Wednesday, May 22, 2024
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Comics Corner – How do you solve a problem like Marvel’s Starfox?

One of Marvel’s most notable problem children is the superhero Starfox. Despite being an Eternal from Saturn’s moon Titan, gifted with the ability to fly, manipulate gravity, and transmute matter, he’s most notable for being a hot guy with, bluntly, sex powers. While Starfox is supposed to come across as a charming space-borne swashbuckler, and has even been a member of the Avengers, his signature ability to stimulate the pleasure centres of other people’s brains means he’s more often seen as skeezy, if not considerably worse.

This perception, if rarely the reality, of the character has made Starfox a bit of a powderkeg for creators to handle, especially as readers and society as a whole have become more aware that informed and enthusiastic consent must be pivotal to sexual encounters. A character that can be interpreted as a cosmic predator, with psychic roofies as a power set, is a challenge to portray as a hero in the 21st century.

The future of one of Marvel’s trickiest characters may be in the pages of this comic! (Art by Mark Brooks, ©Marvel)

However, with Harry Styles appearing as Starfox in the post-credits stinger of the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s Eternals movie, it seems bigger things are planned for the character (if Styles doesn’t torpedo his LGBTQ+ following, at least). While the future of the MCU is as secretive as ever, it’s not uncommon for the comics to align with the big screen, and having not been seen in print for a couple of years, Starfox recently returned in the midst of Marvel’s big summer crossover event, Avengers/X-Men/Eternals: Judgment Day.

SPOILERS AHEAD FOR A.X.E.: JUDGMENT DAY!

While the appearance was a last-page reveal in the miniseries’ third issue, one that leaves many questions to be answered, creators Kieron Gillen and Valerio Schiti may have figured out a way to make a character with sex powers less uncomfortable – Starfox might now be non-binary.

Yes, that’s a lot of caveats, and we’re delving deep into the realms of speculation here – future issues of A.X.E: Judgment Day may completely undermine the idea. However, we’d make the case that a non-binary Starfox would be a contemporary reimagining that could make them more viable than ever, and tie in with their origins, all while removing – or at least, drastically toning down – the unsettling aspects of the character.

To understand why, we need to explore Starfox’s origins. Created by Jim Starlin and debuting in Iron Man #55 in 1972, Starfox’s real name is Eros of Titan. He – definitely a “he” at the time – was also the brother of the genocidal Thanos. Starlin derived their names from Sigmund Freud’s theories of “life drives” and “death drives” – Eros and Thanatos respectively, after the Greek god of love and the manifestation of death –  which he wrote about in his 1920 essay Beyond the Pleasure Principle. Like Freud’s theories, the brothers were intended to be each other’s polar opposite.

While it’s easy to see Marvel’s Thanos embodying Freud’s “death drives” – he literally loves Death, romantically – Eros, or Starfox, was harder to frame as representing a “life drive”. Importantly, Freud’s idea of Eros wasn’t just an expression of unbridled libido, but rather the entirety of a person’s will to live – passion for all things, not sex alone. That’s how Marvel’s Starfox was perhaps meant to be received – a joyful hero who loves everything about life, including sex, and will fight to the last to defend it.

Instead, he was flighty and flirty, a largely unserious figure who spent most of his time partying and chasing women – an Eros more in line with the mythological god than Freud’s antithesis of death. An arc of the 2005 She-Hulk run even directly explored his promiscuity and willingness to use his powers to coerce women into sex, often making them proposition him, with She-Hulk having to defend him in a sexual harrassment lawsuit. The perception of Starfox as, effectively, a rapist was all but locked in. While later stories would try to salvage the character, emphasising his enmity with Thanos or positioning him as more of a freedom fighter trying to stop his brother, Starfox’s inherent connection to, and abuse of, sex made him largely damaged goods.

Starfox at his smuggest, most punchable worst (Art by Greg Horn, ©Marvel)

So how would making Starfox non-binary fix this? In itself, it wouldn’t – the best approach to ‘undoing’ the darker facets of the character would probably be to take the most comic book approach of all: never mention them again, in much the same way that we don’t talk about the time Bruce Banner almost got raped in a YMCA shower (yes, really).

Such a change would also have to be handled extremely tactfully. Keeping the sex-positive aspect of Starfox while also revamping them as non-binary could very easily land with a thud if there were even a hint that it was fetishing non-binary people or presenting them as uniformly, indiscriminately promiscuous. A non-binary Starfox would have to be, as Sins of the Black Flamingo creator Andrew Wheeler once said of the earlier version of the character, “Captain Consent”.

