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Looking Back At That Iceman Mini Series

icemanhercules04003In which I show anyone can make subtext out of almost nothing.

Strangely enough my procrastination with writing this piece about Iceman ends up being just in time for the release of Uncanny X-Men #600 and further developments in the original, time-displaced Bobby Drake’s coming out story as he confronts his older, contemporary self.

A few weeks ago I picked up for a super bargain price of a couple dollars the four part Iceman mini series written by J M DeMatteis and artist Alan Kupperberg. Both of these creators were already associated with Iceman from their work on the Defenders title. I’ll be honest and tell you that my curiosity wouldn’t have been piqued if it hadn’t been for Brian Michael Bendis outing Bobby Drake earlier this year. Now being mean isn’t my intention but this story from 1984 and 1985 is a real stinker that’s shackled by bad aesthetics of the early 1980s comics. And then there’s the quartet of sub standard villains with dreams of rising to the level of early Image quality villains! White Light! The Idiot! Oblivion! Kali! “The Idiot”, you ask. Yes, “The Idiot”. Then I noticed a couple panels in issue #3 (you can see them below) that intrigued me and I decided to plow through this and came away glad that I found these comics because I think it might fill in some of the blanks regarding Bobby’s sexuality unless I’m guilty of reading too much between the lines. How about some background first before getting to that?

Here’s the basic set up. Bobby is taking some personal time off from the Defenders to return to the family home on Long Island and his father William’s retirement party. He’s worried about being late and is distracted when spotting his cousin Mary whom he excitedly scoops up and carries along on his patent pending ice bridge. This time alone is an excuse for Bobby to confide to Mary that he’s a big ball of knotted up anxiety over the idea that his parents believe Bobby is ready to live a normal life and give up being a super hero to follow in his father’s footsteps and become an accountant. No offense to accountants, but they’re not exactly thought of as leading anything other than a steady and boring life. After dropping Mary off Bobby spies an attractive woman, complete with 1950s sitcom family, and decides to slide down an ice pole — like that’s an every day thing — and talk with her — only that rigid ice pole breaks, embarrassingly dropping Bobby almost face to face with the woman. Is DeMatteis giving us a metaphor here for erectile dysfunction? And what does she and her family do? Why, run away!

An ’80s stereotypical looking cop appears out of nowhere to confront Bobby about the disturbance and launches into a tirade about his being a mutant, causing Bobby to leave while encasing the cop’s feet in ice to “[cool] off a hot-headed bigot”. Next an old woman shouts at Bobby (in his human form) about being a “sexual deviant” when she finds him “stripping” in her back yard. He’s really trying to hide while he changes into street clothes. “Sexual deviant” was for decades a catch all phrase used by polite society when really they were referring to homosexuals and depicting “sexual deviancy” was forbidden by the Comics Code Authority during its decades long existence. I may be reading into DeMatteis usage of the phrase when intended nothing, but the less than LGBT friendly Jim Shooter is Marvel’s Editor in Chief at the time also.

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And wouldn’t you know that the young woman — Margie Smith — Bobby tried to talk with turns out literally to live next door to his parents! Speaking of parents, Mr and Mrs Drake are all nice and loving and at the same time nitpicking right before the relatives show up for Mr Drake’s retirement party. Cousin Mary pulls Bobby outside to finish their private talk the minute she detects relative becoming annoying.

That mutant as outsider gay metaphor comes in very handy with this bit of Bobby’s dialog as he and Mary sit on the front stoop.

Boby: “All my life my folks have been trying to make me normal! You know the routine — get a good job, marry a nice girl have 2.6 children, ten grand in the bank, life insurance, car insurance…! But there was one tiny problem standing between me and the norm–“

Mary: “You’re a mutant!”

Bobby: “Hey–you figured that out when we were still kids! The very fact of what I am has always prevented me from being what Mom ‘n’ Dad want me to be! I’ve seen the other side, Mary! Part of me really gets off on adventuring — playing Iceman — defender of freedom!”

