been easy to take Jelene–a woman of explicitly stated spiritual faith–and follow a narrative in which the de-mystification of the world simultaneously destroys that faith. With death raining down on all sides,1 and the standing trope in science fiction that magic and spirituality are science we don’t understand, it would hardly be out of place for the soul of the group to lose her own faith as knowing how everything works still doesn’t give her all the answers.

This is a dark story in general, after all. The Morituri are walking dead. No matter what they do, it’s over. If The Horde doesn’t kill them, their own bodies will. They are walking no-win situations. Disillusionment is kind of built into the very core of the story, starting from the first issue, as the harsh reality of these young peoples’ fates smacks them in the face.

One of the things I think Gillis does a great job at with this series, though, is juxtaposition. In a tale of imminent death, literally from without (The Horde) and within (The Morituri Effect), there are nevertheless all these moments of hope. It seemed completely counter-intuitive, and yet I think for the most part Gillis pulls them off. In fact, once I look back at it, it seems as if he couldn’t have told the story without them.

Jelene is another wonderful blending of concepts which seem–at least in a lot of science fiction contexts–contradictory, but which come together in an unexpected way. There is certainly a level of disillusionment with the governmental bureaucrats overseeing the program, as she is at one point locked away with various technologies in an effort to maximize her metahuman insights before she dies. Despite this, as Jelene’s powers grow, so does her faith in a higher power.

click for biggerness
Art by Brent Anderson and Scott Williams, words by Peter B. Gillis

As with Harold’s death previously, Jelene’s is another one which feeds into her goals and arc. Like a lot of Morituri, Jelene’s powers surge as she begins to near her end. She sees not just the workings of those objects near her, but begins to see the workings of the universe itself. And making those connections, witnessing some kind of unified quantification of the universe, she sees the creator she’s been seeking.

I think I’m making this sound more preachy than I think it reads. I didn’t get the sense that Gillis was trying to force some kind of belief system on the reader. Rather, he was taking the character to her natural conclusion. Which, yes, is her death. But, like I said before, the methods he uses manage to turn final, grim moments into this unexpected flare of hope which serves to pull the reader along, and kind of reinvests you in the narrative for the darkness yet to come.

1. In at least one case, this is quite literal: The Horde have adopted a tactic of taking prisoners just outside the edge of the atmosphere, and then throwing them out of their ships, where their bodies, burning upon re-entry, create a macabre shower of shooting stars.[back]

Powerblog: On Specialties and Weekly Obsessions

By the time Power Pack finished its second year, it had long stopped being the only series I collected. With the help of that well-stocked book store, I was collecting several series at that point. But, of course, those pesky little kid super heroes were still top of the list.

Issue 25 changed up a lot of things. In addition to the kids switching powers, the comic changed up its shipping schedule. The end of the issue announced that Power Pack would now be going bi-monthly. I was going to have to wait two whole months between installments.

Of course, my obsessiveness kicked in quite thoroughly in that interval. Did going bi-monthly next issue mean that it would be two months until issue 26, or that 26 would ship as normal and set the cycle, after which it would be two months until 27? Yes, it was wishful thinking. But, between desperation and math being not my friend, it made complete and utter sense at the time.

So the next month came, and I went to the book store anyway, and there was no Power Pack. Emboldened more than I normally would be, I asked behind the counter if they knew if the book would be another month or not. The folks at the book store were nice and all, but there was only one employee who dealt with the comics ordering, and that person wasn’t around.

However, if I wanted to check, there was a comics specialty shop I could vis–

Wait, did I just hear…? There were shops that didn’t just have a comic book section, but which were wholly dedicated to comics? I had to excuse myself to re-align my understanding of the way of the universe.

With the same fervor I’d had on previous attempts to Have All Power Pack Always, there was badgering which resulted in finding the local comic shop. It was, at the time, a fairly small store, but in addition to having all the comics the book store carried, there were these long, cardboard boxes full of comics, all in protective plastic sleeves and with cardboard backing. It was like a little treasure trove of comics archive-iness. If I’d been overwhelmed by a long magazine rack of comics, I was rather shell-shocked when realizing (1) how many comics fit in a box, and (2) how many boxes were in that small shop.

It did turn out that I’d have to wait an extra month for Power Pack, but in the meantime, I’d just discovered the comics specialty store. Several more shovelfuls had thus been dug for my entrenchment.