Fortresses of Solitude
There’s a scene in Jonathan Lethem’s The Fortress of Solitude that makes me cringe, not out of aversion, but recognition. The two protagonists, Dylan and Mingus, both age twelve, are in one of their bedrooms: hand-me-down Playboy and Penthouse magazines litter the floor, centerfolds ripped out and stained, amongst similarly tattered issues of Marvel comic books. Dylan is a lot like I was: a kind of self-aware nerd who desperately wishes he weren’t one, who seeks to distance himself from the only other white boy in his neighborhood, who plays chess on his brownstone’s stoop, fakes asthma attacks, and keeps his comic collection in ordered plastic pockets. His best friend, Mingus, is everything Dylan and I weren’t – unselfish, strong, self-assured, and popular. To a twelve-year-old he’s as cool as Carraway’s Gatsby. So they’re in this bedroom and a page spread of the superheroine Valkyrie is singled out, described ‘in her blue sleeveless armor, her chain mail brassiere.’ Crumpled up Kleenexes lie scattered all over. With the window shut and a rolled up towel blocking the crack between the bedroom door and floor, the smells of weed, sweat, and musk become almost palpable. It’s in this place, where everything is charged with imaginary acts, that the two wank each other off, with their eyes closed. In the book it’s said that this “wasn’t a faggot thing” and to be honest I kind of get that.
As I reread old comics dug out from my closet, I can’t stop thinking about this scene and how these comics, like the ones Lethem described, are at once innocent and charged with latent sexuality, latent lust. In his novel, the boys ogle ink-shaded women. However, growing up I was always unknowingly staring at the guys beside them. That made a difference.
I remember when I went to a friend’s birthday party in grade six. It started with us go-karting, then eating pizza at a place that had Street Fighter and NASCAR arcade machines. At night we all went back to his house, what you’d call here a McMansion–TVs in every room, the house built so big that its walls pressed up against their back and
side fences and seemed ready to burst over their mailbox at the front. There was a group of about twelve of us, all boys. We were in the cinema room, all spread out so the four-seater couch only sat two and everyone on the carpet at least a meter apart. We watched Eyes Wide Shut and a shakily filmed, bootleg copy of the then just-released thriller Taking Lives, both movies stolen from the birthday boy’s dad’s DVD collection. They rewound and replayed the moment when Angelina Jolie’s naked chest fills the screen, again and again. Weeks later at camp, I was in a room filled with a group of the same guys. As we all lay down on bunk beds, I was on the bottom, and the guy sleeping above me bragged about girls he’d kissed at underage blue-light discos and that in his bag he’d brought with him a whole, extra large tub of Vaseline.
I’m not making this shit up. On some level I recognize that these circumstances are the sort that populate erotic fan fiction, online gay teen forum boards, and porn filmed with unnaturally hairless eighteen year olds, but in reality I was twelve and this shit was fucked up and terrifying. I didn’t know if it was something most guys lived through but I wanted to get away. The next night, I moved into another room, even though that one was already at peak capacity and I had to sleep, still grateful, with my sleeping bag on the cold, hard, concrete floor. Later, I distanced myself from those boys. In fact, throughout high school you could say I distanced myself from most guys as close friends, always remaining on good terms but never approaching best friend territory.
Years later, I can see that this was part of a process those guys had to go through in order to leave adolescence and slowly enter a world of adult sexuality, even if, as for Lethem’s Dylan and Mingus, it was in a mostly intellectualized way. Lethem describes this process taking place in the most private of hideaways, behind closed doors so that the boys can explore in a place delineated from their daily lives, a place like Reed Richard’s Negative Zone, Bruce Wayne’s Batcave, or Wolverine’s desolate wilderness. Lethem describes the boy’s bedroom as a “sanctum,” as a world “under water,” subject to another atmosphere. I don’t know if I can agree. For me these other worlds were not ones of safety but ones, if not hostile, that were somehow Other: phantom zones, foreign planets, places I could only ever experience as an alien, someone on the periphery, someone passing through.
