A friend of mine, a fellow comic book lover, recently reached out to me via Facebook with a simple question: why does it seem like there are there so many gay characters popping up in comic books these days? Frankly, I was honored to be chosen as the spokesman for all of gaykind, and took my new role as the voice of all homos to heart. After all, I am a huge fan of comic books, and it does seem as though LGBT issues are becoming more of a staple in mainstream comics than ever before, but why is that? Is it because of a change in comics, is it a change in society, or is it a change in perspective? This nerdy gay dude thinks the truth lies somewhere in between.
The History of LGBT Characters in Comics
Before we can really look at the state of comic books today, we need to set our Wayback Machine to the 1950s. You see, comic books and ‘mos have a long and tragic history. In 1954, Dr. Frederick Wertham published Seduction of the Innocent, which called out comic books as a bad influence on children because of sex appeal, rampant violence, and suggestiveness regarding homosexuality. Dr. Wertham believed that Batman and Robin depicted an inappropriate lifestyle of a young ward being raised by a single, older man. Robin’s flamboyant costume, acrobatic prowess, and extensive collection of Scissor Sister albums only added fuel to the fire. The frenzy that Dr. Wertham stirred up was enough to make Congress take notice, which scared the comic book companies shitless. To keep Congress at bay, they comic book companies created the infamous Comics Code Authority, which prohibited ‘sexual perversion’ and kept gays out of comic books for a long time. The CCA’s stranglehold on comics lasted for decades, but by the mid-90’s, most comic book companies were working around the seal, and by 2001, Marvel was the first of the major companies to scrap the CCA entirely.
Let’s take a jump forward to 1979, where we are first introduced to one of the most prominent homosexuals in comic books today, Northstar. Originally created in 1979 by writer John Byrne as part of the Canadian superhero team Alpha Flight, Northstar was always intended to be gay. Unfortunately for Northstar, Marvel’s Editor In Chief at the time, Jim Shooter, wouldn’t allow any references to Northstar’s homosexuality to appear in comics. Yes, he was still allowed to wear black and white skin-tight spandex, but I guess that wasn’t enough to trip Shooter’s gaydar. Despite being forced to keep Northstar in the closet, Byrne dropped hints here and there that Northstar was a friend of the Canadian equivalent of Dorothy.
Not to be outdone, in 1988, DC Comics introduced us to the short-lived character Extraño, who no one could ever possibly mistake as straight. Extraño was a flaming, effeminate Peruvian sorcerer who wore outrageous clothing and made this team mates refer to him as ‘Auntie.‘ Naturally, he was also diagnosed as HIV-positive, because hey, why not? That’s something the gays do, right? Insulting to gays and straights, Extraño has not made much of an impact on modern audiences despite being the first openly gay superhero.
In 1992, writer Scott Lobdell was given freedom to out Northstar as gay in issue #106 of Alpha Flight. Of course, the story featured Northstar coming out in, what else, a story about a baby with HIV, but it was still forward momentum. Ironically, Northstar’s powers include super speed and flight, so who better to propel the issue of gays in comics forward? The New York Times called Northstar’s coming out story a ‘welcome indicator of social change,’ and the media’s love affair with LGBT issues in comic books began. More on that in a moment.
The 90s gave us a string of characters hinting about homosexuality and orientation confusion, all thanks to the (mostly) positive reception that Northstar had received. However, most of these stories came and went, and few of these characters ended up standing the test of time. The next major story that caught the attention of the press, though, was Green Lantern Kyle Rayner’s friend and assistant Terry Berg. Eight months after first appearing in the Green Lantern comic books, Terry came out to Rayner. Kyle Rayner, being a badass and my favorite Green Lantern, was accepting of Berg. Shortly after coming out, Berg and his boyfriend David were accosted by a gang outside of a gay club, and Terry was left comatose after a brutal beating. The story was inspired by writer Judd Winick’s reaction to the death of Matthew Shepard a few years earlier, and struck a note with fans.
If Northstar helped make gays mainstream, Apollo and Midnighter helped make gay relationships more acceptable. The pair debuted in the pages of Stormwatch, and were transparent homages to Batman and Superman. The two were close allies, and after joining the Authority a few years later, the two shared a kiss that revealed the true nature of their relationship. Anyone who ever wondered what a romantic kiss between Batman and Superman would look like finally had their analogue. The best part about Apollo and Midnighter is the anticlimactic unveiling of their relationship, and the normalcy that the couple shared. Their relationship allowed fans to see them as characters first, homosexuals second.
When moving forward, the occasional backslide is bound to happen. 2003 gave us Marvel’s The Rawhide Kid, which attempted to revamp the titular character as a homosexual as an attempt to break down the ‘man’s-man’ stereotypes of heroes and cowboys. A noble gesture, but the delivery was less than subtle. Conjuring the ghost of Extraño , the Rawhide Kid was an over-the-top stereotype of gay culture. He was foppish, flaming, and effete, dishing out fashion advice and snarking it up. The Rawhide Kid is the perfect example of a homosexual written by writers whose only frame of reference was Will & Grace.
LGBT Issues in Comics Today
All of these characters lay the foundation for the current culture of comics. You can’t crack open an issue of your favorite comic without being smacked in the face by a spandex gay, and frankly, it is refreshing. Right now, the LGBT community can count amongst our ranks Green Lantern Alan Scott, Batwoman, Young Avengers Hulkling and Wiccan, Teen Titan Bunker, Rictor and Shatterstar of X-Factor, and Riverdale resident Kevin Keller.
