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Monday, December 23, 2019 

A sugary history item on Northstar's emergence from the closet

A professor writing for The Conversation penned a biased item on how Alpha Flight's Northstar brought "queer" representation to Marvel's universe in 1992 when mediocre writer Scott Lobdell took to scripting the 1983-94 series briefly:
Marvel Comics is frequently referred to as “the house of ideas,” yet the idea of a queer superhero did not fully arrive at Marvel until the 1990s. Despite Marvel’s reputation as a campus phenomenon and as a hotbed for liberal — even subversive — discourse, Stan Lee’s comics publishing juggernaut would not feature a canonically gay character until some 30 years after the debut of The Fantastic Four.
But that doesn't make it good from an artistic perspective, as will be explored further along the way here.
There’s a reason for that.

The 1954 Comics Code Authority — a censorship bureau that policed comics content — explicitly banned “sex perversion or any inference to same,” which comics scholar Hilary Chute notes is “a clear reference to homosexuality.” The Marvel Universe as we know it began in 1961, with the launch of Fantastic Four #1. Thus, Marvel Comics was, from the outset, actually prohibited from depicting gay characters.

So how do you a write a queer character at a time when comics are expressly forbidden from featuring queer characters?

In a word: delicately.
First, I think it did cause harm in the long run to censor homosexuality as much as sex scenes in general for as long as it happened in the Silver Age. Mainly because, how would it be possible for anybody who disapproves of abnormalities to comment on how and why they feel it's a bad influence? And if you think delicate approach has an advantage, that's why I'll have to bring up Lobdell's second take on Northstar from 2001, in the last X-Men story I know of he's written to date, which was anything but delicate, and by no means subtle. Here's 2 panels I found from UXM #392:
In this embarrassingly bad story called "Eve of Destruction", which culminated in Wolverine seemingly stabbing Magneto to death, Jean Grey (depicted awfully robotically here) has to round up a ragtag handful of hastily written-up guest stars, including Northstar, and a jerk named Paulie Provenzano, who ends up being assaulted by the Alpha Flight member over alleged homophobia. Notice the line where Paulie tells Jean-Paul, "I told you - I ain't into that." Hmm, I wonder what that's supposed to allude to? Does it suggest Jean-Paul propositioned him?!? Whatever, this is actually far worse characterization for Northstar than what Lobdell wrote up 9 years prior in AF #106. As somebody who's read a lot of the original AF material, and thinks the late James Hudnall's work was surprisingly good, I can't recall him ever acting this disturbingly vicious in earlier stories, even as he was sometimes depicted with a condescending attitude towards Heather Hudson when she took over the team reins as Vindicator.

And neither Jean nor the sister of Sunfire turning up here does anything to put a stop to it. I hesitate to think what would've happened if this had been Diamond Lil in the role, since her invulnerability power is similar to what this hastily written guest has. By contrast, take a look at these panels from AF #12 from 1984, the issue where James MacDonald Hudson, Guardian and Heather's hubby, seemingly perished for nearly 6 years (shortly after returning, he parted again in the 100th issue):
Back at the time, Northstar disapproved of Sasquatch as a boyfriend for his sister Aurora, which alienated her from him for a short while. And the above incident let to a whole scuffle which finally culminated in Shaman deciding he'd have to use his magics to paralyze all the brawlers to make them stop. Here, common sense was shown by somebody. Yet years later, Lobdell pens a story where, while one character seemingly tries to stop a noxious brawl among the goodies, 2 others certainly don't. How odd indeed, because I don't think Jean ever stood by idly in past X-Men tales while 2 or more people wound up in a needless fight. It sure doesn't reflect well on her as a field leader, and more specifically, it's poor writing and characterization.

There's also this panel from Marvel Fanfare #28 from 1986 to consider:
In this story by Bill Mantlo, which brought up Northstar's past as a messenger for a Quebec separatist group, he told how he'd renounced violence. Put this alongside Lobdell's bizarre renditions, and it stands quite a bit in contradiction to how things were done earlier. Jean-Paul abhors violence as performed by the Quebec separatists, but he's okay bashing up another guy over personal dissent? Sorry, doesn't make sense. On that note, let's turn back to the article, as there's more in need of a commentary:
It wasn’t until 1992 — three years after a major revision to the Comics Code officially opened the door to depictions of LGBTQ+ characters — that Marvel had their first openly gay superhero. In Alpha Flight #106 written by Scott Lobdel, the character Northstar (alias Olympic ski champion Jean-Paul Beaubier) declared: “I am gay.”

