The Muscle and the Melodrama: A Memoir of Comic Books
Author: Dan Lopez
July 7, 2013
“…[we] do not, however, possess super powers. Despite our sincerest yearnings we remain simple mortals with more mundane abilities. My power turned out to be queerness, an inherent difference that allowed me to question that which often goes unquestioned in society…”
Long before I knew I was gay, I knew I wanted to be Magneto. The charismatic arch-nemesis of the mutant superhero group the X-Men—portrayed on the big screen by the likes of Sir Ian McKellen and, most recently, Michael Fassbender—appealed to something primal in me. I wasn’t a popular kid, and though I was never bullied aside from the run-of-the-mill taunting and name-calling no child escapes, I often felt like an outsider, someone unable to access the social knowledge that everyone else seemed to come by intuitively. Had I felt any kinship with my peers I probably never would’ve gotten into comics. I only chose to cultivate an interest in hopes that doing so would align me with the cool kids, erasing my difference in the process. (I took up smoking in college for the same reason.) Right away, I was drawn to Magneto. A survivor of the Nazi death camps, he represented strength and an uncompromising vision of justice for mutantkind. He was the personification of the confidence I completely lacked. More than that, however, he embodied a righteous desire for retribution. In an unjust world, he provided a solution. I suppose more than anything I wanted respect. I needed that. Magneto offered a rebuttal to all the kids that never wanted to be my friends or wouldn’t listen to me when I had something important to say. Cross me, I would think, and I will crumple your puny aluminum bicycles with a flick of the wrist. Ignore me on the playground at your own peril. I’ve imprisoned lesser offenders in a contorted jungle gym cell because you do not mess with the Master of Magnetism! Your pleas for forgiveness fall on deaf ears.
Okay, so maybe vengeance was the wrong lesson. The important thing is that he got me through a tough spot.
Magneto did it for me, but it might’ve been any of the rest for you. Maybe you were Ororo Munroe, AKA Storm, the weather witch, whose struggles with claustrophobia spoke to your own fear of isolation and abandonment—and whose fierce costume, particularly in her punk days, spoke to your taste for flawless fashion. Perhaps you were Professor Xavier, a powerful psychic whose ability to effortlessly astral project was forever tied to a paralyzed body. Maybe you weren’t an X-Man at all, but instead an awkward teenager retreating behind the anonymity of a mask, losing yourself nightly in the dizzying heights of an expansive metropolis, cracking wise and leaving nothing behind but the sticky residue of your…webbing. That so many comic book heroes and villains have been amplified across mediums in recent years speaks volumes about their enduring ability to inspire us all.
We do not, however, possess super powers. Despite our sincerest yearnings we remain simple mortals with more mundane abilities. My power turned out to be queerness, an inherent difference that allowed me to question that which often goes unquestioned in society, and in the pages of the comic books I read as a child, I found a safe place to explore that difference. I doubt I’m alone. For many of us, comic books were our first community of otherness. For me it all started with muscles. With sex, in other words, before I had the language for it. Long after the events therein have faded, the image of Magneto on the cover of X-Men Vol 1, Issue 1 published in October 1991 remains indelibly seared into my memory. Depicted in full supervillain regalia—skintight red bodysuit, purple codpiece, cape and gloves; a bullet shaped helmet concealing all but a menacing sliver of his weathered face; his outstretched hand curled to better harness the awesome force of elemental magnetism emanating from his fearsome person—the Master of Magnetism seizes the foreground and holds it with simmering grit. He’s gorgeous. An idealized daddy, inked into muscular perfection by a team of artists. As a child, I was instinctually drawn to this cover. I found him attractive in a way I wouldn’t come to understand for a while yet. The attraction transcended physical desire. It manifested itself, as my attractions often do, in a desire to become Magneto. For me, that desire to become is a key factor in understanding a queer appreciation of comics. We gays have a unique ability to emulate that which we find erotic. We have a very real ability to become our own desires.
One has to look no further than the infamous “clone” look—jeans, tight-fitting shirts, boots and mustaches—that dominated the 70s and has been well-documented by writers like Andrew Holleran and Armistead Maupin, among others. Fashions have changed over the years and, naturally, not all gay men subscribe to the same aesthetic, but at the heart of all gay fashion trends is a discernable (and replicable) look. That look, be it fetish gear or skinny jeans, serves as both a signifier to our prospective partners of sexual desire and an advertisement of who the wearer aspires to be (or, at least, how he wants to be perceived). Straight people do this to an extent. Hipster fashion comes to mind. But it’s unlikely that the morning after a hip guy is going to don his girl’s caftan, or she his muttonchops. My husband and I, however, routinely share clothing. This impulse to emulate might be troubling politically—What does it say about individuality?—but it’s also impossible to ignore. I want to be included. I want equality. And those things are often synonymous with becoming the thing I desire. Magneto, Storm, and the others traipsing through the pages of my childhood understood that. In their own conflicting ways, they all fought for a world that was safe for the differences inherent to mutantkind. That’s a hard lure to refuse for a gay kid frustrated with the outskirts. I may not actually be able to become Magneto, but, theoretically, I could spend enough time at the gym to transform my body into something approaching his physique, and in so doing emulate, in a sexually-driven way, the qualities I admire in him. It’s the same lure behind Halloween or sexual roleplay. It’s the drive to become the thing you most desire. To locate an external fulfillment within yourself.
Lust falls short of articulating a full queer fondness for comics, however. After all, cartoons gilding the edge of subtext are a poor substitute for real bodies doing actual sexual things with each other. If sex was all there was to it there’d be a lot more frustrated gay nerds out there. No, there’s a second component here, and that component is melodrama. When joined with the type of narcissistic same-sex desire described above it makes for a heady cocktail. Above all, comic books are extreme. Magneto isn’t merely a villain; he’s a supervillain. He even has a lair that orbits the Earth called Asteroid M (M as in Magneto—talk about narcissism). Together, Magneto and his superhero counterparts, the X-Men, represent a clear conflict—a clash of ideologies, and one that has all the hallmarks of schmaltzy drama. The tropes at work here are apparent to anybody who’s ever picked up a comic book or seen a cinematic adaptation, and they include: stock characters motivated by single-mindedness, outlandish plots played out on a grand scale, and a proclivity for good to vanquish evil. All of this is pleasing enough, and not at all unique to gay people. But it might be that we respond more viscerally for a unique reason. When speaking on the presence of melodrama in his own work, short story writer Luis Negrón suggests that as queer people we respond to dramatic yet clear-cut narratives because they provide “a safe way of suffering.” We like to know that all our trials build up to something worthwhile, that, in the end, all the torment and bigotry that comes along with outsider status leads to a happy ending. We can see the best narrative arc of our lives mapped out in these fantastical worlds. In short, we’re looking for an end goal that means something, just like gay comic book artist Phil Jimenez finds in Wonder Woman.
Jimenez, notably, doesn’t look for his heroes to be gay, nor is his work confined to the ever-growing constellation of LGBT characters in comics. His work is, however, influenced by a queer aesthetic, an aesthetic that has allowed him to “notice things others might not notice.” Just like me. Without knowing it, that’s what I was responding to as a child when I first became interested in comic books. I was drawn to Magneto by the sexual potential of the artwork, but it was the escalating melodrama, and it’s promise of a just resolution that kept me coming back. I knew that Magneto would never win. His philosophy of mutant separatism would prove a political dead end, but the comics always found a way to defeat him while preserving his dignity. And that meant something. All the rest of it—the confusing timelines, the pseudo-science and incredulous mutant abilities, the saccharine romances—was the camp icing on the cake.