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Iceman, Vol. 1: Thawing Out (Review)

Reading 150If you’re one of the original five X-Men and your name isn’t Jean Grey or Scott Summers, chances are you’ve got a bum deal. Angel is mostly known for having his wings torn off and replaced by cybernetic ones as one of Apocalypse’s Four Horsemen. Beast was arguably most popular during his stint with the Avengers team in the 70s and 80s before rejoining his old team and curing the Legacy Virus in the 90s. Iceman, however, doesn’t even have an iconic storyline or fan-favorite supervillain to boost his street cred. Mostly, he’s just known for…well, being a member of the Original Five.

Writers have spent years looking for ways to make Bobby Drake more distinctive. He was classified as an Omega Level mutant sometime ago, but unlike others with the classification (like, say, Jean or fellow X-Man Storm) he’s not one of the first names you think of when an extinction-level threat rears up. Several writers have put work in justifying Iceman’s designation, but nothing’s really stuck in the popular consciousness. More recently Iceman made headlines when a past version of himself was outed as gay by Jean, which raised all kinds of questions. How could he have been gay for this long without any inkling from anyone else (including readers)? Especially when he’s had a bit of a reputation for his love life?

During one of their many recent X-Men relaunches, Iceman was one of the two Original Five X-Men to get a solo series. (The other — of course — was the time-displaced Jean Grey.) The first five issues debuted back in 2017, and I have to admit I gave it a pass at the time. It wasn’t a great time to be an X-fan, and the constant upheavals in the status quo with subsequent relaunches didn’t give me much faith that this title would last. Sure enough, it was cancelled after 11 issues, renewed months later, then cancelled again after six more issues. In this particular age of Marvel, 17 issues is a decent run — but what about the story that was told in that space? The first collection of Iceman, Thawing Out, establishes the “new normal” for Bobby Drake as he tries to figure himself out and live up to his Omega-level potential.

iceman

He’s smiling because he’s finally figured an ice-based gay pun

If I had to describe the first five issues of Iceman in one word, it would be “accessible”. Writer Sina Grace has the unenviable task of making sense of Bobby’s controversial status quo while also providing readers with a compelling reason to see him as a potential ‘leading man’. Iceman has never felt like a big deal; for the ongoing to work, the first arc really needs to establish him as someone capable of anchoring stories as well as Spider-Man or Captain America. However, Bobby’s recent embrace of his sexuality means that he might need to seem like the “same old Iceman” so he doesn’t further alienate a vocal contingent of the comics fandom. It’s a tricky balance to strike, and for various reasons it feels like Grace and the editorial team made a series of choices that put the title into a place that doesn’t appeal to anyone who might be willing to give it a shot.

In the first arc, Iceman struggles to come out to his parents as gay — which makes sense, since they still haven’t fully accepted him as a mutant. The whole affair is complicated by an appearance from the Purifiers and a dust-up with Juggernaut, but when the dust settles there’s at least hope that the cold war between Bobby and his parents can thaw given time. Grace wisely echoes audience sentiment — “Who IS Iceman, really?” — within Drake himself, who states from the jump that his legacy isn’t very strong and he doesn’t have a well-defined self-image. By bundling the audience questions into the narrative, Grace acknowledges the challenge directly while offering an implicit promise we’ll get an answer through Bobby’s journey of self-discovery.

And we get an idea of why it’s so difficult for Bobby to reconcile what makes him different through his parents. It’s clear that his parents’ inability to accept him for who he is makes it hard for him to accept himself; he’s torn between who he feels he is and who his parents want him to be. Anyone who’s spent some time being closeted in their family can relate to this. The tension that comes with weighing your desire to be a part of your family against the need to be true to yourself is so hard to reconcile. But it also feels like Bobby should have pulled the trigger on a decision about this by now. He’s been living this way for years at this point, and he’s been his own man for long enough to decide for himself who he is.

