Why Are There So Many Gay Comic Book Characters?
A friend of mine, a fellow comic book lover, recently reached out to me 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 newfound role 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? Has something changed with the comic book industry, or has society shifted its 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 to explore the long and tragic relationship between gays and comic books. In 1954, Dr. Frederick Wertham published Seduction of the Innocent, which called out comic books as a bad influence on children due to perceived sex appeal, rampant violence, and suggestiveness regarding homosexuality. Dr. Wertham believed that Batman and Robin’s depiction of a young ward being raised by a single, older bachelor was inappropriate. 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. This scared the comic book companies into creating 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 were 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, DC Comics introduced us to the short-lived character Extraño in 1988. Extraño was a flaming, effeminate Peruvian sorcerer who wore outrageous clothing and made this team mates refer to him as ‘Auntie.‘ He was also diagnosed as HIV-positive, because walking stereotypes that make light of a serious crisis are apparently easier to write than characters with nuance. Insulting to audiences of all walks of life, 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.
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 the accepting Rayner. 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 as transparent homages to Batman and Superman. The two were close allies, and after joining the Authority a few years later, they 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. Well, aside from Googling ‘Batman Superman Rule 34,’ but honestly, I recommend against that, especially if you’re reading this while at work. 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. In recent years, the LGBT community has been able to count amongst our ranks Green Lantern Alan Scott, Batwoman, Young Avengers Hulkling and Wiccan, Teen Titan Bunker, Rictor and Shatterstar of X-Factor, Morph from the Uncanny X-Men, and Riverdale resident Kevin Keller, amongst others.
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. Take, for example, right-wing group One Million Moms, who launched a series of protests and boycotts against Marvel and DC because of the rise of LGBT characters in comics. Their claim was 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 roughly 70,000 members at the time of this writing, so how much sway can 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 was recently written as part of a homosexual relationship with X-Factor’s Rictor. Says 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, 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, 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, in 2013, DC hired Orson Scott Card to write the digital Adventures of Superman comics, and the online fandom was immediately whipped into a frenzy. Caving to intense pressure, DC shelved the Orson Scott Card story and brought in a new creative team for Adventures of Superman.
Okay, Sure… But Why Now?
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 rights movement is making more strides now than it ever has before. ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ has been repealed, the Supreme Court ruled the Defense of Marriage Act unconstitutional in 2013, 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; 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 could relate. We’ve watched as the down-trodden and awkward have been protected by masked heroes, 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. 2012’s The Avengers was the third highest grossing film of all time, with its sequel (Avengers: Age of Ultron) on track to break the one billion dollar mark. Batman, Superman, Captain America, and the X-Men are no longer the sole property of geeks and nerds. Marvel Studios, Fox, Warner Bros, and Sony are major players in the blockbuster business, each with massive roll-out schedules of comic book films spanning the next five years. 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 the media is perfectly content to fan the flames. 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 in recent years, it has been much easier for a writer to get a gay issue approved by their editor than ever before.
Societal change comes in waves. First, comes oppression and rebellion. Acceptance heralds a saturation of the market, which is the epoch that has just recently ended. We stand on the horizon of something even more exciting, more glorious, and at the same time, more mundane: normalization. The next wave of LGBT characters are appearing with less fanfare. We are seeing more complex, creative characters with a variety of sexual orientations appearing on the printed page, with sexuality as a characteristic instead of a defining trait. For example, Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie’s excellent new title The Wicked + The Divine features a diverse cast of characters, representing a variety of racial backgrounds and sexual orientations, reimagined as a pantheon of Gods living in modern society. Had this book debuted a few years ago, much would be made of the sexual fluidity of the characters in the press; Tumblr would champion it for its diversity, the press would run headlines like ‘Comic Book Writer Imagines Gods as Gay,’ and anti-gay groups would sound the alarms and begin the protest. Sure, some of that is still happening, but for the most part? We’re moving past that stage; normalcy is setting in, and it is oh-so-welcome.
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!