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Marvel’s What If...? was inspired by a low-key gay icon and favorite of Stucky shippers

Every Stucky fan artist’s favorite magazine illustrator, J.C. Leyendecker

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Bucky, Peggy Carter, and Dum Dum Dugan in Marvel’s What If...? episode 1. Image: Marvel Studios
Susana Polo is an entertainment editor at Polygon, specializing in pop culture and genre fare, with a primary expertise in comic books. Previously, she founded The Mary Sue.

When Polygon asked Marvel’s What If...? production designer Paul Lasaine about the inspirations behind the Disney Plus series — the first animated production set in the same world as the Marvel Cinematic Universe — he had a name ready at once.

“It all started with J.C. Leyendecker, the 20th century American illustrator,” said Lasaine. “Super stylish. That was the basis for our the beginnings of our style. That really influenced the characters.”

Two other creatives working behind the scenes on What If...? — animation supervisor Stephan Franck and character designer Ryan Meinerding (who, as Marvel’s head of visual development also produces those painted concept art pieces you see in behind the scenes Marvel looks) — told Polygon they were all on the same page. The first place to look for the look behind What If...? was Joseph Christian Leyendecker, preeminent among America’s 20th-century cohort of commercial illustrators and inspiration to artists from Normal Rockwell to Alex Ross.

Franck cited Leyendecker third in inspirations for What If...?, after Marvel comics and the Marvel movies themselves. “People picked it up a lot on episode 1 because of the period stuff,” he said, “but it’s even beyond that. It’s in the abstraction of that approach, it’s in the shape language, there’s an elegance and sophistication to it that elevates it in a way that gives you this animated look that you’ve never seen before.”

Four men and one woman stand at a railing in natty 1900s fashion. Three of the men and the woman are gazing at the one on the far left. The one on the far left is looking back at the men only.
A 1907 Leyendecker illustration for Arrow Collar shirts.
Image: J.C. Leyendecker/Arrow

Leyendecker, who illustrated covers of the Saturday Evening Post for over four decades and made the Arrow Collar man a household name in 1920s America, is a natural place to look for examples of stylized renderings that are still recognizable as individual figures. And Meinerding said as much.

“What we were really looking to do is find an animated style that’s felt maybe more realistic than other types of animation that have come before, but still had the sense that it was drawn, still had the sense that it had some artistry behind it, that had nice design and nice thoughtful linework and tones to it.”

What If...?’s source material is live-action film, and so the characters have to be recognizable as the actors who originated them. But on the other hand, Meinerding said, animation has its own concerns. “You have to do something that’s going to be able to emote. [We figured it out] using the parameters of ‘based on the MCU, maybe a little bit more realistic’ and mixing in stylization from American illustration.”

But there’s a certain irony to the image of Marvel and Disney creatives pouring over Leyendecker’s work for inspiration. Leyendecker is famous for being the shoes Norman Rockwell aspired to fill at the Saturday Evening post, for defining the look of early 20th-century magazine and commercial illustration. But he’s also famous for undeniable homoerotic tone of his work.

Three men in military uniforms lean on the deck railing of the S.S. Leviathan, exchanging glances with each other. Also, there’s a lady in a fancy cape but nobody is looking at her.
Leyendecker’s “The S.S. Leviathan.”
Image: J.C. Leyendecker

In Leyendecker’s fashion plates, men wearing the freshest Roaring ’20s attire lounge about in masculine company, the folds of their clothing exquisitely rendered with weight and texture. They part their loosened dressing gowns to bare sculpted gams in advertisements for interwoven socks. They use their fit bodies to compete in college sports, turn smoldering gazes on other beautifully dressed men, and never seem to ever actually make eye contact with their female companions.

Leyendecker was not open about his sexuality, so speculation on it can only be speculation from historians and casual fans — but it’s not uninformed speculation. The artist never married, but shared his home with Charles Beach, the model who posed for his most famous works, from 1914 until his death in 1951 at the age of 77. Leyendecker’s will split his estate between Beach and his sister.

Whether because of his draftsmanship, his marriage of realism with stylization, or his homoerotic aesthetic (or all three) Leyendecker is a favorite of fan artists, particularly those who enjoy creatively contributing to the “Stucky” ship, which pairs Captain America with Bucky Barnes, the Winter Soldier. Here, artist M refers to their Leyendecker inspired portrait of Bucky and a pre-serum Steve as “obligatory.” Here, artist Pineapplebread created an homage to Leyendecker’s “Football Player” — a bearded Steve Rogers wrapped in a rainbow flag — for Pride in 2020.

The artist has inspired innumerable queer fans of Marvel characters, and now he’s directly inspiring an installment, however separated multiversally, of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. It wouldn’t be the first time that Disney has relied on the work of a quietly queer creative while the company’s output remained nearly void of queer representation.

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