Between 2017-19 Los Angeles comic creator Sina Grace penned the adventures of Marvel’s Iceman. Over the course of two volumes, 15 individual issues, Grace led Iceman (aka Bobby Drake) through the process of finally coming to terms with his sexuality, dating men and embracing who he really is – and becoming Marvel Comics’ most high profile LGBTQ+ character (sorry Northstar).
Of course, it wasn’t all smooth sailing. From the complex way Iceman was outed, to a small but vocal fan backlash, and behind the scenes issues with publisher Marvel that Grace has spoken about. But first, a little backstory.
After years of half-hearted hints, Bobby Drake was outed in 2015 in a complex fashion in the best/worst tradition of the X-Men comics. For decades it had been clear Marvel was never sure if it wanted to officially make Iceman gay, and that various writers and editors had differing points of view. Momentum picked up after the film X2: X-Men United (2003) when the cinematic version of Iceman came out as a mutant to his parents. The scene played out exactly like a traditional “coming out” conversation including the immortal line, “Have you tried NOT being a mutant?”
By 2015 a lot had changed at Marvel Comics. The X-Men, once the undisputed rulers of comic book sales, had fallen behind their stablemate The Avengers, in part due to the rise of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and a ground-breaking run of comics by superstar writer Brian Michael Bendis. Bendis had now moved over to the X-Men books and in the closing issues of his All New X-Men series, he outed Iceman officially (in a storyline involving time-travel, two different versions of Iceman and a nosey telepath).
All of which set the scene for Iceman to get his first on-going solo series in 2017, with queer independent comic creator Sina Grace at the helm. In this book, Bobby Drake is a man coming out a bit later in life, dealing with having to explain to his friends why he hid in the plain sight (including speaking to ex-girlfriends), and learning how to reconcile his sexuality with the realities of his incredibly unusual life as a superhero.
Grace’s book reads more like an indie comic with some superhero punches thrown in as a bit of colour – a character story with superhero trappings, rather than the other way around. Think of the way the TV show Friday Night Lights used sport to highlight character dynamics. It was a slower burn and a different style of story than most X-Men readers were used to.
Looking back on the two series as a whole it weirdly reminded me of the short lived HBO series Looking. A gay character study that played out on emotional beats rather than the usual superhero fights.
Grace pulls from Iceman’s history to craft an emotionally complex tale. From a confrontation with his recent ex-girlfriend (fellow superhero Kitty Pryde), to a tense storyline with his conservative parents who already had a hard enough time dealing with their son being a high-profile mutant. Grace plays out the parental tension over a number of issues, as Bobby Drake tries to bring himself to tell his parents he’s gay – a nice touch of realism.
Iceman was always the wise-cracking, comic relief of the X-Men. Looking back with retconned eyes, being the class clown reads like a classic distraction technique, all his failed romances with women make sense.
There are times in Grace’s Iceman when the superhero shenanigans serve as annoying distractions rather than back up the storylines (Iceman’s fight with the bisexual Daken feels like a missed opportunity). The opening issues stumble a bit in pacing and tone, the kind of teething issues of any series, but they shine best when dealing with Iceman’s emotional journey.
Things get more assured as the series progresses, the only awkward note is the speed and ease with which Drake meets a guy in L.A. and they start dating instantly. Although the scene of Marvel heroes like Hercules and Ghost-Rider partying in West Hollywood is a sight to behold.
The series was cancelled after the first eleven issues, but after the collected editions sold well in the graphic novel market, another run was commissioned. This time, with Iceman settled into his new life as a gay superhero, the book took a more light-hearted tone and more traditional superhero comic book feel. Featuring team ups with characters like the X-Men’s Bishop and Emma Frost, Firestar and Spider-Man, as well as a Mutant Pride parade, and drag queen mutant named Shade. This volume feels more confident in its approach, but lacking in the character moments the previous volume had excelled at.
Just to make life more confusing, Sina Grace’s run writing Iceman wouldn’t end with the series. He’d pick up the story once more in a single issue special Uncanny X-Men: Winter’s End, centered around Iceman’s birthday. Not essential reading, and just another example of Marvel’s erratic and bewildering publishing choices – maybe they thought more people would read it with Uncanny X-Men in the title?
Delivering the sort of character development the character needed, Sina Grace’s Iceman tackled the issues with a degree of sensitivity and truth that a straight writer may have struggled to bring. While the issues may flip-flop in tone (and art), they laid the groundwork for Iceman to become a more well-rounded character and resolved the dangling plot issues neatly (something that’s often lacking in superhero comic books). And now that it’s all over, Iceman’s sexuality has gone back to being just another part of his backstory.
By Chad Armstrong
Sina Grace’s Iceman is available in three collected editions.
Iceman: Thawing Out collecting Iceman v3 (2017) #1-5 by Sina Grace, Alessandro Vitti, Edgar Salazar, Ibraim Roberson, Ed Tadeo, and Rachelle Rosenberg.
Iceman: Absolute Zero collecting Iceman v3 (2017) #6-11 by Sina Grace, Rober Gill, Ed Tadeo, and Rachelle Rosenberg.
Iceman: Amazing Friends collecting Iceman v4 (2018) #1-5 and Uncanny X-Men: Winter’s End by Sina Grace, Nathan Stockman, and Federico Blee.