More Than a One Story: Queer Life in 1990s Marvel Comics
Pictured above are Alpha Flight's Northstar and The Pantheon's Hector, from The Incredible Hulk, drawn by Jan Duursema and John Cebollero for Marvel's Swimsuit Special (1995). Although it is not mentioned on the page, these characters were two of the few recurring Marvel superheroes to be openly gay in the 1990s. Northstar was the first superhero to firmly establish that he was gay within the pages of a mainstream comic book (Alpha Flight #106, 1992), and much of the scholarship on queer representation in superhero comics has centred on him. Northstar, however, was not the first queer comic character to appear in Marvel’s pages, and the focus on his story can lead to missing other moments and chararcters who are equally important in Marvel’s history of queer representation, and to superhero comics’ queer readers.
Superhero comics tend to be dramatic in how they depict the treatment of marginalised groups. Whether this is done through metaphor, such as the X-Men who have long been favourites of queer readers and who have stood in for both the queer and African-American communities, or with actual depictions of homophobia or racism, prejudice in the Marvel Universe has historically been explicitly overt and problematic. This fits the conventions of the superhero genre, but it can create the impression, especially to readers who do not experience it themselves, that prejudice is always easy to detect and possible to combat through stirring speeches and righteous rescues. While there is real sympathy for queer people in these stories, and while instances of homophobia absolutely do occur in which the situation is just that cut and dry, it is often not what queer people actually deal with on a day to day basis. However, as queer representation in Marvel Comics grew in the early 1990s, some creators went beyond depicting queer characters as dramatically tragic figures. They began to incorporate queer life into their work in a more normalising way, and consider the smaller ways in which homophobia can impact queer people’s lives.
Writer Peter David, in his run on The Incredible Hulk, is one of the best examples of this. In terms of Marvel’s queer representation, he is perhaps best known for his landmark issue #420, ‘Lest Darkness Come’, which concentrated primarily on the story of Bruce Banner losing his friend, Jim Wilson, to the AIDS, but also acknowledged the problematic connection between gay men and the AIDS epidemic. Arguably, however, this was not David’s best contribution to queer representation. Although he garnered much praise for the issue, many readers also thought that the story had been too rushed, not allowing enough room to deal with all the complex concepts that the issue contained. The story, while important, had no effect on the ongoing narrative in The Incredible Hulk; it seemed to have been written specifically as social commentary on the issue of AIDS and, to a lesser extent, homosexuality. Several letter writers, including a reader with HIV, wondered if Jim Wilson’s condition would have been better explored by having him as an ongoing character within the comic, rather than using it only as a platform for his death. The issue did not understand these subjects as part of the Marvel Universe, but as a separate issue to be considered in isolation.
However, when David did take the time to create queer representation by building characters and adding details over many issues, it received far less attention, but the work itself truly shone. Issue #411, for example, shows an angry encounter between Nick Fury and a Senator, who demands: “What kind of military operation are you running there, anyway, Fury?”, to which Fury flippantly replies, “Well, fer starters, we have a great dental plan and we don’t give gays any grief". Here, homosexuality is acknowledged and linked to the real world issues queer people deal with, such as the recently passed Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy which prevented queer service members from disclosing their sexuality. By building small details like this into the Marvel Universe, David cements it as a place in which queer characters exist outside of single-issue tragic storylines. The effect is less immediately dramatic, but arguably, when done repeatedly, more valuable for queer representation than Northstar’s coming out story, which was followed by almost a decade of silence about the character’s sexuality.
David also created Hector, seen above, as a secondary recurring character in The Incredible Hulk who happened to be gay. The readers are made aware of his sexuality in a passing moment, and it is primarily shown as a source of tension between Hector and his brother, Ulysses. This difficult relationship does not have single issue devoted to it, instead appearing sporadically but consistently throughout the run and acting as both character building and plot device for the two brothers. Although David still only depicted queerness when it was problematic, he also treated it as one part of a multi-facted life, and not an isolated tragic incident. He was reflecting the reality of queer life for many at the time. For example, one scene stands out in issue #417 in which Hector and Ulysses meet on their way to Rick Jones’ bachelor party. Ulysses wonders: "Hector, why bother? I mean, stag films, raunchy women… It's not gonna do anything for you, so what's the point?" Hector then takes offense, but Ulysses brushes him off.
