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The Patron Saint of Superheroes

Chris Gavaler Explores the Multiverse of Comics, Pop Culture, and Politics

Monthly Archives: April 2012

Dear Disney,

Yes, I know you said you wanted to gross $700 million before you’d agree to either of the two sequels Andrew Stanton had planned for John Carter. And I know you’re still miffed about everyone making fun of you when the opening weekend flopped. But who was laughing when foreign sales pushed it over the $250 million budget in its fourth week? Yeah, I know, there’s still the $100 million in advertising. But those oversea millions are still flowing, and add in the DVD sales lined up for June, and we all know the red planet will soon be in the black.

Sure, the $350 million profit you were dreaming of back in February would have been nice, but you’re probably just happy to have dodged that “biggest flop in movie history” bullet. Congratulations. Now all you want to do is pack up those noisy Tharks and Calots and put John Carter behind you.

But is that how you capitalize on an investment?

I’m sorry Mr. Stanton convinced you that Carter was just like Tarzan, a beloved Burroughs classic with a massive fanbase begging to be exploited. Which explains why your marketing plan went so wrong.  You should have been recruiting, not supplying Superbowl ammo for an army that didn’t exist yet. There was only one species of John Carter fan: readers. There had never been a movie, a TV show, a cartoon, a 40’s film serial, nothing.  When I asked my 14-year-old daughter about the character, she said “Who?”

You now know that you should have been building infrastructure.  Why, for instance, was the new edition of A Princess of Mars (with that eye-catching intro by Junot Diaz, the second Pulitzer winning novelist attached to the project) released AFTER the film? You should have pushed that through the presses as soon as you green lighted the movie. Ditto on a new comic book adaptation (from a market-dominating publisher like Marvel, not the very respectable but very tiny Dynamite or Dark Horse who both have miniscule Mars niches). Or what about an animated TV series on Cartoon Network? Or a series of animated films the way DC keeps its roster of superheroes alive and literally kicking while hatching long-term blockbusters?

Some of these you could still do. But you’re thinking, What the hell for? John Carter isn’t about time travel. The marketing window is long closed.

And that would be your next big mistake.

Yes, you blew the lead-up to the movie. But the window on the character is still wide open. John Carter is a long-term commodity that you control. You didn’t just squander $100 million in marketing. You invested $350 million in a franchise, and the movie itself, not those wasted ads, supplies the missing infrastructure.  Have you been by Facebook lately? In addition to those loyal novel readers, John Carter has a fierce film cult begging for a sequel. These people will devour anything you toss at them.

No, I’m not suggesting you give them and Stanton another $250 million. In fact, I’d go in the opposite direction. Think B movie budget. Remember the Johnny Weissmuller Tarzan movies from the 30’s? MGM made those for one reason and one reason only.

They had the footage.

Trader Horn was the first big budget Hollywood film shot on location. The production was a disaster. They came back from Africa with scene after scene of inaudible dialogue, a star infected with malaria, and the suitcases of crew members devoured by crocodiles and trampled by rhinos. They also had miles of jungle footage, way more than could ever go into a  single movie. Trader Horn came and went, but to capitalize on all that location shooting they’d already paid for, MGM rolled out Tarzan the Ape Man the following year. It was a cheap hit that spawned five low-budget sequels.

MGM could have walked away from their original investment. They could have put the Trader Horn fiasco behind them and never gone near Africa again. But that would have made bad business sense.  Disney is in the same position with Mars. You already have the location footage—those hard drives brimming with otherwise unusable CGI that could fuel a decade of Martian adventures.  You already paid for it. It’s just sitting there.

Just keep your human cast in pre-fab Helium and those Tharks in some distant subplot, and your sequel is already half made. And, yes, you’re probably still kicking yourself for letting Stanton move forward without a big name star. But now that plays to your advantage. Kitsch and Collins are cheap. All your costs are capped.

So let’s add this up. A loyal and expanding fanbase at home, a voracious market abroad, a modest new production budget, and a marketing infrastructure you’ve already paid for.

Suddenly those dreamed-of profits are in reach of all four of your little green arms.

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I fully acknowledge that The Avengers might suck. Anyone who’s seen Joss Whedon’s two half-seasons of Dollhouse understands that. (Though if you also saw the original pilot, which Fox never aired, you also understand how a network can thwart even the best of visions.)

