Independent comic book writer and illustrator Martin Eden has made a name for himself in recent years as the creator of Spandex, a series that introduced the world to the first notable all-gay superhero team in comicdom. Despite such a distinction, Eden is quick to point out that his series stands as one mere entry in a broader web of intersections existing between gay culture and comic book entertainment. “Now, the X-Men . . . that’s just completely gay. The series is a metaphor about coming out. It’s about having a secret which comes out in your teens. Gay people have always liked X-Men because they feel it represents them. They’re extravagant and extroverted.” According to the 38-year-old Londoner, gay people have long looked to comics to provide stories that reflect their particular experiences, which are largely ignored by popular culture.
Spandex, which follows the exploits of seven superheroes located at various points on the LGBT spectrum, works in many ways to uncover the plight of the modern homosexual in order to bring dignity and humanity to a segment of the population too often depicted as social “others.” In so doing, the series has provided gay readers a creative space where they can proudly embrace their true identities, divorced from innuendo or allusion. What began as a fun exercise, however, has proven an increasingly troublesome and trying endeavor for its creator, who has seen his colorful creation galvanize audiences on the topic of cultural representations of gay people.
Having developed a fascination with visual literature in his early years after burying himself in illustrated fairy tale books, Eden began creating his own comics at the early age of six. Initially fueled by British humor comics like The Beano and The Dandy before graduating to the two American publishing giants Marvel and DC in his early teens, Eden showed an early penchant for concocting fictional tales drawn from his own creative well. These playful works centered mostly on superheroes, like Space Scouts and the Wondermen, and science fiction, including Star Lords, his personal take on a certain film franchise.
Yet despite having cultivated a habit for consuming comics, Eden proved largely oblivious to the industry’s subtle efforts to expose readers to gay characters and issues (especially in John Byrne’s influential run on Alpha Flight, wherein Northstar, the first openly gay superhero, was initially developed). Eden himself only discovered and accepted his own homosexuality at the relatively late age of 23, something he refers to as “confusing” yet “obvious” in retrospect. For years, Eden rejected his true sexual orientation, largely due to the fact that he lived in the city of Birmingham, which, unlike the metropolis of London or LGBT capital Brighton, was hardly known for its vibrant gay culture.
Despite committing his free time entirely to his comic book craft while working as a magazine editor, Eden rarely considered the political impact that the industry’s newfound attention to gay matters was having on the medium (even basing his opinion of the pivotal 1992 Alpha Flight issue, in which Northstar was officially declared gay, more because of its atrocious art than its cultural resonance). Even his own gay superhero team title, Spandex, didn’t develop as a clear political statement, but instead grew out of Eden’s earlier long-running independent comic, The O-Men. Feeling a strong affinity towards a handful of peripheral characters that had appeared in the series, Eden had a sudden epiphany . . . they were gay. Seeing the establishment of an all-gay superhero team as a novel approach in the often formulaic realm of comics, Eden halted production on The O-Men and shifted entirely over to his new pet project, which he would playfully call Spandex (named after the “silly” and “sexy” fabric that has become synonymous with caped crusaders).
Seeing Spandex as an opportunity for a fresh start with an entirely new cast of characters, Eden originally envisioned a short run for his self-contained narrative, which he hoped wouldn’t spiral out of control like his previous project. The first step in Eden’s process was to develop the look and distinct personalities of his superheroes—each of whom boast a name that doubles as a prominent buzzword in gay culture like Prowler, Butch, and Diva—by drawing from his own friends and lovers. From there, he allowed the story lines, which ranged from the whimsical (attack of the 50 ft. lesbian) to the weighty (familial shame is a recurring motif), to organically grown out of him. All the while, the story lines are constantly emphasizing the interpersonal relations between his characters to make his trademark “Superhero Soap Operas.” Despite a central focus on LGBT figures, Spandex was produced chiefly as a colorful and kinetic entry in the mosaic of modern comicdom. “I look at comics a bit differently. I always regard them firstly as entertainment. What is the purpose of a comic? Is it to show Doctor Doom fighting with the Fantastic Four, or is it to show a character grappling with their sexuality? I think it’s the fighting.”
