Podcasts about Marvel’s ‘X-Men’ resonate with LGBTQ fans
By Kwame Opam
In the world of podcasts about “X-Men,” flitting from allegories for inequity to “The Real Housewives” is almost effortless.
In the eighth episode of “Cerebro,” a popular podcast that looks at the mutant superhero franchise through a gay lens, Connor Goldsmith, who is the host as well as a literary agent, and his guest, author Anthony Oliveira, delve deep into the character known as Iceman. The two talk through how the character’s coming out as a gay man in 2015 clarified nearly 60 years of subtext in the series. After touching on topics like the closet and bigotry in politics, their discussion culminates with Iceman getting a few taglines for an imagined Bravo reality series starring Marvel’s mutants.
“Some boys are friends of Dorothy,” Oliveira offers, “but I’m the Blizzard of Oz.”
“Cerebro” is an upstart garnering attention among the scores of podcasts covering comics culture. “X-Men” devotees in particular are already primed by the inherently political nature of the comic series, whose mutants are seen as an allegory for marginalized groups in the U.S., symbolism Marvel’s former President Stan Lee welcomed. And the fans are hungry for what “Cerebro” and other podcasts like it have to say.
That the X-Men are currently enjoying an editorial renaissance helps. The new status quo, as established by a miniseries in 2019, has the mutants settling on the fictional island of Krakoa and forming an independent nation. It has been called a golden age for the franchise.
A community of “X-Men” fans — notably young, self-identified queer people of color — is growing around podcasts and on social platforms including Twitter, TikTok and Discord. Goldsmith, 34, came to podcasting after prodding from a friend, hoping that it would make him feel less stir-crazy during the pandemic lockdowns. Now, “Cerebro” gets downloaded roughly 20,000 times a week, with “big jumps” in listeners over the past year, Goldsmith said. “Jay and Miles X-Plain the X-Men,” a longtime hit in the category, launched in 2014 and is similarly popular.
“The community of ‘X-Men’ podcasting is something I’ve never really seen elsewhere,” said Jay Edidin, co-host of “Jay and Miles X-Plain the X-Men.” He said he appreciated that there were now more perspectives about the franchise on the podcasts.
Goldsmith, who divides his time between New York and Los Angeles, spoke to The New York Times last month about his show and why “X-Men” continues to be relevant.
The following is an edited and condensed version of the conversation.
Q: What pushed you to make this podcast?
A: I was inspired by the Krakoan era that [“X-Men” writer and artist] Jonathan Hickman, my friend and client Tini Howard, and a number of other incredible writers had jump-started. It was a bold new era for the “X-Men” after the franchise had been downplayed for a long time. There’s lots of theories as to why, but I think fans did agree that it was not a great time for the “X-Men.” I think even writers and editors who worked on it during that time would agree that it wasn’t the peak. Now we’re in a golden age.
The character format occurred to me in part because Tini was writing “Excalibur,” and Betsy Braddock was my favorite when I was a kid. So I was like, well, we could do the first episode on Betsy, and I could have Tini on to talk about the book that she’s doing. I wasn’t expecting the response to me. I thought the guests were going to be the thing. It turns out people responded to me in a very flattering and appreciative way.
Q: And talk about the guests. You’ve had authors, comedians, a Pulitzer winner, an Emmy nominee.
A: Honestly, a lot of the time, my favorite episodes are the ones I do with fans who are not in the industry, who are just friends of mine or people I’ve met through talking about the comics. There’s a joy, I think, in exploring what these stories can mean to readers specifically.
Having Black guests on who can talk about what it felt like to read “God Loves, Man Kills” [which deals with the murder of mutant children at the hands of religious zealots] as a kid in the ’80s — that is really meaningful. I’ve had several trans guests on, and those are some of the most interesting episodes to me, because the trans experience and the gay experience are similar in some ways. They’re very different in other ways. I have a lot of trans friends, and I think that if we’re looking at the minority metaphor of the X-Men, the issue right now that is being litigated in public in the most X-Men-style way is the rights of trans people.
Q: Listening to your show and reading the comics, you can tell there’s a kind of political awareness about the characters running through the series, even if it’s not consistent.
A: Yeah. I don’t think the “X-Men” works very well in the ’60s, because it hasn’t identified that beat yet. Similarly, I think that when the “X-Men” fell off for a lot of people, it was after the “House of M” storyline, where the mutant culture was destroyed. The reason Krakoa is resonating with a lot of people as a setting is we’ve revitalized the mutant race. We’re asking questions about self-determination. We’re asking questions about minority separatism. We’re asking a lot of questions that are provocative, and the comic isn’t providing easy or simple answers.
The mutant metaphor is never going to be perfect, right? Black people, or Jewish people, or gay people, or trans people, or whoever, don’t shoot laser beams out of their eyes. But there’s enough of a hook there that if you start thinking, “OK, if I, as a gay person, was offered the opportunity to go to a gay Krakoa, how would I feel about that?” What do you do as a marginalized person if it feels like the culture around you will simply never allow you to live in peace?
Q: The podcast explores these characters through varying lenses and also from a genuinely joyful place. You spend one episode talking about a character, Selene, and how she’s “giving Cher.”
A: That was a really funny bit! In that episode, [reporter] Alex Abad-Santos and I talk about how Selene is the kind of gay icon like Cher where Gen Z doesn’t really know her. So older gays are trying to explain, and then they see something.
I mean, Kate Bush is a huge example right now, right? I am a lifelong Kate Bush obsessive, and suddenly all these young people are discovering her for the first time because her song was used in “Stranger Things.” That’s what that whole episode was — me and Alex trying to explain these campy ’80s stories to young readers. Right? And finding an audience, because guess what? TikTok loves Selene now! It did work.
I grew up in the shadow of the AIDS crisis. I didn’t have very many gay role models or gay elders in my life that I could talk to at all. I’m in my 30s, but I get emails all the time from younger people who are feeling really seen. That’s really moving. And I can’t believe that it’s spinning out of a weekly, three-hour gay podcast about the X-Men.