I’m pretty sure when Alex Pappademas wrote last year in The New York Times Magazine that the superhero industry should be handed over to film auteurs, he didn’t have Joss Whedon in mind. Unless Pappadmas had also watched seven seasons of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, four seasons of the network-jumping spin-off Angel, and, my favorite, the brilliant half-season of Firefly followed by its equally brilliant if franchise-ending feature film, Serenity. (Again, I hold Fox responsible for grounding Whedon’s original Firefly pilot, not aired until after the show was cancelled.)

I’ve never read Whedon’s Wonder Woman screenplay (as far as I know, no one’s ever leaked it to the internet), but when both he and the project got the axe, I figured my favorite TV writer-director was down for the count. When I heard Marvel was handing him The Avengers, I cringe-laughed. As Whedon put it, his and Silver Pictures’ Wonder Woman visions were “non-sympatico.” That literally goes double for Fox. So it was simply a question of how long he would last before Marvel pulled his plug.

Of course I braced the same way when Marvel cast my favorite actor, rehab-rebounder Robert Downey, Jr., in Iron Man. The guy had compelled me to watch an entire season of Ally BcBeal, only to have him flame-out before the finale. This was also before the Sherlock Holmes franchise reboot, so people forget just how toxic Downey was even five years ago. Marvel actually made him AUDITION for the part.

So Whedon isn’t the first Fox discard Marvel has gambled on. Certainly Kenneth Branagh looked like the safer and more eye-catching choice for last year’s Thor. Sadly, it seems the Shakespearean auteur did most of his directing from the bed in his trailer. The best thing about Thor is the review it trigged from A. O. Scott. The poor guy was thrown into existential crisis by the film’s intentional mediocrity.

Which is also the likeliest outcome for The Avengers. Corporations are not auteurs. Either they broke Whedon, or Whedon broke them. Or, the least likely outcome, the two found a way to combine vision and finance to craft something that’s both intelligent and money-making. (Hey, I can dream.)

But even if The Avengers does suck, I’m still giving Marvel Entertainment some credit. Film series number in the hundreds, if not thousands, and spin-offs, while rarer, are nothing new. But no company’s produced an interlaced web of parallel films before. The Avengers is both the first in a series (The Avengers 2 is already slated for a 2014 release) and the sequel to not one but four simultaneous franchises: Iron Man, Thor, Captain America, and Hulk.

You can even count Hulk twice if you include the Ang Lee film, which nobody is. (And allow me a moment now to lament the firing of Edward Norton as Bruce Banner. I’m not sure if Whedon or Marvel is primarily responsible, but Norton is another of my favorite actors. Though largely because his kid sister was a student at my university. Ed even took her as his date to the Oscars. How cool a brother is that! Plus he only plays Jekyll/Hyde parts—Fight Club, Primal Fear, The Incredible Hulk. As far as I’m concerned Norton should star in ALL superhero movies.)

Anyway, the interconnections between the six Marvel titles is what made the original Avengers so much fun in comic book form. Stan Lee, unlike his competitors at DC, wasn’t interested in stand-alone heroes adventuring each in their private universe. The original 1940 Justice Society of America wasn’t a team, it was a marketing gimmick for a reprint omnibus of each character’s individual episodes. Things had changed by the time DC rebooted them as the Justice League in 1960, but it’s Marvel that invented “continuity.” Stan Lee actually included footnotes in his panels. Readers were reminded not only of previous events within a series but events from ongoing parallel titles, complete with issue numbers. The result was an interlocking web and the sense of an entire world in constant, interactive motion.

Pretty much what Marvel is doing now on screen.

One last side note: The Avengers is not the first Avenger film. That credit goes to Zorro. His team of masked caballeros dubbed themselves the Avengers in Johnston McCulley’s 1919 novel. When Douglass Fairbanks stared in The Mark of Zorro the following year, he made what is arguably the most influential superhero film in history. Without Zorro’s Avengers, I doubt Marvel’s would have ever been written.

That’s a high bar for The Avengers to match, but I’m looking forward to the attempt. I hear it opens next Friday.

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Of all the methods of transformation employed by alter egos—spin in a circle, rip your clothes off in a phone booth, dial H.E.R.O. —my all time favorite belongs to Alan Moore. In order to transform into the fantasy warrior Promethea, college geek Sophie Bangs has to . . .

Write a poem.

