The Queer Importance Of Dazzler, Marvel’s Disco-Inspired, Rollerskating Superheroine
As Donald Trump continues his courtship of white supremacists and his fearmongering about the progression of civil rights that benefit blacks, Latinos, Muslims, women, and LGBT individuals, it would be easy to declare 2016 a tipping point, the lowest depths to which our modern society has yet sunk. And a look back at the events that led to the 1980 creation of Marvel’s superheroine Dazzler reflects a similar America, one also simmering with hatred. Helping to defeat incumbent President Jimmy Carter by electing Ronald Reagan in 1980 were the type of disaffected white voters turned off by the rise of disco music. A staple of nightclubs in the late ’70s, disco was largely celebrated by women and gay men and sung by artists of colour. Its dominance on the airwaves alienated straight white men who pledged allegiance to rock music, which culminated in Disco Demolition Night in Chicago on July 12, 1979, where a crate stuffed with disco records was blown up on the field at Comiskey Park, home of the Chicago White Sox.
Before that night, disco popularity had been enjoying a meteoric rise. The 1977 collaboration between Donna Summer and Giorgio Moroder birthed the single “I Feel Love,” the first disco song to be backed entirely by synthesizers, which revolutionized the genre and would eventually lead to the creation of techno. That same year, Jamaican-born singer Grace Jones released her debut album Portfolio, produced by Tom Moulton. Jones would go on to dominate the disco scene for the next few years, with the subsequent releases of ’78’s Fame and ’79’s Muse. The mesmerizing singer would become the main inspiration for Marvel’s attempt to cash in on the disco craze by creating a superhero in tandem with Casablanca Records, so they could sell tie-in comic books and records all at once. And thus Dazzler was born, first sketched by John Romita Jr. (son of legendary Amazing Spider-Man artist John Romita).
But unfortunately for Dazzler, who could have been a powerful image of a black woman battling for her life while also demanding recognition as a disco singer, Casablanca Records deferred to their film division. Filmworks had been enticed by Bo Derek in 10 and they wanted to work with her, so Dazzler became a white woman, modelled after Derek. According to Romita Jr.’s Modern Masters interview, he was very disappointed by the change. “Grace Jones was a very popular singer at the time, and I wanted her to be the basis of the character, because I thought that was realistic. And then, all of a sudden, it became Bo Derek… and that’s when I said, ‘That’s it. They’ve sold out for some whitebread blonde chick.’ She was very hot at the time, but I thought she wasn’t as realistic a choice as Grace Jones was… If I thought of a nightclub chick, that was Grace Jones.”
The Bo Derek–inspired Dazzler debuted in 1980’s Uncanny X-Men #130 amid the Dark Phoenix Saga. Months earlier, Disco Demolition Night had occurred and the genre’s popularity was beginning to wane. But Dazzler’s series marched on, even as the potential film fell apart due to creative issues, and Dazzler #1 became the first comic book sold exclusively to comic book shops, selling over 400,000 copies.
Creatively, the series was never a juggernaut. It was a lightweight Buffy the Vampire Slayer (the movie version starring Kristy Swanson as the more airheaded, less-committed-to-saving-the-world Slayer), where flighty Alison Blaire used her mutant powers of transforming sound into light and energy to put on spectacles during her singing performances. She resisted becoming a superhero, favouring advancement in her singing career and finding love, but she would become entangled in drama each issue in spite of her resistance. The series would only last 42 issues, ending in March 1986 and prompting Dazzler to briefly join the X-Men.
Despite being a rather insignificant solo title, Dazzler remains a hugely popular character, particularly among queer Marvel fans. At this year’s San Diego Comic-Con, I was excitedly informed by more than a few friends that they couldn’t wait to purchase a newly announced Marvel Legends figure of Dazzler in her iconic white costume.
I wandered the aisles of the convention floor, digging through back-issue bins to find issues from Dazzler’s solo run. Her gay popularity had always intrigued me, but I never fully understood it until I read most of the 42-issue series. What was it about a white woman singing disco music, sashaying around on roller skates, that resonated with gay fans? Though Marvel often embraced social issues like drugs and racism in the ’70s, they didn’t tackle gay characters or the AIDS epidemic once it hit New York in the early ’80s. This is, of course, largely due to the fact that the disease was still relatively unknown in the early ’80s, and certainly in the time that Dazzler was conceived. It was a full year after the series ended that Ronald Reagan finally acknowledged the AIDS crisis—after thousands had died in silence. Marvel did address the crisis in the early ’90s in the pages of Alpha Flight and X-Men, the latter of which featured the first instance of the popular mutanity as an allegory for homosexuality that became prominent with Bryan Singer’s 2000s X-Men films.
This was a decade after Dazzler’s prominence as a character. But the rebirth of disco as a popular style of music, intrinsically tied to the deeper understanding that it was a creative haven for queer people and people of colour, has made Dazzler popular to this day. Even though her stories were never tied to the disco scene at large, her journey of struggling for acceptance from a dismissive father and longing for the love of her missing mother was something that queer readers, who only years earlier could have been arrested for showing signs of affection toward a member of the same sex in public, connected with. Embracing your sexuality had to happen in dark, sweaty nightclubs with disco music blaring, or, for younger gay men far from the metropolises of New York and San Francisco, it could occur in their childhood bedrooms, reading Dazzler’s exploits in between more butch fare likeX-Men and Spider-Man that wouldn’t get them bullied.
Gay visibility has come quite a long way since people burned disco records in baseball parks, but like the late ’70s, today’s political climate is just as prickly, just as dangerous. With a GOP platform that denies basic civil rights to gays, lesbians, and transgender individuals by invoking “natural marriage” between a man and a woman, deciding which bathrooms transgender people can use, and pointing to conversion therapy as an alternative to homosexuality, there’s clearly a crisis that requires activism from LGBT people and their allies. Perhaps it’s perfect that we’re on the verge of a Dazzler figurine release from Marvel Legends. She’s a superheroine that Marvel and its queer fanbase has never needed more.
Marvel has made increased efforts toward diversity, launching a new Black Panther series written by Ta-Nehisi Coates and a companion series by Roxane Gay and Yona Harvey, making them the first black women the company has ever hired as writers. So it’s a distinctly perfect time to embrace Dazzler’s queer fanbase and the history the original series was never able to explore. As I leafed through pages of old Dazzler comics, sealed since their initial released in the early ’80s, I realized I was combing through a bit of history that was exciting but also desperate for context. In lieu of full-out returning Dazzler to her Grace Jones roots, the ability to touch on stories of queer men and women, particularly those of colour who found solace in the disco nightclubs that Dazzler performed in, could be a beautiful love letter to the gay individuals who’ve read her since her 1980 debut—and also to new fans like me who’ve discovered an inadvertent gay icon in the annals of Marvel legends.