In this summer's X-Men: Age of Apocalypse, the teen heroes in the '80s superhero flick spend some downtime at the mall, chugging sodas and playing arcade games. The X-Men have long existed as an extended metaphor for queerness, what with their outsider status in society due to anti-mutant bigotry and extended story arcs about deadly viruses. (AIDS! Get it?) Openly gay director Bryan Singer really drove the metaphor home with his X-Men film franchise. But this isn't new to comic books; particularly Marvel comics, which often feature characters far more human than the goddesses and aliens and billionaires of DC Comics. Human characters who become different through an accident of Mother Nature are easily relatable when you're a gay kid who doesn't feel like he belongs anywhere.
Comic books were my sanctuary in my adolescence. As an overweight kid who abhorred exercise, the only thing that motivated me to be active was taking the two-mile walk to my local comic book store to pick up the latest issues of my favorite titles each Wednesday. Though Spider-Man remains to this day my favorite superhero — as evidenced by the logo I chose for my first tattoo — I also had a fondness for X-Men and The Fantastic Four. They had the distinction of being about superpowered humans and mutants who were also a part of family units. When you're a closeted teenager, the concept of a family that's just like you and accepts you for who you are is quite alluring.
Perhaps that's why I've gravitated so much to the dysfunctional family unit of Mutiny on Halt and Catch Fire, which returned for its third season on Tuesday night. Mutiny, an online community created by the series' leading women Cameron Howe and Donna Clark, operates much like the Baxter Building in The Fantastic Four. In 1961, Reed Richards and his family leaped into the space race and ended up imbuing themselves with super powers, and in 1986, Cameron and Donna have leaped into the computer race of the '80s with the same results. What made the Fantastic Four different from other groups is the fact that they behaved like a real family. They often acted petty and vindictive during disagreements, but they would always come together when one of their own was in distress or the world needed saving.
Though not as hammered into the queer canon as the X-Men, the Fantastic Four exist there as well. Reed is the brilliant head of the family, but it's often his wife Sue Storm at the forefront of stories. Sue's transformation from Invisible Girl to Invisible Woman cemented her queer icon status. While she was Invisible Girl, the villain Psycho-Man took advantage of her insecurities and transformed her into the villainess Malice. When Sue regained control of herself, now fearful of what lurked within her, she dubbed herself Invisible Woman. That loss of control has been replicated in Donna as she went from being a dutiful wife who supported her husband Gordon's ventures in technology to a woman running her own company while Gordon sits on the sidelines.
Then there's Sue's brother, the hot-headed Johnny Storm, whose alias is the Human Torch. Aside from being the perfect candidate for a Sean Cody model, his brash attitude, his occasional inability to control his powers, and his “bromance” with Ben Grimm (a.k.a. The Thing) make him appeal to gay fans the same way the cast of Teen Wolf does. Johnny's direct parallel in Halt is Cameron. As close to Donna as Johnny is to Sue, Cameron often flames out in an explosion of ego and eccentric behavior. And she too has a relationship with her own Thing — Joe McMillan.
The Thing, a Hulk-like figure who's made of pure rock, is Ben Grimm's permanent state. He shies away from the public eye because of how he looks. His mere presence could scare people or, conversely, incite attacks — which is Joe in a nutshell. As a bisexual man with visible scars all over his body from a traumatic childhood, Joe often shields himself from others. Halt doesn't treat Joe's bisexuality as a plot device like most other television shows do (Nolan on Revenge, Frank Underwood on House of Cards), but instead delves into how that identity can rock the life of a man attempting to achieve greatness in the midst of the '80s. Add that to the fact that one of his ex-lovers is a gay black man who visits Joe to tell him he's dying of AIDS, and you have a Halt's very own rock-clad monster.
Joe's penchant for menacing comes into play with the ads for his anti-virus company in this week's third-season premiere. Dramatically bold letters atop a crimson background read: “ARE YOU SAFE?” — which someone jokes could double as an ad for protected sex in the midst of America's AIDS crisis. The show never lets you forget the lingering fear that lurked in every shadow of the '80s. After all, Joe ends that episode delivering a speech from the famed Castro Theatre in San Francisco, which, aside from being a city at the center of a bustling tech industry, was also a ground zero for the virus. And in a Season 2 episode, after a gay employee of Mutiny is attacked by men who use chat rooms to lure him out of the closet, he lies in a hospital room with an action figure of the black symbiote Spider-Man (in the '80s, Spider-Man was affected by an alien virus that became his new suit, then eventually became the villain Venom).
When you're gay, “family” is often something you create for yourself, once you accept who you are and step out into the world. When I was growing up, that meant losing myself in the magnificent worlds that comic books provided. As an adult, it's been exhilarating to find that there's a multitude of other queer geeks like me. By replicating that feeling of the bright, radiant pages of a comic book, Halt manages to provide that same joy.