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Reflecting on representation and 'Marvel's Voices: Pride' #1

Comic Books

Reflecting on representation and ‘Marvel’s Voices: Pride’ #1

What is ‘good’ representation and what purpose do Pride specials serve?

 Another year, another Pride month. ‘Pride’, as a movement, was started and led by trans women in the Stonewall Riots of 1969, as they fought against police brutality and civil discrimination.  However, in recent years, Pride has, in many ways, betrayed those who founded it. At a time where a prominent figure can proudly post the rainbow flag in one post, and call for the delegitimization of trans people in the next, it is worth questioning what Pride has become. Who is it for, and what is its purpose? Is it at risk of becoming an expression of corporate ‘self-love’, devoid of any queer narrative whatsoever?

This may be an odd introduction to a Marvel Voices: Pride #1 review, but it contextualizes the standards upon which these Pride “special issues” should be judged. What Ritesh Babu terms the “aesthetics of representation” is not enough. Indeed, major platforms such as Marvel creating spaces for queer stories has the potential to be a very good thing. But stories about queer people are not good simply because they are there.

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A person holds up a pride flag in a group of people
Brian Kyed

The aesthetics and optics of representation also requires a little self-reflection. Early this year, YouTuber Verity Ritchie made a video essay on the pitfalls of trying to create an idolized model of ‘good’ queer representation. Verity pointed out that the entertainment industry tends to strip its queer characters and storylines down to the bare essentials. Making queerness boring and one-dimensional has become the norm in mainstream media- it means platforms can be rewarded and praised for ‘doing representation’, whilst appealing to the widest number of people. Moreover, it allows for the avoidance of intersectionality and the homogenization of queerness in its most privileged form. This depthless, inconspicuous depiction of queerness is now so established that queer audiences and critics have begun subconsciously using it as a standard to judge art by. The mass online harassment of Isabel Fall is indicative of how representational ‘purity’ has silenced queer voices.

When it comes to describing what the mark of ‘good representation’ is, I’m at a bit of a loss. For the reasons described above, I’m beginning to resent the word ‘representation’ itself. It has turned into a verb that does little to tell us about the messy, rich lives that queer people experience. It ignores the fact that being queer cannot be covered by a series of nods and references (most of which only allude to white, cis queer people in the first place). This is not a call for the word to be done away with completely. It should simply not be a buzzword that is flung around to cover up a lack of meaningful depictions of the lives of queer people.  

Marvel's Voices: Pride #1 cover
Courtesy of Marvel Comics

Despite all of this, I believe there is a place for Pride specials in this cultural climate. At their best, these anthologies can be a means of platforming and centering queer experiences that may have otherwise gone unnoticed. Furthermore, for many, there is a joy in the coming together of voices in a celebratory sharing of stories. A recent example that comes to mind is voice actor Kevin Conroy’s “Finding Batman” from DC Pride 2022 #1 this year, which made for a very personal account of what it is like to be gay in Hollywood and how superheroes can be empowering.

Finding Batman logo
Courtesy of DC

In this regard, I do not wish to go through Marvel Voices: Pride #1 story by story, classifying each as ‘good representation or ‘bad representation’. As a white, cis, bisexual woman, how I see each piece of storytelling is invariably going to be different from someone else. Moreover, my privileged position means I am by no means the judge, jury, and executioner of what makes a good Pride special. I thoroughly recommend reading through reviews of this issue from other voices, including Stephanie Burt’s and The Beat‘s roundtable; as well as looking further into critical reflections on what ‘representation’ is supposed to mean.

Reflecting on representation and 'Marvel's Voices: Pride' #1
Courtesy of Marvel

Compared to last year’s Marvel’s Voices: Pride, this anthology feels pointedly less didactic. Which is appreciated. There were a number of truly great comics in 2021’s Marvel’s Voices: Pride, but a large amount of it felt more like a daytime TV PSA than meaningful storytelling. Truth be told, these queer anthologies need fewer stories that are generally aimed at straight people who are just coming to accept that the LGBTQs are in their comics. Not that they are entirely redundant, but not every single piece needs to include a character essentially turning towards the reader and stating “I should be able to exist”.  It can be disheartening to find so many of these specials are an exercise in simply defending being queer. There should be more stories about the nuances and spectrum of emotions that being queer is a part of (though not always central to). They do not always have to carry some sort of consumer-friendly message.

