Thursday, April 12, 2012

The Gay Marriage of Gay Superhero Northstar (who's gay)

About a month ago, Marvel Comics announced that Astonishing X-Men #51, due out in June, will contain a very special wedding. People speculated that it would involve Marvel jumping on the gay wedding bandwagon by hitching Northstar and his boyfriend Kyle. Sure enough, there's now been an announcement that Marvel have "secured mainstream coverage both on-air and in print for something that has never been seen in the pages of a Marvel comic before… This will be an event that will have worldwide mass-media attention driving customers to your stores. Because of the nature of the event and the promised mass media break, we cannot say who will be tying the knot, but we promise that it will send shockwaves through the nation."

So yes, it's pretty clear what's going to happen. The thing is, this isn't a new idea - Archie, that most traditional of American comics, recently followed up their controversy-baiting introduction of a gay character (he's called Kevin Keller) by including him in a series of flash-forwards to what those loveable teens from Riverdale will do when they grow up. Kevin, it seems, will be a noble and traditional American soldier who will marry a (male) doctor who saves his life. There was, naturally, "mainstream coverage both on-air and in print". And Archie wasn't the first comic to have a gay wedding, obviously, it was just the first comic anyone's heard of.

So are Marvel really going to do just the same thing in their latest search for publicity? It certainly sounds like it. Northstar has always been a favourite character of mine, so here's a potted history of him that journalists can find when they're doing a cursory internet search for something to write in their articles...

Northstar, real name Jean-Paul Beaubier, first shows up in X-Men #121, cover-dated May 1979, along with the rest of his Canadian super-team, Alpha Flight. Northstar, along with his twin sister Aurora, can fly at super-speed, and when they touch hands it creates a blinding flash of light. As creator John Byrne later said, "the twins were there mainly to be French," and they don't get much in the way of characterisation.

Alpha Flight caught the imagination of comics fans, though, and they continued to pop up here and there until they got their own ongoing series, cover-dated August 1983. Northstar settled into the role of the misanthropic moaner who was unpleasant to everyone and only stuck with the team to support his sister. Since Marvel already had a super-speedster who was unpleasant to everyone and protective of his sister (his name's Quicksilver and he dates back to 1963), this wasn't really new, but the comic is very well written and Northstar is strangely likeable. And he does have something Quicksilver doesn't have - he's gay, as is made clear by the kind of coy, subtle hints that were what comics did in the early eighties - this from Northstar's origin story in #9:

 When Bill Mantlo took over as writer, the hints got less subtle, and his extremely wordy style of comic writing gave plenty of opportunity to slip them in. Pretty soon, it was obvious even to the most dimwitted reader what Jean-Paul's personal preferences were, although it had still never explicitly been stated. This exchange in #41 is fairly typical:

And you had to know he was gay to pick up on what was happening in the storyline. In that same issue, he develops a cough, which steadily gets worse. In an amusing mistake in #43, we get a hint of what's happening:

The asterisk is meant to lead to a footnote explaining when this kiss happened, but obviously nobody could find it - no surprise, since it actually takes place in the NEXT month's issue! Bill Mantlo, in the usual "Marvel style" of writing, would create the plots, send them to the artist, and then fill in the dialogue when he got the pencilled pages back. He was notoriously always well ahead of his deadlines, and had obviously forgotten where his story had got to. The actual kiss from Alpha Flight's archenemy of the time, Pestilence, happens in #44:

That's Northstar's first on-panel kiss. And, indeed, his only one in the entire run of Alpha Flight comics.

There's a widespread belief that Bill Mantlo intended Jean-Paul to be dying of AIDS, but that's just silly if you actually read the comics. It's very very obvious that the talk of his illness is a red herring, and the always-intended real explanation for it is what saw print in #50. Northstar and Aurora are half human and half fairy, and living too long on this world has made him sick and driven her mad. They depart at the end of that issue, as the climax of Mantlo's gradual writing-out of all of John Byrne's characters, Northstar welcomed to the land of the fairies by his kinfolk.

