In his weekly interview feature Axel in Charge at CBR, Marvel Editor in Chief Axel Alonso broke the company’s silence on the not one, but two make outs between Angela and Sera in last week’s Angela Queen of Hel #1, but was unwilling to affirm her as the All New All Different initiative’s first LBGTQIA lead:
“That’s a question for readers to ponder and answer for themselves. We’re not looking to put labels on the character or the series. We’d prefer that the story Marguerite, Kim and Stephanie are telling — all aspects of it — speak for itself.”
Taken in isolation, these comments come as a welcome approach that would hypothetically let readers conceptualize their favourite characters’ sexuality however they choose without onerous counter arguments about what’s considered “canonical,” which is a frankly absurd notion in the present media landscape, perhaps more so than it ever has been before. Hence our own preference here at The Rainbow Hub to refer to Angela as an LBGTQIA lead character as Logan Dalton wrote in his commentary on Hercules, as we reported when Angela: Queen of Hel #1 was released, and as we will continue to stand by.
“The street finds its own uses,” a line from William Gibson’s short story Burning Chrome, is frequently used to describe the unintended uses found for consumer electronics, but it applies equally to popular fiction. Apocryphal readings and fan works stand shoulder to shoulder with the official narratives in a way they never have before thanks to blogging platform Tumblr and it’s tagging system. Whatever your interest is, be it Marvel comics, professional wrestling, or Steven Universe, delving into the tags that aggregate user content will put all kinds of fan made content and conjecture in with the source material in a far more direct way than predecessors like livejournal did. Tumblr is only one aspect of the zeitgeist however, when considering the overwhelming success of Fifty Shades of Grey, which was re-written from being a Twilight fan fic into a bestselling series of novels with a recent film adaptation.
Relying on official channels to validate the sexuality or gender identity of a character comes along with problems of its own. “Canon,” the term generally used to refer to officially recognized works and readings, and more specifically which official works are considered relevant to current continuity, is a term borrowed from the study of religious texts. So it should come as no surprise that reliance on canon creates and sustains an orthodoxy which harms and marginalizes perfectly valid queer readings. Waiting for and validating official statements from editorial on who is and isn’t a given orientation places unnecessary limitations on how the readers can interpret the characters and opens up fandom elements that employ queer readings of characters not explicitly defined as such to harassment using the distinction of “canon” as self-justification.
Ultimately though, the fandom will outright reject or ignore canonical distinctions they don’t care for. Probably the most prominent example of this is the Teen Wolf franchise, which, despite the series having a canonically gay character in Mason Hewitt, remains utterly focused on pairing Derek Hale and Stiles Stilinski. There are, of course, significant problems with that situation, but it remains a pointed example of a property with a significantly larger following than anything Marvel produces in which the vocal fan base has completely overridden the intent of the creators.
So what’s the problem with Alonso’s statement that it’s up to the fans to decide? Well, it’s hypocritical, and given the wider context of both his comments on other characters and recent precedent in the comics, disturbingly gendered. When asked about the possibility of the upcoming Hercules series tapping into the character’s bisexuality in another Axel in Charge, he had no trouble putting a label on the character before a single issue was out:
“Hercules and James Howlett’s relationship in “X-Treme X-Men” took place in a unique alternate universe, similar to how Colossus was gay in the Ultimate Universe, but is straight in the 616. Same goes for Hercules here.”
Nor did there seem to be any trouble in focusing an entire conversation between Jean Grey and Bobby Drake on explicitly labeling him as gay and denying the possibility of his being bisexual in the process, the meta-narrative of which I broke down in detail at the time:
“There’s a kind of what I would call moral laziness being applied here by using Jean’s psychic abilities as the fulcrum in this issue. The use of her powers here seems to be communicating that authorial intent cannot be subverted. The message here comes off as “Jean’s psychic powers make the rules here,” and come off in the same way as when Dan Slott employed Uuatu the Watcher to confirm that the Thanos Squirrel Girl had just beaten up was the genuine article. Slott went to such extreme lengths to shout down the element of both fandom and his peers who were dead set against the idea of a plucky young girl in a fictional story being capable of amazing feats. It was an act more or less warranted given that her first altercation with Doctor Doom had been walked back to being someone called Leatherboy. Who it is that Bendis is seemingly exerting this metafictional show of force against is unclear, leaving no particular reason why Bobby couldn’t have been allowed to come out in his own way in his own time.”