Sound easy? In the first issue, a shadow demon is battering at her collapsing door as she scribbles in a notebook. Rhyme, meter, stanza breaks—Sophie’s got to do it all:

I am Promethea and take my name
From he bound to a rock and plagued by birds.
In me burns his Celestial stolen flame.
I am the words made flesh, the flesh made words.

Six more stanzas of that, quatrains, ABAB rhyme scheme, even a loose iambic pentameter. All Billy Batson has to do is yelp, “Shazam!” Promethea wields a glowing caduceus, the double snake wand of Hermes that shoots celestial flame.When Sophie changes back to her old self, she’s gripping her pen and notebook again.  I think she got the better deal.

Still, I’m not seeing Alan Moore on any Contemporary Poetry syllabi. Fortunately there’s a legion of poets with mightier pens.

David Orr, for instance. His “The Chameleon” recently appeared in The New Yorker. Jeannine Hall Gailey’s “Wonder Woman Dreams of the Amazon” is another must-have on any superhero poetry syllabus. So is Lesley Wheeler’s “Earth-Two Sonnet” (and not just because I’m married to the poet). And Gary Jackson’s “Home from Work, I Face My Newborn Mutant Son” just ka-powwed me while I was reading his poetry collection Missing You, Metropolis.

The list goes on. You would need a Contemporary Superhero Poetry course to work through it all. Or at least a Superhero Poetry Anthology to gather it. I suggested the possibility to Lesley, a sort of “Wonder Twins Power Activate!” scheme, since it would unite our two areas of expertise. We both have other shadow demons in need of vanquishing first, but it could happen.

To prove it’s worthwhile, I emailed Graywolf Press for permission to post Gary Jackson’s poem here. And Lesley (she’s across the room chopping onions) just gave me the thumbs-up on hers too (provided I include this link to unsplendid where it was first published). Sophie Bangs doesn’t exist, so I’m hoping she doesn’t mind my including the rest of her poem too.

Be careful when reading these aloud. They could induce unintended transformations.

Gary Jackson
“Home from Work, I Face My Newborn Mutant Son”

I hold my six-pound baby boy
in my hands, pink as sand.
His skin is glass.

This is not a metaphor.
My wife did not hemorrhage alone
on our wood floor for metaphor.

Even now, he squirms—his small cries
are like the whine of well-worn brakes.
He cuts into my palms and slides

in the creased blood. I see
his tiny organs getting used to their work,
while my wife—bled out—grows cold.

What paper-bag test can this boy pass?
His skin reflects the white of my eyes.
And I know he cannot last.

For a moment, before I drop him,
I wonder how he’d make it?
Even if his skin does harden—

to crystal, to diamond—it won’t be
enough, and I could not bear the sight
of him hanging like an ornament,

a glass boy from a tree, or find him
cracked open, splintered in the  street.
As he shatters on the floor,

everything from his heart to lungs
freezes like the hands
of a wristwatch at ground zero.

*

Lesley Wheeler
“Earth-Two Sonnet”

A caped figure slips through an empty building, inked figment on the brink
of the place where General Lee, tired of fighting, swore to serve as president.
Books wait breathless in their boxes; renovation’s imminent.
The blackboards ache like thunderclouds. Power trying to break.

At dinner, it’s all doppelgangers and secret identities. Captain America’s shield is the Marvel standard for durability,
he explains as our son lists mythic forces that might shatter its
flawlessness. Nova Heat from the Human Torch; Hulk’s avocado fist.
Their mirror-faces glow. Maybe Thor’s hammer, they agree.

May that hammer slam
this Earth-One heroine. Let her drop the shield, ride the bolt to a parallel dimension and learn
to be ordinary. Let the afternoon level its cosmic rays at my back, burn
the scar-shadow-stain of the last few years onto the linoleum,

sketching a record of the armor I recycle, the tights I now peel free.
Allowed to wrinkle; skip a meeting of the League; be indiscreet. Her perfection only a legend now. A vibranium chip of history.

*

Sophie Banks
“I am Promethea”

I am Promethea and take my name
From he bound to a rock and plagued by birds.
In me burns his Celestial stolen flame.
I am the words made flesh, the flesh made words.

I am Promethea, my father dead,
Martyred, his bones daubed red with Heresy
By those who would turn Gold back into Lead
And sour a world by their sour Alchemy.

I am Promethea, God-adapted ne,
Reared in their immaterial hills and vales.
My tale is in the world of substance spun,
Yet is my substance in the world of tales.

