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The Patron Saint of Superheroes

Enlisted by a team of honor students for a seminar on superheroes, a mild-mannered professor discovers his inner obsession. Assuming the powers of a novelist, teacher, playwright, and scholar, Professor Chris Gavaler embarks on a mission to unlock the secrets of the multiverse.

Does pop culture actively steer or passively reflect social attitudes?

The short answer: Yes.

For the longer answer, look at the evolution of gay subject matter in comic books and the industry’s shapeshifting attempts at self-regulation.

Comic book publishers started censoring themselves as soon as their medium took flight. DC was the first. Though publisher Harry Donenfeld entered the children’s market via Depression-era pornography, he dropped his “girlie” magazines in 1939 after Superman and Batman started making him a real fortune. DC also steered their writers away from lethal violence. (The body count in early Detective Comics and even Action Comics was disturbingly high.) Bob Kane wasn’t allowed to draw a holster on Batman’s hip anymore, but no one objected to Bruce Wayne sharing a bed with his ward Robin. It was a father-son relationship. (Right?)

After World War II, when Horror, Crime, and Romance were muscling out all those ostensibly straight yet celibate superheroes, the industry formed the Association of Comics Magazine Publishers. Their ur-Code of 1948 doesn’t mention the word “gay.” The term was still evolving its way up the lexicon ladder. But the ACMP (the model for the later and universally adopted Comics Code of the mid-50’s) didn’t use “homosexual,” “pervert,” “pedophilic inversion,” or any other antiquated equivalent. They just wanted “Sexy, wanton comics,” whatever their orientation, off the shelves.

The U.S. Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency didn’t fret openly about gays either. “Homosexual” appears only once in the 1954 hearings transcripts (the publication “Homosexual Life” is listed as an example of “everything of the worst type” that’s been mailed to “youngsters at preparatory schools”). Star witness Frederic Wertham had his homoerotic Batman and Robin analysis ready for testimony, but the Subcommittee was more concerned with the “murder, mayhem, robbery, rape, cannibalism, carnage, necrophilia, sex, sadism, masochism, and virtually every other form of crime, degeneracy, bestiality, and horror” that comic books promoted.

Yes, generic “sex” made the list, but the senators meant the Phantom Lady variety, those buxom heroines getting themselves tied-up every month (the covers made great blow-ups for the courthouse walls). The absence was an artistically inconvenient fact for Michael Chabon when he fictionalized the hearings in The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay. So he fudged it. His gay protagonist, a comic book writer and editor, is accused by New Jersey’s Senator Hendrickson of disseminating his own “psychological proclivities.” Though almost certainly homophobic, the real-life Hendrickson and the rest of the Subcommittee never voiced that particular prejudice. There was no need. No one in the comic book industry (including Batman and Robin creator Bob Kane) wanted to portray gay characters.

In Chabon’s rendering, Kane could see that Chabon’s protagonist Sammy Clay “seemed a little bit—you know . . .” And the rest of the funny-book crowd agrees: “He’s got that thing with the sidekick. . . . He takes over a character, first thing he does . . . he gives the guy a little pal. . . . The Lone Wolf and Cubby. Christ, he even gave a sidekick to the Lone Wolf!”

But if anyone had a sidekick proclivity, it was Kane. Scripter Bill Finger just asked him for a Watson, someone for Batman “to talk to,” not cuddle with. It was Kane who pioneered the little pal approach. He’d already invented Tinymite for the anthropomorphic Peter Pup. Robin was the natural next step. One instantly copied across the industry: Captain American and Bucky, Aquaman and Aqualad, Human Torch and Toro, Green Arrow and Speedy. It’s a long list, all justified by, uh—you know . . . readership identification.

By the time the Subcommittee was meeting, only bare-legged Robin remained on newsstands. The Comics Magazine Association of America (an Earth 2 version of the ACMP) formed two months later. It was the industry’s effort to stave off legislation. It worked. The CMAA created the Comics Code Authority which began issuing a literal Seal of approval on all publications. Technically comic books could be sold without it, if you could find a distributor willing to touch them.

The Authority also adopted and expanded their predecessor’s 1948 Code. Homophobia was official. “Marriage and Sex” subsection specified that “sexual abnormalities are unacceptable” and “Sex perversion or any inference to same is strictly forbidden.” As far as the “treatment of love-romance stories,” they must “emphasize the value of the home and the sanctity of marriage.” Which is to say, Chabon got it right after all.

So what was the rest of the world up to while the Code was fumigating the Batcave? Homosexual Life was inching into daylight. The same year, 1954, the first gay motorcycle club formed in Los Angeles, while in England the Wolfendon Commission began the process of decriminalizing homosexuality. Five years after their landmark report, Illinois became the first American state to strike sodomy from its own books. Another seven years and the Stonewall riots turned gay rights into a national movement.

The Comics Code Authority, however, wasn’t budging. Despite a 1971 update, “sexual abnormalities” were as “unacceptable” as ever, and “the protection of the children and family life” paramount. Yet the American Psychiatric Association was striking homosexuality from its mental disorder list, and Harvey Milk was campaigning for office in California. This was during the so-called Bronze Age of comics I grew up in. If any members of the Avengers, Defenders, X-Men or Champions (anyone remember the Champions?) had a secret sidekick proclivity, it went way way over my pre-adolescent head. As far as overt portrayals of gay superheroes: Not one. (Robin had already been sent off to college.)

