This podcast is part of the Bodily Transgressions in Fantastika Media Symposium.
Join the discussion on discord (https://discord.gg/zsMTBcnTcC) or on our Round Table Discussions on 12 November 2022 (https://us04web.zoom.us/j/78547989824).
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Podcast by: Ibtisam Ahmed
The Power of Love:
Queer Superhero Desire as Transgression in Marvel’s Hulkling & Wiccan
Key words (including content notes): LGBTQ+, utopia, queerphobia, references to body image, references to gendered expectations and stereotypes
In 2022, Marvel released a one-shot special comic focusing on the romantic lives of their most prominent queer couple. The eponymous pair of Hulkling & Wiccan have become staples of the comic book publisher’s catalogue, including being the central characters of their major Empyre story arc. From their inception, both Hulkling and Wiccan have been open about their identities, with their love for each other often leading to the resolution of conflicts. The 2022 one-shot takes a slightly different approach by considering the possibility that their love in and of itself becomes the site of conflict.
The now-happily married couple are transported into separate alternate realities where they have forgotten each other and are shown to be romantically involved with two new characters who represent their deepest romantic desires. For Hulkling, this means having “a steadfast companion” who, like him, has alien heritage and follows him across galaxies. For Wiccan, this means “a tragic, distracting love” who needs to be rescued amidst a mundane urban setting. In both cases, these desires are completely conventional in cisheteronormative hero stories (and commonly accepted in-universe) – companions in arms, romantic connection through struggle, love at first sight – but they are framed as unattainable due to the characters’ queer identity.
In addition to the narrative points raised through the text, the art of the comic – and the characters within – further highlight expressions of self that are inherently transgressive. Masculine characters dressing up in intentionally camp costuming, characters of colour showing visible body hair, collective dinners subverting gendered norms about “hosting”; all of these images work to undo cisheteronormativity. By discussing the characters’ desires and experiences, and exploring the resolution of the story, I consider how something as “ordinary” as love can be radical when expressed through bodies which are considered transgressive.
About the Author: Ibtisam Ahmed (he/him) completed an MPhil at the University of Nottingham and is currently the Head of Policy and Research at LGBT Foundation. As a queer, disabled migrant of colour, his focus is on uplifting and empowering voices that are traditionally silenced. He has written about queer superheroes before, including a chapter about Hulkling and Wiccan as queer immigrant utopian embodiments in the book The Politics of Culture (2020, Cambridge Scholars Publishing), which he co-edited. His other work has been published on Project Myopia, Imagining the Impossible, and Ancillary Review of Books.
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Transcripts have been provided by the aut
Welcome to the Bodily Transgressions in Fantastika Media Podcast Series. We hope you enjoy the series. If you have any questions or comments, we invite you to attend the digital symposium which will take place on 12th November 2022 via Zoom. The event will be free. Or drop us a line on our Discord Server. Details are in the podcast information, or can be found at fantastikajournal.com under CFPS, Events, and News. That’s Fantastika with a K.
This podcast is part of Panel 2: Queering Boundaries, which will take place at 3:10PM GMT time.
This podcast is presented by Ibtisam Ahmed. Ibtisam completed an MPhil at the University of Nottingham and is currently the Head of Policy and Research at LGBT Foundation. As a queer, disabled migrant of colour, his focus is on uplifting and empowering voices that are traditionally silenced. He has written about queer superheroes before, including a chapter about Hulkling and Wiccan as queer immigrant utopian embodiments in the book The Politics of Culture (2020, Cambridge Scholars Publishing), which he co-edited. His other work has been published on Project Myopia, Imagining the Impossible, and Ancillary Review of Books.
