Marvel Presents Northstar Vs the Straight Gaze by O F Cieri

20 min read

I found Northstar on a list of LGBTQIA characters as a teenager. The wiki entry for LGBT superheroes in the 00s was a short list full of dead links that mostly referenced characters in one-shot stories or side characters in team stories. Some were boring, others had potential, but Northstar was my favorite.

I went to the comic book aisle of Barnes and Nobles, scrolled through fan forums at home, and bought trade paperbacks at comic-exclusive shops. I curated my reading list by skimming and rejecting. One by one I powered through Wikipedia’s LGBT superhero list. Most characters were features of one-shot issues, others the intellectual property of smaller publications that had long since been absorbed by either Marvel or DC. The highest profile queer character I could find had less than a dozen lines that obliquely mentioned homosexual attraction. Young Avengers and the Runaways both had queer couples, but they didn’t do anything, not even bothering with the genre standard plot where one must rescue the other. Read and reject, again and again. 

I powered through the Authority, Martian Manhunter, the Great Lakes Avengers, and X-Factor before I got around to Alpha Flight.

I’d been hesitant to engage with the series for a while. It was a typical Bronze Age comic that added darker elements to stories that still kept the camp goofiness of the Silver Age. Major characters permanently died in the first twenty issues, contrasted with battles against evil circus performers and giant crocodiles. It felt like a bizarre time capsule stuffed with old tropes, but I enjoyed the series despite its flaws. 

The creator, John Byrne, has been praised by fans for the subtlety of his writing, and I enjoyed his style as much as other teenagers before me. I liked the creepy supernatural flair, I liked his creature designs, his otherworldly architecture, his use of color and design, and of course I loved the characters of Alpha Flight, but especially Northstar. 

From a critical perspective, Northstar wasn’t anything special.  He had the same side-swept bangs and loose career trajectory as the real life three-time gold medalist Jean Claude Killy, who in the 1970s was a sports figure as well-known as OJ Simpson. While Byrne never publicly connected Killy with Jean Paul Beaubier, it seems likely that the association would have only been favorable for a media whose main audience was adolescent boys. In the comic Northstar fit a mold that was popular at the time. Tragic, Byronic in sensibility, and emotionally cut off except for outbursts of anger was a well-served formula in an action-based genre, and variations on those qualities produced dozens of characters alongside him. Daredevil, Quicksilver, even Swamp Thing or Constantine all came from the same base. During Batman’s 20-year transformation from camp to gothic, Northstar could have sat comfortably in the center.

There was a major difference in the way Northstar was written and published. First, as a character borne at the start of the trend, he was much more of a bitter contrarian then the actively homicidal torture victims that were to come. There were no Wolverine copycats yet. Next, there were no flashbacks. He barely brought up his past except in passing, and what little he did reveal had dark implications. He didn’t laugh, he only smiled for cameras, his teammates called him a fighter to praise him and a nasty piece of work when they were annoyed. I felt in my bones like I knew him. With Northstar I felt like I could see him from the inside out, furious and holding it, unsolved rage burning since childhood but now with enough experience to know he didn’t want to sleep on the street anymore. 

Humble beginnings weren’t unusual in superhero comics, but there was something about the way Byrne showed that background that rang true to me. If it was just good writing then people wouldn’t need to ask me what was drawing me to Northstar, but when they did, they dismissed points I offered. Everything I brought up existed in other characters. I couldn’t explain the value of seeing them in this character, who was supposed to be a seething ball of rage while still remaining polished and charming, but I found friends online who agreed with me and could articulate special features about him that I overlooked. A common refrain among Alpha Flight fans is that Northstar is always right. In an effort to make him unlikeable Byrne would use him to criticize the rest of the team, but his insights were always solid appraisals. Northstar was the only voice arguing that intentions didn’t absolve someone of mistakes, which resulted in a far more subtle inversion of genre than many of the prestige literary offerings. In most issues he seemed to be arguing against the superhero institution within their own universe. If pickpockets shouldn’t be thrown against a wall at the speed of sound and hyper advanced technology shouldn’t be used on someone against their will, then the whole plot was a massive overreach of authority on the behalf of anonymous government agents. In John Byrne’s run, Northstar was so trope aware he had to be knocked unconscious before he could talk the plot apart.

Northstar was the very first superhero intended to be queer from conception. Other characters, such as Mystique and Emma Frost, were implied to be queer or involved in queer relationships in a non-committal way. A writer could make a subtle sex joke, an artist could position them suggestively, and if the right fan asked in the right context they may wink and nod but if the comics authority ever challenged them, the implications disappeared. Byrne, however, was adamant in his decision. According to apocryphal stories he tried to write several coming out issues during Alpha Flights’ initial run and was censored every time. Oblique references to Northstar’s homosexuality became a staple of his canon.

