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Russell Dauterman is the MARVELous Young Gun of Comics

Gay social media went crazy when the artwork was released for Marvel’s Voices: Pride new, one-shot comic release of X-Men: The Wedding Special #1, coming May 29th. The storyline features the long-anticipated wedding of one of the most prominent queer relationships in the comic book world – Mystique and Destiny. After more than a hundred years of dating, we finally get to see them tie the knot, making it Marvel’s first female same-sex wedding in Marvel history. But was that what the social media frenzy was about? No. A variant cover, created by Marvel illustrator Russell Dauterman, caused the stir as it featured a hunky Hercules with his arm around a twinkish Iceman. Just as any normal gays would, stealing the spotlight and inciting gossip. Who cares that other queer characters like America Chavez, Loki, Black Cat, Nico and Karolina from The Runaways, Spider-Gwen, and Web-Weaver were included in the cover as well? Is this Marvel’s hottest new couple? More importantly, and pardon our candor, the internet wanted to know who’s on top and who’s on bottom.

Perhaps the only one who truly knows is Dauterman. Russell is probably best known as the artist of Marvel’s comic book series The Mighty Thor, with Jane Foster in the title role. He’s designed covers, covers for trading card variants, and designed superhero costumes for some of comics’ biggest names. In 2018, he was named one of Marvel’s new class of Young Guns, a program that spotlights the best up-and-coming artists in the comic book industry. Members of the Young Guns have gone on to be some of the most well-known illustrators in the industry, known for being masterfully innovative in their craft.

For Russell, the comic book world was his only world growing up. In a superhero way, it was his destiny, supported by his parents.

I was an anxious kid. I spent a lot of time in fantasy worlds from comics and cartoons – He-Man and She-Ra, Batman Returns, Gargoyles, and X-Men. X-Men: The Animated Series was my favorite – because of that show, I got into X-Men comics to get more of those characters. I’ve been a comic book fan ever since.

The way my parents tell it, I was drawing from when I could pick up a crayon. My parents put me in after-school art lessons from a pretty early age, which I’m very thankful for. I learned fundamentals there, and my parents got still-life paintings of fruit to hang in their house. I don’t remember a time when I wasn’t drawing. I started with crayon drawings of mermaids as a kid and graduated to marker drawings of Jean Grey or Princess Jasmine, and then pencil sketches in high school where I’d design new costumes for the X-Men. At the time I thought that stuff was brilliant, but once I started to pursue a career in comics, I realized I had to improve a lot – I needed to put in a lot of work to be hirable.

Even though the comic book world has been notoriously male-macho-based, there has always been a strong, yet silent queer faction of fans. Superheroes and mutants, different than “normal” people with sweeping storylines, saving the world. A fantasy safe space.

One of my earliest memories is of me having an inner monologue – very dramatic – about how I was different.  I didn’t have the words at five years old or whenever to know I was gay, but I knew I wasn’t like everyone else around me. 

The X-Men clicked with me immediately as a little kid. At seven years old, the appeal was probably the amazing powers and cool costumes and excitement – and the powerful women with big hair!  But I also latched onto the concept of the X-Men being different from other people. The animated series really highlighted that – and made it clear that their difference made the mutants special and awesome. As a teenager, I saw the X-Men as a metaphor for being gay and appreciated them on another level as I was coming out.

After graduating from Boston College, Dauterman went on to get a master’s degree in costume design from the University of California, Los Angeles. Before making his way to comics, he found himself working in the film industry as an illustrator for costume designers for films like The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and Captain America: The First Avenger.

I wasn’t quite sure what art-related career I should go after. I wanted to be a comic book artist early on, thought about animation, and went to school for costume design. But I kept coming back to comics. I found out there are different disciplines involved in comic book art: character and costume design, graphic design, figure drawing, painting, lighting and set design, storyboarding, and storytelling. There are usually just one or two artists making each book, so you end up wearing a lot of different hats.

Russell began his career with Marvel ten years ago, drawing the first issue of CYCLOPS. His first Marvel comic cover was THOR (2014) issue 1, featuring a female Thor, Jane Foster. It debuted at #1 on The New York Times Bestseller List for graphic novels, and he earned an Eisner Award nomination, regarded by many as the most prestigious, significant award in the comics industry. The series would also serve as inspiration for the 2022 film, Thor: Love & Thunder. It would not serve as a proud first for his career, but it would also lay the ground for connecting with his fan base.

The story centered around Jane being a superhero despite having terminal cancer. I didn’t expect people to latch onto Jane so much. I started hearing from people who were affected by cancer, talking about how Jane’s story resonated with them. That really struck me, that even if it’s in some small way, these things that are made to entertain can mean something more to people.

Marvel’s, and comic books in general, have had a strained relationship with LGBTQ representation. With legal restrictions and a straight-dominated executive level, comic artists and storytellers had to get their message across in different ways.