Hello. My name is Ibtisam Ahmed. I use he and him pronouns. And I'm here to talk today about my paper, "The power of love: Queer superhero desire as transgression in marvels, Hulkling and Wiccan”. I just want to start off by thanking the organizers of Fantastika, because this is such an incredible and collaborative community space. I'm really fortunate to have been part of conferences and symposia with you in the past, and it's really wonderful to know that you encourage so many of us to think about scholarship and representation and visibility in really embodied and independent ways. So I thank you so much for that and of course, my gratitude to the listeners for taking the time to listen to this and to other papers in this really, really fantastic symposium. Reflecting on the theme for this year's symposium was actually quite interesting because there are a lot of other representations of queerness that are perhaps more explicitly transgressive. We've seen so many instances of the queer body being seen as undesirable and being seen, in so many cases, actually quite horrific and actually quite physically repulsive. And there's some incredible work that's already available on some of those areas of thought. But what drew me to this particular piece of representation was actually quite how mundane some of it is. To put this into context, for people who haven't read this – and for those who haven't, I really encourage you to. Marvel Comics have several LGBTQ+ characters in their canon, and arguably their most prominent same-sex couple is the eponymous pairing of Hulkling and Wiccan. They've become staples of the comic book publisher’s catalogue, and they have gone from being part of a team of characters in the Young Avengers comics to taking the lead in a major cross title story arc called Empyre. And that was the first time in the history of major comic book publications that an event arc where several titles and several characters overlapped for one major story, was being led by queer characters. So they've been quite established. They have a quite established presence in the comic book universe, both in-universe in terms of their profiles within, kind of, the universe of Marvel and also in the fandom and in popular culture more broadly. But what was interesting was actually seeing a special one-shot edition called Hulkling and Wiccan, which was a much more intimate and personal story. The one-shot was initially released as a series of web comics on the Marvel Unlimited app before being published as a single-issue comic in 2022. And where their previous portrayals had shown kind of their love for each other being the space or the dynamic that lets them overcome challenges, that in many ways empowers them to overcome prejudice and bigotry, but also, in a very heroic sense, supervillains; the one-shot takes a slightly different approach because it actually considers that their love and their romantic relationship in and of itself can be a site of conflict. So very mild spoilers for the one-shot: The happily married couple get transported into alternative realities. They get separated and transported into alternative realities where they have forgotten each other. And they're shown to be romantically involved with two new characters, completely newly introduced in this issue, who represent sort of their deepest romantic desires. So the start of the comic, we see the two of them kind of adjusting to married life and realizing that not everything necessarily is perfect and dealing with the very specific kind of mundane issues of domesticity while also being superheroes, where in these alternative realities, none of those very everyday conflicts exist anymore. Huckling finds himself with, and I quote, “a steadfast companion” who has alien heritage and follows him across galaxies and is sort of very much like himself: this very tall, muscular, broad-shouldered warrior. Wiccan, on the other hand, finds, again I quote, “a tragic distracting love” who needs to be rescued through his magic. And in his case, again, it's someone who shares his sense of, his sense of kind of tragic romanticism. So Hulkling gets this very heroic romantic companion and Wiccan gets this very tragic romantic companion. And what these stories show is kind of the tropes of romantic storytelling. I won't spoil the ending, and I won't spoil the resolution. But in both of their cases, what we see are quite conventional storytelling archetypes. We see the very, very conventional – and I do need to stress this conventional not only from a storytelling perspective, but within the world of the comics that they inhabit – these are also quite conventional relationships. So we see companions in arms. We see kind of warriors in love. We see romantic connections through tragedy and struggle. We see the trope of love at first sight. So, we see a lot of these kinds of very standard tropes and standard storytelling archetypes. But what's interesting is that the comic and the story positions these almost mundane ideas– and again, in universe, these are quite mundane ideas – as extraordinary and unachievable. So it's this idea that if you are in a certain type of relationship, the very ordinary, the very everyday, is actually a struggle. And that also ties in with the opening of the comic where a happily married queer couple who are incredible superheroes, literally are dealing with everyday struggles and they've never thought about how to deal with them because they've never had to prior to this comic. They've never had an opportunity to sit down with queer elders to talk about it. They've never had a chance to sit down with queer icons to talk about it. They've not had those role models to sit down and kind of discuss what those struggles actually mean and what they look like. So when it then transposes into the more fantastical element of their lives, it again brings back that same conflict and that same tension. What should be quite conventional and what should be quite standard romantic heroic narratives become unusual, become difficult, become almost aspirational, despite the struggle. And that's really what made me so fascinated by the story