I think that’s one of the reasons why this first arc doesn’t quite work — it feels like it’s speaking to a dilemma we’ve gotten past as a society. Folks who don’t accept LGBQTIA people aren’t likely to be swayed by this story, and the folks who are LGBQTIA don’t quite see themselves in Bobby’s situation. Those still closeted under their parents’ roof don’t have a team of superheroes to lean on, no superpowers to save themselves (or their family) from bigots, no external threats to unite their family. The resolution with Bobby’s parents feels at once too small a win to celebrate but at the same time too easily achieved — he hasn’t really learned to address the flaws keeping him from a resolution, and his parents haven’t really budged from their vague disapproval or dealt with the reasons they have such trouble accepting their son.

Iceman’s core conflict doesn’t drill down into the specifics that would make the story more compelling and Bobby Drake a superhero worth rooting for. We still don’t quite understand why Bobby decided that he didn’t want to be both gay AND a mutant, especially since Northstar is around; we don’t understand how being forced to confront his sexuality is connected to living up to the potential of his mutant powers. Instead, we’re left with the idea that the process of accepting himself has begun and that’s satisfying in its own way.

Sina Grace has spoken out on his Tumblr about his experience writing Iceman, and it is not pretty. According to him, he had little support on the title itself and with the cultural fallout that comes with being a lightning rod in the industry. While paying lip service to the potential to tell diverse stories, Marvel apparently asked him to keep things relatively beige to help its slight chances at being a hit. More assertively gay stories were dismissed, and the arrival of a trans superhero named Shade was not given any publicity. I could easily see Grace being hamstrung from telling the kind of story he wanted by a nervous editorial group, which is a shame.

Because Iceman really does feel like a half-measure on Marvel’s part, telling a difficult story with a series of mis-steps designed to reduce offense instead of speaking truth. It simultaneously acknowledges the hard truths of being gay while diminishing how hard they can be to cope with; it still thinks that featuring a gay character is enough to be progressive. The fact of the matter is they were going to take heat from the same corners of the comics world no matter “how gay” they made the title; it would have been better to take a big swing than the sacrifice bunt they ended up with.

Still, there’s enough to recommend Iceman as a title — especially if you’re a fan of the X-Man himself. It’s just too bad it’s yet another example of a Bobby Drake story that fails to live up to its potential. It’s decent enough, but not nearly what could have been.

 

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(Review) Miles Morales, Vol. 1: Straight Out of Brooklyn

Reading 150The runaway success of last year’s Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse raised the profile of Miles Morales in a big way. Created by Brian Michael Bendis in 2011, Miles became the second Spider-Man of an alternate Marvel universe after a cataclysm took the life of that reality’s Peter Parker. It’s been an eventful eight years for Miles. He was a controversial figure during his debut, but has won over fans with amazing stories. He made his way over to the “main” Marvel continuity in 2015 after a “Crisis on Infinite Earths”-type situation that destroyed — then drastically reconfigured — the multiverse, and since then he’s been a key figure of the emerging ‘young superhero’ community. When Into the Spider-Verse dropped, Marvel thought it might be a good idea to give Miles a fresh look with a new ongoing title and a new creative team. Thus, Miles Morales: Spider-Man was born.

For his fourth(?!) solo series, Marvel brought in Hugo Award-winning writer Saladin Ahmed and Javier Garron. While it can be a bit of a risk to bring an unproven talent to a new title, here it’s an absolute genius call. Ahmed clearly loves Miles Morales and, even better, knows how to write stories that speak to his multi-racial experience while also being an incredibly fun superhero book. Unlike Bendis, who often came across like he had a ‘dad’s’ understanding of what kids are like these days, Ahmed’s writing feels relatable enough to play in middle America while also providing an authentic window into the life of a 15-year-old New Yorker. If you’re looking to jump in to Miles’ further adventures after Into the Spider-Verse, the first collection of his solo series — Straight Out of Brooklyn — is an excellent way to do it.

