Written by Ibtisam Ahmed
Keywords: Wiccan and Hulkling, queer, race, utopia, identity, Young Avengers
This blog post is based on a book chapter written by the author, with the publication available here.
Imagining futures that are founded on equity and justice is an exercise that is fundamentally about hope. What is sometimes forgotten, however, is how marginalised communities navigate that sense of hope in context of their existing struggles. It is not that these futures cannot be fantastic, but they are inevitably informed by practical concerns. Utopias are not dreamed into existence in a vacuum; they are innovative alternatives to socio-political issues. Or, as theorist Lucy Sargisson posits, utopias are means of responding to contemporary problems in order to come up with radical solutions.
When José Esteban Muñoz conceptualised his queer futurities in texts like Cruising Utopia and Disidentifications – the latter actively engaging with both queerness and race as marginalisations – his central point was in how queer bodies create spaces of radical hope through dissent. They exist within structures and societies that are inherently cisheteronormative – that is to say, a society that is created and lived on the assumption that the default experience is that of individuals who are cisgender and heterosexual – and often patriarchal, and there are aspects of life that involve assimilation as a means of survival. At the same time, they disrupt the status quo in acts both personal and political. This intimate link between lived identities and their politicisation is what makes characters like Wiccan and Hulkling from Marvel Comics’ Young Avengers series such a fascinating embodiment of queer immigrant utopias. Wiccan (whose abilities include reality alteration) has a complicated and fantastical parentage but part of his heritage lies in having Romani roots, which makes his superhero alias both a form of reclaiming a spiritual practice and also a commentary on appropriation in Western spiritual spaces. Hulkling (a super-strong shapeshifter), meanwhile, is the child of two warring alien races raised on earth, thus making him an immigrant to the entire planet and not just the USA.
The two are a couple and deal with both homophobia and xenophobia in-universe and in the real world. It is important to note here that the characters have been centred in a major comic book arc at Marvel in 2020 (titled Empyre) which really shows the potential that queer immigrant (and interracial) love has in envisioning radical and hopeful futures. However, this blog post focuses on their character development in prior storylines; their ongoing development being left for a renewed analysis and possibly even a revisit of the argument presented here. (Re)Claiming Camp In the early years of their storylines, Wiccan and Hulkling both had a difficult time coming to terms with their identities. Wiccan is shown to deal with bullying at his school and has had subsequent struggles with mental health and paranoia. Hulkling, meanwhile, was closeted both in terms of his sexuality and his alien heritage, using his shapeshifting abilities to stay under the radar and not draw attention to himself. However, since coming out, joining the Young Avengers superhero team and, most importantly, finding companionship in each other, both characters have displayed a much more obvious comfort in their true selves. On the one hand, this has manifested in visual cues and evolving character designs. In Wiccan’s case, this has meant a move towards clothing that is more flowy and explicitly more eye-catching and individual. Additionally, he changed his alias to Wiccan (from Asgardian) as part of the discovery of his pagan heritage. For Hulkling, the visual design has been an interesting exploration of queer archetypes. As a muscular blond jock, he displays the idealised body seen in much of mainstream white gay culture. Yet, he has added personal touches over the years, such as earrings. Most importantly, he has become more comfortable displaying his naturally occurring green skin even outside his superhero persona, thus displaying a comfort he did not have in his younger years. This outward expression of self-comfort is also reflected in their growing connections with queer culture and iconography. In a humorous scene, Wiccan has to craft disguises for his team when they visit Europe and he instinctively gets inspired by his love of musicals like The Sound of Music. The pair are seen in queer nightclubs, they display a large rainbow Pride flag in their window, and they make constant references to modern queer pop culture.
