It has been my observation—and perhaps, due to the era I first started reading comics, I am biased—that some of the most “progressive” comic books ever to see print were not of the last ten years but in a sort of “under-the-radar” period during the late 70s into the 1980s. And I think this was a result of having very liberal (for the time) writers/editors plus, as I’ve said, a lack of a “spotlight” on the entire undertaking.
Case in point: the Marvel superhero “Cloud,” who first appeared in Defenders #123 (1983) and is, I believe, one of the first truly gender-fluid characters in comics.
Now, to be sure, there have been several truly gender-fluid characters in comic books before and after cloud.
For example, there was the shape-changer Paradox, who first appeared in Marvel Preview #24 in 1980…
…Rebis, the former Negative Man/Negative Woman who first appeared in 1989’s Doom Patrol #19, may be considered more androgynous/non-binary than gender-fluid, but I’ll allow it for this list:
…and probably one of the most famous gender-fluid comic book characters of all time, the X-Men’s Mystique (though interestingly, her most prominent scenes in this regard are in the various X-Men movies and cartoons rather than the comics):
Please note: I am not saying Cloud or any of these other examples are “perfect” gender-fluid or non-binary representations, or that the writers at the time were intending the character to embody the elements/definitions associated at present with those concepts. I am just saying…if you are looking in Comics History for possible representations/explorations of these themes, the Cloud storyline in what would become New Defenders is a pretty safe bet.
Cloud started existence as a star nebula. Noticing that the stars around them are disappearing (possibly due to Cosmic Cube f**kery), they travel to Earth to seek help. Along the way, they accidentally cause the car crash and near-deaths of cute blond couple (who look almost like twins, more on this later as I believe this was a retroactively-added element) Carol Faber and Danny Milligan. Cloud takes on the appearance of young Carol, joins the super-villains known as the Secret Empire, and tangles with the Defenders.
Later, Cloud decides to stick around with the Defenders and have adventures with them.
Now. Here’s where things get interesting.
Resident Defenders psychic Moondragon apparently has an overall plan to sexually seduce (!) all her fellow team-members for her own manipulative purposes. Included is young naive Cloud, because…low-hanging fruit, I suppose.
Cloud, probably never having dealt with issues of human sex and love before, responds super-affirmative to Moondragon’s attentions. But Cloud is also alarmed/confused—Moondragon is a chick, and she is (apparently) a chick, and two chicks having a relationship doesn’t compute (because again, Cloud is super-naive, not very worldly), so…
…so Cloud takes on a male persona and comes back to Moondragon and is like: “my body is ready!”
Interesting to note: even though Moondragon is **psychically seducing & manipulating the others**, she somehow initially thinks that Cloud’s gender-switch is a, quote, “perverted trick.” (Moondragon…kinda *sucks*)
It is at this moment, of course, that the entire New Defenders burst into Moondragon’s room:
Cloud’s “change” seems to hit Bobby Drake—you know him as the X-Man Iceman—particularly hard. Because Bobby had a crush on “female” Cloud…but is decidedly neurotic about her male persona.
What ensues over the next bunch of issues is Bobby acting like a complete jackass to Cloud. And he acts like SUCH a jackass…that to me, it’s almost “groundbreaking” to see. Because here is a mainstream superhero acting like a transphobic jackass.
NOW: I’m sure *at the time* Bobby’s actions were not interpreted as jackassery, but rather somewhere between “gay panic” and “normal for the era.” That said, Bobby still acts like a big insecure jackass towards Cloud:
Good Lord, what a jackass!
Around this time, the New Defenders run into this highly-mystical dude who at one point sees the “true” essence of each team-member. Appropriately, Bobby Drake is a Fool. And as for Cloud…
To me, this is an important moment, as it indicates that rather than a one-off maneuver to get with Moondragon, this “dual” androgynous aspect of Cloud is a real part of them. A “package deal,” if you will.
Bobby slowly warms up to Cloud again as they change back to their female form. But his neurosis regarding their male aspect keeps cropping up, as in this interlude:
And the hypocritical element—at least one of them—is that Bobby Drake himself is a mutant and experiences prejudice based on that fact. So maybe he should be a little more open-minded to others.
Maybe. But instead we get one-liners from him like:
At this point, Cloud confronts Moondragon after their feelings for her…and she admits that it was all basically “subliminal seduction”:
Yikes. What a s**tty team for Cloud to be stuck in. (At least Beast seemed kinda cool.)
Bobby—who CLEARLY still has romantic feelings for Cloud—takes them out to dinner to have “the talk.”
As progressive and ground-breaking as this early look into the concept of being gender-fluid can be…things begin to inevitably “turn” in the storyline so all that subversive gender-talk can go mostly bye-bye…
It starts with this scene, in which Cloud makes a 360-degree turn from “this is the entirety of who I am” to “Moondragon made me do it” and “I don’t want to be twisted and weird!”
As you can imagine, this is a f**king DREAM for Bobby, who finally has the “out” he needs to rationalize Cloud’s gender-fluidity and help it out the door…
And so…Cloud’s sudden turnabout is rather disappointing. The introduction of the Carol Milligan/Danny Faber backstory only muddies it even more, because it provides a handy “rationale” for Cloud’s gender fluidity (rather than seeing it as an integral part of who they are).
Cloud is a star nebula—so technically, they have no gender. They can only “borrow” human personas to anthropomorphize itself.
So Cloud has gone from being “cisgendered” to “transgendered” to “gender fluid” to “no gender” to “?”
Is there even an applicable definition? Should there be?
As Cloud leaves, they have a message for Bobby Drake/Iceman:
And as for Bobby Drake…
That’s another post.