I forced myself to read the late 80s issues of Alpha Flight with their horrible, inconsistent coloring and exaggerated body proportions on broken upload sites full of advertisements for cartoon porn or real time strategy browser games. I even forced myself to finish the two issue Northstar solo comic, but when I was done there was nothing to follow up with. Northstar was gone. Perhaps not unusual among a cast of thousands, but still disappointing. 

I scoured the internet, hunted for references, read issues just to see him in the background of a group shot, and when I did, I noticed a shift in presentation. Where Byrne portrayed him as aggressive and overconfident, his cameos portrayed a fainting waif wringing his hands at violence. He stopped being competitive and athletic, and his skiing career became a vehicle to show him drinking champagne at the chateau. When he did get a line it was to offer empty sarcasm, nothing like his genuinely damning insight from earlier issues. Again, I assured myself this was a problem with the cast of thousands nature of a medium. Each author deserved the chance to give their favorites the spotlight. Eventually Northstar was added to an X-men line-up that was in production. 

I was excited to get the opportunity to read new Northstar material as it was being published, but again I was disappointed. Nobody on the creative team seemed to have done any research on Northstar and got everything from his backstory to his powers wrong. It wasn’t clear why they’d bothered to add him to the team at all, except for some lukewarm romance. The next month he appeared in three different issues and I learned that he was on the team so he could die in three different ways. He was almost as fast as light but apparently not as fast as Wolverine, a chubby chain-smoker with metal bones. Nor could he outrun an explosion, although every other character was allowed to live. In another timeline he overdosed on special mutant drugs that gave everyone else super-duper powers.

I was not the only one to notice how frail Marvel’s first gay character had become. The resulting outrage was so loud it made real world news. The editors, writers and illustrators all came forward to apologize for what they promised was a thoughtless oversight. Their intentions were to be compassionate to their LGBT readers and to make their straight audience feel something for a queer character. Northstar popped back to life in the very next issue, as a brainwashed zombie in the main Marvel universe and a wheelchair bound overdose survivor in the alternate timeline. The alternative timeline concluded a few issues later and in the main timeline the X-men successfully captured Northstar and locked him in the basement.

To say I was furious would put it mildly. I’d spent several months knowing exactly what I was getting into when I latched on to an obscure character from a Bronze Age comic who was mostly a semi-serious pastiche of Quicksilver on the short-lived Canadian Avengers, but I was surprised by how angry I was. I felt like a stock character on a tv show, the comic fan on the Simpson’s having a meltdown over a character’s costume change. I tried to force myself to move on but it felt insincere. I still liked the potential I’d seen in the earlier issues, and I had a kind of credibility now that I’d read an old fan favorite. 

On a second read-through I realized Northstar was intended to die decades earlier, during Alpha Flight’s second run. When Byrne left the series the subsequent writer, Bill Mantlo, came up with a final plan to publicly discuss Northstar’s sexuality; he’d die of a long, drawn out illness. From a 1987 interview with the Advocate, Mantlo said; “Northstar… could have been made to just vanish or even quit the team, but Mantlo wanted to be true to the character’s integrity. He decided, instead, that Northstar would die of AIDS. It seemed, [Mantlo] says, plausible given the fact that there had been allusions to numerous relationships during his years in the book. ‘It would give me the opportunity to deal with a frightening, sad, controversial topic in a comic book – which I had always understood Marvel was all about.” (Cronin)

 I’d glazed over the implications when there was still content to consume, especially since Alpha Flight wasn’t the first clumsy attempt to portray AIDS in a comic book. Now that I was burned, I wanted to know why Northstar had to contract AIDS-like symptoms at all, and when that plotline was re-written after strong backlash, why his two issue solo series was marred with suicidal self-hatred. Few characters inspired so much diversion from the source material as Northstar, nor as much of an irresistible drive to end the character.

I saw the genre as a combination of character and worldbuilding. The individual conquers forces threatening to demolish them. Critics typically view the genre as a conceptual space for building Nietzschean Ubermensch, which is supported by the development of Superman. The term ‘Superman’ was one English translation of Nietschze’s concept of an amoral individual, and depending on the version of events, DC’s intellectual property either spawned from a farcical appraisal of the concept or a misreading of it. 

