Marvel Comics' "Avengers Academy" is a title that belongs in a rare group these days: Comics Starring Recently-Created, Original Characters. The success and fan support of the series proves that there are still plenty of fresh ideas in the Marvel Universe, especially when the characters are as painfully real as the Avengers Academy kids. Much like its teenage protagonists, "Avengers Academy" has been growing and changing since its first issue; what started as a book about super-powered at-risk youths has turned into a rich ensemble piece that continually examines the toll taken by performing heroic acts. Oh, and there's also kissing and witty remarks and proms to balance out the drama.
Writer Christos Gage and current artists Sean Chen and Tom Raney have put these kids through wringers both emotional and physical, thus strengthening the bonds these young heroes have not only amongst themselves, but to their readers as well.
In the wake of "Fear Itself," headmaster Henry Pym relocated the team to the old West Coast Avengers headquarters and opened up the academy doors to every young hero in need. Fan-favorites from books like "Sentinel" and "Slingers" have made cameos, and I bet Wiz Kid's lone fan is also super-pumped to see his return. The book will also receive a major cast addition when former solo heroine X-23 joins the team in issue #23.
CBR News: You mentioned on Twitter that you've known about Striker's sexual orientation since the early issues of "Avengers Academy." Why did you wait until now to reveal it, and what makes issue #23 the right time?
Christos Gage: I waited because I wanted to establish him as a young man working very hard to hide who he really was. From the first time we met him, Striker had a pretty in-your-face manner with girls, hitting on them indiscriminately and aggressively. It may have seemed he was just a horndog, but knowing where I wanted to go with the character, to my mind his behavior served two purposes in his life: it allowed him to reassure himself he was a "real man" while at the same time sparing him from having to actually do much with most of the girls he hit on, because the vast majority found his manner obnoxious and off-putting.
EXCLUSIVE: Striker comes out to Lightspeed (Julie Power) in "Avengers Academy" #23
As we saw in issue #5, when Veil eventually did respond to his advances, he suggested they talk instead -- which happened to be what she really needed, but also goes to show that he wasn't quite the Romeo his approach may have implied. There was another panel in issue #5 that was telling -- Striker's flashback to when Norman Osborn was courting him to be in his Initiative training program, and surrounded him with willing groupies. In both his narration and body language, Striker is clearly bored by this. That isn't to say Striker has never been sexually involved with women; as a wealthy, attractive young guy, he's had his chances, and he's taken them. Quite often, in fact, when he was trying to prove he was "a man" according to the stereotypical view of what that should be. But obviously it felt wrong to him, not something he wanted to keep doing, so he ramped up his persona as a pushy Lothario to try to avoid putting himself in that position very often.
As for what makes this the right time, Striker now finds himself around Julie Power, a.k.a. Lightspeed, who is older and more comfortable with her sexuality (she's bisexual). So he finally has someone he feels he can open up to about the things that he's been struggling with -- matters he didn't feel able to discuss with his straight peers. I think a lot of gay kids, especially those living in smaller towns, don't know (or don't think they know) any other gay people they can talk to, and it's difficult for them, as it was for Striker.
How much of Striker's persona up to this point has been cover up and overcompensation? And will his coming out alter his personality and interactions with others?
Striker's aggressiveness with hitting on the ladies has definitely been cover-up and overcompensation. He's going to stop doing that. But his attention seeking and craving the spotlight are part of who he is. That part of him wasn't an act and won't change. I like that these kids have character flaws! In fact, I wouldn't be surprised to see Striker's hunger for fame have an effect on how he approaches coming out and dealing with his sexuality in the future. Let's say, oh, maybe around issue #27.
With the recent cast expansion and upcoming guest appearance by the Runaways, "Avengers Academy" will star two other out homosexuals (Julie Power and Karolina Dean). How will Striker interact with them? Will there be an Avengers Academy gay-straight alliance?
We've already seen in issue #23 that Julie has become a very important figure for Striker, and they'll continue to be friends. But even though Julie wants to pursue acting, their approaches to life are quite different, and there'll probably be some friction coming from that down the road. As for Karolina, I'd be more interested in how the obvious attraction to Julie shown when they first met during the Brian K. Vaughan's "Runaways" series will play out when they meet again!
Speaking of Julie, I know some readers might be surprised to see her identify as bisexual. But I think it's consistent with her past portrayals. In some issues of "Power Pack", she showed an interest in boys, whereas in "Runaways" and "Loners" she also seemed interested in girls. So it felt logical to me. Bisexuals are not as represented in comics as gay men and lesbians, and I thought it was about time to change that, and here was a character who was already portrayed that way -- so there you go.
While gay heroes are appearing more and more frequently in comics, the coming out process is one that isn't often showcased in superhero comics. Characters either debut as gay (Batwoman) or their coming out happens off-panel (Rictor and Shatterstar). How much of Striker's internal coping and self-realization will be highlighted in "Avengers Academy"?
