Queer Love Conquers All: Using Queer Characters to Usher in a New Peace in Marvel Comics’s Empyre Event
Representation matters. Let’s just get that out of the way. In an industry that was censored for decades through the regulations of the restrictive Comics Code Authority and that continues to cater to demographics that have the most spending power (i.e. straight white men), diverse voices often get left out of comics’ storylines and are even rarer among creative teams. When, despite these barriers, minority characters are highlighted, it is an empowering experience for those of us who identify with their marginalised identities.
As a queer person of colour, superhero comics have had a lifelong influence on my relationship with masculinity, and profoundly shaped my sense of belonging. The genre was ripe with metaphors, for example, of what superhuman powers or the challenge of a dual identity mean, so it was not hard to impose my own experiences on to characters. But metaphor and actual representation are not the same thing.
The aforementioned Comics Code Authority certainly did not help. It prevented any major characters from being explicitly queer until 1989. Some publishers did ignore the code altogether, and even those that stuck with it—like Marvel—included queer subtext and characters who were obviously queer without saying so. A notable instance was the character Northstar, who was introduced as part of the Alpha Flight team. He was written as a gay man but could not be overtly identified as such due to the Comics Code, and Marvel’s then-editor-in-chief Jim Shooter’s insistence on adhering to it. Nonetheless, Marvel officially scrapping the Code in 2001—and the Code becoming completely defunct in 2011—allowed for greater creative freedom.
Alongside the changing publishing landscape, Marvel was also taking practical steps to connect with a more diverse readership. This meant that millions of fans like me were no longer relying on subtext and innuendo to connect with our heroes; we were increasingly being represented directly on the page. Nonetheless, major story arcs spanning multiple comics titles, known grandiosely in the industry as “events,” would continue to center cisgender and heterosexual characters, the majority of whom tended to also be white men. Characters from minority communities rarely rated in event comics, or were allowed to shine only as part of a wider team. Exceptions were made for established characters like Storm and Black Panther, but even they had to share the spotlight with fellow X-Men and Avengers. For the most part, queer characters such as Northstar, Iceman, America Chavez or Mystique remained sidelined in larger groups, interesting example of diversity but rarely major characters that Marvel invested narrative time in.
So, when Marvel announced that the 2020 cross-over event Empyre would be spearheaded by the gay superhero couple Hulkling and Wiccan, I was giddy with excitement, and also a little worried about conservative backlash against minority fans and creators if the arc did not do well critically or commercially. After all, the low sales of newly-out Iceman’s titular solo run resulted in the series being shelved and QPoC writer Sina Grace not being offered subsequent stories for a while.
It is that context of trepidation—coupled with the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on the publishing industry—that made me almost forget why I love these books in the first place: for their stories. Empyre not only allayed some of my more cynical fears but also strengthened my passion for the genre. It was made doubly special as I got to read the whole series in February, which is LGBT History Month in the UK (where I live). Spoilers for Empyre follow, but a bit of background is relevant to explain why these two particular characters had such an impact.
Hulkling (Theodore Altman) is an alien, the son of a secret union between members of two warring races known as the Kree and Skrull. He was raised on earth, using his shapeshifting abilities to pass as the archetypal high school jock while hiding his intergalactic immigrant status. His boyfriend, and later, fiancé, is Wiccan (William Kaplan), whose complicated parentage mixes the essence of Romani hero Scarlet Witch’s son with the body of the only child of the Kaplans, a suburban Jewish American couple. His magical powers let him alter reality, but often at great risk to himself.
Hulking and Wiccan’s various adventures leading up to Empyre had already tackled heavy issues around teen bullying, coming out, grief, queer community building, and the challenges of being immigrants who are seen as palatable to the mainstream. Placing them front and centre of an event arc ran the risk of diluting their radical political potential. Especially because, in many ways, Empyre is a typical superhero event involving intergalactic battles, long-standing grudges, and heroes duking it out with villains.