Yet, despite Eden’s insistence that Spandex’s foundation lies more on its penetrating investigation of superhero interactions than on anything politically oriented, a maelstrom of social debate regarding the depiction of the LGBT community in popular culture ensued after its release. Celebrating an initial swell of popularity in the relatively modest world of independent comic conventions, Spandex’s beacon soon drew the attention of members of the stodgy British media, with many denouncing the series despite never having read it.
Migrating out to America and the rest of the world thereafter, Spandex attracted further ire and support as it became a prime target for the barbarism that rules the internet. While most critics championed the comic’s choices and goals, anonymous commenters on sites like Youtube took exception to the depictions of empowered gay people, with an alarming few threatening Eden with physical violence. While rocked by such “totally unexpected” dissent, Eden has continued producing his comic unfettered by his opponents by drawing confidence from the strength of his material and the effect he is having on others.
While Eden’s work has provoked debate, any insinuation that the artist was trying to alter attitudes towards gay people in the early stages of Spandex’s life would be a wild overstatement. “I can’t say I was trying to change comics, because I didn’t know anyone was going to read it.” Instead, Eden went into Spandex with the aim of telling a story that was conspicuously absent from modern comics. Noting a lack of substantial depth to the lot of existing gay superheroes (with most, Eden asserts, standing as one-dimensional figures defined entirely by their gayness), Eden sought over time to infuse his characters with broad strokes of nuance by portraying them as well-meaning, but flawed individuals with neuroses and hidden anguish. Rather than trot out a cavalcade of caricatures, Eden endeavored to showcase his complicated superheroes’ universal qualities, thereby exemplifying the shared experiences of all people, regardless of sexual orientation. “If I was trying to change any opinions about gay people, it would be that we are just as normal as straight people.”
Yet while he insists that Spandex has no inherent agenda, Eden has learned firsthand the intense level of scrutiny that can be placed on works broaching sensitive social issues. Spandex has been criticized on myriad of points, including its lack of heterosexual figures (which Eden attributes to the limited amount of space he’s had in six short issues), its potential reinforcement of stereotypical labels in the names of its superheroes (which he argues are tongue-in-cheek references to common terms in gay culture), and the oversaturation of gay sex (which he insists is not sensationalized and appropriately reflects a central part of normal gay life).
While the thought of upsetting people with his comics “mortifies” Eden, the artist has come to embrace his role as instigator when considering the great deal of attention he’s bringing to an oft-maligned segment of the population. “I’ve got no interest in toeing the line or being politically correct. I actually think being politically correct is more dangerous and patronizing than being ‘controversial.’” Over the course of the series, Eden has used Spandex’s narrative to illustrate the obstacles facing many gay people, including one particular issue that centers on depression and forced conformity, which Eden believes was subconsciously autobiographical in nature. “I’m trying to address issues that are often swept under the carpet. They are controversial issues, so controversy will probably happen.”
Despite arousing debate over the role of gay people in popular culture with its insightful perspective into the lives of people who are superpowered and gay, but also irreducibly human, Spandex’s life span is quickly drawing to a close. Eden is currently in the process of finishing production on the series’ final two issues. Spandex was intended to be a light, manageable engagement, but ballooned into an unwieldy beast that generated multiple points of controversy in its short time. Eden is both forlorn and relieved to be moving on from it. After Spandex’s finish, Eden will return to his former series, The O-Men, before moving on to another project (one which will likely share the spirit of his previous works, but without the LGBT focus of his most recent title). For now, though, the writer is left to reflect on the whirlwind that was Spandex.
In the short time since Spandex burst onto the scene, Martin Eden has already become one of the primary LGBT ambassadors for comicdom, an uneasy position for a man who defines himself as many things in addition to being gay. As his series coincided with many notable happenings (including last year’s first gay marriage in comic history), Eden found himself a frequent contributor to sites like Huffington Post and Gawker Media. While that which defines Eden threatens to confine him, the artist maintains pride in knowing that he gave a voice to a community desperately seeking one, which he hopes will inspire a broader and more nuanced depiction of gay people moving forward. “I had no idea what a mine-field my comic would be, and maybe I was naïve not to realize that. But I wouldn’t have changed anything I did.”