Mary: “But?”

Bobby: “Part of me doesn’t! I’m torn between hiding under the covers and leaping into the abyss.”

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Cue the appearance of non-descript annoying relatives for the purpose of creating an argument so Bobby can storm off and literally bump into Marge the woman living next door so they can have a heart to heart conversation about family and expectations. Now this being a superhero comic something dramatic has to happen so two of the aforementioned villains du jour, White Light and Idiot, who’ve been traipsing around in search of their target for a few pages despite my not mentioning them, crash land right in front of Marge and Bobby, who believes they’re after him. Bobby transforms into Iceman and the obligatory fight scene occurs while Marge and her family run inside their house and disappear a closet filled with an odd light. An explosion flattens the house and Bobby’s parents and relatives run out to discover the ruins and serving as an unintended outing of Bobby as a mutant to his extended family.

Oh, I guess that was more like a play by play of the issue than a little background. Let’s just recap this whole mini series!

Mr Drake angrily speechifies at Bobby in one scene taking place in Bobby’s old bedroom in the second issue. “We saw them [the two villains] all right — and so did cousin Joel and Aunt Anne and everyone else at the party! They saw you too, Bobby! They’re not stupid people! They put two and two together! They know what you are!… I have had it with you, Robert! Tonight you brought your poison right to our doorstep and I’ll never forgive you for that!”

Sitting on his bed a few minutes later Bobby contemplates matters while touching a strange box he rescued from his “barely knows her but he’s so in love with her not really a girlfriend” Marge’s exploded house. “Just the fact that I’m a mutant has been an incredible cross for them to bear,” Bobby muses. “I’d give anything to be normal! But I like what I am! But I hate what I am! Ah, Mom…Dad…I don’t want us to fight like this. I want us to talk…really talk! I want us to be friends!” And the the mysterious box (which we later learn is called a “bounce box”) begins to make a sound before it and Bobby disappear and turn up in New York City during World War II where he runs into his parents as a young couple. That’s right, that little box is a thought based teleporter and that means girl next door Marge and her family are hiding the truth about themselves — back in time 50 years in England to be exact since they had another box because plot device! You think O5 Iceman has time travel troubles in recent X-Men series? Here he’s trying to reconcile his younger parents’ selves who are kind and compassionate and wanting to help him, essentially a stranger, with the reality of their emotionally stifled, self centered, and uncaring older selves he knows as his parents. Now the four armed Kali and her minions appear riding on giant flying insects and attack the Drakes in their apartment. Bobby ices up and retaliates as the fight spills out into the streets. Kali gets the upper hand — er hands — on Bobby while William tries to keep this bounce box away from her. Kali releases Bobby disappears in pursuit of Marge (who is proving to be a lot more than Bobby thought she was), after her giant face appears in the sky to issue the villain a challenge and the story closes with Bobby holding his now dead father’s body and winking out of existence! Isn’t this great?

DeMatteis opens the third issue with an existential romp with Bobby being twirled about in his mother Maddy’s arms as she excitedly gushes to William about being new parents but the tone quickly changes to high anxiety with chants of “Mutant! Mutant” and the appearance of Professor X and the other four original X-Men. In one panel Jean in her Marvel Girl costume sings “By the time I get to Phoenix…”, referencing her shocking death and the Glen Campbell song, spurring William to warn Bobby that being a mutant will kill you. For me, and I realize this is reading a lot into this panel, the dialog also alludes to the early years of the HIV epidemic when homophobes seemed to take perverse delight in saying that being gay will kill you.

Now here are the panels that grabbed my attention the first time I browsed through these issues.

