Character: Jean-Paul “Northstar” Beaubier
Spoilers: Alpha Flight Issue #106, but it was 14 years ago, so I doubt it’s a problem
Email: Mogbrg@yahoo.com and I love to talk about this guy!
I don’t remember where I first heard about Northstar. I feel like I’ve always known him, although I didn’t know much about him. I was vaguely aware long before I was actively involved in fandom that there was a character peripheral to the X-Men by that name, and that he was both Canadian and openly gay. I write X-Men movieverse slash and write a deeply closeted Cyclops who’s struggling with coming out. I wanted to introduce a character who was further along in the coming out process so that he could talk about coming out with Cyclops. I remembered that there was a comic book character who fit the bill. So I went to investigate.
What I found fascinated me and really made me relate to him and want to write him for more than just that one scene. Not only was Northstar gay and from Montréal (where I used to live), he was – I found out – a gay father! His story of adopting a baby with HIV who then died was one I’d seen a number of gay men go through and I knew I wanted to use it in fanfiction. Here’s some of what I found out as I researched.
Jean-Paul Beaubier – code name “Northstar” – was one of the original members of the Canadian mutant team, Alpha Flight, which functioned sometimes as a sort of north-of-the-border affiliate to the X-Men. Alpha Flight had its own comic book for a number of years and Northstar was featured in many of its issues. After the comic’s run ended he was a member of the X-Men for a while. More recently, a teenage Northstar has shown up in the Ultimate X-Men reworking of the X-Men story. He’s shown up in a couple of the animated episodes. He was referenced in the American version of Queer as Folk (one of the main characters is a comics fan). There hasn’t been a hint of him in the X-Men movies.
Northstar’s powers are flight and super speed. He can fly around the world in minutes. He’s devilishly handsome. He’s a former circus performer, former Olympic skier, former revolutionary in the Québec Independentiste movement. He’s a balanced bilingual. He’s an orphan who was raised without family and then reunited with his twin sister in adulthood (also a mutant although, unfortunately, at least a little bit psychotic). There’s plenty to work with in all that.
But that’s not all there is to him. He’s also gay, and Northstar came out at a time when there were no openly gay characters in mainstream comics, except for the occasional villain. He comes out in Alpha Flight Issue #106. I own it, but it can also be found summarized and with some scans many places on the ‘net. It’s a great story; it’s also an absolutely dreadful comic. The dialogue is hokey and cheesy and awkward. The artwork is not very good, either. It goes way beyond willing suspension of disbelief and deep into the land of cringing. But the story itself...
Jean-Paul Beaubier, attractive single superhero, happens upon an abandoned baby, a baby born with HIV. He falls in love with her, adopting her and becoming a devoted father, parenting alone. He does all he can for her at a time when there really was no treatment other than supportive therapy for the various diseases she endures. She dies, and he’s devastated. He works tirelessly to promote AIDS research to save others the fate of his beloved Joanne. He gets plenty of positive attention as a noble adoptive father of one of the “innocent victims” of the AIDS epidemic. Ultimately, he can’t stand the homophobia inherent in that construction of her story or his own hypocrisy in going along with it and he comes out. Okay, so he comes out in a terrible speech delivered while in combat with someone named “Major Maple Leaf.” Still, stripped of all the hokey bullshit dialogue and bad artwork, what I say above is what happens. And it’s a story worth telling.
I’ve read that Northstar was always intended to be gay and that he was originally going to have AIDS, as well. There are early hints of his sexual orientation in the original Alpha Flight comics and he coughed a lot. It took until March of 1992, though, for him to come out and by that time he’d stopped coughing. I’m glad of that. I think if you’re going to have one gay character making him have AIDS is a bad idea and just furthers the AIDS-as-the-gay plague concept rife in our society. I like that instead he’s shown as affected by the HIV epidemic, but not infected himself.
Northstar’s personality has varied somewhat with his different appearances in different comics but he’s always shown to be very self-confident, to the point of arrogance (and sometimes beyond). He’s also depicted as impatient with those who aren’t as capable as he is (which is most people in his estimation). I cringe at some of the depictions of him, and not just because he’s often portrayed as such a cardboard character. His creator, John Byrne, was English Canadian, and the negative aspects of Jean-Paul’s character he wrote in are the quintessential English Canadian stereotype of the Québecois. They are as overworked, as biased, and as inaccurate as an Amos-and-Andy routine or as someone who chooses to write one Jewish character and makes him money grubbing.
