a.k.a. How the Myth of the American Southwest Turned Me Gay for James Dean, or Something.
Okay, so, first of all, that’s kind of a lie, I’ve sort of always been gay for James Dean. But Havok/Wolverine: Meltdown, written by Walt and Louise Simonson and drawn by Jon J. Muth and Kent Williams, definitely made me gayer for him.
And I know, I look like a girl, so how is it gay that I’m into a dude? Simple: I’m not a girl. I’m not a guy, either, but gender is a story we make up as a culture to explain different kinds of genitals and structure society, so, who cares? I’m just really gay all the time.
I think it’s the feelings themselves that are gay, to be honest.
Anyway, back to the point. In Meltdown, Jon J. Muth draws the Havok parts, and Kent Williams draws the Wolverine parts. It makes for a gorgeous mix of similar styles, and the hazy, dreamy quality of the artwork makes it basically my favorite comic book ever. And Muth chooses to use James Dean as his reference and model for Alex “Havok” Summers, a decision that I, an extremely gay person who loves queer film history, am horrifically grateful for.
James Dean is one of those actors that everyone in the know just kind of presumes is queer, at this point. While he never explicitly came out, a number of his contemporaries have either implied or outright stated that he liked men. Even beyond that, though, his image has been an inspiration to queer people. Jackie Curtis, an actress, poet, and playwright, spent a period toward the end of her life trying to get the chance to play Dean in a movie, for example. I myself have never seen Rebel Without a Cause or East of Eden, but through cultural osmosis, I’ve heard tell that Dean’s performances in them resonate for queers down through the decades.
I don’t know if, in the 80s, Muth knew the baggage that comes along with using Dean as a model. Frankly, it doesn’t really matter to me. What’s in the book is in the book, and Meltdown’s usage of Dean as a metaphorical actor for Alex only adds to the book, in my opinion.
It’s not the only queer thing, obviously, or I wouldn’t be talking about it at such length. The romantic myth of the American Southwest that opens the book isn’t inherently queer, but presenting two men vacationing together along such a mythologized border can easily be read in that vein. Scarlett, the obvious femme fatale of the melodrama, spends much of the story trying to keep Alex and Logan (Wolverine) physically apart, and when Alex and Logan do meet again, it’s with disastrous consequences. There’s even a panel in which a naked Wolverine screams Alex’s name into a desert night.
I promise, that makes sense in context, but still. Overall, the comic is really easy to cast in a queer light, and people have done it. Two pieces of fanfiction explicitly based on Meltdown exist on Archive of Our Own (one of them by me, the other, remarkably, not), and both of them focus on romantic, sexual relationships between Havok and Wolverine. Mine also plays with Alex’s gender, but that’s for another post, really, not this one.
Anyway, it’s not the queerness necessarily that drew me to Meltdown. It really is the art style, and the pulpy nature of the story. Fundamentally, it’s a comic about the Cold War and nuclear anxiety, and given the last year in international politics, that’s deeply relevant. That vacation I mentioned? That femme fatale? Basically, it all goes to hell. Scarlett is working with a Russian supervillain to try and cause a nuclear meltdown in India, in order to push the Americans and the Russians closer to actual war. They need Alex to do that, on account of Alex’s powers. So Alex and Logan’s vacation along the border — a vacation which, by the way, is never given any explanation — is cut short by a kidnapping and a poisoning, and then another kidnapping that Alex doesn’t realize he’s been kidnapped for.
This hazy, pulpy dream with a simple, fairly generic plot is somehow the most beautiful comic I have ever read in my life. It makes me feel better about a world on the brink, and I think that’s important, because how many stories are there about the threat of nuclear war that are really and truly comforting? I don’t think there are many, and there certainly aren’t many in X-Men comics.
Overall, if you haven’t read Havok/Wolverine: Meltdown, and you like the way X-Men comics used to be, back before every event was an extinction-level threat against mutantkind, you really should check the book out. Same goes if you like beautiful comics art, or like making things a little queerer in your head than they are on the page, or if you like the pulp sci-fi genre in general. Hell, if you’re feeling down about potential nuclear armageddon, this bit of escapist fantasy might make you feel better.
It certainly does for me.
Murphy Leigh is a lifelong nerd and student of The Aesthetic. Lately, the subject matter has been pop and indie music videos, the West Coast, and other beautiful, romantic, and surreal American myths.