So what makes Alonso so confident in labeling Hercules as straight and allowing an extremely rigid definition of Iceman’s sexuality to be put on the page mere months before backing away from embracing Angela? There’s no consistency in any of these statements or decisions and leaves Alonso facing very pointed and valid criticism about what, if any, legitimate support the company really has for its LBTQIA characters or readership. When I spoke to Matthew Petras for his recent post discussing progressive issues in current superhero comics for PopOptiq, I made mention of the fact that Bobby being gay was a huge step forward for the franchise that, retroactively but none the less, establishes a queer character among the founding members. It didn’t make it into his post and omitting that quote was the right call, relative to the more critical quotes he received on the topic, which is, I think, the starkest reflection of Marvel’s current problems with LBGTQIA representation.
Poor creative choices and even worse public statements are consistently derailing the conversation around what would otherwise be some pretty fantastic stories. Without Jean controlling the narrative of Bobby’s sexuality, everyone who was quoted by Matthew on the topic would have spoken just as enthusiastically about the storyline as they did about Midnighter. The context leading up to Alonso’s statements about Angela effectively destroyed any chance that they would be taken at face value, and are now derailing the conversation around Angela: Queen of Hel, which is even more trailblazing than Batgirl #45 given that the romantic relationship between cisgender and transgender women in Angela involves the heroine of the title rather than supporting characters. It’s also burying the lede that Marguerite Bennett is poised to become the first writer to recently, if ever, write trans women characters simultaneously at DC and Marvel.
A major reason why I am, in theory, but not in practice, sympathetic to the wording that Alonso uses regarding Angela is that it’s a reflection of the largely unspoken policy at DC right now. One that’s been incredibly successful. It wasn’t until long after Harley Quinn and Poison Ivy were depicted kissing and being very intimate together that Harley Quinn writers Jimmy Palmiotti and Amanda Conner felt compelled to make a statement about the nature of their relationship.. Prior that, somewhere around issue #15, Palmiotti began boosting my reviews on the title via Twitter without directly confirming or denying my reading of the developing relationship, choosing instead to let myself, other critics, and the fans decide what was going on. Which I appreciate, and is something comics as a whole could use a lot more of.
With that said, there have been points made about the power that someone like Axel Alonso wields by embracing or acknowledging LBGTQIA characters, although I do have to cast doubt on just how much power he really does wield with the readers, and not just because of Tumblr or the Teen Wolf fandom. Every time I hear mention of the fact that DC has confirmed Selina Kyle’s bisexuality, it’s followed up by a reminder that it’d already been presumed by much of the readership and came in the wake of Selina sharing a kiss with Eiko Hasigawa.
Or, returning to Harley Quinn and Poison Ivy, that their codification as a couple came in the wake of roughly twenty years of fans choosing to transform the loose subtext between them into a legitimate queer reading. As I mentioned in my review of the Harley Quinn Road Trip Special, there’s very little, perhaps only the omission of explicit sex, that separates it from the voluminous fanwork that’s been produced over that time. Across both instances, DC’s recognition of the characters’ sexual orientations affirmed rather than defined the prevailing sentiment by readers.
To wit, Alonso’s perspective on Hercules is not shared by Greg Pak, who has stated in the past that he approached the character as being bisexual while writing him, whether or not that was shown explicitly on the page. In the CBR forums, attached to the same site Alonso gave the offending interview to, a thread entitled “Greg Pak Says Hercules is Bi” begun in May of this year attracted practically nothing other than indifference or the assumption that this was a well known fact. If the forumgoers of one of the most viewed English language comics sites on the Internet can’t be swayed to Alonso’s position, well then, perhaps it’s time to discount his opinion entirely as he doesn’t seem to be speaking for anyone other than himself.