Wednesday, April 24, 2024
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Comics Corner – A Gay Romance Rules the Empyre in Marvel’s Biggest Event of the Year

Gay representation in mainstream comics is constantly evolving and, for the most part, improving. For recent evidence, look no further than Marvel’s major crossover event of the year, Empyre – a cosmic battle with the fate of the galaxy at stake. Yet while entire alien races are using Earth as a battleground, at its heart, it’s a touching tale of young gay love.

SPOILERS AHEAD FOR THE ENTIRE EMPYRE STORYLINE!

The King of Space reigns over Empyre (Image ©Marvel)

The star-crossed lovers at the heart of the story are Teddy Altman, A.K.A. Hulkling, and Billy Kaplan, better known as Wiccan. The pair debuted in 2005 as members of the first incarnation of the Young Avengers, created by writer Allan Heinberg and artist Jim Cheung, and both characters have complex backstories linking them to members of the elder Avengers. For Empyre though, Hulkling’s is the most relevant – he’s the biological son of the original Captain Marvel, a decorated Kree soldier turned Earth superhero, and Anelle, Princess of the shape-shifting Skrulls. This makes him heir apparent to two vast interplanetary empires, empires that have been at war with each other for millennia – and are now united under his rule as the “King of Space”.

Hulkling’s rise to power has been seeded for a few years now. His heritage was revealed back in Young Avengers #10-11, and he was selected as a potential unifier of the Kree and Skrull races in 2015’s New Avengers #3. In the lead up to the Empyre storyline, he fulfilled that role, claiming the throne to both empires and combining their forces against the Cotati, a plant-based species intent on eradicating all animal life in the galaxy.

However, in taking on his new duties as Emperor, Teddy had to abandon his relationship with Billy. With Kree and Skrull forces disapproving of his partner – because Billy is a lowly human, not because they’re gay, somewhat refreshingly – Teddy banishes Billy from his flagship in order to preserve the tenuous peace, and to focus on the war effort against the Cotati. From here, the series progresses in vast, cosmically important steps, with Earth’s heroes – chiefly the Fantastic Four and Avengers – rallying to defend the planet from the Cotati. It’s a big, sweeping saga, echoing the classic Kree-Skrull War and the Celestial Madonna Saga.

Behind the spectacle though, Teddy and Billy’s relationship endures in secret. In the one-shot Lords of Empyre: Emperor Hulkling – written by Anthony Oliveira and Chip Zdarsky, with art by Manuel Garcia – readers see their last night together before Teddy takes his throne, and learn how they plan to keep their relationship alive. Over in the main Empyre series – Written by Al Ewing and Dan Slott, with art by Valerio Schiti – their connection is elevated further with the revelation that the two young men secretly married.

Teddy gets one last night together with Billy before having to unite two warring space empires (Image © Marvel)

Part of the reason why this is so important is that Hulkling and Wiccan weren’t strictly allowed to be gay when they first appeared, despite debuting thirteen years after Northstar was outed as Marvel’s first gay hero. The couple had always been intended to be gay, and were indeed confirmed as dating each other in the original run of Young Avengers. It would take another seven years before they would share their first on-panel kiss though, in the pages of Avengers: The Children’s Crusade #9. Even in the early years of the 21st century, Marvel still seemed to baulk at the idea of showing gay teenagers sharing something as innocent as a kiss.

Fast-forward fifteen years though, and the situation now is greatly improved. Now legally adults in-continuity – a rare case of characters notably ageing in the elastic timescales of superhero comics – their relationship is allowed to be pivotal to a major event storyline. Marvel is also unflinchingly portraying it as a mature, adult pairing that actively embraces not only the characters’ gayness but the queerness of a good segment of the audience.

This is most prevalent in the Emperor Hulkling one shot. The issue features a double-date to a queer nightclub, a misunderstanding that implies a gay threesome, and openly shows Teddy and Billy together in bed in a way that is tender and beautiful, leading to a swoon-worthy exchange between the lovers. It also uses language common in real-life gay circles, but with a few twists befitting a superhero comic, including this instant classic panel:

Empyre itself is a touch more romantic, revealing the details of Billy and Teddy’s secret wedding – married by Allan Heinberg, in a nice touch – and focusing on the power of Billy and Teddy’s love at a crucial moment. The sheer force of their connection at one point enables Billy to understand that Teddy has been replaced, upping the ante in the midst of the wider conflict with the fate of the Earth itself on the line as a result. The mini-series does embrace queerness on a wider scale though, with a nod to the long-running LGBTQ+ fan theory that the Fantastic Four’s Johnny Storm, the Human Torch, is bisexual.

The Empyre storyline has overall been truncated as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, with several spin-off mini-series and crossovers cancelled, and a big gap between the early lead-in chapters and the current issues being released. This has worked in the event’s favour though, reducing the bloat that can sometimes drown big crossovers, and making the core storyline easier to follow. Anyone wanting to purely follow Teddy and Billy’s romance can pick up the core Empyre mini-series and the Lords of Empyre: Emperor Hulkling one-shot, and have a concise but thrilling story centred on their relationship.

There’s a caveat to all this though, and a potentially dangerous one: at the time of writing, Empyre’s final issue – plus a handful of epilogue issues dealing with the inevitable fallout – have yet to be published. Hopefully, Ewing, Slott, Schiti, et al will avoid a “kill your gays” ending to the event, or any other clichéd tragedy befalling Teddy or Billy. For now though, LGBTQ+ readers can enjoy the fact that for Marvel’s biggest story of 2020, gay love is the most important power in the universe.

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