However, handled right, a non-binary Starfox would allow for a much better contrast to Thanos. Where Thanos spreads death and despair, this hypothetical take on Eros would espouse pleasure and joy as a philosophy, wanting every living creature to experience it on their own terms. Where entire civilisations run in fear of Thanos, Starfox appearing would be cause for celebration. In much the same way that Desire of the Endless in The Sandman (portrayed in deliciously alluring fashion by non-binary actor Mason Alexander Park on the Netflix adaptation) manifests as all genders and none, depending on the eye of the beholder, a non-binary Starfox could be all things to all people; an ethereal beauty, a cosmic avatar of all the pleasures of life, perceived by the people they aim to protect and uplift as whatever they most desire.

But how did we get from the previously established male Starfox to the (possibly) non-binary one in A.X.E.? And wasn’t he dead, anyway? Luckily, a) this is comics, and b) there’s a unique facet of Eternals lore that handles both issues.

Unlike mutants who are born with their powers, or Inhumans who have them activated by exposure to a substance called Terrigen, Eternals are made. Or rather, were made, millennia ago, by the cosmic godlike beings known as Celestials. Created to shepherd humanity and protect the nascent species from the genetically mercurial and rapidly reproducing Deviants – although Gillen has also upended that dynamic – the Eternal population is strictly limited. Instead of replacing their numbers, whenever one dies, the sentient system of the Earth itself, known as The Machine, revives them – albeit at a steep cost we won’t spoil here.

The Machine resurrects dead Eternals – and can drastically change their forms in the process (From Eternals (2021) #5, Art by Esad Ribic, ©Marvel)

Within the context of the Marvel Universe, this approach helps explain the disparate takes on the Eternals that readers have seen over the decades – Eternals creator Jack Kirby’s take being distinct from Neil Gaiman’s and John Romita Jr’s, which differed from Charles and Daniel Knauf’s and Daniel Acuna’s who followed, and that Gillen and Esad Ribic’s run further modifies. Every time an Eternal is resurrected, they’re quite literally rebuilt, which provides a mechanism to explain past inconsistencies or to introduce new variations.

The Machine has already altered Starfox’s fellow Eternal Makkari, who went from a white, hearing man, to a black, deaf woman (matching the onscreen incarnation of the character, played by Lauren Ridloff), and Ajak, who has been both male and female over their publication history. Similar, if smaller, changes have also altered other Eternals over the years. It’s an easy enough explanation to simply say that Starfox underwent a similar, willing reconstruction during their resurrection.

However, with Starfox’s return being a last page reveal, it’s equally possible that Gillen and Schiti are merely presenting Eros with a more contemporary form of male sexuality – less hulking, power-fantasy muscles, more lithe, confident sex god from space. If that is the case, it would be similar to Gillen’s take on Namor the Submariner when he wrote him in the pages of Uncanny X-Men, possessing a haughty confidence and an aversion to clothes. It could even be an attempt to simply redesign the character to look somewhat closer to Styles going forward. There are a lot of ways in which A.X.E. may not be establishing Starfox as non-binary.

Is Marvel making Starfox non-binary – and would the change make the hero less problematic? (Art by Valerio Schiti, ©Marvel)

We should probably also note the small matter that Starfox is being rescued from an Eternal prison in a pocket dimension when readers are reintroduced to them, for as-yet unspecified crimes. That line delivery on “all you need is love” is a touch sinister, too – heroism may have gone entirely out of the window for them at this point.

But just look at the revamped Starfox – Eros is wearing a more tailored version of the classic costume, maintaining the colour scheme but blurring masculine and feminine fashion elements, while their features are more androgynous than ever. There’s an air of David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust to it all – a character Bowie imbued with deliberate androgyny way back in 1972, coincidentally but perhaps fittingly the same year Starfox debuted – and whatever this version of Starfox’s gender is, they’re positively dripping sex appeal.

While Marvel is being characteristically quiet on what direction it may be going with Starfox, it’s worth noting that the upcoming A.X.E: Starfox one-shot issue (on sale 05 October 2022) also seems to present the revived Eros as at least androgynous, if not explicitly non-binary. Cover artist Daniele Di Nicuolo goes even further than Schiti’s approach, with Starfox rocking both glam power shoulders and what appears to be make-up, including eyeshadow and lipstick. A variant cover by Kevin Wada leans even harder into how sexy Starfox can be.

Yet that sex appeal may ultimately be the downfall of any approach to Starfox, whether non-binary, cis male, or something else entirely – mainstream American superhero comics might just never be ready for a sex-positive hero. Even if they were refocused on celebrating life as a whole, with sex being just one part of that, Starfox may just be too difficult – or risqué – a concept for some audiences to accept.


A.X.E.: Judgment Day is ongoing at time of writing and continues through November 2022.

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