This year, Marvel’s Voices: Pride #1 framed more of its pieces authentically. “All My Exes in the Nexus” by Alyssa Wong and Stephen Byrne is a story carried by the magnetic chaos of its cast of selected Young Avengers. Wong captures the chemistry of the team perfectly, spotlighting why they have remained so endearing for the past 17 years. Young Avengers has always been about inspecting the youth culture of the late millennial/Y2K generation, and Wong and Bryne honor this tradition well.

In contrast, “Over the Rainbow” leans slightly towards simple didacticism. It is by no means bad, but only really serves to suggest that ‘Pride is good’. There is little to be said about “Over the Rainbow” because it says very little. It is largely held together by its visuals, which transform Asgard into a dynamic rainbow flag.

Marvel's Voices: Pride #1
Marvel Comics

Other pieces work well only on the condition that the characters they feature turn up in subsequent books. Last year, Marvel’s Voices: Pride #1 brought back its first canonically trans character, Jessie Drake, only to banish her to obscurity following its release. Indeed, this makes it hard to trust Marvel’s symbolic commitment to telling trans stories in this year’s issue. Grace Freud, Scott B. Henderson, Lee Townsend, and Brittany Peer introduce a fun array of trans characters in “LGBT-D”, which centers around a trans superhero support group. “LGBT-D” works because it is so character-driven — the people in this comic feel real, despite being established in such a short amount of time. The creative team has given Marvel a wonderful opportunity to go somewhere with each of these heroes. If it is not followed up, “LGBT-D” will, unfortunately, be another case of performative representation.

The same can be said for “Permanent Sleepover”, which is probably the strongest part of Marvel’s Voices: Pride #1. This story shows why these Pride anthologies can be so effective: it introduces a new trans hero with a rich backstory, and does so creatively and with heart. “Permanent Sleepover” follows trans mutant Sheila Sexton, a.k.a Escapade, as she attempts to steal the mysterious ‘onyx needle’. Working alongside her is her best friend Morgan (also trans) and Hibbert the turtle. The narrative techniques of “Permanent Sleepover” are really fun, moving between colorful action panels and Peanuts-style comic strips that tell the reader more about Escapade’s history. It is a story that explores what it means to be trans for a character living in a world of superheroes, and allows her to be flawed and multifaceted as a person. Promisingly, Escapade will be turning up in an upcoming issue of New Mutants. If Marvel is really committing to being ‘proud’ of its queer — specifically trans — characters, Escapade will not become another Jessie Drake.

Reflecting on representation and 'Marvel's Voices: Pride' #1
Courtesy of Marvel

Between “Ancient & Modern” by Andrew Wheeler, Britteny L.Williams, and José Villarrubia, and “Stay Out of My Turf Jack” by Christopher Cantwell, Kei Zama and Rico Renzi, almost all of the Guardians of the Galaxy make an appearance in this year’s Marvel Voices: Pride #1. Because Al Ewing has previously done such a good job of interweaving experiences of queerness into the layered dynamics of this team, it is easier to use them to represent queerness authentically. “Stay Out of My Turf Jack” does not quite have the luxury of time to fully establish the political framing it is trying to set up, but works perfectly well otherwise. “Ancient & Modern” is a bit less ambitious, and therefore is executed more seamlessly by comparison.

A surprisingly moving feature comes in the form of Danny Lore’s, Lucas Werneck’s and Michael Wiggam’s “Perfectly Scene”. Lore uses a more traditional writing style — similar to those once used to narrate the romances of iconic couples such as Peter Parker and MJ and Reed Richards and Sue Storm — as a form of meta-retroactivity. “Perfectly Scene” sets up how queer romances would have been written if they were permitted in Marvel comics in this era. There is a sad nostalgia to this story, which is worth revisiting if missed on the first reading.

Reflecting on representation and 'Marvel's Voices: Pride' #1
Courtesy of Marvel

2022’s Marvel’s Voices: Pride is a marked improvement from last year, but still has some way to go. This special issue tells a richer range of stories this time around, making it feel less like an effort in corporate flag-waving. That said, Marvel’s commitment to platforming queer writers and their experiences will be more evident with what comes next. “Representation” as an aesthetic signal of virtue continues to not be enough in honoring the original values and purpose of Pride.

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