Since its debut in 1963, the primary throughline of the X-Men series of comics has been the notion of evolution. This concept is best evidenced in the pages of Marvel's X-Men spinoff Iceman, which chronicles the growth and struggles experienced by the book's frost-making mutant protagonist Bobby Drake, who comes out of the closet as gay in his early 30s. Similarly, Sina Grace, the openly gay 30-year-old scribe of the subzero superhero's solo series, is undergoing a metamorphosis of his own, crossing the threshold from the realm of indie comics into the mainstream. For Grace, this seismic shift was most pronounced at last week's San Diego Comic-Con, the mecca of geek culture.
"When you do an independent book, you usually know your readers. You’ve usually met them, interacted with them, and they’ve followed you for a while," Grace says, sitting in a makeshift cubicle behind a booth for Image Comics, the publisher of his autographical graphic novel Self-Obsessed. "The most interesting thing about this Comic-Con is strangers coming up to me. They have this relationship with the character, and they have a relationship with you because of what you’re doing with the character. It's a different vibe."
In addition to his Iceman writing duties, Grace continues to produce his own stories and artwork, most recently his graphic memoir Nothing Lasts Forever. This balance of mainstream and indie ambitions was reflected in his SDCC appearance schedule. Events such as the Marvel X-Men panel and signings at the Marvel booth were balanced by the "It Gets Geekier: Why Queer Representation Matters" panel and signings at the booth for Golden Apple, a prominent comic book shop from his hometown of Los Angeles. Yet after 15 years of attending Comic-Con, Grace is less interested in the PR ops and more attracted to the people, another trait he shares with the extroverted Iceman.
"I’ve done Comic-Con for over a decade now, so some of the optical, photo opportunity stuff I’m, you know, a little over it. But I love the social component, because there are so many people here in a good mood," Grace says. "And there are so many people who come from literally all over the world. One of my collaborators, Shaun Struble, who works with me on Li’l Depressed Boy, he lives in Dallas and I get to see him. And it's in this [setting] where we can both feel like little baby rock stars."
While Grace's ascent has shone a spotlight on his talents and given him a new level of clout in the scene, he now has to worry about people saying he has sold out. But Grace insists he's maintained his credibility, artistic and otherwise.
"I don’t think I’ve betrayed the person I set out to be in college. I went to UC Santa Cruz so I was really like, ‘Practical activism! F the man! I’m never going to work for a corporation! My shoes are made from twigs!’" Sina jokes. "And I was a vegetarian on top of that, so I was just difficult. I just had energy. I had the energy to be a brat.
"I think I’m still honoring that person," Grace continues. "At the end of the day, I was an X-Men fan. I have worked in larger, more corporate institutions. And I think the way Marvel approached me, and I think the approach to the book, has been coming from a super honest place that’s about creating, you know, flesh to something. If they were telling me to do something for a PR gimmick, I would have to say no. But nothing has set off my college activist alarms. And I’m still making the personal work that matters to me. I’m crossing my eyes, nose and toes that I can maintain this."
In fact, Grace believes that working for the monolithic Marvel machine has made him a better writer.
"Working on Iceman has forced me to be more compassionate about all the characters that I write," Grace says. "Before Iceman, I was focusing heavily on Memoir, which is a character study on one character, yourself, and you get away with not filling in everyone in the world. Because it's just you. With a book like Iceman, you need to sympathize with him, and understand the stakes and why it's important for him to, say, have a conversation with his family. Why does he want to preserve a relationship with them instead of burning a bridge? The only way you can do that is proving to the reader that his parents are just as real as he is. It's forced me to write every script in my head through the perspective of every character. I didn't have that habit before Iceman."
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Yet another connection between Sina Grace and the character Bobby Drake is the time they've spent in Los Angeles. Iceman was a founding member of Marvel's first, albeit short-lived, L.A.-based super team the Champions, a responsibility he juggled during his formative years as a UCLA freshman. Sina, a native Angeleno, also spent his adolescent years in SoCal, specifically developing as an artist.
"[Los Angeles] messed me up in terms of perceptions, because I just assume everyone gets indulged and encouraged to explore art," Grace laughed. "It's only because we live in this city where art is commodified and it's an industry in terms of film, television, animation, we even have theater, a music scene. It took touring cons and signings in other cities to realize, ‘Oh, that’s just a Los Angeles, New York, Nashville, Seattle or San Francisco thing.’ In the best way possible, I got indulged and encouraged to make money from art. And that doesn't happen in a lot of cities. That’s just real specific to our home."
This nurturing aspect of L.A. will be spotlighted in upcoming issues of Iceman, when Drake returns to the City of Angels for a Champions reunion, and to take the next step in his personal evolution.
"Bobby Drake is figuring out how to define himself on his terms. So it's great to come back to the city where he studied accounting at UCLA and was the little kid of the group. It's great to have him as this 30-year-old who is re-examining all of his life choices. I think Los Angeles to him feels like he’s far from home. He can explore more comfortably, and I’ll leave it at that. People should pick up Iceman #6."