Northstar was a disjointed golem of communal trauma, carrying the weight of 40 years of contradictory stereotypes.
Marvel’s first gay superhero is an amalgamation of straight assumptions. Northstar was introduced in 1979 as the first gay character in the superhero genre. Unfortunately, the Comics Code Authority censored scripts that were explicit on the matter of his sexuality. For years writers employed subtext to leave hints for their audience to pick up.
Besides men coming in and out of his home, or lingering shirtless in the background of panels, Northstar was coded through the unique perspective of how straight men typically view gay men. As Ben Bolling points out, he was portrayed as vain, sarcastic, and reckless, but more interestingly, he was given a backstory full of poverty and abandonment. While this is a common background in action/adventure drama, it parallels tightly with sociological work on the queer community in the late ’70s. Material like the documentary Paris is Burning exists as a reminder that the queer community was viewed as an economically suppressed class for decades.
In the ’80s Northstar’s creator left his flagship and the subsequent writer, Bill Mantlo, thought he could publicly discuss Northstar’s sexuality by killing him off through a long, drawn out illness. Sean Guynes argues that a national controversy convinced the Marvel editorial team not to kill their only queer superhero for the sake of discussing AIDS through the lens of the superhero genre.
Northstar’s publication history shows a cross section of 40 years of the United States’s mainstream view of the gay community. In the 1980s he was portrayed as dismissive of women to the point of misogyny, while in the aughts, gay men were so often portrayed in fiction as the gay best friend that Northstar was portrayed almost solely in the company of women. His coming-out issue (Alpha Flight #106 in 1992) concluded with an in-universe press conference that mirrored what happened in the real world with Ellen Degeneres or Rosie O’Donnell. While Marvel has developed other queer characters since, Northstar remains nothing more than a temperature gauge for how a straight gaze views a queer community. His backstory evolved as homosexuals emerged from economic disparity: Where once he was an unattended minor, he became a wealthy, privileged man as the national narrative surrounding queer youth gradually expanded. However, economic disparity was not the only obstacle he’d struggle with.Editor-in-Chief Hrag Vartanian’s personal copy of Alpha Flight #106 featuring Northstar’s coming out in 1992. (photo Hrag Vartanian/Hyperallergic)
Between February and March of 2005, Northstar died three deaths. Each death was meant to build pathos for his straight teammates. Many of Marvel’s readers were horrified that three different writing teams had all, independently, settled on the same idea. There seemed to be no plans within the creative department for their intellectual property besides using him as a martyr. In a cast of thousands, lesser-known characters can end up as cannon fodder. Perhaps some writers viewed him as a vestigial piece of lore, a lingering reminder of a period when queer characters were literally unprintable. The 21st century saw huge leaps in representation as independent comics proved to larger publishers that queer narratives could not only make money but draw a sustainable audience. LGBTQ characters became more common across many genres of graphic novels and comics.
Perhaps it seemed that to keep the first out gay man was a pointless exercise, especially one so mired in outdated stereotypes. For example, at one point in the original Alpha Flight series it was strongly implied that Northstar slept with a man for food and shelter while he was on the street — which essentially makes him a sex worker. While it was portrayed in the comic as a favor, clearly someone on the editorial team re-considered the implications of their relationship. Under Bill Mantlo, their relationship was retconned into more of a father-son mentorship. Contemporary straight writers may have felt uncomfortable navigating such a specific trauma narrative and sought to disentangle themselves. However, the lack of trauma does not erase the metanarrative. No subsequent origin took its place, and instead Northstar became unmoored, defined mostly by his sports career and occasionally by his husband.
It is bad writing, but in the context of cultural criticism it continues the precedent of well-meaning liberal dogma. While other queer characters within Marvel comics have an internal storyline to follow, akin to Spiderman’s great responsibilities, Northstar must be constantly updated. He has developed a unique position in the cast of thousands as a disjointed golem of communal trauma, carrying the weight of 40 years of stereotypes even when they contradict each other.
The article was first publishedin Hyperallergic.