Written by Sina Grace
Art by Alessandro Vitti and Rachelle Rosenberg
Lettering by Joe Sabino
Published by Marvel Comics
‘Rama Rating: 7 out of 10
It’s 2017, and Marvel’s first solo title starring a queer male lead is finally hitting stands. Feels like a bit of a momentous occasion, doesn’t it? There’s a lot of talk about how comic books are great because they allow for a wide range of narratives that you might not see in other spheres but superhero comi bookcs have a history of being unfortunately homogenous despite core concepts that would suggest otherwise. While young Bobby Drake’s queerness has been explored since the character came out in 2015, the older Bobby Drake has not had the same chance, and that’s writer Sina Grace’s unenviable task. There isn’t a question about whether or not there’s a story to be told - there absolutely is - but rather, how do you craft a compelling narrative with a character who has been “straight” for all intents and purposes for so many years? Thankfully, Grace has the mutant metaphor and some personal experience on his side, allowing for a mainstream superhero title to have a unique perspective that hasn’t truly existed on this level until now.
Bobby Drake coming out in All-New X-Men was seen as controversial at the time not only for changing a longtime fan-favorite character’s sexuality, but also for the way that coming-out story was told, angering fans on both sides of the aisle in the process. But the X-Men are always stronger when there’s a minority perspective being explored as its core metaphor, and that’s what Grace gets to lean into. He doesn’t have to make any big sweeping proclamations with this book. Queer existence is varied and multifaceted and yeah, sometimes you have moments of great triumph but sometimes you struggle just fill out a dating profile, just to feel a little bit less alone. That’s what this story is.
Grace frames the story with Bobby filling out his first dating profile, introducing himself to the world as a gay adult man who has very little idea about what he’s doing and what that means. His younger counterpart has taken to his queerness a lot more quickly, but the older Bobby Drake has repressed so much of himself for so long that he has to negotiate that part of himself constantly. The X-Men has always drawn a diverse group of fans because while the metaphor can be somewhat clunky considering the largely white, largely straight cast, it’s easy to replace “mutant” with your race, gender, or sexuality and feel at least a little bit understood.
So for Iceman #1, much of the story is about coming to terms with that understanding - even from yourself. Bobby has always put being a hero first in his life, the same way that many closeted queer folks put other aspects of their life ahead of themselves. Many people are taught that exploring their gender and sexuality is frivolous and selfish, that their desires are less than the perceived majority and a character like Bobby must be feeling that. He’s always sought companionship outside of his superhero team (see: Bobby’s many girlfriends) but he’s not one to “rock the boat” with big revelations about himself. It’s easier to maintain the facade despite all of those relationships failing. Additionally, his relationship with his parents has always been strained because he’s a mutant. It’s understandable that he wouldn’t want to give them one more thing to have to grapple with considering their relatively conservative views.
Grace’s background informs a lot of this book. He’s an openly gay writer who deals primarily in autobio comic books, a genre that revels somewhat in digging into innately personal struggle. So while Bobby’s story might not be Grace’s exactly, the writer is able to find the core of what makes this kind of story compelling. Unfortunately, the conventions of the superhero genre can’t be ignored even though maybe they should be. The weakest parts of Grace’s writing come from trying to balance Bobby’s personal struggle with more traditional action scenes but at least he’s able to utilize those scenes to inform the book. He inserts a Purifier into the book to give Bobby someone to fight and really double and triple down on the metaphor, and it starts to get a little bit heavy-handed. The Purifiers aren’t exactly subtle in their motivations to rid the world of mutants and their religious aesthetic underlines Grace’s main idea here, but it’s not really that impactful - and I think on some level, Grace knows that. He uses the fact that Bobby hides behind his heroism to not deal with his personal life as part of the structure of the book. Later on, Bobby’s mother laments that “things happen whenever you become a mutant” and he responds that he’s always a mutant - drawing a clearer throughline to queer experience than can really be had with traditional comic book villains. Iceman can obviously handle one lousy Purifier, but being honest and open about himself is hard because even seemingly minor microaggressions coming from people that are supposed to love him hurt a lot more.
What we end up with is a very small story that very clearly exists within the confines of the X-titles but considering the subject matter, it might have been a little bit more refreshing to pair Grace with an artist whose work is a little bit less traditional. Alessandro Vitti’s work here is generally pretty serviceable, but his strongest pages come during those previously mentioned action sequences. It only feels like a missed opportunity because that’s the part of the book that has the lowest stakes and least emotional impact. Vitti’s work is at its best when Iceman is creating ice slides or punching out a bad guy, but when the artist has to shift gears and work at giving Bobby Drake real depth, he drops the ball. His expression work leaves a lot to be desired because his faces can often come across as squinty and under-defined. He relies a lot on the body language of his characters to help underline the ideas in the script, but going that extra mile would really help sell Grace’s words especially since Bobby is the character that moves through the book the most. Some characters, like Bobby’s bed-ridden father, have the same blocking scene after scene.
The coloring suffers a little bit just by virtue of Iceman’s powerset. In the action scenes, the ice can tend to overwhelm the pages a bit with blue and bright whites. If there isn’t suitable contrast elsewhere on the page, it’s almost blinding. Coupled with interior scenes that take place in a hospital, there’s a lot of unnatural lighting that informs the look of the book. I wonder if the book might have been better served by colorist Rachelle Rosenberg utilizing a flatter palette and leaning away from the computer lighting effects. One of the strongest pages features the Purifier standing over his target and it works well because there’s a ton of contrast between the shadows and his uniform that really allows the reader to see the texture work that Rosenberg has put in as well. As it stands, her coloring definitely serves the story but again, going a fairly traditional route with the art still feels like a missed opportunity.
A certain section of readers will decry this book for changing a character just to sell comic books or to be more politically correct. And to be honest? It just means that Iceman isn’t for you. We need diverse stories that come from diverse voices and are informed by diverse experiences. Comics readers are not a monolith, but one thing that does bind us all together is the urge to find ourselves somewhere in the stories we read. That’s part of what’s happening here, and here’s the most subversive thing I’m going to say this review - these books aren’t always perfect, or even always exceptional. That’s part of the journey, too. It’s not enough for these stories to exist. We have to let them exist regardless of quality. There’s a tendency for readers to lambast a comic book with a minority perspective if it’s anything less than the next Watchmen. That’s dangerous because it’s not the standard that we hold other books to.
Iceman #1 represents a new beginning for Bobby Drake, and it’s an exciting one. Queer narratives are sorely lacking in mainstream superhero comic books and this one, negotiating queerness as an adult, is one that we generally don’t see anywhere. There’s something to be said for making these themes the actual text of a story rather than the subtext, and it’s refreshing to see Grace and his art team dive right into that. Is this book going to set the world on fire and revolutionize comics? Probably not. But there are folks that are finally going to start seeing themselves where they didn’t before. And that’s really powerful. Iceman #1 is not a perfect book (and that’s okay!). But there is no doubt that it is an important one.