Yet reducing the story to “just another Marvel superhero brawl” does a great disservice to Empyre’s nuanced approach to identity. The main conflict focuses on the previously peaceful Cotati, a plant-based species that is gunning for revenge against all sentient meat-based species (including humans) for centuries of mistreatment. An eco-parable spanning the entire Marvel universe, their quest thoughtfully brings up environmental ethics while still stressing that re-inflicting a form of species supremacy is not a viable solution to the types of environmental devastation faced by plant-based ecosystems.
Standing against the Cotati are not only Earth’s mightiest heroes, but a historic alliance of the Kree and Skrull, united under the command of Hulkling, now crowned as the unifying monarch Dorrek VIII. Given the martial proclivities of his subjects, it would not have been a stretch for in-universe bystanders and real-world readers alike to imagine him letting loose the dogs of war to quell the Cotati’s conquests. But here Empyre subvert expectations.
While Empyre does feature some fantastic battle sequences, including heartbreaking ones that pit former allies against each other, the beating heart of the series is Hulkling’s quest to create a new legacy for his peoples with the support of his beloved Wiccan. A child of war raised as a refugee on a planet that would never truly accept him, Hulkling raises poignant questions about the futility of conflict and the need for peaceful resolutions.
At the same time, the queer marginalisation both he and Wiccan have been subject to means they understand the value of standing up for a just cause and in building communities to do so. This is all the more pertinent given the attempts of the Kree-Skrull alliance to keep Wiccan away from their new leader, as they feel a human “twink” makes for an unworthy imperial consort.
Of course, it would be disingenuous to try to frame the comic as some sort of grand pacifist treatise, especially given the massive battle scenes and fights; it is a superhero comic at the end of the day. Still, Empyre is an important comic book series because it genuinely deconstructs the evils of imperialism, especially militant imperialism, by framing Hulkling’s conciliatory approach as the “correct” strategy compared to the Cotati’s militant conquest. It is no coincidence that these lessons are learned through the love and loyalty of two ethnic minority queer characters.
For instance, a pivotal scene sees Wiccan successfully recognise that Hulkling has been replaced by a war-mongering copycat not through the use of his superpowers or clever sleuthing, but by letting the innate bond of their love lead him to his imprisoned space-prince. Later on, Hulkling shows mercy to his captors because justice does not have to be violent or cruel, and compassion is a strength.
In a fitting send-off, the arc ends with the heroic pair getting married in a wedding that explicitly mixes the fictional Kree and Skrull traditions with the real-world ceremony of Jewish nuptials, complete with a rainbow-emblazoned “Mazel Tov” shouted from the crowd. Their love has thus created a new status quo for the Marvel Comics universe, with their own intimate union reflecting the larger peace created by the historic bringing together of humans, Kree, and Skrull.
The husbands are slated to appear in more stories—including their recently-released honeymoon one-shot written and drawn by queer creatives Tini Howard and Luciano Vecchio—so their potential to continue changing standards remains excitingly open. Empyre recently won the 2021 GLAAD Award for Outstanding Comic Book, reflecting its positive reception and popularity in both the industry and the queer community.
With many other queer characters of colour also being introduced (or being reintroduced after coming out) by major publishers like Marvel Comics and DC, the future is looking fabulously diverse for mainstream comics. Special mention must go out to the forthcoming DC Pride series and the Marvel’s Voices: Pride edition. Hopefully, that diversity is backed up with the sort thought-provoking story-telling that characterized Empyre, which centers under-represented voices without stereotyping them.
Ibtisam Ahmed (he/him) is a queer Bangladeshi immigrant living and studying in the UK. He is completing a PhD at the University of Nottingham, titled “The Decolonial Killjoy,” and his research focuses on utopianism, decolonisation, queer theory, race and justice, and cultural politics. He is involved with several activist groups and campaigns dedicated to fighting queerphobia in his home country, his host country, and in the Commonwealth. A long-term SF, fantasy, and superhero nerd, he delights in meaningful representation and loves to uplift marginalised voices in his work.
This essay was commissioned by editor Sean Guynes in December 2020 from a hard pitch. The author and editor belong to similar academic and fan circles, but were not well-acquainted prior to the editing process.