It's not Mantlo's crowning moment of glory, to be honest, but it was clearly his intention all along and not forced on him by editors. Anyway, once Mantlo left to be replaced by James D Hudnall, there was a gradual return to the comics of the original cast, including Northstar. It turned out that the whole fairy thing was a lie of Loki's, and he was entirely human after all (even though a central plot point of #50 was that Loki was most definitely not lying... basically, they just swept the whole thing under the rug, and probably for the best too), so he rejoined the team and soon became his usual sardonic and miserable self.

The whole gay thing doesn't get a mention, or even a subtle hint, after his return, but at some point around #100 (I can't find it in my collection, so forgive me going by memory), the letters page printed a letter saying "Wouldn't it be nice if we could revive the Northstar as a gay character storyline?", which got a reply "As for Northstar, his sexual orientation never changed, it just hasn't come up lately." That's the first time the word 'gay' shows up in an Alpha Flight comic.

Then comes the famous #106, March 1992. By now the comic was being written by Scott Lobdell, and he alternates outright silliness with thoughtful and meaningful deep stories. This is one of the latter - Jean-Paul adopts an abandoned baby who turns out to be dying of AIDS. The nationwide publicity angers retired hero Major Mapleleaf, whose gay son died of the same disease but didn't get so much as a tug of the national heartstrings, and he takes out his frustrations on Northstar. This leads to those three words that were heavily publicised by Marvel Comics...

I think this is really good stuff. A few commentators laughed at the bang-pow-smash fight scene while discussing weighty issues, but that's how comics work. And I'd call it a great juxtaposition. Anyway, this was towards the tail-end of the speculator boom of the early nineties, and there was talk of this comic being worth a fortune, until it turned out that everyone who wanted one had already got a copy. Or three.

Alpha Flight was cancelled due to low sales after #130 - Northstar got his own four-issue limited series thereafter, to take advantage of whatever public notoriety the character still had. It was actually quite good, but it didn't lead to any kind of regular role.

There have been unsuccessful attempts to revive Alpha Flight every few years ever since then - the most recent was cancelled after eight issues a few months ago - but Northstar has now joined another team. He was added to the very large cast of the X-Men in the 2000s, and devoted himself to a career of standing in the background occasionally. He was actually killed by a mind-controlled Wolverine at one point, but he soon got better.

Jean-Paul has gradually become a much more mellow character - he's even acquired a boyfriend, for the first time in recorded history! Kyle, who's black, not a superhero, and basically a nice guy, showed up in Uncanny X-Men #508 (June 2009) and has made occasional appearances ever since. It seems that the two of them are going to help Marvel's sales by tying the knot later this year.

The funny thing is that Marvel is wildly against superhero marriage - they went to great (and ridiculous) lengths to undo Spider-Man's marriage to Mary-Jane in such a way that won't leave him either divorced or widowed (the story involved a deal with the devil, which apparently is more acceptable for a hero than being married), and I don't think there's a single hero in their enormous cast of characters who's currently married to a non-superhero. Northstar marrying Kyle might be normal in this world, but in the Marvel Universe, it's weird!

As a footnote, there are now a fair few other gay superheroes out there. DC comics seems to have four among its "New 52" cast - a relationship between Apollo and Midnighter in "Stormwatch", hinted at by subtle euphemisms that are positively Victorian in their coyness; the central character of "Batwoman", who's described as a 'proud lesbian' on the first page of every issue and basically stresses the idea so strongly that she doesn't have any other character traits; and the one comic that gets it right is "Teen Titans", with the weirdly-named hero Bunker. The love lives of the Teens haven't yet featured in the action-oriented series, but we get one nicely-written exchange in #6 - written, again, by Scott Lobdell:

Wonder Girl: Does that line work on all the girls?
Bunker: Girls? Uh... not exactly. You do realise I'm gay, right?
Wonder Girl: See? I have the worst gaydar in the world. But now that you mention it...

At which point they're interrupted by another fight scene. I'd recommend Teen Titans over the upcoming much-hyped wedding, any day.

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