Even then this move was met with outrage by Marvel’s corporate leadership, Marvel Comics historian Sean Howe explained in his book Marvel Comics: The Untold Story.
No kidding. And I've got a feeling that, based on the following panels from the 106th issue, it's not merely because Northstar was now openly identified as homosexual, but rather, because of how the would-be veteran hero, Major Maple Leaf, reacted to the news Jean-Paul rescued an infant dying of AIDS he'd found abandoned in a trash can in the Toronto district while the team was doing battle with Mr. Hyde. Take a look at the following in the panels I found from the issue:
Major Maple Leaf, wearing the style of a Mountie, busts into the hospital. He's outraged the little infant girl's getting all the headlines, in contrast to his homosexual son who'd died of AIDS, and got none of the same. His reaction, horrifically enough, was to threaten to commit infanticide, which would've resulted in blood dripping off his hands if Northstar hadn't stopped him. The story may imply homosexuality's an acceptable practice, but that's the least of the problems compared to this. An alleged hero would threaten murder over his personal issues and because Northstar never spoke about his own homosexuality before? The story tops it off with a sewage cover at the end with the following panels:
After all that violent scuffling, threatening the life of an infant regardless of whether she was on her way to the grave, Northstar lets the guy off the hook and comforts the guy, and then MML stands alongside several other people in the hospital as the girl's declared dead while comforting the hero...as though nothing ever happened. MML wasn't arrested, even though he'd threatened murder and committed assault while destroying public property and trespassing. My jaw fell off my face and crashed to the floor in disbelief. The article doesn't mention any of this. Since when did alleged homophobia and lack of interest in the AIDS epidemic justify violence, to say nothing of lenient positions on homosexuals and homophiles who'd stoop to mayhem? What if this was the reason Marvel executives at the time were outraged? For a story supposedly addressing what liberals of the times considered big deals, it sure does a horrible disfavor to them all. You could argue it even does a disservice to RCMP officials who believe in maintaining a positive image shunning violence and crime.

Just an issue earlier in #105, when Madison Jeffries and Diamond Lil were planning to marry, Lobdell had written a scene where the men of AF encountered an attempted armed robber at a bar who was using a shotgun, who turned out to be a guy who's family was living in poverty and in danger of being evicted from their apartment for failure to pay the rent. Because his gun was empty, and he claims in his defense he was allegedly going to give back the money later, they're inclined to take a lenient approach to him as well. And across town, the women of AF went to a male strip bar, and were arrested for brawling with Pink Pearl, the villainess who appeared in the mid-80s as an attempted terrorist plotting to assassinate the Canadian prime minister and the US president, and here, she's now suddenly a legitimate businesswoman? This, IMHO, was ludicrous, almost as much as the mind-boggling embarrassment of #106. If there were ever a case to be made about the downside of surrealism, this would have to be it.
Northstar had debuted way back in 1983 as part of the all-Canadian, government-sponsored superhero team, Alpha Flight. The team first appeared in the pages of X-Men, brought to life by Canadian artist and writer John Byrne and iconic X-Men writer Chris Claremont.
This isn't accurate. After James MacDonald Hudson's debut in 1978 in X-Men, a few more AF members debuted the following year in X-Men #120, so Northstar as a creation is at least 40 years old. What happened in 1983 was, after a few guest appearances in other books, AF made their debut as an ongoing series, and for all we know, this embarrassingly over-the-top story by Lobdell may have led to the series' demise.
At the time, X-Men comics were already a hotbed for queer subtext. Comics scholar Ramzi Fawaz notes that Claremont’s X-Men “articulated mutation to the radical critiques of identity promulgated by the cultures of women’s and gay liberation.”

Another comics scholar, Scott Bukatman, puts it more simply and says: “mutant bodies are explicitly analogized to … gay bodies” in Claremont’s X-Men. It is no surprise then, that Marvel’s first gay superhero should emerge from this series.
Oh please! Like we're supposed to take the word of university "scholars" at face value. This is little more than hijacking for the sake of narrow agendas, which must've begun over 2 decades ago. The problem with these supposed experts is they care not for how it all began, as metaphors for Jews and blacks, and their obsessions got the better of them.

The article also cites what Northstar creator John Byrne himself stated:
Okay! As the creator of the first Gay superhero, this one I can answer.

There need to be Gays in comics because there are Gays in real life. No other reason. Same reason, in fact, that there are Blacks in comics. Asians in comics. Women and children in comics! The population of the fictional world should represent the real world.

That's why I created Northstar -- I felt the Marvel Universe needed a Gay superhero (even if I would never be allowed to say it in so many words in the comics themselves), and I felt that I should create one, rather than retrofitting an existing character.
But did he believe homosexuality must be depicted positively, with no dissenting views allowed, if at all, and that any character created as homosexual should never abandon the practice and belief? Does he also believe there's no distinction between homosexuality and race? Granted, Byrne didn't take the extreme route of modern SJWs, which resulted in Iceman changed to homosexual, but if he believes homosexuality is a positive example, that's just sad. I do wonder what he thinks of how Lobdell's story was written up? It did more harm than good to his creation, if you ask me.