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DeMatteis was likely just writing a joke at Bobby’s expense and nothing else here. You can understand why it stood out to me, what with Bobby now being gay and Hercules’ previously confirmed now really downplayed bisexuality compared to the confusion from Hercules after mistaking Bobby’s “I love you” being directed at him in a 30 year old comic. Now Bobby’s confession was really aimed at fellow New Defenders  Champions (see comment below) teammate Darkstar (not to be confused with DC’s other space faring police group to which Donna Troy once belonged). Darkstar resurfaced from comics limbo earlier this year in various comics news articles as an example of Bobby’s many failed relationships with women being part of Bobby’s closeted subtext.

Speaking of failed relationships with women, let’s add this shuffled off to limbo Marge Smith character to Bobby’s long list unless someone already has (and someone probably has). She’s a lot more than she appeared to be, what with an exploding house, a teleportation device, cheesy villains, and the ability to cast your apparition into the sky. Marge’s real name is Mirage and she just so happens to be the daughter of the totally uninspired Oblivion, ruler of, well, nothingness. Mirage and Oblivion have a daughter-father relationship that sort of reminded me of Raven’s relationship with daddy Trigon. Only theirs is a lot more hackneyed in DeMatteis’ usually capable hands. Bobby is conflicted between Oblivion’s demand he bring back Mirage if Bobby wants his father resurrected (and his own life back too) and Mirage’s offer to live happily after in some warm and fuzzy small town life she’s constructed based on thoughts she read in Bobby’s mind — because she can read minds too! Mirage throws a huge temper tantrum after gauging Bobby’s reluctance to join her, throwing power bolts, growing gigantic, and generally being an over the top, D level menace absorbed in getting her way that she’s forgotten her daddy Oblivion can track her energy use — and voila! Here’s daddy! Cue cliffhanger ending!

Now I truly think no writer or artist working in comics ever intends to do a poor job, but this last issue is really hard to take. Not that the other issues weren’t hard to take too, but they’ve had a cumulative effect on me. Bad exposition fills page after page while Kupperberg seemed to have tried emulating what I imagine a severely maimed George Tuska’s art style might have looked. Cartoonish faces and floating heads, blank eyes, stiff figures, anatomy that couldn’t really exist, and a combo of bad visual pacing and pedestrian layouts. But hey, never mind those storytelling handicaps because our hero Bobby finally comes to his senses after being torn between Team Oblivion and Team Mirage and attacks the brilliantly unimaginative villain trio, White Light! Idiot! Kali! Did you think they’d disappeared from the story?
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Then he takes the fight to Oblivion who almost defeats Bobby. The only factor that saves Bobby from — ahem — little o oblivion is the love in his heart that somehow big O Oblivion senses and this emotion that Oblivion has never experienced makes him curious about it. And this love Oblivion sensed in Bobby’s heart? It wasn’t for another woman, but love for his mom and dad who were giving him grief for not living the normal life of an accountant. So to show his gratitude, Oblivion returns Bobby to his parents home just a few hours after storming out of his father’s retirement party. He’s so excited that he runs down the stairs to kiss his father’s head and hug his mother and launch into his own heartfelt speech:

“You’ve been pushing for years to get me to get me to conform to some norm I could never conform to…even if I wanted to. I’m not blaming you for that. I understand how hard it’s been for you — having a mutant for a son….Lok — whatever the reason — my powers exist. They’re not going away, and I’ve got to use them as best I can…I’d get lost in all my own pain, blame you two for every insecurity and hang up — and maybe you were to blame to a point — but I sure took the ball and ran with it, didn’t I?”

The closing scene shows Bobby departing with Angel and Beast who’ve conveniently appeared just minutes before. Thought balloons (remember them) let us know Bobby’s feelings: “I’m going back out into the world. Ready to put my life on the line. Ready to fight for what I believe in. To fight — for a dream? Could be. But I’ve seen this dream of life from the inside out. I’ve seen myself. I’ve seen what matters — and what doesn’t. And maybe — just maybe — I’m a better man for it.”

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And so this dreck ends on an upbeat note. And here you thought Bendis’ X-Men run was polished turds.

 

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