I’ve chosen not to portray Jean-Paul in this stereotypical way in my fiction and I also like reading fiction better where he’s shown as confident in his abilities (as superheroes often are) but not to the point of arrogance and contempt for others. If you look at his story, those characteristics don’t go with the events of his life. I’ve known a number of single men who adopted, including those who adopted babies with life-threatening diseases. They’re a self-selecting group. Most men in our society don’t have the skills or temperament to be the primary parent, much less a sole parent. Those who can handle it are – to a man – nurturing, caring, and patient individuals. I think it makes more sense to go with the implications of his story than the biases of his creator in fleshing him out for fanfic.
A similar problem shows up in canon in the way Jean-Paul speaks. He intersperses French into his English – a common practice among the Québecois – but the French is invariably wrong. I’ve chosen to write him more realistically in his linguistic aspects as well as his personal ones.
An alternative explanation for the impatience that shows up in Northstar’s character was shared with me by candrawest. She says she thinks it comes from his mutant powers. Because of his super speed, everyone seems slow to him. I think that’s a much kinder and an interesting construction, but I still prefer him when his personality matches his life story. Taking care of a sick baby is not something that impatient, arrogant people often do, and certainly not something they do well.
Canonically, Jean-Paul’s closest friend is his Alpha Flight teammate Walter “Sasquatch” Langkowski, whose mutant power is the ability to turn into a large hairy beast. It’s not clear to me what that does for Walter, but he seems to like it. Their friendship is complicated by Jean-Paul’s difficult personality, as detailed above, and they sometimes are on the outs. Jean-Paul is also close to his sister, Jeanne-Marie, code named Aurora. His relationship with her is complicated by her psychosis, which seems to come and go (as do many comic traits).
Something is missing in Northstar’s life. He is terribly attractive. He has a good job as a super hero with the premier Canadian superhero team (yes there is a Beta Flight and even a Gamma Flight for those not good enough for Alpha Flight), and he is HIV-. Still, Northstar never seemed to have sex, or even a date, for much of his comics existence. In the comics it became possible – at least by the 1990s – to be gay as long as one never actually did anything about it. In this way, he was similar to the early gay characters on TV shows, who were depicted as homosexual (sometimes in a coded way) but never as sexually active.
The paucity of sex has been corrected in fanfiction. Northstar has been slashed with just about everyone. I think a number of writers have found Northstar/Angel a compelling pairing – two flying guys. I mostly pair him with an original character of mine named Adam Greenfield. Adam’s not a mutant and from a very different background, so it gives me an opportunity to explore how couples deal with difference.
In recent years, Marvel has been a little bolder in exploring Jean-Paul's sexuality, rather than just naming it. He had a crush on Bobby "Iceman" Drake in 2002, although he gave up when it was clear that his affections were not returned. The Ultimate version of Northstar was seen dating young Colossus, as well.
I love Jean-Paul. I’ve been writing him for a long time now and haven’t run out of things to say about him. I think I find him compelling in part because he’s gay and in large part because he’s out. I also really like the opportunity to include CanCon. He also is, to me, the quintessential Mutant Who Can Pass. He’s very powerful, but his powers don’t show. He has to make a choice about being out – both as a gay man and a mutant. I think that makes a great contrast with characters like Hank McCoy or Kurt Wagner who could never pass and those like Scott Summers who can under limited circumstances.
I would love to see Northstar featured in an X-Men movie. He could bring a perspective they haven’t had so far. I just hope if they do include him that they get the accent and the cultural context right. With Pyro and Colossus turning from English and Russian, respectively, in the comics to generic American in the movies, I fear they’d do the same to Jean-Paul. And an Americanized Jean-Paul would not be worth watching, I don’t think.
[ETCorrect] candrawest points out an error in the above. Pyro, although he has the very English name of St. John, is supposed to be Australian. Go know, as they say, although they probably don't say it in Australia. [Obliteraryallusion: My mom says some days are like that, even in Australia.]