Even at its conception, the role of characters within the genre were not meant to compete for the role of authority. Characters developed brands in an effort to explore separate literary avenues. Steve Ditko, the creator of Spider-Man, famously used his scripts as a platform to explain the merits of Objectivism, beginning with his Spider-Man character and ending with his work on the Question. In response, fellow writer Alan Moore combined the Question with Ayn Rand’s Howard Roark to make Rorschach, a filthy, unkempt parody of the philosophy.

For decades the superhero genre has been one large, collaborative project between creators. There is an element of democratization between the team and their audience on which storylines become canon. If one storyline is poorly written or poorly received, it’s either written out or ignored. Fan favorites stand out like features in a landscape, the foundation of their inherent quality holding out against wear and aging. Communal storytelling teaches its readers how to separate the art from the artist, how and when to criticize one for the other, and how they can impact their own unique world. Grappling with an artist’s personal demons is part of the democratic canonizing process of the genre. Every appearance of Emma Frost from the Hellfire Club is a relentless reminder that Chris Claremont is into female domination, even when she’s written as a beloved mentor or a tragic figure. The audience engages with the author the same way they engage with the text, by acknowledging every element and choosing which parts to relate to. 

The democratic aspect of the genre came to my mind years later while I was reading Queer theory about the homosexual in film and literature. There were parallel traits in Northstar’s canon that mirrored queer critiques of larger media staples. There was a unique gravity that pulled writers away from the foundation Byrne initially laid. Throughout the forty years of his development, Northstar was in orbit around the cultural figure of the homosexual in mainstream media. 

As Vito Russo points out in The Celluloid Closet, the early eighties featured a shift in the trend of portraying homosexuality and violence. During the sexual revolution of the 60s and 70s the homosexual evolved from their role as a social outcast and endocrinological abnormality to a figure of sorrow and pity. In the early eighties the role was switched from victim to perpetrator. Jordan Schildcrout’s Murder Most Queer examines this trope through a historical lens, tracing its roots through the centuries. Queer men loomed over the silver screen as larger-than-life threats on the protagonist’s manhood, and perhaps some of that leaked down into the gutters of the comic panel. 

Whether he’d done it on purpose or not, John Byrne gave Northstar the single-minded fury from staples of the pulp and horror gay killer’s arsenal. The political extremism in his backstory, his headfirst lunging into danger, all cast as sensationalist fun through the pointillism of early color print now read like a 4 kidz version of the gay death drive. Northstar’s tragic past as a teen runaway was not just a staple of the superhero genre but of gay narratives of the 70s and 80s. Paris is Burning documented some of it, Pose romanticized a lot of it, and hundreds of other narratives exist to enforce it.

Although in my mind that wasn’t inherently a bad thing. We love a bad boy in this household. But in one of the worst rationalizations for a homophobic stereotype published for children, Byrne strongly implied that Northstar started sleeping with an adult man at around the age of 13 for food and shelter after fleeing a juvenile home. It was quickly and firmly retconned as a platonic guardianship.

By the time John Byrne left the series in the eighties, a generation was being demolished by a plague. In his article titled The US HIV/AIDS Crisis and the Negotiation of Queer Identity in Superhero Comics, or, is Northstar still a Fairy?, Ben Bollinger listed the similarities between Northstar and the falsely demonized ‘Patient Zero’ of the AIDS crisis, Gaetan Dugas: “Both are not just Canadian but French Canadian and thus subject to emplotment as “foreign,” a characteristic common to the carrier outbreak narrative. In Shilts’s characterization of Dugas and in all writer’s portrayal of Northstar, both men are vain, charming, petulant, brash and terminally self-important.” (Bollinger)

Having said that, it is difficult to isolate exactly when Byrne began the conceptual development of his team. Bollinger points out that the Dugas story broke in 1983, while Alpha Flight premiered in 1979, but the story of Dugas was almost as much of a fabrication as Northstar. Dugas, his death, and the details of his life were all real, but the narrative framing was poetic license handled by a professional writer post mortem. A real man was given the same life as a fictional character without either writer being in communication with each other. Dugas, like Northstar, existed in the mind of straight authors as the crystalized concept of the consequences of living a reckless homosexual life.

When a solo series was pitched in the 90s it was slathered with suicidal ideation and self-hatred. This characterization follows a logical path in connection with the contemporary queer community. AIDS was still an ongoing pandemic and medication to slow its progress was only just becoming widely available. The general sense one gets from queer media of the time is one of exhaustion. There are more homages to the dead than developments of new modes of living. The pall of mourning created a somber atmosphere which could cause a straight writer to resurrect the specter of the self-hating gay and drag him like a puppet over the four-color page.

