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All-New X-Men vol. 7: The Utopians

March 6, 2016

This latest volume of “All-New X-Men” starts off with a pretty good story involving Emma Frost teaching/tormenting the time-displaced Jean Grey in Madripoor over the latter’s reliance on her telepathic powers over her telekinetic ones.  It plays to Bendis’ strengths in character-driven dialogue (particularly with Emma’s bitchy banter), and features some striking art from Mike Del Mundo that is ill-served by washed-out coloring.  Then there are two issues from the massive “Black Vortex” crossover that feature interesting art from Andrea Sorrentino.  There’s really not much more to say about them than that because these issues read just about as well as you’d expect two random issues pulled from a multi-part crossover to.  Last up is the two-part story that this volume takes its name from as we catch up with a random assortment of mutants who have made a new home for themselves in the ruins of the X-Men’s former island base of Utopia.

That’s the least interesting part of the title story.  In fact, I’m sure the only reason it’ll be remembered years from now is because of a revelation regarding one of the original X-Men.  I’m talking about the outing of Bobby “Iceman” Drake.

Even with their status as a metaphor for oppressed minorities, I don’t think any of the core X-Men teams have had a gay member in their history.  Northstar was the first openly gay mutant, but he was a member of Alpha Flight.  Rictor and Shatterstar became a couple in the pages of Peter David’s “X-Factor.”  There’s also Anole, who tends to show up whenever there’s a new book about one of the junior X-teams.  As far as “Uncanny” and “Adjectiveless” go, they’ve been pretty straight all these years.

So, the revelation that Iceman is gay is a big thing.  Not only is he a member of one of the Marvel Universe’s most famous teams, but he’s also one of their original members.  It’s also a development that will hopefully give him some interesting story material beyond his lifetime status as the joking underachiever of the X-Men.  He’s more of a reassuring presence on the team rather than a character I look forward to reading about.  I mean, Iceman has his role that he fills well, but you can probably count the memorable ones that have been about him on one hand.  Maybe dealing with the complications of being a gay man at two different points in his life will give him a bit more depth.

While this is all well and good, my main problem with all this comes from the way in which he was outed.  You see, this wasn’t his choice at all.  It was Jean Grey’s.  After Bobby jokes about appreciating new professor Magik’s unbelievable hotness, Jean takes it upon herself to confront her teammate about why he would do such a thing.  You know, because he’s gay.  She knows this because she read his mind.  Without his permission.

To put this all in order, Jean read one of her teammates’ minds without his permission and then went and made a judgment about how he should conduct himself by exposing a secret that he had tried to keep from everyone.  If I may say this:  How the FUCK did Bendis think that this was an acceptable way to retcon an established character’s sexuality!?  Yes, his version of young Jean has had a problem with managing her telepathic abilities over the course of the writer’s run.  It has either been played off as a joke or resulted in strained awkwardness before, but if this is the endgame for the use of her powers it’s not a very satisfying one.  More like a little frightening.  If Jean thinks that getting Bobby to acknowledge his sexuality on her terms is a good thing, I shudder to think at what she’ll do when she gets to know more of the heroes in the Marvel Universe.  You do know that she’s going to have a role in “Civil War II,” right?

It’s also clear that Bendis doesn’t see anything wrong with this as the conversation between Jean and Bobby ends in hugs and understanding a few pages later.  This stretches credibility even further as you’d think that having one of his deepest secrets  exposed would’ve been more traumatic for the young Iceman.  Yet he’s alright with this betrayal of trust, even when Jean counters his query that he might be bisexual with, “But I think you’re more… full gay.”  I’ve said it before that Bendis writes some of the best dialogue in the business, but his instincts have led him astray here.  Rather than the kind of development that relies on character history to work, the way in which Bendis reveals that Iceman is gay is so wrongheaded in its execution that it almost seems like a supervillain plot.  Can we expect young Jean to go full-on Dark Phoenix again a few years from now and then say, “Hey, Bobby.  I was just using my powers to make you think that you were gay!  Why, because I thought it would be hilarious if the gayest X-Man really was gay!”  I’ll admit that’s an extremely unlikely scenario as Marvel would be raked over the social media coals for a stunt like that.  Yet that’s how this whole sequence reads best.

A better way to handle this would’ve been to have Jean acquire this knowledge about Bobby’s sexuality and then dramatize her deliberation regarding what to do with this info.  Have her realize that while it may be best for Bobby to come to terms with his sexuality sooner rather than later, but play the long game to get him to realize it instead confronting the character about it.  Bendis could’ve had Jean realize this as soon as her telepathic powers kicked in during his run and then developed it as a subplot.  It would’ve also given Jean a new way to connect with Emma since she likely would’ve been aware of this due to her interactions with Iceman after that body-swapping business between them in the 90’s.  Yet now we’re getting into “fan thinks he can write a better story than the professional” territory and I’m going to count making me think that as just one more thing the story gets wrong.

For a better example about how to reveal that an established character is actually gay, I’d recommend checking out the “Half a Life” arc from “Gotham Central.”  (Issues #6-10, currently part of the first volume of the new hardcover/softcover editions.)  This was where we found out that Renee Montoya was a lesbian and her life went to hell as a result of it.  Why?  Well, this revelation was actually planned by a supervillain who, in his own twisted way, wanted to thank Montoya for the help and compassion she had shown to him in recent storylines.  It’s written by Greg Rucka, with typically excellent art from Michael Lark, and is all around a lot smarter about how to handle this kind of revelation and make it seem credible both in terms of characterization and storytelling.

As for the rest of “The Utopians” storyline, it’s actually not bad.  There’s some decent fight scenes between the X-Men and inhabitants of Utopia with S.H.I.E.L.D. coming off looking as dumb as ever for how they handle mutant problems.  It also leads into the final story of Bendis’ run which will be addressed in “Uncanny X-Men #600” in the final volume of his “Uncanny” series.  While having a core member of the X-Men come out as gay is a big step forward for social progress, and may even result in some good stories for the character going forward, the actual mechanics of his coming out will likely be resigned to the bin of things (like how Spider-Man offered up his marriage to Mephisto to save Aunt May) That We Do Not Talk About Anymore.

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