The Big Fat Lesbian Problem With Guardians of the Galaxy: or State of the Cosmic Books circa 2009
So on a friend’s recommendation, I recently started reading Marvel’s Cosmic books—basically, a sub-universe within the Marvel universe, where many of the old characters introduced by Jim Starlin (otherwise best known for turning Jack Kirby’s crowning achievement, the Fourth World, into a cheap Canadian slasher movie) were reintroduced and updated for today’s audiences, with their own crossovers far outside Earthly events like Civil War and Secret Invasion.
I found them pretty enjoyable. The first two “events,” Annihilation and Annihilation: Conquest, were fun throwbacks to, basically, Starship Troopers’ Bugs and Star Trek’s Borg, with a Marvel coat of paint, but the writing was clever, the characters were good, and no one ate the Wasp, so it was three-for-three as far as Big Marvel Events go.
Then came War of Kings (in keeping with tradition: Game of Thrones IN SPACE). Maybe it’s just that the crossover largely stepped away from the old guard characters to instead focus on guys who were new to the setting, like the Inhumans, the Shi’ar, and the Starjammers. Or maybe it’s the plot itself. Now, I haven’t been following the X-Men, so my introduction to this stuff goes as follows. Vulcan, who is Scott Summers’ evil brother (not to be confused with Scott Summers’ good brother, Havok—get used to this kind of thing, it’s X-Men) has taken over the Shi’ar Empire and gone full-on Joaquin Phoenix, either in Gladiator or in real life from 2008-2010.
Also, the Inhumans (they’re like mutants, only they’ve existed for thousands of years and stayed alive by themselves in a city on the moon) get fucked up during a crossover (see, segregation doesn’t solve anything), so they leave to take over the Kree Empire since the Kree created them (note: this was thousands of years ago). So quickly the Inhumans establish themselves as jackasses by blowing up a bunch of ships that were just minding their own business and, ya know, conquering the Kree, whereupon they force the Kree’s current leader to marry Crystal, the youngest daughter of the royal family.
Which, I don’t get, because if the Inhumans are dictating terms, why do they even need to do an arranged marriage? If they wanted, couldn’t they make Kree Dude marry their giant teleporting dog who might be a hideously deformed Inhuman himself (it’s a long story)? I’m used to mindbogglingly advanced alien races who solve political debates by punching, because c’mon, comics, but an arranged marriage? They never explicitly say what it will entail, so I’m not sure if it’s gonna be married like John Travolta is married, or BAM! POW! MARITAL RAPE!
Apparently, the endgame is that Crystal and Kree Dude (Ronan the Accuser, fine, I’ll stop pretending I don’t know his name and which issue he first appeared in) are engaged to be married for POLITICS, but then they fall in love FOR REAL, oh, the tricks fate plays, but it bugged me, okay? They could’ve found a better way to get there.
By the way, as a sign of the Inhumans turning to the Dark Side or whatever, they team up with black sheep Maximus (think Loki, only if he really wanted to do Thor’s chick in addition to ruling the world and enslaving humanity, etc). And the narrative treats him like, you know, a wacky WMD-making kook. And I get it, aside from outstanding “The Killing Joke” type villainy, bad guys have to be kept limber for exactly this kind of storytelling. Who knows, maybe there’s a really great story in the Vulture being redeemed or being treated like he’s just a rapscallion, so we can pass over that story in an X-Men tie-in in the 70s where he killed some football player for some reason. I don’t want to be the fan going “ahem! In issue 307…”
But what gets me is that one of my few other exposures to the Inhumans, besides the classic Kirby-Lee run which, you know, you have to read, was some scans in which Maximus rapes a woman. So it’s kinda weird to then read this story where he’s, you know, not “evil!” evil when he put his penis in someone without their permission. I’m not putting that on these writers, but more on the original writers, since when you bring an element like spousal abuse or rape into a story and use it to get a reaction, it can and probably should stick.
So, in a medium where you know the next guy has to take the characters you’ve used and come up with a story for them, it’s probably best to leave them with no one being a rapist, since someone might want to use that character in a context other than “this guy’s raping people!” I guess the choices are either to make rape his shtick, a la Dr. Light, or just to pretend this character, who has a long pre-rape history, never did that. Of the two, the latter is better, in lieu of just killing a character and leaving him dead because, seriously, who wants to read about a rapist in their superhero comics? But anyway…
Also, not to forget the rape victim, who was apparently raped again in the course of the grand Marvel continuing story. Look, guys, I know comics bring characters back to life and kill them off again all the time, but I think rape should be handled a little more carefully than “Raped again? This just isn’t my week!” Because I know there are women who get raped more than once in their lives, but fuck, this isn’t Law & Order: SVU, it’s a comic book about aliens who look exactly like humans, dress up in bright spandex, and punch each other to determine who’s a fit governor. We can just not show anyone being sexually assaulted, ever, and it’ll be approximately just as realistic.
Anyway, the Inhumans are a bunch of space jerks who force their youngest to get married for no reason, so what’s Vulcan like? Oh, he’s an aggressively imperialistic douche who attacks the Kree and Inhumans during their royal wedding, which is bad, but let’s be honest, if it had happened here, it at least would’ve justified all the fuss over Kate Middleton.
So the story is about the evils of war then, right, with both sides in the wrong and violence solving nothing? Because there are a lot of characters who derisively refer to “warring to end war” and call it “such an Earthly thing to do” and you know what, there might be just a little political commentary in there.
