Iceman is gay! Iceman is gay!
Well, no, not THAT Iceman. The other one.
This week saw the time displaced version of Bobby Drake come out or, more specifically, get forced out by time displaced Jean Grey. I won’t go into detail about how problematic the scene is, as Andrew Wheeler does a very good job of it, so just read that and come back.
No, instead I’ll focus on what is another example of a growing trend in superhero comics involving diversity and the creation of alternate, “not real” version of characters.
Spider-man is black! But don’t worry fans, it’s not the REAL Spider-man.
Thor is a woman! But not the REAL Thor.
Captain America is black! But not the REAL Captain America. He’s still around here somewhere, just like real Thor.
Iceman is the the latest in a trend of pseudo-diversification among superhero comics. It’s a kind of “well, we want to have a more diverse universe, but we’re scared to actually change anything,” which, really, is the calling card of Big Two comics: the illusion of change. But when it comes to this kind of thing, it trends closely to simply underscoring the second class citizen status of anyone who isn’t a straight, white male.
And I’m willing to believe that Bendis has a plan with regards to Iceman. I am completely onboard with the idea that this will have real impact on older Iceman. But the fact that it’s originating with time displaced Iceman suggests that Marvel is unaware of the pattern.
I understand that these days the only way to get a new character of any kind to stick is by associating them with a brand. If it’s not an X, an A, a Spider, a Bat, or a Lantern, it’s probably not going to last. I get that. And I get that replacing long time heroes with new versions is a tough sell no matter what. Believe it or not, people were up in arms when Wally West replaced Barry Allen, and not only were both of them straight, white dudes, but Barry Allen was incredibly boring.
But the Flash is an anomaly when it comes to replacement heroes, if for no other reason than DC left him the hell alone. Sure, the specter of Barry Allen crept up every now and again, but after a while it seemed like DC was serious about leaving Barry dead and leaving Wally as the one, true Flash.
That just doesn’t happen any more. The Big Two hedge their bets. Thor is still in the Thor comics, even if he’s not called Thor anymore. Like Thor, Steve Rogers is in something like four hundred Avengers comics every month, just like he was when Bucky replaced him. No one expects these changes to be permanent. It’s the illusion of change and, thus, the illusion of diversification.
Look at the most successful example of Marvel adding diversity to their line: Ms. Marvel. Notice there’s no other Ms. Marvel running around out there, no possibility that Carol Danvers is going to give up being Captain Marvel and take back that identity. But it’s not a move either company would make with their big name characters, so they create half-measures, alternate versions to do the job for them.
DC has only been marginally better about this, in part because they have a history of legacy characters. John Stewart may still have had the specter (no pun intended) of Hal Jordan hanging over him, but there are literally thousands of Green Lanterns, so John Stewart was just another member of the Corps, not an alternate version of Hal Jordan.
The same can be said for Stephanie Brown as Robin (even if that was handled about as poorly as it possibly could have been). She was just another in a long line of Robins. Yes, fans expected Tim Drake to return to the role, but there was already historical precedence for a Robin to leave the role and become another hero.
All that said, though, Stephanie wasn’t just replaced, she was killed off (kind of). When Hal Jordan went insane, he was replaced as the main Green Lantern of earth not by John Stewart, but by Kyle Rayner, who is as white as they get, his regularly ignored latino background notwithstanding.
If DC has handled it better, it’s by not involving their most iconic characters, the ones that will never permanently change. While this is DC being conservative with their IPs, Marvel’s plan is disingenuous and somewhat patronizing.
Corporately owned superhero comics have always been about the illusion of change. That illusion has extended towards diversifying their cast of characters to better reflect the public at large. It’s a half-measure that is doing the comic book audience a disservice.