The most anticipated panel of my NYCC line up was TimesOUT’s X-Traordinary: The LGBT Characters of the X-Men panel. Jude Biersdorfer moderated an all-star line-up. Chris Claremont; the legendary architect of the X-Men brand, Peter David; celebrated writer of books like Fallen Angels and X-Factor, Scott and Jean creator Max Wittert, and Marvel editor Daniel Ketchum.
The first question was for Chris Claremont. At Flamecon this year, Claremont said that he was not thinking about gay people when he was writing the X-Men. Somewhat bemused, Biersdorfer asked who he was thinking of. “Blacks, Mormons, Jews…” Claremont admitted it might have been seen as a dodge, but he really tried not to pin it down to any one group, calling it non-denominational inclusion.
Claremont, again, was very aware of concerns that this could be seen as hedging but it was determined not only by the social attitudes of the day but the publishing realities as well. Claremont didn’t want queerness or blackness or anything else reduced to a buzzword, preferring them to just be. “FOR THE FIRST TIME SPIDER-MAN TAKES DRUGS”, he offered as a faux example.
Asked about pushback from the Comics Code Authority, Mr. David cited an issue of Justice League Task Force that took place in an amazonian society. J’onn J’onzz, needing to move about freely shapeshifts into ‘Joan J’onzz, but before long one of the inhabitants falls in love with him and kisses him. The CCA demanded that this be removed, as it depicted a same-sex kiss. An incredulous David responded that it was not a same-sex kiss, it was effectively a disguised man kissing a woman, as J’onn identifies and usually presents as male. The Comics Code offices insisted that this was unacceptable and, in the final version, the panel of the kiss appears cropped to cut out the lover’s faces.
David also spoke about revealing Rictor and Shatterstar were gay. In his mind the characters were gay and obviously were gay so he decided to stop dancing around it and just make it explicit. Of course, David did not realize that by doing so he had written Marvel’s first same-sex kiss.
The backlash struck him as preposterous, no one would complain if a man and a woman kissed and these were people just the same. It only grew more ridiculous when Shatterstar’s creator, Rob Liefield, weighed in. David scoffed at Leifeld’s insistence that Shatterstar was not gay, he was merely from a warrior culture…like ancient Greece. The room had a good time with that.
From the beginning David took the position that if you can do it with a straight character you can do it with a queer character, that being queer should make no difference unless you’re writing a story about that. There was an air of “colorblindness” about it but, David was very open about that. “YAY, HE SAID SOMETHING SELF-EVIDENT,” he would cheer whenever the fans applauded his positions.
Claremont reminded us that Katherine Pryde would be the 50th president of the United States, but insisted that being the first mutant president would not be what was historical about her election, nor her being the first (in his story) woman president. Claremont was too of his time to spell it out, but it was very much understood.
Asked about working with queer characters, Daniel Ketchum said that he thinks that their sexuality doesn’t come into it as often as people think and that the greater consideration is how outsiderhood has affected their character.
Biersdorfer asked which character the panelists connected to the most. Wittert had no trouble picking Rogue, citing her feelings of isolation and bombastic personality. Peter David admitted that he loved Layla Miller, having really come around to her in an attempt to justify her to the many readers who were skeptical of her presence in “House of M” and X-Factor. As for Claremont, obviously the most anticipated answer to the question, he replied, “I stopped playing favorites two-hundred characters ago.” They’re all his favorites and he told the panelists to pick one for him. Wittert picked Nightcrawler and Claremont immediately agreed. He even began to wax nostalgic for a story that had seen Nightcrawler and Rogue switching powers and discovering the privledges and harships of the other’s situations. Unfortunately that story was cut short before he could write the examination he had hoped.
Asked about film adaptations of characters, Claremont was skeptical of Fox but seemed generally happy with the actors chosen to represent his creations. Having seen a bit of Luke Cage, he mused to the audience, “Oh, so that’s what Misty Knight looks like in real clothes! Gosh, I wouldn’t know from the comic books.” He also admitted that he had been working on the Gambit movie until a certain Merc with a Mouth sidelined the project.
The last question from Biersdorfer was about what Queer stories the panelists would still like to see. Ketchum said that he wants to see more non-binary characters and non-binary stories. Peter David wants stories that are treated the same as those starring straight characters. With an actor’s grace and diction Claremont dove into a speech. He wondered, what if a president or an elected official ran on a traditional values platform…and then actually set about enforcing it. Claremont saw the next queer stories as being about moving backwards, not forwards. About how easy it could be to see rights eroded. A hush fell over the crowd as he spoke. We all saw that future just as clearly as “Days of Future Past”.
The next questioner shuffled up to the mic respectfully. He told the room that his name was Vicente Rodriguez, that he was Romani, and that he was deeply grateful for all that Marvel had done to represent the Romani people. However, after a little while, he admitted that many of Marvel’s recent decisions were troubling to him. He cited some ugly stereotypes that have appeared in the latest Scarlet Witch series, Victor Von Doom working with the Red Skull despite his people being massacred in the holocaust, and the continuing use of the term ‘gypsy’, an ugly slur, in Marvel comics. This, he argued, is not ok in 2016 and he asked if any of the creators could comment on Marvel’s repeated issues with Romani representation. I don’t think anyone was prepared for what would come next.
Peter David offered to answer this question. A number of years ago he visited Romania while working on a film project. While there, he told us, he saw children with their legs broken so badly that they pointed forward at the knee. When he asked his Romanian guide what had happened to them, he had an easy answer, “It’s gypsies. They break the children’s legs so they will make better beggars.” David told the story intensely, powerfully. I kept waiting for the moment where he would reveal and rebuke prejudice against the Roma.
But it never came.
“Don’t talk to me about bigotry against the Romani,” David said furiously, ‘I’ve seen what they do and it is disgusting’. Rodriguez tried to respond to this accusation, but David wasn’t having it. “We’re done” he declared, repeating it loudly and making clear that he would not hear any disagreement from the panel.
David was emotional. Clearly, to him, this was triggering and he saw himself standing up for human rights. Unfortunately Romania has famously, or perhaps not famously enough, been repeatedly singled out for human rights violations by the U.N in regards to their treatment of the Roma. It seems likely that part of the problem was that David was told this by his guide, however, there really is no excuse for speaking that way to a fan, much less for using a platform like that to spread prejudice.
It was shocking to say the least and no one knew how to deal with it.
In a moment of stunning mood whiplash, the next questioner came to the mic, a Harley Quinn cosplayer who tearfully told the story of her lifelong habit of reading comics with her father and how the X-Men gave him the understanding and the vocabulary to come to terms with her coming out. It was really a beautiful moment, but the room was still shaken by David’s speech.
As the panel let out, David apologized for his outburst. He recognized that his reaction was extreme and incorrect, but he notably did not retract or soften his opinion of the Romani or what he saw.
Mr. Rodriguez is the founder of RomaPop, a Romani Rights project, and came to the convention in hopes of opening a respectful dialogue with Marvel about their unique place in the representation of his people. I fear that a dialogue has been started, but not the one he had hoped for. A 1993 post about Mr. David’s experience can still be found on his blog. RomaPop has issued this response to the incident.
Many people are unaware of the struggle of the Romani, part of why Marvel has been so important, but, if this celebration of storytelling and heroism has to have this shade cast over it, the best that can come from it is for us to listen and to learn a little more about their story.