I am Promethea, the child who stands
Between fixed earth and insubstantial air,
A thought who yet treads matter’s rain-swept strands,
And mortals are the sandals that I wear.

I am Promethea. From Mind’s pure light
I stoop into Earth’s gloom. From Fable’s day
Descending into Fact’s cold weighty night,
From lyric atmospheres to mammal clay.

I am Promethea, the rumored one,
The Mythic bought Reason strains to bend
I am that voice left, once the book is done . . .
I am the dream that waking does not end.

I am Promethea, Art’s fiercest spark
I am all inspiration, all desire,
Imagination’s blaze in mankind’s dark.
I am Promethea. I bring you fire!

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The most chilling moment for this dad watching The Hunger Games?

When that gang of cackling teens struts away from their murder scene, mocking how their victim begged for mercy. They’re the ultimate joy-riding cool kids. They have the looks, the money, and the weapons. If you’re not in the clique, you’re either hiding or dead. It’s true of most high schools, but Suzanne Collins literalized it.

You could argue that The Hunger Games is just a further step down the devolutionary ladder from Lord of the Flies or Clockwork Orange. Without parents to control them, kids are monsters. But Collins’ truth is even uglier truth. The monsters are the grown-ups.

There are only two kinds of parents in the Collins universe. Absent or malicious. Katniss’ are the first. Dad is dead and Mom is emotionally checked out. They may be blameless, even sympathetic, but they’re not admirable. Katniss is her sister’s only mother. It’s a harsh truth—shot by director Gary Ross in jarringly hand-held close-ups—but one that literature’s orphaned heroes and heroines have been rising to for centuries.

The real problem is Donald Sutherland. He’s the school principal. Uber-Patriarch. The man ultimately responsible for those joy-riding thugs.  Unlike that dead pilot rotting in his parachute in Lord of the Flies, Sutherland really is in control. He and his society of entertainment-obsessed adults are always watching. The games are for them.

The teen sadism doesn’t come from the teens. It’s not the joy-riders’ true animal selves escaping when the adults lose control. It’s not even a byproduct of the power vacuum. There is no power vacuum. The adults are paying for the show, filming it, costuming it, plotting it. The game turns children into animals. (The novel’s even more literal: the designers morph the faces of the dead children onto the bodies of the mutant dogs.) Sadism is the teenagers’ survival strategy to the meticulously crafted environment they’re forced to live in. Except, unlike in most high schools, only the valedictorian gets to graduate.

Teen sex is adult-mandated too. Most adolescent plots revolve around the irrepressible teen id fighting to break out. The animals escape again. But Katniss doesn’t have time for hormonal nonsense, either in the games or back home in parent-decimated Appalachia. Her appetite isn’t carnal. The sex plot is for the grown-ups watching on TV.

Katniss’ mother never explains the birds and the bees to her. In the Collins universe, birds are cross-bred mockingjays and the bees genetically engineered killer wasps. Sex is just another survival tool. The message from the adult world is literal: kiss the boy or the boy dies.

My improbable heart went out most to Glimmer, one of those joy-riding cool kids. Yes, she’s a monster, but literally a man-made one. The actress Leven Rambin played a similar character on the Terminator TV series a few years ago. There another adult plucked her from another hopeless future world to use her as expendable bait. The fight sequences are a little different, but it’s the same ending. She dies. It doesn’t matter if it’s from a broken neck or killer bees.

Meanwhile, the adult world sits and watches. Collins gives a brutal indictment of American adolescence. Parents are powerless to protect their children from other children.  Worse, the adults who are in charge—it’s as if they’re TRYING to torture them. It’s as if we have concocted an educational system that takes children away from their homes and forces them to battle each other in an artificial environment. To survive high school, you either join a killer clique, or you run and hide. Those are the only options the grown-ups in charge allow.

By the end, even the pack leader, the meanest jock of them all, is crying. He doesn’t want to be there either. He didn’t make this world. And he knows his power—the looks, the money, the weapons—is meaningless. He’s not the one pressing the buttons.

Kids compete when they’re made to compete, physically, sexually, you name it. Raise the stakes, raise the brutality. But don’t kid yourself. Our children aren’t the animals.

Adolescence is the front line of culture. And The Hunger Games shouts our culture’s most consistent command to our teen soldiers.

Grow up or die.

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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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