AIDS played a role in Northstar’s coming out issue as well. Just before his solo series, Northstar was given a storyline where he found an abandoned HIV+ infant in a dumpster. Northstar is absent for the majority of the superhero action, and instead hovers around the infant’s hospital cot. 

It’s a bad issue. The colors are weird, the anatomy is off, and everyone is gritting their teeth the whole time– even while crying over a newborn child. Fabian Niecza, the writer, envisioned ending it on a quiet note. Northstar would mourn the death of the child at home with his loved ones, excellent pathos for the superhero genre. Instead, Northstar came out of the closet during a sudden brawl, and afterwards held an in-universe press conference like Rosie O’Donnell or Ellen DeGeneres. The mainstream media’s subsequent reception was enormously enthusiastic. “The instantaneous and positive media response to Northstar’s coming out was in part galvanized by growing media coverage of HIV/AIDS, gay community and AIDS activist efforts, and government responses (or lack thereof) to the epidemic in the late 1980s and the 1990s, as well as by the growing public awareness of the staggering toll the AIDS crisis had reaped within just a decade.” (Guynes, 2015)

However, it’s important to remember that the issue was bad. Despite its good sales and automatic position as a historic moment in fiction, Alpha Flight #109 is an extremely dated, awkward, and ugly issue. Alpha Flight #109 was so bad it was written out of continuity, just like Northstar’s death of not-AIDS and his solo series suicide.

During a brief 2000 resurrection of Alpha Flight Northstar was again dismissed from action and again attempted suicide. However, in this instance he tries to kill himself before the story starts as a prelude to exclusion.

With the early 00s came an influx of queer romcom sitcoms like Will and Grace, Queer Eye, the L Word and Queer as Folk to inform Northstar. His suicide attempts were forgotten and he became sort of vaguely financially successful and snarky, like the protagonist of a sitcom. He was not shown with his sister because there was no existing sitcom script where a gay man encountered extended family. Whether the writing team felt like the figure of the poverty-stricken homosexual was too much of a caricature, or because the cultural figure of the gay man was in reform, Northstar gradually lost his pain and reckless self-endangerment. Northstar was given dozens of phantom parents, none of which were ever seen again. Occasionally he would die or collapse, but rarely did he contribute. In four or five different issues between 2000 and 2012 Northstar was brought in to act as a parable about the dangers of offending gay men. Back to Ben Bollinger’s essay, he notes; “The ‘gay redeemer narrative’ appeared when commentators across the […] spectrum sought to extricate gay male identity politics from its place of centrality in HIV/AIDS discourse.” (Bollinger, 2012) 

In the 00s gay men were portrayed as good friends for women, and as a result Northstar was usually shown among women. During the initial Alpha Flight run in the 80s, it was more common to believe that gay men were prone to casual misogyny, and in those issues Northstar was confronted with his sexist bias. 

In 2012, following the nation-wide conversation about marriage equality, Northstar was married. Story beats centered on similar artificial contrivances that rarely interacted with the internal plot of the universe. There was a clean, perceptible break between Northstar and the rest of the universe. He was adrift. 

Other queer characters made plot advances. Mystique was still a formidable villain. Rictor and Shatterstar, once the source of fan speculation, were confirmed to be together. Hulkling and his boyfriend Wiccan became breakout fan favorites in the 2005 series Young Avengers. In the past 8 years openly queer writers and illustrators have been hired to Marvel and DC’s creative team, which brough queer narratives from a queer experience to cape books rather than absorbed second-hand from other places. Queer characters are allowed to take on leadership positions and grapple with the larger-than-life sci-fi dream logic of the superhero genre without subtext. By removing the need to add intertextual symbolism into a queer reading, discourse has shifted to a discussion of what differentiates the queer gaze from the straight.

Obviously, there is the hunger for explicit homosexual intimacy, but that pairs with a craving for melancholy or angst with a very particular aspect. When retreating into queer cinematic theory, the first figure that appears is the loud female sexpot. With her high-pitched hysteria, feminine mannerisms and bright clothing she is the embodiment of every affect the straight world holds up as distasteful in queer identity. Female driven storylines about death and mayhem are queer favorites because they invert the order of a typical Hollywood film. Films like Jawbreaker, Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! and Heathers show violence being perpetrated by characters who would normally be portrayed as too weak and sensitive to handle it. 