But no, Vulcan is ridiculously evil. He starts, like, twenty wars before he’s even gotten an ass-groove in the big chair. He executes the diplomats sent to ask “Hey, what’s with the twenty goddamn wars?” He pops WMDs like they were Budweisers and, as mentioned, he attacks the Kree for no reason. It’d be like if Saddam Hussein caused 9/11… and then nuked Chicago and Denver… and then went on TV to brag about it. You can’t even make the argument “well, world police,” because he’s aggressively invading other civilizations with the express goal of taking over the universe. Yeah, he’s that kind of villain.
If Gandhi were still alive, or if there were some kind of Space Gandhi in the Marvel Universe, he’d be going “fuck that guy.”
So, right away, the main plot is about medium gray evil versus dark black evil, with no reason for all the evil besides, I guess, the writers not wanting me to care who wins. In fact, the tie-ins, featuring the sidelined Guardians of the Galaxy dealing with the side effects of the war, are much more climactic and interesting than the Big Damn Crossover. Which brings me, at long last, to the lesbians.
Phyla-vell and Moondragon are two characters with insanely complicated backstories that I don’t even want to look up, so let’s just say they’re Green Lantern’s roommates. Yeah, what are you going to do about it? As reintroduced in the cosmic books, they’re both lesbians, or bisexual, or one of those other orientations that we apparently need.
They get together and even get their own miniseries. So, all good, right? Yay representation! But over the course of the series, I noticed something. They never kiss. I’m not kidding. Never. One of them is dressed like she’s going to play Volleyball at the Olympics, they’re physically affectionate, they sleep together, they just never kiss. They hug. Or they nuzzle. This in a miniseries specifically devoted to a lesbian character, co-starring her lesbian lover. Do you get how weird this is? It’s like going to see a romantic comedy and by the end credits, Channing Tatum hasn’t kissed Mila Kunis once. It’s. Just. Weird.
Now, I get that these are dicey waters, very dependent on context, depiction, shading, all sorts of things. You can make a comic where two lesbians kiss and someone might say “Oh, you’re being exploitative, you just want to draw girls kissing!” Or you can make a comic where two lesbians hold hands and someone might say “How come Nova and Gamora can grind on each other half-naked, but you can’t show two lesbians lock lips? Are you afraid of female sexuality when a penis isn’t involved?”
So, I was willing to cut a little slack. I mean, after all, they are canonically lesbian characters, presented in a positive light and shown in a loving, healthy relationship. That’s an incredible step forward for comics from even ten years ago. And hey, it’s not like, say, one of them gets turned into a dragon and there are several panels dedicated to how they physically cannot have sex.
Okay, maybe the good folks at Marvel are trying to make a (really wrong-headed) statement about intimacy and love, and they’re trying to depict a lesbian relationship without being the least bit exploitative. Okay. Okay. Gay superhero whose girlfriend is a space dragon. Comics, right? Let’s give this a chance.
See, it’s not so much any one thing. If Moondragon happened to die in a big crossover, I’d say “well, so did other characters” and cut some slack. It’s that she dies without ever kissing her girlfriend, after being turned into a creature that literally cannot kiss girlfriends.
And don’t let me catch you pleading the Fifth, Marvel. When Northstar married his boyfriend, you were really quick to brag about how awesome you were at gay characters. When you killed off Freedom Ring, you apologized and said you made a bad call. That was two years before this crossover came out. Y’all had time to practice this stuff.
But hey, it’s comics. People come back to life all the time. That’s why I didn’t write this article immediately after reading that. I’d give the writers their saving throw. So a little time passes and Phyla-vell (the one who wasn’t a dragon) is able to resurrect Moondragon, but she has to promise Death that she’ll kill Adam Warlock (an incredibly experienced British guitarist—I’m just going by the name here). Since he’s a fellow Guardian of the Galaxy, that’s awkward. Phyla-vell’s attitude changes, she starts calling herself Martyr—she doesn’t really have any scenes with Moondragon yet, which is odd since she brought her back from the dead, but hey, it’s only a thirty-seven issue crossover event. There probably wasn’t time when the public was dying to know about Gorgon fighting Starbolt.
But finally, she does kill Adam Warlock and Moondragon gets to stay alive. “Okay,” I think to myself. “Either the writers are correcting their mistake or they’ve had something cool in mind all along, because they’re bringing the character back, but also moving the story forward. And I see where they’re going with this. Due to plot stuff, killing Adam Warlock is a necessary evil at the time, so Phyla-vell won’t be irredeemably bad, there’ll just be drama and angst and all sorts of juicy stuff. I’m not expecting constant rainbows and puppy dog tails, but we’ll have a lesbian relationship with the same ups and downs as a heterosexual one in comics.”
Then time gets rewritten and Adam Warlock manages to kill Phyla-vell before being killed himself by Starlord (FUCKING STARLORD). So now instead of Phyla-vell mourning her lost love, it’s Moondragon mourning her lost love. They switched dead lesbians.
Oh, and let’s not forget that now that Moondragon’s resurrected, she’s back to looking hot, since there’s no chance of her kissing anyone with a vagina now. She’d better not grow hair now, is what I’m saying.
Look, I’m not sure how many people are in charge of getting a comic book to the market—writing it, editing it, drawing it, penciling it, lettering it, whatever. I’m sure it’s a lot. The thing is, one of you guys needs to take the bullet and learn how to portray gay characters. It’s not that hard. Glee does it.