Miles Air

Ahmed has a natural talent for comics pacing, quickly establishing Miles’ status quo. He’s a student at a boarding school called Brooklyn Visions, where he shares a dorm with best friend Ganke Lee (who knows his secret identity) and a poet named Judge (who doesn’t). His parents both know about his after-school job, though it appears secrets run in the family — his father, who Miles thought was a cop, revealed himself to be a S.H.I.E.L.D. agent, while his uncle Aaron was unmasked at the super-villain Iron Spider. He’s holding down his grades as best he can, but being Spider-Man doesn’t give him much chance to sleep, so his schoolwork is suffering. But he’s sweet on fellow student Barbara, so things aren’t all bad.

Of course, things won’t remain quite so manageable for long. Barbara’s little cousin, visiting from California, has gone missing! While tracking strange, uniformed people committing crimes, he runs into the Rhino — a gamma-irradiated member of Peter Parker’s rogues gallery whose attempts to go straight often fall apart. The Rhino is tracking the daughter of an estranged girlfriend who also went missing; after the initial obligatory dust-up, the two form an uneasy alliance. Even though he’s just a supporting character for the first arc, Rhino is fully-drawn: it bothers him that people make assumptions about him based on his enormous size, and there’s a weary resignation beneath the ‘frienemy’ banter he shares with Miles. Even Eduardo, the cousin who serves as the macguffin for the story, is allowed to have problems completely unrelated to what’s happening. His father was deported, and his mother is drowning in a sea of bureaucracy trying to gain citizenship for her family.

The first arc is just three issues long, enough to get us grounded in Miles’ world and acquaint us with how he handles the frequent conflicts he has to deal with. So much of his character is revealed through how he interacts with other people in his orbit — whether it’s calming down the hot-tempered Rhino or reflecting on how being around Captain America affects him. Miles is determined, laser-focused, principled, but with the swagger of a Brooklyn teenager. It’s the same heroic template that’s been fueling Peter Parker’s stories for decades, but expressed through someone with a different culture and background. If nothing else, it carries the central idea of Into the Spider-Verse — that Spider-Man has become so iconic he can work as an archetype as well as a character — and proves it through practice. The next two stories are brisk — a stand-alone issue further complicates Miles’ world by making Barbara certain he’s keeping something from her, and a two-part story introducing an intriguing anti-hero ends on a nice cliffhanger that bookends the collection really well. Ahmed knows how to work with momentum here, and it’s impressive the way he juggles the personal and professional crises thrown towards Miles. They connect and complicate each other in interesting ways, constantly throwing our hero off-guard.

Garron’s art is a wonderful complement to Ahmed’s art, dense and lively. The composition is a controlled chaos; figures from one panel bleed out into the next, connecting the disparate parts of Miles’ life in a way that confirms how impossible it is to keep his two lives separate. There’s a great blend of expression panels that ground the characters emotionally, mid-range panels that carry conversation and exposition, and huge splash panels that sell super-powered action. But what’s most impressive is how Garron manages to give each character small touches that provide a sense of consistency. Rhino, for instance, is always looming in every panel he’s in; wherever he walks, he stands in small craters of broken cement or floor. Judge’s body language screams bravado and a devil-may-care attitude; Ganke has a geek’s body language; almost everyone is depicted in a pose that speaks directly to who they are.

Even Miles’ different spider-powers are shown in novel ways, from the ever-reliable ‘Spidey-sense’ to his Venom Sting, to the invisibility that comes in handy for scouting and stealth. Both author and artist are in sync, and it shows. The world they’ve created is crowded and chaotic, but always interesting — much like New York. It’s a fruitful pairing that I hope is given enough time to deepen and mature.

Miles Morales: Straight Out of Brooklyn is a great first collection for anyone looking to continue this Spider-Man’s adventures post-Spider Verse. While it’s anyone’s guess how long the title will last given the whims of Marvel and its endless appetite for new #1s, this is a story that’s worth investing in. Spider-Man has been given a 21st-century update that allows him to keep being your friendly neighborhood superhero, and we even get to visit neighborhoods that feel a bit closer to the ones we live in today.

 
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Posted by on August 14, 2019 in Comic Books, Reading, Reviews

 

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