At the inverse of the female-driven camp film is a deconstruction of masculinity that still adheres to a queer lens. This exists separately from the straight male everyman fantasy, the conventionally attractive white brunette who is neither aggressively masculine nor overly feminine. Queerness prefers an exception to the average, a sort of dark camp, unapologetically edgy boyish nonsense that a queer audience can point and laugh at while reading sexual tension into the wrong places. It’s from this place that superhero comic books specifically cultivate most of its queer audience.

There is a desperate thirst for portrayals of people who must fight to assert their masculinity. At each stage the queer everyman is stopped and accused of falsely performing masculinity. Not much is written on the masc-of-center gaze that propped up James Dean as a saint, but it can be seen in the same light as the enthusiastic support of female killers in pulp films. He weeps, beats his chest, male onlookers accuse him of being ‘pretty’ or ‘soft’, and then after an excessive amount of homosexual tension he kicks everyone’s ass.

In the same way the female queer icon can come as either out of control or full of icy intent, so can the male queer icon. Whether he exists as the platonic ideal of the silent guardian, the impenetrable defense against the small and the soft, or as a wild n wacky sidekick whose scale of destruction is almost accidental, the presence of otherwise undesirable queer traits must be present in a queer icon. Male queer icons are usually ugly, silent and judgmental or extremely, even gratingly opinionated. While that can be enough for a queer viewing audience some may add another element, some second layer that the character seeks to obscure. Whatever it is, this is usually accepted by a queer audience as a metaphor for sexuality.

The queer icon will often be told throughout their arc that they exhibit some feature that is common among queer stereotypes ranging from their jokes not being funny to their clothes being ugly or their taste in music being far too immature for their age. Straight audiences may not recognize these qualities as being queer, or argue they are not the sole property of a queer audience, but it is through these cues that queer readers attach themselves to characters that weren’t meant for them. 

After all, it’s easy to argue that no comic fan sees a perfect reflection of themselves in any character they relate to, unless they are actually a non-organic, semi-parasitic life form. Much more often the people who relate feel alienated, awkward, and clingy. Alternatively, people may choose to identify with a character they see as possessing aspirational qualities. 

It is most interesting to me how the queer gaze is flipped when it rests on Northstar. A traditionally queer reading of the X-men would follow the analysis that mutantkind is queercoded because their mutations add an automatic obstacle to any intimacy. However, with Northstar that work isn’t necessary. He’s an out gay man in a stable relationship. Instead, the queer audience is required to fumble together a superhero origin story from the cast-off parts which have been deemed unacceptable to a predominantly straight audience.

For forty years not a single writer could find a way to use Northstar without killing him or making him lecture the audience on all the reasons why they should be nice to him. Other members of his team were occasionally brought in as fan service, but Northstar was just the spoon to deliver medicine. Not only was that accepted, but fans celebrated it. Generations of fans all agree that Northstar is a heel. Throughout the 00s everyone from staff to audience agreed to quietly strip him of the superhuman qualities that made him a suitable opponent for the larger-than-life threats he was designed to face. He was no longer particularly observant, not even in the top ten for fastest speedsters, not especially resilient or prone to violent outbursts. He existed as a yardstick to measure other characters’ deeds by. 

Marvel’s queer audience was left to fashion a character out of a construct. He became a figure that could reflect communal trauma. It’s only a small, select group that insist that Northstar’s origins as a queer homeless teen remain intact, and that his coming out issue is more important than a historic marker for Marvel. The queer analysis of the overarching text of Northstar’s arc makes it vital to keep the story of a former child in protective services failing to rescue an abandoned HIV+ child. As a golem of a community, mourning an undeserved death is essential. While queer subtext is often about finding desire, the queer analysis surrounding Northstar is one of reflected communal pain. To see him sidelined, ignored and minimized as being ‘boring’ is, in some ways, consistent. After all, the last surviving narrative thread from his first appearance was that he wasn’t there to be liked.

Work Cited

[1] Russo, Vito, Robert P. Epstein, Jeffrey Friedman, Sharon Wood, and Armistead Maupin. The Celluloid Closet. Los Angeles: Sony Pictures Classics, 1995. 

[2] The Advocate #479, 1987

[3] Bolling, Ben. “The U.S. HIV/AIDS Crisis and the Negotiation of Queer Identity, or, Is Northstar Still a Fairy?” Comic Books and American Cultural History: An Anthology. Ed. Matthew Pustz. 202-219. New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2012.

[4] Sean A. Guynes. “Fatal Attractions: American Comic Books and the AIDS Crisis.” University of Massachusetts Boston, 2015.

[5] Brian Cronin. “When Northstar Suffered From An Attack…That Didn’t Happen Yet” Comic Book Resource (CBR.Com), November 2018

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