In 2012, former Marvel architect Brian Michael Bendis and artist Stuart Immomen launched All-New X-Men, a bold new installment in Marvel’s ongoing mutant soap opera that came with a seemingly finite premise: the original five X-Men had been pulled from the past into the present by the contemporary version of Beast, in an attempt to show his peers how they had gone astray and to prevent the younger versions of themselves from making the same mistakes. It was a staggeringly dumb move on Hank McCoy’s part—timelines don’t work like that—but a sufficiently energizing twist for readers. At the time, Cyclops was a Magneto-lite mutant doomsday-prepper who had just accidentally killed Professor X, Angel was mind-wiped following a stint as the death-obsessed heir of Apocalypse, Beast was a nonstop bad-idea factory, Jean Grey was still dead and Iceman was, uh…well, Iceman was fine. He was just chillin’. (Sorry.)
As time went on, it became clear that Marvel was in no rush to send the “O5” back to their original timeline, and Bendis helped established distinct differences for each cast member. Jean was the early standout, rebelling against the saintly image all of the adult X-Men projected onto her, as well as her seeming destiny of ending up with Scott Summers. Cyclops at first wanted nothing to do with his older self’s ruthless tactics, and then, once the adult Cyclops perished due to Inhumans-related shenanigans, did his best to avoid the same fatal future. Beast turned to dark magic to make up for his feelings of inadequacy; his genius-level smarts from his teen years couldn’t compare to modern advancements in technology. Angel and Iceman, meanwhile, mostly stayed true to form, with Warren fading into the background as a boring playboy and Bobby cracking nonstop jokes. Even Warren’s embrace of the “Black Vortex” and its cosmic power-up mirrored his original transformation into Archangel. It wasn’t until Bendis wrapped up his tenure that Iceman leapt to the forefront of the conversation.
All-New X-Men #1 Cover Art by Stuart Immomen
In Bendis’ final issue, which sparked endless online debate, the teenage version of Jean Grey read the younger Iceman’s mind and told him what he couldn’t tell himself: Bobby Drake was gay. For many fans, this was a gross violation of Bobby’s privacy, and represented an unforgivable overstep on Jean’s behalf. Speaking from just one gay perspective, this moment felt as authentic as things can get in a world full of mutants, time travel and cosmic firebirds. Many young queer people are told by those around them that we “seem” gay before we begin to connect the dots ourselves. For some of us, myself included, the deeply personal process of coming out is taken out of our hands. In my case, a parent chaperone on my eighth-grade field trip to Washington, D.C. snapped a photo of me and another boy holding hands on the bus, then shared it around as something adorable—not knowing that we were holding hands secretly. I’m grateful that my unplanned coming-out had few negative consequences; middle school was almost over, and I found plenty of accepting niches by the time high school started the next fall. Not everyone is so lucky, and I acknowledge that Jean’s mental pushiness could have felt very triggering to other LGBTQ+ readers, but my point stands: what happened to Bobby was a telepathically powered version of what happens to all too many young queer people.
After Bendis departed, Dennis Hopeless and Mark Bagley took the reins on a series featuring the O5, and expanded on Bobby’s sexuality. While the adult Bobby Drake struggled with coming out later in life and playing catch-up on what it means to navigate the world as an openly gay man, teen Bobby thrived in the modern day, including meeting an Inhuman boyfriend named (sigh) Romeo. Neither Hopeless and Bagley’s run, nor Cullen Bunn and company’s follow-up, X-Men Blue, ever presented teen Bobby Drake as particularly struggling with his identity. Jean’s forced coming-out may have been less than ideal, but the younger Iceman seemed to take it as a massive weight lifted from his shoulders, and while the X-titles never focused too much on him individually, he quietly persisted as one of Marvel’s cheeriest gay characters.
All-New X-Men Vol. 2 Interior Art by Mark Bagley
Of course, the premise of the original five X-Men co-existing with their older selves was always finite, even if it took Marvel six years to finally pull the plug. Earlier this summer, writer Ed Brisson and artist Pepe Larraz launched Extermination, a five-issue mini-series with the express purpose of tying up the 05 loose end before Marvel launched Uncanny X-Men and catapulted the mutants into a new era. In the pages of Extermination, a teenaged version of the time-traveling Cable shows up in the modern day to kidnap the original five—first as a seeming antagonist, and then, it’s revealed, to prevent classic mutant-hating cyborg Ahab from murdering any of them and bringing about an apocalyptic future.
For a series that exists almost solely to shuffle characters off the board, Extermination was better than it had any right to be, recalling the fast pace and dire stakes of Messiah Complex and other X-events from a decade ago. Brisson ably juggles the large cast and unfolding mystery while ensuring that the five time-displaced mutants all get a moment to shine before they wave goodbye. After a bit of a delay, which resulted in Uncanny launching before Extermination finished, the mini-series’ final issue hit stands today, and it includes an almost unbearably sad sacrifice on behalf of the frosty member of Xavier’s original class.