This is not just meant to be a tongue-in-cheek reference to their youth and cosmopolitan personal lives. Culture and symbols play a huge role in creating a sense of community for queer individuals. When the topos of the queer utopia is so thinly spread out – and often restrained by access to resources – even a small point of belonging, such as connecting through the mutual love of an iconic film or being able to openly display a flag, is an entry point into the comfort of the community. I take a moment here to refer to the seminal queer theory text, Susan Sontag’s Notes on Camp. For Sontag, the poetics and visuals of camp are a statement of intent and liberation, not just an example of being different for the sake of being different. Thus, the campiness of Wiccan and Hulkling’s lives goes beyond being a simple aesthetic mode. It is an identifier and a political act of connecting with a wider, radical movement that unsettles the cisheteronormativity of broader society. In doing so, the pair become not only a part of Muñoz’s queer utopia, they actively embody it. Assimilating for Safety Despite the openness of their queer camp lives, Wiccan and Hulkling also take careful steps to fit in. Wiccan is raised in a suburban Jewish household that is implied to be white (despite his roots being more complex). As for Hulkling, his adoptive guardian also has the outward appearance of a suburban white housewife and, for most of his childhood, he is careful to never display his green skin. It is notable that these households are explicitly shown to be in a fictional USA that nonetheless has the same level of racial tensions as its real-world counterpart. For instance, the characters have had run-ins with a white supremacist group – who took issue both with their immigrant roots and their queerness. This makes their outward appearance an exercise in both survival and privilege. On a superficial level, both can pass for white and are implied to have the financial stability that is available to the middle class. Yet, as has been shown time and time again, whiteness can be made conditional depending on the desirability of the body in question, doubly so if said body is an immigrant. Anti-Semitism already has a contentious relationship with the ethnic ambiguity that is imposed on white Jews like Wiccan’s family, and his Romani links explicitly connect him to an oppressed and oft-misunderstood minority community. The challenges Hulkling faces as an immigrant are more metaphorical given the fictitious nature of his parentage, but they are no less potent in making the point.
In this case, the characters have to assimilate for the safety of their loved ones – and also a means of expressing the cultures of their families in a personal way (such as the symbolism of their wedding in the 2020 Marvel series Empyre). As with the analysis present in Kenji Yoshino’s Covering, the American Dream becomes less an aspiration and more a necessity for outsiders. Yoshino considers the impact that multiple identities can have on being queer, making individuals who are at this intersection having to choose when it comes to overtly displaying one part of their identity while discreetly embodying another. A Thoughtful Navigation It is easy to think, therefore, that Wiccan and Hulkling are not actually all that utopian. Indeed, it would not be too much of a stretch to think that they are simultaneously the “Unhappy Queers” and “Melancholy Migrants” of Sara Ahmed’s The Promise of Happiness. But that is too simplistic a reading of the Young Avengers texts. The reality is that they inhabit a real-world space in which queerness is made to be unhappy and migration is made to be melancholic, but they defy both of those expectations. Their queerness is joyous and open and emancipatory, a point of overt radical difference. Their immigrant heritage, meanwhile, is more subtle and careful, but, crucially, it is normalised. While it may be discreet, it is never denied. Thus, they are much more akin to Ahmed’s revolutionary killjoy, whose communal strength is derived from undermining the oppressive joy of the status quo. Wiccan and Hulkling are complex, human characters, whose struggles are both sobering and messy. And utopian hope in these circumstances is never a clean and smooth experience. Its radicalism lies not just in uncritical idealism, but in balancing potential with pragmatism. Struggles are not to be cast aside or ignored but taken methodically and – this point is vital! – in the interests of communal joy. Thus, assimilation coming into play when it comes to the safety of loved ones, and open campiness being the standard otherwise. As a queer immigrant of colour myself, I find this approach to utopia more nuanced because it allows me room to breathe and find moments of self-care while still subverting oppressive norms in personal and intimate ways.
To learn more about the researcher, please click here.
Ahmed, S. 2010. The Promise of Happiness. Duke University Press.
Muñoz, J. E., 1999. Disidentifications: Queers of Color and the Performance of Politics. University of Minnesota Press.
Muñoz, J. E., 2009. Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity. New York University Press.
Sargisson, L., 2012. Fool’s Gold? Utopianism in the Twenty-First Century. Palgrave Macmillan.
Sontag, S., 1964. Notes on Camp. Available at https://monoskop.org/images/5/59/Sontag_Susan_1964_Notes_on_Camp.pdf.
Yoshino, K., 2002. Covering. Yale Faculty Scholarship Series.
*Various comic book stories featuring Wiccan and Hulkling are broadly referenced in this piece. The full list can be found in the original publication, highlighted at the top of the blog post.