30 Jul 2011

Thought Balloon: The Trouble With Bob

By Stewart R

(Please note that I don’t have a full and comprehensive knowledge of Bobby Drake’s appearances in all Marvel comics and this article is based purely on my current viewing position of the character.)

Marvel have been traversing through something of a new golden age it could be said, with the many characters that Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko, Joe Simon, Larry Lieber and Don Heck created some 70 years ago still appearing in monthly comic publications and even making their way to the Hollywood machine for decent preparation and introduction to a new, media-hungry global audience. In fact we’ve reached the point where all of the big characters and teams have had exposure across a realm of different media forms. Spider-Man, Captain America, Thor, Hulk, Iron Man, Fantastic Four and the X-Men have possibly received more exposure in the past ten years than they ever have done before. Comics, films, animated series, video games, toys, top trumps card decks, even Madame Tussards’ Wax Museum; they’ve appeared either in, on and as them all.

But of that cast of 16 original heroes I’ve listed - including the five founder team members of the X-Men and Charles Xavier - there’s one character of that 16 that hasn’t managed to capture the great attention of writers, readers and consumers in general. One, it has to be said, who’s been limping behind the others in the popularity stakes. Sure, he appears in comics on a reasonably frequent basis but he’s never had the limelight fall on him for any great length of time. Perhaps it could be said that he’s been given the ‘cold shoulder’? I am of course talking about Bobby Drake, Iceman!

Fair enough, the heroes that went on to become the core Avengers have iconic status as individual characters, supporting comic titles for half a century or more just as Spider-Man has managed to do. It could also be said that the Fantastic Four’s fairly stable, varied and compact roster and existence as a family has helped to elevate each member to iconic status. But what about the X-Men? Yes the team has morphed, evolved and spat out more roster changes than a professional ice hockey team during the off-season but somehow those initial recruits still stand out and remain popular with writers and readers.

Let’s just take a quick look shall we? Professor Charles Xavier, teacher and ideological lynch-pin of the X-Men since their inception remained a key character in the majority of big X-storylines until only recently when various writers moved him aside to bring Cyclops to the fore, shifting the mutants in a slightly different direction. He still turns up from time to time and when he does he’s there to punctuate a point, offer advice based on a wealth of experience or contribute to one side of an argument. Scott Summers/Cyclops, the current leader of the mutant race, has bedded two of the most stunning mutant ladies on the planet, fathered a time-travelling son, merged with Apocalypse and is no doubt many a bespectacled comic reader’s favourite X-Man. One of the only female superheroes from that initial boom period, Jean Grey constantly dies, returns, breaks hearts and tries to contain a power that could destroy galaxies. Then she might just die again... and return! It's a hobby.

Hank McCoy, the lovable and intellectual Beast is an X-Man, an Avenger, a Secret Avenger, poker player and romantic interest of the commander of S.W.O.R.D. Warren Worthington III flits between being Angel and Archangel, loving or trying to kill his psychic ninja girlfriend Psylocke, and is pretty much always a millionaire with vast means at his disposal who occasionally gets a look in as a leader-in-waiting when not want to kill, kill, KILL!

Almost 50 years on and those characters are still playing large and important parts in today’s plots and stories across various titles.

So, to make a non-relevant movie pun here, ‘What About Bob?’ Iceman was there at the beginning, the immature goof ball in a team of misfits all trying to find acceptance, but it seems as time has gone on writers have been busy moulding and sculpting futures and character growth for everyone else or spending their days coming up with new and interesting mutants to add to the mix and Bobby trends to get overlooked more often than not. A necessary addition for the X-Men roster for sure but perhaps he resembled his superpower opposite of the time, Johnny Storm, a little too much in terms of age and demeanour. While Johnny could contribute far more to the family dynamic of the Fantastic Four, Iceman was reduced to not much more than comic relief and a power to be used during fight scenes when it came to the X-Men.

I’ll admit that Iceman’s not always received a ‘frosty reception’ from the creative teams. There have been times - most notably in the mid-1990s and early part of this century - when writers have decided to pay Bobby some attention, moving him to other teams, evolving his powers and even providing him with something of a romantic development or two. Scott Lobdell tried to elevate Iceman’s powerset and standing by intimating that he was potentially one of the most powerful mutants on Earth but since his manipulations back then it seems that writers have been a little reluctant to explore that extreme potential.

Long-serving X-scribe Mike Carey has, in recent years, attempted to give Bobby some key exposure and nurturing, making him a prominent member of Rogue’s team, allowing him to display a breadth to his powers that we don’t often get to see - thanks also in part to some great art work by Chris Bachalo and Humberto Ramos at the time - and even had him locking lips and bumping uglies with none other than the treacherous Mystique! Yet for all his efforts it seems that Mr Drake has fallen back into that pigeon-hole marked ‘Power Prop and Visual Aid’. While I’ve enjoyed seeing his brief appearances in Uncanny as well as the recently released X-Men series from Victor Gischler, those fleeting moments have highlighted that writers seem more concerned with getting plot use from the man’s powers rather than the man’s personality. Gishler used him as a clever weapon against the vampire hordes and that was about it. Kieron Gillen in the most recent issue of Uncanny uses him as a temperature tool to unlocking the Juggernaut’s helmet and then he’s swiftly removed from the picture once his purpose is served. Jason Aaron gave him a brief, comical cameo in the first issue of X-Men: Schism to lump more focus on just how hard Wolverine - a later addition to the X-Men who now sits at the top of the popularity table - has been working of late but that could realistically been anyone lounging on that beach making that comment.

The cast of mutants at any X-writer's disposal currently is of course still massive, despite being limited to a couple of hundred these days, with a huge variety of personalities, ages and issues to explore. Where Iceman was once the immature joker and youngest member of the mutant team there are now dozens of wise-cracking mutant kids bouncing around the halls of Utopia and Bobby has been forced to grow up into a veteran member of the team. It’s just surprising that so few creators have ever bothered to look at this ‘cool customer’ (okay, enough with the puns!) and grab the opportunity to write something worthwhile for him specifically as an original member of the team and now an adult trying to make something of his life.

When you consider that Marvel have managed to give, of all people, Thunderbolt Ross his own comic in the past few years AND a place on the current Avengers roster - admittedly as a Hulk - it’s something of a shame to see that even the slightly lesser characters from that Silver Age of the comic books some 50-60 years ago are being taken to new heights while a prominent one is left to simply add to the background that mutant crowds offer up on a page or occasionally coming in with a freezing ice-blast upon demand. The news/rumours pouring out of this months’ San Diego Comic Con suggest that Iceman has a large part to play in one of the upcoming X-books later this year but the clouds of gossip and conjecture are leaning towards the Iceman from the Age of Apocalypse being the point of focus which could see regular Bobby Drake left out in the cold for yet another prolonged Winter. This seems a little lazy to me, it being easier to pick up with an alternate, harder-edged version of Iceman than creatively produce a shift to have the 616 universe version fit the bill. It's all speculation at this point of course.

Ideally I’d like to see Mike Carey take control of the fortunes of Iceman once more and have it be the character from the original and best (oooh, controversial!) 616 universe because if they don’t, well, they may as well have Wolverine chop the poor guy up and have him chill a bucket of his favourite beers! It’s been 'ice' knowing you, Bobby!

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