Spoilers ahead, obviously.
Extermination #1 Cover Art by Mark Brooks
In Extermination #5, as the X-Men are overwhelmed by a pair of young mutants capable of turning any X-Men they touch into another one of Ahab’s mindless hounds, teen Cable reveals to the O5 that the only way to save the day is for them to return to the moment in time from which they first left…and to wipe any memory they have of their adventures in the present. This means sacrifice on behalf of each of them: Warren must accept becoming inexorably tied to Apocalypse, Jean knows she’ll become possessed by the Phoenix and enter a cycle of death and rebirth, Scott is aware he’ll one day kill his mentor and then die of a plague and Hank must submit to becoming blue and furry. But for Bobby, his sacrifice is much more grounded in reality. To preserve the X-Men timeline and defeat Ahab, the gleeful, unabashedly gay teenaged Bobby Drake must choose to give up his authentic self and live his teen and early adult years in the closet all over again.
Brisson is aware of the extra weight given to Bobby’s decision; the two Angels share a casual goodbye, Jean and Jean are all business and the double Hanks don’t even acknowledge each other before the O5 time-travel away, but teen Iceman and adult Iceman get a whole page together. The younger Bobby hesitates: “I’m not sure I can go back to… before. I’m not the same person. I don’t want to go back to pretending I’m something I’m not.” Adult Bobby reassures his younger self that the only reason they’re living authentically at all is because the teen Iceman came to the present and fully embraced himself, and that nothing can take that away from them. And with that, the O5 make their choice. Cable takes them back to the moment after Beast first abducted them in Bendis and Immomen’s All-New X-Men #1, and Jean uses techniques she learned from a young memory-altering mutant to lock their future adventures deep in their minds, restoring the status quo and closing the “time loop.” Back in the present day, the adult versions of Jean, Warren, Hank and Bobby suddenly remember everything their younger selves experienced, preserving six years of stories while tying off a continuity headache. Mission accomplished.
Extermination #5 Cover Art by Mark Brooks
And yet… As a gay reader and lifelong X-Men fan, the full implications of Bobby Drake’s decision is almost unbearable to consider. While I enjoy Sina Grace’s adult Iceman adventures, I’ve always found myself gravitating more toward the younger Iceman. Like me, he came out as a young teenager, somewhat against his will, but thrived regardless. With Marvel’s sliding timeline, even though teen Bobby’s past looks like the 1960s, it’s probably more like 2004 at the earliest, which is right around the time I entered high school fully out of the closet to my peers and most adults. After a decade and a half of living openly as a gay man, the thought of willingly traveling back in time to hide this intrinsic part of myself is horrifying, even if the integrity of the timeline was at risk. For countless queer people, coming out and living openly may never be a viable decision, due to where they live, their family situations or other factors. But coming out, thriving, then having to undo it all because of some hateful future cyborg? It’s a lot to process in a short period of time. Yet in the heat of battle, the younger Iceman had to choose years of secrecy, shame, hollow relationships and a much later start to living the authentic life that he had just spent (at least) a year of in-universe time enjoying. His first kiss with Romeo would kinda-sorta never happen—or he’d at least forget about it for a decade. The adult Iceman now has the memories of his younger self’s time living truthfully, but they’re mixed in with the lived experience he had in the closest, hiding so much about himself. It’s a time-travel headache, sure, but it’s also a cruel punishment to consider for one of the happiest gay superhero characters of the last few years.
I’m sure some of my fellow critics and commentators will take more active issue with this development. After all, Marvel and DC Comics both have spotty, at best, track records with queer representation. LGBTQ+ characters often have brief moments in the spotlight and are then shuffled off for years at a time—if they don’t end up as cannon fodder. The adult Iceman’s second solo series concludes soon, leaving the character’s future up to whichever ensemble book will have him. For some, teen Bobby’s re-closeting is an insulting bookend to his still-controversial coming-out, and will be seen as needlessly malicious on Marvel’s behalf. Maybe I’m too jaded by years of following superhero comics, but I can accept Extermination’s conclusion as a painful, if necessary, way to wrap up a finite continuity headache that went on a bit too long. Six years is a long time to have time-displaced doppelgangers running around, and there are only so many ways to justify the continued adventures of two Jeans, two Angels, two Beasts, two Cyclops (spoiler alert: adult Scott isn’t as dead as he seemed) and, yes, two Icemen. Superheroes, especially the X-Men, are almost deliriously willing to sacrifice themselves for the cause. But in a world where death is a revolving door and cosmic contrivances can tidy up just about any other personal setback, I’m not sure if I’d call teen Bobby Drake’s sacrifice heroic—but I certainly consider it heartbreaking, and I know the weight of it will sit with me long after the Original Five are otherwise a distant memory.
All-New X-Men Vol. 2 Interior Art by Mark Bagley