In 'We Need To Talk About...', the weekly column from NME's Jordan Bassett, J-to-the-B vents his spleen on the topical issues that matter the most (or the least, if it happens to be a slow news day). This week: how Marvel's first ever drag queen superhero, Shade, has strutted into our hearts
Did I ever tell you about the time I was a drag queen? It was a magazine feature and accompanying short documentary, wherein the fantastic – and friendly – London drag troupe Sink The Pink took me under their bejewelled wings and taught me everything they know. Despite their patience and expertise, I successfully became the world’s worst drag artist. I even had a crap drag name: Darlene Desmond, which everyone I spoke to about it hated.
Hell, though – what a rush! I forgot to tuck, forgot all my dance moves, forgot how to walk in heels – and the performance I took part in, at Swansea University Students’ Union, flashed by in a blur of sight, sound and synthetic wigs. What I learned, though, was the power of drag, of transformation, of becoming someone else and owning that new sense of identity with relish.
It’s about bloody time, then, that we had a decent drag queen superhero. You could argue that Superman would have got less done if he’d had to fix his weave every two seconds, but imagine how much that luscious head of hair would have pissed Lex Luther off. And Christopher Nolan would have had a harder time making Batman all serious if the Caped Crusader spent half his time teaching Alfred the butler how to vogue. But there are a few weapons in the drag queen’s arsenal that would aid and abet any superhero. For a start, one withering putdown would be enough to make Spiderman’s nemesis Dr Octopus’s tentacles sag, and you can only imagine how crestfallen Catwoman would be if you managed to out-sass her.
That’s why I welcome Shade, the first ever drag queen superhero to strut through the panel of Marvel Comics. She’s been created by writer Sina Grace and artist Nathan Stockman, who together work regularly on Iceman, the publishing powerhouse’s first comic to feature a queer lead. Shade debuted in the recent issue four of Iceman, replete with a glowing green bouffant and gaudy purple earrings. This is allegedly her superhero debut, although I’m pretty sure I saw Shade save The Glory in east London’s Eurovision party from complete chaos last year.
Sina Grace recently told LGBT+ website The Advocate: “I really wanted this series to push readers to new and better stories about the whole queer experience and how it applies to being both a mutant and a superhero.” A noble message equal, you sense, to her other objective: “My goal with this new Iceman series is for everyone – myself, the readers, the characters involved in the comic book – to have fun.” Social justice: better with cartoon violence.
Shade isn’t the world’s first drag queen superhero. Just last year, Netflix launched Super Drags, a grown-up Brazilian cartoon about a crew of drag queen superheroes – Lemon Chiffon, Safira Cian and Scarlet Carmesim – who must bring down the immaculately contoured Lady Elza, an evil queen intent on the most heinous crime of all: she wants to steal away all the glitter from the world. I mean, Jesus. What a stone-cold bitch. Even Doc Oc – as far as I can tell – was just enraged he could never find anything in Topshop with eight armholes.
Super Drags is terrific fun, and indicates a shift in perception of gender fluid characters. There was, a few years ago, an Indonesian movie called Madame X, in which a fabulous hairstylist moonlights as a superhero who wields a set of hair straighteners like a pair of deadly nunchucks. In general, though, popular culture often aligns gender fluidity and evil, and indeed the drag character is a well-established staple of the horror genre, a fact explored in a lecture from The Miskatonic Institute of Horror Studies in London last year. The gender fluid deviants of horror movies – Norman Bates in Psycho, Buffalo Bill in The Silence of the Lambs – may reflect a wider distrust of those who stray from the biological norm.
In 2019, though, with drag and queer identity having become firmly mainstream (see: Ru Paul’s Drag Race, Queer Eye, Conchita Wurst winning Eurovision way back in 2014), we’re seeing drag characters assume superhero status. It’s a seemingly frivolous but not insignificant progression that gives lie to the suggestion that the world’s becoming a more intolerant place. Shade: you’re saving the world in more ways than one, and your hair looks great.
Sink the Pink, who after more than decade in the game have become a proper London institution (they now even have an annual panto, which is honestly one of the highlights of my Christmas), built their reputation on themed club nights (from ‘Colour’ to ‘Toys’). I might have missed it, but I don’t think they’ve hosted a Superhero night. It might be high time for Darlene Desmond – shit name and all – to save the day.