For a long time I thought I was asexual. Comics helped me realize I wasn’t. I’ve loved the X-Men since I was little. At the age of five, I rented the same 90s X-Men: The Animated Series VHS from the video store almost every week. Back then, each VHS only had a single twenty-minute episode on it. I didn’t care. I was a fanboy before I knew what fanboys were. From about ten onwards I read comics, lots of comics, and I’m not talking about queer comics or underground ones; I’m talking mainstream DC and Marvel, spandex and superheroes. I’d read them alone lying down on my stomach against my bedroom floorboards, my head propped up by my elbows. Nobody I knew read comics, or if they did we never spoke about them. They weren’t cool then. I didn’t have the money for them and even if I had, I would’ve had nowhere to buy them from out on the outskirts of Melbourne. Instead I used the library. It had A small collection of Ultimate X-Men trade paperbacks, as well as issues of Spiderman, Superman, and Daredevil.
These comics were extremely geeky, sure, but they weren’t gay. At the time that wasn’t something I was even thinking about. But slowly, as the library’s catalog expanded and I made the effort to commute and join new libraries suburbs over, I came more and more in contact with gay characters. Granted, these were fucking rare. During the 2000s, only four come immediately to mind, and in each instance these characters were always peripheral to their respective plots. They always orbited the main narrative, sometimes surfacing at crucial moments, other times fading into the background. These characters were the first openly gay teen superhero couple, Hulkling and Wiccan, from Allan Heinberg’s Young Avengers, Colossus in Brian Michael Bendis’ reimagining of
X-Men continuity Ultimate X-Men, and Angel in Neil Gaiman’s Graphic Novel 1602, which transposed Marvel characters into versions of themselves in the early 17th century. Over the span of a few years, I found myself rereading these comics, focusing on their stories, sometimes just reading the panels these characters appeared in and nothing else.
To the teenage me who didn’t know anyone that was gay or questioning their sexuality, these characters were important. This was at a time when the only other gays I could be exposed to were from late night television, from reruns of Sex in the City, Queer as Folk, or Dante’s Cove. None of these characters were anything like me, and for me to stay up late, waiting for everyone else to go to sleep just so I could watch them, would be too stark an admission to myself. Reading comics was safe. I got to read about superheroes, but superheroes who were my age, who liked what I liked, and who were either openly gay or in the process of coming out. I could open an issue of Young Avengers or Ultimate X-Men and it was like entering one of Lethem’s parallel worlds, only, for once, it was a world I felt at home in.
At sixteen, I got over it. I came out, ended my self-imposed exile, and never really looked back until now. But it’s funny. It took me years to realize I was gay, years in which I employed subterfuge, real cloak-and-dagger shit, towards others and, more importantly, towards myself. And all the while it was always so fucking obvious. Growing up, my favorite character was Iceman, though at thirteen for a then-inexplicable reason I utterly loathed his classic 60s appearance. Back then, instead of turning into ice (a power that to this day has him drawn topless, showing off lean, ice-cut muscles), he generated body armor out of compacted snow, which in effect made him look like an utterly unerotic snowman. In Ultimate X-Men, the books I really hunted for, not only was he pure ice but he often wore nothing other than an X-logoed bandana.
My favorite comic arc of all time was a late 80s New Mutants story, “Home is Where the Heart Is.” I remember the plot hazily, something about Loki kidnapping Storm and turning her into the new God of Thunder so that she could supplant Thor. Her students, the teenage New Mutants, pursue them into the Nine Realms to save her. It’s a fun story, if not particularly memorable. Rather, it’s the art that burnt itself into my consciousness. The comic starts with the New Mutants at the beach on a Greek island. Arthur Adams, the penciller, draws the team lounging on the sand and then fighting monsters in nothing more than Speedos and underwear. The guys’ bodies are smooth and toned like Olympic swimmers, and when they go to Asgard their muscles flex through chainmail armor, tunics, and their iconic spandex bodysuits.
I’ve realized that my experience isn’t all too dissimilar to Lethem’s characters, or the boys I escaped from at camp. We were all undergoing a process, all coming of age, but for me, my fortress of solitude was just more solitary. Straight guys get to discover their sexuality together, even if it does court the homoerotic, whereas gays often need to stumble, alone in the dark for years just to understand themselves. It’s what’s so isolating and insular about growing up and being gay. For me comics weren’t just entertainment or precursors to porn. They gave me, corny as it sounds, friends that I could relate to. They made me understand that I wasn’t alone.
Nowadays, there are more LGBT characters in comics than ever before, and DC and Marvel are actually giving these characters a much greater focus. I still read Young Avengers; Kieron Gillen’s brilliant re-launch of the series in 2013 which makes Hulkling and Wiccan’s relationship the series’ core, but in my twenties the emotional dramas of two sixteen-year-olds no longer really relates to my life. But they no longer need to. They’re for a new generation. They’ll be someone else’s fortress.