When John Byrne wanted to include a gay superhero in his 1983 Alpha Flight, Marvel editor-in-chief Jim Shooter said no. I doubt anyone had ever asked before. But it was the eighties now. Things were changing. Wisconsin became the first state to outlaw discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation in 1982, and 600,000 protesters marched in Washington (the other “DC”) in 1987 for gay rights.

Two years later, the Code made its first major evolutionary leap. It’s new “Characterizations” subsection required creators to “show sensitivity to national, ethnic, religious, sexual, political and socioeconomic orientations.” Yes, “sexual” made the list. The gay-bashing Moral Majority disbanded the same year. Given the rise of religious conservatism under Ronald Reagan, its founder Jerry Falwell had reason to declare that the organization’s goals had been achieved. But the gay rights movement was even stronger. According to the new and improved Code, “Heroes should be role models and should reflect the prevailing social attitudes.” Those attitudes were increasingly non-homophobic.

But comics weren’t flinging the closet door wide either. DC’s 1989 The Legion of Super-Heroes relaunch included an implied lesbian romance, but DC had no interest in confirming it. Targeting “Mature Readers” outside the comic book mainstream (and so the Authority’s reach), Rick Veitch’s 1990 Brat Pack spoofed the Wertham-oriented superhero with the overtly gay and grotesquely pedophilic Midnight Mink (“Everyone knows I came out years ago!”) and his “bum-boy” Chippy. This was not what you could call an enlightened depiction of “Homosexual Life,” only a superhero creator skewering his genre and relishing the limitlessness of publishing outside the Code. But the unspoken taboos of the 1954 Subcommittee could now be shouted.

In 1992, Marvel and the Authority (both under new leadership) allowed the gay-coded North Star finally to roar out of the closet (he literally roars: “I am gay!”). Meanwhile back at The Legion, writers were depicting a gender-bending romance between Element Lad and his girlfriend who, it turns out, is actually a man taking a gender-altering drug. The newly sensitive Element Lad didn’t mind when s/he confessed. DC offered their first gay kiss the following year, albeit in a title from their “Mature Readers” imprint Vertigo. Meanwhile back in the real world, Commander-in-Chief Bill Clinton was kissing goodbye decades of anti-gay military policy and signing “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” into law.

Vertigo, like Marvel’s Epic, operated outside of the Comics Code, an option that existed since the Code’s voluntary inception but was never profitable before the 80’s. DC waited until after the Supreme Court struck down Colorado’s anti-gay legislation, before its less “Mature” Code-protected readers saw their first mainstream gay kiss between Starman and his boyfriend. Vermont had already recognized gay unions when the first two male Marvel characters smooched. The normally Code-sanctified X-Force dropped the Seal for that issue (though apparently for different reasons). Its cover includes a “Mature Content” warning, a further sign of the Authority’s waning authority.

Marvel originally introduced their cowboy hero Rawhide Kid back in 1955, a prototype for the newly institutionalized, Code-era comic book character. When they revamped him in 2003, his cover included a parent advisory, and the bareback-riding hero was now flamboyantly gay. He beat Brokeback Mountain out of the closet by two years. Rawhide Kid appeared from MAX, Marvel’s “adults only” imprint launched in 2001.

Marvel abandoned the Code for all their titles the following year. Their new tiered rating system resembled the movie industry’s: “All Ages”; “Parental Supervision Recommended” for twelve- to fourteen-year olds; “PSR+” for the fifteen to seventeen range; and “Parental Advisory – Explicit Content” for the eighteen and over crowd. With comic books stationed in specialty shops instead of 7-Elevens, advertisers no longer cared whether the Seal appeared on a cover or not. When two male members of Young Avengers started dating in 2005, it was under a PSR advisory. Homosexuality was now safe for tweens.

DC, the first comic book company to impose its own regulatory guidelines back in 1940, didn’t drop out of the CMAA until 2011. It was part of their universe-wide reboot in which all 52 of their titles began again at No. 1. The Seal does not appear on a single issue. With so many states see-sawing on gay rights, there was some anxiety that the relaunch would straighten the reigning gay superhero couple, Apollo and Midnighter, but that dynamic duo remains as smitten as ever. Batwoman stayed out of the Batcave too. The character (or her name at least) was introduced in 1956 to counter those horrible rumors about Batman’s sidekick proclivities, retired in the 60’s (along with Bat-Mite and Bat-Hound), erased from DC history in the 80’s, and finally recreated in 2006 as a red-lipped lesbian. And while Robin’s still not talking about his old Batcave adventures, DC’s latest gay character is another Teen Titan, one who comes from a Mexican smallville where, get this, everyone accepts him.

Do all of these changes only reflect social trends or are superheroes actually fighting the good fight and bending the old norms? I suspect it’s a little of both. Corporations like Marvel and DC are nowhere near the front line of any culture war, but when cultural tides start to shift, making a profit means anticipating the market. As a result, gay superheroes are now permanently entrenched in the multiverse mainstream.

It only took fifty years. A few more and I predict we’ll have our first gay comic book marriage. The only question is which states will it be legal in.

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