Hopefully, a fair amount. Whether Striker likes it or not, it's going to be an ongoing process for him. He may think it's as simple as saying, "Okay, I'm out," and that's it, but it's going to be more complicated. It's interesting that you mention how most superhero characters' coming out hasn't been tackled directly; that's one of the reasons I didn't make Striker an out gay guy from the start. We've come a long way in terms of there being positive depictions of gay youth in popular culture; what we haven't seen as much of is kids who are struggling with their sexuality, and I wanted to acknowledge that experience. Conditions today are a lot better than they've been in the past, but not every gay kid lives in New York or San Francisco -- a lot of them have to face bullying from their peers and disapproval from adults, telling them there's something wrong with them -- which has led to tragic suicides. Right now in North Carolina, which is my wife's home state and a place I love, there's a measure on an upcoming ballot to impose a state constitutional amendment prohibiting gay marriage -- and North Carolina is one of only two Southern states (along with New Mexico) that, up to now, hasn't had one. So what I wanted to say to gay kids who may still be struggling with who they are is not just "it gets better" but "you're not alone." I wanted their experience -- in a general sense, obviously it's different for everyone -- to be reflected in what they read. That there are other kids who may be struggling with this, and you don't have to be Batwoman from the get-go -- there may be a journey to getting there.
In Striker's case, though, it's not only about being gay. His personal struggles have a lot to do with the fact that he was sexually abused as a child, by the man who served as his acting manager at the time. My wife and I wrote for "Law & Order: SVU," which led to doing a good amount of research on child sexual abuse and its effects. And quite often, whether the abuse survivor is gay or straight, they end up struggling with their sexuality in general. Some avoid or repress it, either because it's too painful to deal with or because they somehow blame themselves for what happened. When Striker began to feel he might be attracted to males, he wondered if that was who he was as a person, or if it was the influence of his (male) abuser somehow affecting him -- a thought that deeply disturbed him and made him want to reject those feelings. The process most of us go through, where we figure out what kind of people we are attracted to -- I don't mean being gay or straight, necessarily, just whether we're drawn to certain personalities or body types or whatever -- was a minefield for him. It's very painful for abuse survivors, because they can question their own sexuality and frequently blame themselves for what happened -- as Striker did, wondering if he somehow encouraged the abuser because he enjoyed the attention of a father figure, or if being gay, even before he had any awareness of his sexual orientation, somehow meant he brought it on himself. (In point of fact, most child abusers who target children of the same sex identify as straight, and have no interest in adults of the same sex.) So I also wanted to reach out to abuse survivors and say: 1) It's not your fault. That's actually one of the things abusers count on -- that the victim will blame themselves and avoid talking about it to anyone. And 2) You're not alone. Others struggle with this too.
In Striker's specific case, the journey is about being an abuse survivor as well as coming out. Now that Julie has given him the support he needs to discover his sexual orientation at his own pace, he's going to be able to focus more on the coming out process -- and being Striker, he'll probably make some colossal blunders along the way. But hey, how many of us look back at our earliest dating experiences and think, "You know what? I got that exactly right!"
Were you at all nervous about taking Striker in this direction, especially after playing him as a shameless flirt for the last 20 issues? Do you fear any negative reader response?
I wasn't worried about a backlash for him being gay. I think it's pretty clear, if you go back and read issue #5, that this is something that's been part of his character all along, not something I did to draw attention to the book or pursue a political agenda or whatever. I think readers will realize that his shameless flirting, viewed in retrospect, was always intended to be revealed as a false front. It's been a lot of fun already to see fans on message boards look back to moments like those in issue #5, or issues #18 and 19, when the kids thought they were going to die and the others were kissing and saying goodbye while Striker's concern for Veil was much more that of a friend. So to my mind, anyone who is upset about him coming out would probably be upset about there being a gay character in the book at all, and there's not a heck of a lot I can do about that. I generally try to keep overt, agenda-driven politics (as opposed to political views expressed by a character that are a reflection of who that character is) out of my comics, and respect a wide range of different viewpoints, to me this is a human rights issue, not a political one. I think you see that feeling reflected in our country, in the generational shift that shows younger people, whether they lean left or right politically, overwhelmingly seeing homosexuality as something inherent in a person rather than a "lifestyle choice."
The thing I did have a little bit of concern about was that no one mistakenly think I was implying that being abused as a child somehow "made" Striker gay. Quite the opposite -- if he hadn't been abused, he may well have figured this out a long time ago. But making that clear is on my shoulders. Hopefully, I got it across in the story.
I did also have some trepidation tackling a teenager's coming out story when I'm not gay and I haven't been a teenager since the first Bush administration. But I'm not Asian or female or a mutant or a were-dinosaur, either. I did run the coming out scene in issue #23 past my pal Jim McCann, Eisner-Award-winning writer of "Return of the Dapper Men" and the Avengers Academy backup in "Avengers Solo," because I felt it was a key scene and I wanted to make sure it rang true and didn't take any unintended turns, and he was a tremendous help. Since straight kids don't have to "come out" as straight in a society where it's often just assumed, I did want the perspective of someone who's been there, and I really appreciate him providing it. But going forward, I'm going to approach Striker the same way I approach any of the other characters I write who aren't exactly like me -- in other words, most of them!