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The Patron Saint of Superheroes

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

Guest blogger, William Szczecinski.

 

What are the odds Christian Bale’s Batman character in the Dark Knight Trilogy films is secretly gay? Is he likely having a closeted homosexual affair with Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s Robin? Does he dream about smooching Michael Cain’s Alfred?

If these actors portrayed these characters as they appeared in the original story of Batman as published in Bill Kane and Bob Finger’s Detective Comics in 1939, there certainly would have been one guy who said “yes” to all three of these questions. In fact, his “yes” would be so resounding, that he would feel the need to write a book on the effect of “homosexual perversion” in comic books on American youth.

This man is the infamous psychologist Frederic Wertham, author of the 1954 Seduction of the Innocent. I came across Wertham’s name a couple months ago while reading an article titled “Super Gay! Depictions of Homosexuality in Mainstream Superhero Comics” by Kara Kvaran. I originally chose to read the article after a comment the professor of my superhero-themed English seminar class made about Batman and Robin: in the 1940’s, there were readers of Detective Comics who thought the Caped Crusader and The Boy Wonder might be gay for each other. The most notable of these readers was, of course, Frederic Wertham. His book specifically mentioned Batman and Robin’s relationship as being “psychologically homosexual”, and capable of confirming a young boy’s “fears” that he might be gay.

One of the panels Wertham deems "psychologically homosexual" from the Golden Age.

One of the panels Wertham deems “psychologically homosexual” from the Golden Age.

The ridiculousness of Wertham’s statements alone was enough to pique my interest on homosexuality in the Batman franchise. Additionally, I was intrigued by the fact that I had not really picked up on any potential homosexuality in the 1939 Batman Chronicles Volume One that I had already read for my class. In hindsight, and after lots of research on the topic, I first thought the reason I couldn’t detect it was due to the fact that Christian Bale as Batman in the movies was already ingrained in my head as the one, true Batman, who was clearly heterosexual (think absconding with beautiful Russian ballerinas on a private sailboat in The Dark Knight).

From The Dark Knight film (2008).

On second thought, I think I’m just not a homophobe like Mr. Wertham.

The aspects of the Batman story that Wertham points to as being potentially homosexual are well summed up in Seduction of the Innocent:

They are Bruce Wayne and “Dick” Grayson. Bruce Wayne is described as a “socialite” and the official relationship is that Dick is Bruce’s ward. They live in sumptuous quarters, with beautiful flowers in large vases, and have a butler, Alfred. Batman is sometimes shown in a dressing gown . . .. it is like a wish dream of two homosexuals living together. (190)

I personally identify as heterosexual, but considering the fact that I currently live in a well-decorated fraternity house with seventeen other men, have a male “butler” of sorts (our custodian, Bill), and on the weekends tend to walk around in pajamas during the day, I think its safe to assume that Frederic Wertham would think I was gay without having met me in person.

But of course no one can meet comic book characters in person. While Batman may be portrayed by a living actor in movies and television, the real Batman Wertham was analyzing was nothing more than a drawing. Wertham’s perception of homosexuality, or “gay reading” of the Batman comics, was undoubtedly a product of his homophobia. As I did some more research, however, I found out that gay readings of mainstream, heterosexual literature don’t have to be homophobic, and have actually been employed for years by readers in a non-discriminatory, stereotypical, or hurtful manner.

The word “camp” is hard to accept as meaning anything other than “temporary lodging out of doors”, but I find its alternative definition to be much more interesting: “camp” is the term for a reading practice commonly employed by homosexuals, used “as a means of claiming popular, hetero-normative elements of culture as their own”. In an article I read called “Batman, Deviance, and Camp”, the author tells the story of a gay man who cited the incredibly devoted relationship between Batman and Robin in the original Detective Comics, one the authors clearly intended to be a heterosexual friendship, as being one he personally read as homosexual. In reading Batman and Robin as gay, this man explained he received inspiration and comfort by being able to relate.

After reading about the “camp” gay reading of Batman in the 1940s, I was curious as to what homosexuality looked like in newer versions of the story, written in a comparably more progressive era. I chose to examine Frank Miller’s All-Star Batman and Robin, the Boy Wonder published in 2008. In reading it, I was looking mainly for examples of Batman and Robin’s strong devotion to each other, which I had read were an inspiration to some gay men in the past. I also looked for elements of what Wertham would perceive as homosexual (sumptuous living quarters, flowers, etc.). After only a few pages, it was pretty obvious I would find evidence of neither.

Miller’s novel was written in an age far more accepting of homosexuality than the 1940s, but is more homophobic than the original Detective Comics, and its content actually prevents “camp” gay readings. I would argue Miller had Wertham’s quote about homosexuality in the original comic book written as a checklist on his desk as he wrote All-Star. In this novel, Batman and Robin not only lack devotion to each other, they hate each other. Instead of using a term like “rescue” for what he did when saving Robin from the scene of a violent crime, Batman says, “I’ve kidnapped a traumatized youngster and drafted him into holy war”. After being with Batman for only a few minutes, Robin thinks to himself, “I hate this guy”, and continues to say this throughout the story.

Robin thinks to himself in Allstar.

Miller also replaces Batman’s sumptuous living quarters of the 1940s with the Bat Cave: a dank depository of a vast collection of dangerous gadgets and deadly weapons completely devoid of common household comforts, not to mention beautiful flowers.

Robin in the Batcave

Robin in the Bat Cave.

Finally, to reassure himself that the ghost of Frederic Wertham wouldn’t haunt his dreams, calling his all-star Batman and Robin a wish dream of two homosexuals, Miller has Robin use the word “queer” as a derogatory term towards Batman on multiple occasions.

In her review of Miller’s 2008 graphic novel, comics critic Marise Williams writes, “because of his lack of compassion for Robin/ Dick’s situation and his consistent treatment of him as a burden and an annoyance, this Batman was one that readers found hard to embrace”. I think everyone’s lives would be made easier if the next Batman and Robin just get married (Wertham would make a great ring-bearer). Besides, who cares if they’re gay?

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