Six Damn Fine Degrees #25: Mystique

Welcome to Six Damn Fine Degrees. These instalments will be inspired by the idea of six degrees of separation in the loosest sense. The only rule: it connects – in some way – to the previous instalment. So come join us on our weekly foray into interconnectedness.

It’s only in the last couple of years that Marvel comics have finally acknowledged the truth about one of their oldest coded gay relationships in its superhero universe. In 2019, the characters finally got to share an on-panel kiss and at the beginning of 2020 the first ever direct reference to their exact status made it to a published comic.  Nearly forty years after the supervillains Mystique and Destiny had first appeared in a comic together (and thirty years after the latter’s demise), that they had been a homosexual couple was made unambiguously clear.

From the outset, writer Chris Claremont intended the two to be lovers. But the Comics Code that prevailed in 1981 forbade any direct reference to homosexuality, let alone any unambiguous reference that characters might be in a non-straight relationship. And so the nature of their relationship could only ever be implied, coded into their appearances so that readers might pick up on the information and realise the truth. Readers would see them show great affection for each other. And see them breakfasting together. And references to their backstory would present clues to their shared past.

Chris Claremont was to be the main writer on the X-Men comic (and assorted spin-offs) for seventeen years from the mid-’70s to the early ’90s. And within this vast body of work, you can find both coded and overt (and sometimes problematic) representations of such topics as racial prejudice, emotional and sexual abuse, BDSM, sexual identity and survivor’s guilt. With its increasing availability online and in fancy reprints, it’s even become the subject of serious academic scrutiny.

That said, as a pre-teen reader I failed to crack the coding of Mystique and Destiny completely. And this was before the internet, so I literally knew no-one else buying the title, or had no access to any writings about the story beyond what appeared in the comic itself. Even now, I think I can count the number of people I’ve head a real-life, face-to-face conversation about all things X on one hand. And this is the three-fingered hand of the X-Man Nightcrawler.

All young me had were the issues, and the characters in them. And I adored the character of Mystique, I loved that she clearly cared for Destiny and that Destiny in turn reciprocated Mystique’s feelings.

Chris Claremont understood, I think, the key to great melodrama. That it works best if you give a strong emotional reality to the exaggerated characters, and have it then shape the sensational dramatics.

And Mystique was a brilliantly exaggerated character. A villain who would have her own storylines developing through multiple issues focusing on her plotting against the books titular heroes. With shape-shifting enabling her to adopt the perfect disguise, she could infiltrate US security organisations and make them do what she wanted. Such fun.

As for sensational dramatics – Mystique has involved in truckloads of that too. She began as the leader of the evil mutant terrorist outfit The Brotherhood of Evil Mutants. A group of villains who, when finally captured, did a deal to work for the US government under the new title of Freedom Force (a nice satirical gag from Claremont that gets better with age). Becoming the state-backed opponents to the books’ titular heroes.

And Claremont knew how to pile on the melodrama around her too. As readers we are introduced to the character of Rogue. A teenage mutant villain who is the adopted daughter of Mystique and Destiny. Her power is to absorb the powers (and personality) of whoever she touches. Struggling to comes to terms with the consequences of her power, she flees her adoptive parents and seeks help from the X-Men. A “betrayal” that Mystique struggles to accept.

On one level this tale of a blue villain, an oracle and a personality vampire seems absurd, but Claremont’s genius was to ground it all in an emotional reality. And this, I think, the hook that grabbed me. And once this emotional melodrama gets to you, it’s near impossible to let it go. As I got older, and began to see through the coding on many of these characters, it just made the emotional attachment stronger, the story even deeper. Seeing Mystique and Destiny openly acknowledged as a couple genuinely got to me all these years later.

It can also be infuriating when you discover the stuff that didn’t even make it as a coded reference. Claremont planned to connect another X-Man – Nightcrawler – with the couple. His origin was to be revealed as the son of Mystique and Destiny, the former having used her shapeshifting powers to father the child. Marvel editorial stepped down so hard on this, it not only never saw print but they commissioned a story to definitively tell a very different origin for Nightcrawler. It is a truly terrible comic about demon rape, but you get the gist of the problem the company had with Claremont’s original idea when you read that the author who replaced him writing the X-Men comic never liked the idea because he couldn’t understand how it could possibly work biologically. I still can’t get my head around the idea that that’s where you draw the line on what’s credible in a universe containing Galactus, Howard the Duck and the notion that DNA mutation can create the ability to teleport.

It’s fantastic that in recent years, mainstream comics are beginning to reflect the diversity of their readership. Claremont’s era sometimes reminds me of the best in Hollywood creativity when they struggled with the Production Code. It’s fun how inventive he could be, and admirable that he tried to smuggle in this content. But, as with that cinematic era it’s only when you realise the stories they still couldn’t tell that you can see the tragedy of it all. Cracking the code with Mystique and Destiny when I was young gave me a useful, tiny insight into the wider, adult world of identity and relationships. But it would have been even better if I could have seen them adventuring together, in all their villainy, as a loving wife and wife.

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