This form of prejudice is not as explicit as the use of a homophobic slur or, as in another of David’s stories, targeting a queer character for assasination because of his sexuality. It exhibits nuance; the prejudice comes from a character who the narrative presents as annoying, but also as a hero. It does not provide a villain to be fought in order to right a wrong, but does provide an uncomfortable situation which many queer people will be familiar with. Ulysses’ question to Hector is offensive because it others and outcasts Hector due to his queerness. By suggesting that being heterosexual is a baseline necessity for participating in an important moment in a friend’s life, Ulysses implies that Hector's queerness makes him incapable of being fully part of the friendship group. Hector’s response shows that he understands this implication, and the previous encounters we have seen between them before support his belief that Ulysses’ words are based in homophobia. But because Ulysses couched his statement in terms of Hector’s interests, he can pretend that there was no offense meant.
It would easy to describe this scene to make Hector look defensive and overly sensitive, and Ulysses deliberately reacts as if that were the case. It leaves Hector with few avenues for rebuttal; the usual superhero responses of speeches or fists are unhelpful. Ulysses tells him “it’s your choice, and none of my concern”, implying that Hector’s outsider status is due to a choice that Hector has made, one which he can change at any time, and that this status is not in any way imposed on him by Ulysses’ response to his identity. Hector’s response is to try to explain that his sexuality is not a choice, but “what I am”, implictly refuting Ullysses' claim that his brother's othering of him is his own fault, or something which Hector could through his own actions avoid. But while Ulysses is happy to make jabs at Hector, he has no desire to actually engage in a serious conversation about his sexuality or identity, and he walks away saying “I’m sick of this conversation”, and inviting Hector to the bachelor party he initially suggested he should not come to. He still positions himself as an insider versus Hector's outsider, inviting him into a group which Hector already belongs to. He makes it clear that he is not interested in a part of Hector which is important to him, and acts as though he has done nothing wrong. Hector is left frustrated, knowing that he has been mistreated but struggling to find a way to answer it.
This is a form of homophobia and gaslighting which queer people, and indeed many marginalised people, will recognise from their everyday lives, made a part of mainstream superhero comics. The scene acknowledges the smaller aggressions that have to be dealt with day-to-day, and how wearing and draining they can be. David brings subtlety and realism to the portrayal of prejudice in superhero narratives, and allows these smaller and more slippery moments to exist alongside the more dramatic demonstrations of prejudice which superhero comics are known for. It is perhaps not a co-incidence that David’s true genius shines through in depicting moments like these as, although he is not queer, he was bullied for being queer as a teenager, and was able to bring personal experience to the scene. By treating queerness as a part of life, rather than a singular social issue, he cemented queer life, not just queer tragedy, into the fabric of the Marvel Universe.
Although Northstar’s coming out is the best-known queer Marvel story in the 1990s, small scenes with smaller characters such as those examined here arguably had a greater effect, both within the Marvel Universe and for its readers. Acknowledging and exploring this history is important, and fans, more than academics, have been doing the work of bring that history to light and keeping it alive. For example, you can learn more about queer comic book characters at the Gay League website. Queer representation in Marvel has gone up and down; after a relative proliferation in the early 1990s, queer people disappeared from their comics again between 1995 and 2000. Today, however, more queer characters are appearing or coming out, and it is because of queer people and their allies, who build their communities, remember their history, and refuse to be invisible, that this change has occurred. Queer representation is a work in progress, but by remembering the small and important steps we have taken, we can reach towards a better future.
David, Peter, Gay Abandon (June 12th, 1992) (2009) <https://www.peterdavid.net/2009/05/11/gay-abandon-2/> [accessed 30 August 2019].
David, Peter & Gary Frank, 'Liberation Day', in The Incredible Hulk #411, ed. by Bobbie Chase (New York: Marvel Comics, 1993).
David, Peter & Gary Frank, 'Party Animals', in The Incredible Hulk #417, ed. by Bobbie Chase (New York: Marvel , 1994).
David, Peter & Gary Frank, 'Lest Darkness Come', in The Incredible Hulk #420, ed. by Bobbie Chase (New York: Marvel , 1994).
Duursema, Jan & John Cerbello, The Marvel Swimuit Special, ed. by Chris Cooper (New York, Marvel Comics, 1995).
Lobdell, Scott & Mark Pacella, 'The Walking Wounded', in Alpha Flight #106, ed. by Bobbie Chase & Chris Cooper (New York: Marvel Comics, 1992).