An additional wrinkle for queer representation in comics is the Comics Code Authority, which started in the ‘50s and regulated the content of comic books. My understanding is that the CCA did not allow for overt homosexual content. I think those guidelines loosened over time, but the CCA lasted until the 2000s. Because of that, queer characters and relationships were censored. Famously, writer Chris Claremont intended for the X-Men villain Mystique to be in a romantic relationship with a woman called Destiny – but in the ‘80s, Claremont had to use coded language to describe their relationship. That continued until just a few years ago when writer Jonathan Hickman had Mystique call Destiny her wife on-page for the first time. Now we’re going to see their wedding in an upcoming issue.

And how has Russell’s experience been as a queer artist in a “straight world?”

There are going to be corners of most industries or fandoms that aren’t welcoming of queer people, but I do my best to avoid those. Thankfully, Marvel has been super welcoming of me. I haven’t felt any sort of different treatment as a queer artist. They’ve been great to work for, and the fans I interact with are wonderful and very kind.

Queer representation has been on the rise, in both the comics and in the comic films. The same is true of the sci-fi world. Fans are becoming more vocal, younger generations are becoming more open to ideas, and business heads know the power of a queer dollar. What is Russell’s take on the boom in LGBTQ representation in his industry?

Comics have broadened to be more inclusive of queer characters and sensibilities as attitudes about queer people have evolved in the real world. When I was young, there weren’t gay characters in the stuff I loved. Now I look at things like HEARTSTOPPER, Wiccan and Hulking at Marvel, or Iceman being a gay member of the X-Men and I wonder how different my self-worth might’ve been if I’d had those guys to identify with when I was younger.

In June of 2021, Marvel started releasing an annual anthology, Marvel’s Voices: Pride, in time for Pride season, featuring LGBTQIA+ characters as well as creators behind the scenes, with a mission to “elevate and spotlight characters from all walks of life and identities in stories ranging from heartfelt and inspiring to action-packed and exhilarating!” As an integral part of Marvel’s new history, Dauterman was elated.

I think it’s wonderful that Marvel and DC put out these Pride anthologies and their anthology books that celebrate other marginalized communities. The books are a chance to spotlight often-underrepresented characters and give exposure to newer writers and artists which can hopefully be a steppingstone to more work.

As a costume designer, Russell has had the opportunity to design for some of Marvel’s most iconic characters, including Storm, Jean Grey, and Scarlet Witch. With such a hefty assignment, what is his creative process? Does it differ from creating a cover?

When I’m designing a character or costume, I always start with the character’s personality.  Every visual thing about a character – from their body type to hairstyle to clothing or posture – can tell the audience something about that person. I mean, the ultimate goal is to create an awesome, cool-looking costume, but the more it informs the character, the more impactful it’ll be.

I designed the current look for the X-Men’s Storm. The idea was that she was taking on a more aggressive attitude that harkened back to her punk era. I tried to combine a modern punk aesthetic with recognizable Storm iconography to create something new and representative of current Storm. I’ve been lucky to be part of the annual X-Men Hellfire Gala events, superhero versions of the MET Gala, celebrating mutant culture and mutant fashion. These are comics where Marvel heroes dress in high-fashion superhero couture. (And everything goes to shit, as you might expect in a superhero story!) When designing those looks, I’m trying to do more high-fashion costumes, while still aiming for something that feels character-appropriate.

For a cover, the goal is to create an eye-catching image – sometimes that means making an exciting pinup of a character, and sometimes a cover is more story-driven – where I’ll need to boil down a story into one compelling image that lets the viewer infer narrative.

With his extensive career and illustration list that runs longer than a CVS receipt, what has been a crowning achievement for Dauterman?

I’m the cover artist for the recent SCARLET WITCH series – Wanda Maximoff, if you’re familiar with the Marvel movies or WandaVision. Those covers are probably my favorite work I’ve done. I love Wanda, and love drawing all the witchy, supernatural stuff in her world. I’ve been absolutely thrilled to draw Jean Grey, Scarlet Witch, and Storm – my all-time favorite characters. Drawing them all has been a nearly lifelong dream of mine, but I’ve also been incredibly happy to design their current superhero costumes. That has to be my proudest moment.

Ok, getting back to his variant cover for X-Men: The Wedding Special #1. Regarding Hercules and Iceman, can he tell us who the, um, dominant one is?

[Laughs] I’ll leave that to people’s imaginations! The assignment for that cover was to do something joyous with a group of Marvel’s queer characters and I was excited to do it. I tried to add in character moments, like Gwenpool hanging on Web-Weaver, and Nico and Karolina from Runaways beaming at each other. I love Iceman and Hercules and definitely wanted to include them. I thought it’d be fun if Iceman was very happy to be standing next to Hercules. Herc is canonically very sexy!  I think that pairing would be exciting if it shows up again in the comics!

As a Marvel Young Gun and innovative voice in the comic book world, what kind of legacy does Russell want to create with his art?

I try to create the sort of art I want to see as a fan of these characters, and hope others like it too. A big goal of mine is to give people the same feeling I had as a kid seeing Marvel characters – an escape, a bit of joy, or something to look forward to.

And his message to his fans?

I’m so, so grateful to everyone who supports me and my work.  Hearing from people who enjoy my work or find something in it that resonates with them – all of that really means the world to me!

You can follow Russell on Instagram @RDauterman

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Michael Westman

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