and what made me so keen to talk about it for this symposium in particular, because that's something that resonates a lot with so many queer experiences. Speaking personally for the moment, I am a queer disabled immigrant of colour. I have had many instances where what is seen as the norm for many people; and I include other LGBTQ+ people who come from different socioeconomic backgrounds, who have different nationalities and different passports that carry different privileges; I have often experienced that idea that something that is quite normal is actually quite unachievable. And in approaching that, something that I would like to do suddenly becomes this grand, transgressive, boundary breaking moment. I know a lot of people in the community have talked about the power of seeing two queer people holding hands in public for the first time. And I know that continues to be actually quite a common first boundary that breaks for people. But even spaces like using a dating app as someone who's racially minoritized or having conversations about my identity in a language that is not my primary language: English isn't my primary language, it's one of two languages I grew up with. So sometimes having to explain my identity in ways that are fully understood can be quite a boundary breaking moment. And there is a dual sense of empowerment and frustration when something like that happens. And I think that's what's so interesting about this one-shot for Hulkling and Wiccan, there's the excitement of being a visibly married queer couple. There's the almost everyday joy of getting to talk about recipes and having dinner guests over; when they split into their alternative realities, there's a genuine excitement that both of them have in being able to kind of pursue some of these unexpected desires. And there is that sense of empowerment of “oh great, we get to do what everyone else is doing.” But there's that added layer of frustration of recognizing that this is somehow seen as something other than ordinary. This is something that is transgressive. And I kind of want to pull on that very unusual dichotomy and that very unusual tension by reminding listeners, by reminding participants in the symposium that the space of being “othered”, which many of us in the community experience, prevents us from truly fully feeling
ordinary. That can be a lovely thing, but that can also carry this burden of needing to be extraordinary. And that's why the idea of transgression really appeals to me, because it brought in the idea of, “do I even need to adhere to this aspiration or can I just be myself?” And that's also what excited me about the comics. Without providing a narrative spoiler, I think the resolution of the comic actually approaches that conversation really well because the conclusion of the story sees Hulkling and Wiccan reach a space where they are comfortable in their discomfort. They don't care that their lives aren't perfect. They don't care that they don't have that picture perfect storybook moment. What they care about is being able to live in and of themselves and quite authentically. And that actually is quite powerful. And it's also quite interesting in the art style of the comic, not just in the story. So something we see, for example, with Hulkling, who I described earlier as being quite broad shouldered and muscular and kind of conventionally macho. His costume is quite effeminate in camp and there's again, something quite liberating about seeing a character who would perhaps be bogged down by conventional norms of macho and potentially even toxic macho masculinity, kind of break free of that and be quite camp and exciting. And another instance that really resonated with me is Wiccan who does have mixed race heritage and is drawn in this issue as a person of colour. He shows off as chest hair. Which, I mean, you could probably do another conversation and paper altogether on masculine transgressiveness and chest hair. But the politics of chest hair for racially minoritized queer people is quite a complex conversation. But for him to just be quite comfortable in showing that is really great. And I do want to stress that I do think a large part of this is because the creative team behind this comic is all queer. And that obviously makes a difference because they're able to approach the nuances of the story with more intention and more awareness. so I just want to end by bringing it back to this notion of the everyday is transgressive and why I thought this story was quite important because for me, fiction never exists in a vacuum. I shared my lived identity with those of you who were listening. And for me, fiction that talks about stories that touch my identities, that touch on my experiences, that resonate with me, are really exciting because for me, they let me see alternatives and a hopeful tomorrow. And what is great about the way the story wraps up is that reminder that for minoritized communities, for marginalized communities who are often made to feel that the only way we can be successful is to be extraordinary, is to be not only better than average, but actually the best and to be perfect, it's a fantastic reminder that we don't owe anyone else anything. We owe ourselves happiness and we owe ourselves joy. And that is the transgression I want to celebrate. That is the subversion that I want to celebrate. Thank you so much for listening. If you're interested in a bit more of my work, I've written about Wiccan and Hulkling’s portrayals before. I wrote a book chapter about the pair of them in the edited collection The Politics of Culture, available from Cambridge Scholars Publishing. I wrote about them as manifestations of queer immigrant utopia. I've also written about them in a review essay for the Ancillary Review of Books, where I talk about the Empyre arc that I mentioned. And I'm always happy to discuss what they mean to me and the empowerment that they represent. So thank you very, very much for listening. Please do reach out if you'd like to discuss any of these issues further. I'm always excited to collaborate and continue working on queer joy and empowerment. Thank you very much for your time.