They also bring up AF #7, where an old buddy of Northstar's named Raymonde, allegedly gay himself, was murdered:
In 1983, the narrative of a former lover being murdered and thus spurring the superhero to action and emotional eruption was already a comics cliché. But staging that through a same-sex couple establishes a sort of subtextual validation of Northstar’s relationship as something more than the Comics Code Authority “sex perversion” label.
Wonder why they don't mention the guy had a daughter named Danielle, who indirectly arranged for the murder via the superpowered gangster Deadly Ernest? This story was in questionable taste, since it was basically turning a woman who could've become a love interest for Northstar into a vile crook, all for the sake of a twist.
Two years later, in the 1985 limited series X-Men and Alpha Flight, Northstar’s sexuality is once again woven into a key story, this time written by Claremont. After having his consciousness briefly absorbed by the X-Man Rogue, Northstar becomes furious that she now knows his “secrets.”

In a misguided attempt to help Northstar, Rogue then asks him to dance at a very public reception. When Northstar’s own teammates make fun of the incongruity of Northstar dancing at a ball with a woman, Rogue thinks “None of y’all understand him the way ah do.”
So Rogue wasn't doing the right thing, if she wanted to try and undo his homosexuality? Okay, got it. I do know it was troubling when, during the Purple Girl/Persuasion's debut, and in her original crush on Northstar, where she commanded him to be her boyfriend, Mantlo wrote that he later told the team he felt like he'd "been raped". (Which Heather Hudson considered ridiculous.) Kara Kilgrave's crush on Northstar was largely forgotten a year after her debut.
On the literal level, Northstar is being ridiculed for his general disinterest in heterosexual romance. But Claremont is crafting a story of a man who struggles with his closeted sexuality in the face of social pressures.
Maybe ridicule is exactly the problem. Maybe it should be written it's sad and regrettable he's disinterested in heterosexuality? Though this paragraph also ignores Jean-Paul may have had an affair with Clementine D’Arbanville, a former FLQ terrorist who alternately worked as a circus manager, and was killed in Marvel Fanfare #28.
It’s a sympathetic portrayal of the character that helps to normalize the concept of a gay superhero, even if Marvel couldn’t identify him that way at the time.
Does the professor believe homosexuality in itself should be normalized? That's what the above suggests. If homosexuality can't be depicted as a mental flaw, and only society in general be the problem, that's just the issue with how Northstar was depicted for so many years. And I guess he can't ever be written wanting to overcome his lack of interest in the opposite sex, or worse, rejection of the same, eh? Very disappointing indeed. I don't think it does much good to keep them stuck on such traits, seemingly forever.
Whether through delicate subtext or comics covering wedding events, Northstar holds a uniquely prominent and, at times, poignant position in the history of LGBTQ+ superheroes.

As we come to understand the importance of diverse representation within the superhero genre, this is a character that needs to be known, discussed and hopefully appreciated.
Well if you want my take on the subject, I'm afraid homosexuality did not a compelling character make him. For many years since his debut, Northstar's characterization was by far the most stagnant, and he was depicted at times as condescending towards Heather, as she took over the reins of AF when James was put in limbo. Maybe part of the problem was that the writers went by the ill-advised idea that he had to remain stuck on a homosexual mindset and couldn't engage in a serious affair with the opposite sex (later, he was put in limbo on Asgard for a year and a half following issue #50, after Loki's deceptions). But even after Lobdell's sloppy tale, he still remained dully written. The story from 2001 merely compounded the damage. And it didn't ensure Alpha Flight better sales. Nor in fact did the 2012 gay marriage in X-Men prove stratospheric success in sales, and historian Sean Howe saw it for the tedious gimmick it really was.

As for Lobdell, he may have apologized for sexually harassing a lady cartoonist several years ago. But I think he should also apologize for the forced way he wrote Northstar beating up on another guy, either over disagreement, or that he spurned advances, all the while depicting Jean Grey taking no action to stop him, and even for the shoddy way he depicted Major Maple Leaf dealing with his personal issues in 1992. That kind of writing did no favors for anybody. As far as I know, Lobdell's AF material hasn't been reprinted in trades yet. I'm sure it will be eventually, and then, many more readers will be able to evaluate the material more easily, right down to how Aurora was reverted to split personality situations by Headlok. But for now, one can only wonder if the reason Marvel hasn't gotten around to it is because Lobdell's tale from 1992 really is bad writing, and does more harm than good to the topics they focused on?

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