Yes, a fucking Archie character is gay, and the Archie comics are handling the character with more poise and respect than many gay characters have seen through the history of comics. Kevin Keller made his first appearance in 2010, and has been developed as a nuanced character with close friendships to Archie and his crew, an interest in student government, and later, as a member of the United States Army. He even got married to boyfriend Clay in 2012, which naturally drew plenty of media attention.
Kevin and Clay weren’t the only ones exchanging wedding vows in 2012, though. Northstar and his boyfriend Kyle were married in Astonishing X-Men #50, right on the heels of New York state’s landmark decision to allow same-sex marriages. Marvel hyped the even with a series of ‘Save the Date’ announcements, as well as an intense media campaign that landed Northstar on the home page of many news outlets that month.
Of course, you can’t have the emergence of a minority group into the spotlight without detractors, and the LGBT community has certainly seen itself as the center of a few controversies. Take, for example, right-wing group One Million Moms, who have launched a series of protests and boycotts against Marvel and DC because of the rise of LGBT characters in comics. Their claim is that adult gay males are trying to ‘indoctrinate impressionable young minds’ into ‘thinking that a gay lifestyle choice is normal and desirable.’ Of course, the One Million Moms group is terrible at math, numbering less than 60,000 members at the time of this writing, so how much sway should they have anyways?
Comic book creator Rob Liefeld, famous for creating a slew of uber-masculine gun-toting macho men and scantily clad female assassins with impossible anatomy in the 90s, weighed in on the issue with typical Liefeld class. Liefeld was the original creator of Shatterstar, who is now written as part of a homosexual relationship with X-Factor’s Rictor. Say’s Liefeld, “As the guy that created, designed and wrote his first dozen appearances, Shatterstar is not gay. Sorry. Can’t wait to someday undo this… Shatterstar is akin to Maximus in Gladiator. He’s a warrior, a Spartan, and not a gay one.” In response, current X-Factor writer Peter David provided perhaps the best response I’ve ever read: “I understand that some parents have the same reaction. They were responsible for their children’s first appearances and, when informed of their sexual persuasion, firmly declare it’s impossible, they can’t be gay.” Here’s a link to 40 of the worst Rob Liefeld drawings, because fuck that guy, that’s why.
Which brings us to Orson Scott Card. Of the controversies I’ve listed, this is the most current and timely, and is sparking a great deal of debate in the comic fandom. Orson Scott Card is known as the author of the Ender’s Game series of sci-fi novels, which are generally well-respected within the genre. Card is also well-known as a vocal supporter of the Defense of Marriage Act. In 2008, he wrote the following as part of an editorial in the Desert News: “How long before married people answer the dictators thus: Regardless of law, marriage has only one definition, and any government that attempts to change it is my mortal enemy. I will act to destroy that government and bring it down, so it can be replaced with a government that will respect and support marriage, and help me raise my children in a society where they will expect to marry in their turn.”
What does this have to do with comic books? Well, DC has hired Orson Scott Card to write the digital Adventures of Superman comics, and the pro-gay groups are having none of it. A petition has been created asking DC to drop Card from the title, and admittedly, I’ve made the decision to not purchase any of his writings. After all, why should my money go into the pockets of someone who spends his time and money denying my marriage rights?
Of course, despite these controversies, the big gay truck rolls forward. This week, Marvel announced that a time-displaced version of Wolverine (freakin’ Wolverine) that appears in X-Treme X-Men will be involved in a homosexual relationship with demigod Hercules. It will be refreshing to see a pair of jacked-up masculine warriors sharing intimacy in comics, at least to this reader.
Okay, Sure… Gay’s Are Big Right Now. But Why?
I still haven’t answered the question my friend posed. Why are there so many gays in comics right now? I think the most obvious answer is that gay rights are becoming more and more mainstream. As the gay lifestyle becomes more accepted by most of America, seeing well-thought out, nuanced, interesting LGBT characters in comic books is a natural reaction. Politically, the gay movement is making more strides now than it ever has before. ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ has been repealed, the White House is choosing not to fight appeals against DOMA, and same-sex marriage is becoming a reality in more and more states each year. We no longer stand on the brink of social change; dude, we’re living it.
Comics are a natural place for this social change to breathe and to grow because comics have often been the home of outcasts and the social fringe. In the 60s, a group of five mutants vowed to protect a world that hated and feared them, and we as readers could relate. We’ve watched as the down-trodden and awkward have been protected by masked heroes, we’ve traded opinions on our favorite hero du’jour with fellow geeks at the local comic shop, and we’ve read as every ethnicity, nationality, gender, and now, sexual orientation has had heroic avatars representing them on the printed page. The comic fandom is used to being outside of the mainstream, and we are used to accepting others who are considered ‘different.’
But times are changing. Comic books are now becoming the mainstream. The most popular movie of 2012 was The Avengers, and one of the most critically divisive films was the third installment of Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy. Batman, Superman, Captain America, and the X-Men are no longer the sole property of geeks and nerds. The populace at large is finding entertainment in spandex-clad heroes, and the press knows this. A new comic book controversy becomes instant site traffic for online news organizations, and they are perfectly content to fan the flames. With gay activism such a hot-button issue, naturally gay characters popping up in comics become media fuel. And to this, I say… GOOD. For the gay rights movement to keep traction, we cannot lose momentum and we cannot lose focus. Keeping our advances and our outrages public helps progress in its march forward.
Of course, with all of this press coverage, people are picking up more of these controversial comic books just to see what the fuss is about. This generates sales, which keeps editors happy. I imagine that right now, it is much easier for a writer to get a gay issue approved by their editor than ever before.
I love comic books. I am very proudly gay. And I love the fact that my comic books feature characters that mirror my lifestyle, my partner, and me. I mean, not literally. I promise you, I look nowhere near as good in spandex. Close, though!