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The Patron Saint of Superheroes

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

Tag Archives: gay superheroes

The 1980s are often recalled as the conservative Reagan years. But they were also a tipping point in the superheroic battle for gay rights. LGBTQ characters in comics began the decade as villains and ended it with a revised Comics Code that championed their “orientation.”

Although England’s Wolfenden Commission recommended decriminalizing homosexuality in 1957, and the American Law Institute made a similar recommendation in 1962, the 1971 Comics Code update remained unchanged from its 1950s version. “Sexual abnormalities” were still “unacceptable” and “the protection of the children and family life” paramount—even after the American Psychiatric Association struck homosexuality from its mental disorder list in 1973. As a result, superhero comics avoided gay characters until the 1980s, and early depictions cast them as villains.

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Beginning in Peter Parker, The Spectacular Spider-Man #43, Roger Stern scripted Roderick Kingsley as a thin, limp-wristed, ascot-wearing fashion designer who another characters calls a “flaming simp!” and who is later revealed to be the supervillain Hobgoblin (1980).

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Kingsley is not directly identified as gay, but the same year in the non-Code Hulk Magazine #23, Jim Shooter and Roger Stern scripted two men, one black and one white, attempting to rape Bruce Banner, who escapes a YMCA shower room by threatening to transform into the Hulk: “You hurt me and I’ll get big and green and tear your … head off!”

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Alan Moore and John Totleben recreate a similar scene eight years later in Miracleman #14 when three teens succeed in raping the pubescent Johnny Bates: “You love it. You littul poof. Say you love it.” He escapes by actually transforming into the monstrous Kid Miracleman, who then massacres thousands of Londoners before being forced to transform back, leading Miracleman to murder Johnny to prevent future massacres—all the results of a homosexual rape.

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Early depictions of transgender characters are comparatively positive. Because a character’s consciousness is often depicted as existing independently of the character’s body, superhero comics provide a range of opportunities for fantastical gender-switching. In 1975, writer Steve Gerber introduced Starhawk, a male superhero who exchanges bodies with his female lover, Aleta. Jim Shooter scripted Starhawk in The Avengers #168: “Aleta gestures in defiance as her persona submerges, giving way – as the persona of Starhawk assumes command, the corporeal form they share shimmers… changes.” Although both characters are heterosexual and cisgender, the visual depiction of a woman transforming into a male superhero alters the male-to-male norm established in Action Comics #1.

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Mike W. Barra and Brian Bolland’s 1982 Camelot 3000 introduced a more overtly transgender superhero, the legendary knight Sir Tristan reincarnated into a woman’s body. Tristan rejects a female sex identity until the maxi-series’ conclusion when he chooses to live as a woman with his reincarnated female lover Isolde.

Beginning in the 1987 Alpha Flight #45, Bill Mantlo scripted a more convoluted, multiple body-swapping plot that concluded with the spirit of a previously deceased male character, Walter Langkowski, inside a formerly deceased female body—except when Langkowski transforms into the male body of the Hulk-like Sasquatch for superheroic adventures. Like Sir Tristan, Langkowski, taking the first name “Wanda,” continued a previous romantic relationship with his female lover.

While challenging gender binaries, these early depictions of transgender and gay superheroes also maintain aspects of traditional masculinity and heterosexuality. The female Aleta transforming into the male Starhawk literalizes the emasculated or female-like nature of Clark Kent already implicit in the formula. With Tristan and Langkowski, a female body is controlled by a male consciousness, and the male consciousness is male by virtue of having existed previously in a male body. The physicality of the male body, even when not currently present, is primary. Tristan and Langkowski also treat transgender as a temporary plot conflict resolved by a male consciousness accepting a female sex identity through what visually appears to be a lesbian romance, normalizing same-sex female relationships as fantastical expressions of heterosexuality. None of the narratives present a female consciousness inhabiting a male body or male bodies in sexual relationships. Since only female homosexuality is visually portrayed and because early depictions of gay men are villainous, superhero masculinity remained heterosexual and homophobic.

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John Byrne challenged that norm in 1983 with Alpha Flight superhero Northstar. Because the Code barred openly gay characters, Byrne suggested the character’s sexuality indirectly, for example, introducing his friend Raymonde Belmonde whom Byrne draws in a nearly identical light blue suit and red ascot that Mike Zeck designed for Roderick Kingsley four years earlier. Byrne was either alluding to Zeck or both were drawing on the same cultural stereotype—arguably the blue suit worn by an emaciated David Bowie on the album cover of the 1974 David Live.

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Despite more direct portrayals of same-sex superhero relationships in non-Code-approved issues of The Defenders and Vigilante in 1984, Bill Mantlo continued the pattern of indirection when scripting Alpha Flight in 1985. When he began a 1987 story arc in which Northstar contracts AIDS, Marvel under the editorship of Jim Shooter altered the disease to a fantastical ailment, forcing the character into temporary retirement. Other writers followed a similar approach, including gay characters while avoiding identifying their sexualities overtly. Scripter Al Milgrom in the 1988 Marvel Fanfare #40 moved closer to confirming the relationship between mutants Mystique and Destiny originally intended and implied by Chris Claremont in 1981.

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Paul Levitz, during his 63-issue, 1984-89 run of DC’s Legion of Super-Heroes, also indirectly indicated that the 60s characters Lightning Lass and Shrinking Violet were lesbian lovers, a subplot continued by the next team of writers in 1989. Alan Moore’s 1986 Watchmen memoirist Hollis Mason alludes to two gay superheroes, Hooded Justice and the Silhouette, both of whom may have been murdered for their sexualities.

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DC’s Steve Englehart and Joe Stanton’s 1988-9 The New Guardians featured the flamboyantly effeminate Extrano, who wore a large golden earring and a purple cape but was never explicitly identified as gay. John Byrne also introduced police captain Maggie Sawyer to Superman in 1987, interrupting Superman mid-sentence before he could explicitly identify her as lesbian.

The increase in gay representation parallels gains of the gay rights movement of the 80s. Wisconsin, for example, became the first state to outlaw discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation in 1982, and 600,000 protesters marched in Washington in support of gay rights in 1987. “After decades existing in a subtextual closet of metaphors, tropes, and stereotypes,” writes Sean Guynes, “in 1988 openly gay characters exploded in the pages of superhero comics” (2016: 182). When the Comics Code Authority revised its guidelines in 1989, it reversed its quarter century of anti-gay mandates. The Code’s new “Characterizations” subsection required creators to “show sensitivity to national, ethnic, religious, sexual, political and socioeconomic orientations.” The revision also acknowledged that heroes “should reflect the prevailing social attitudes,” potentially allowing positive portrayals of openly gay superheroes.

As a result, LGBTQ characters transformed radically in the 90s. That happier history is here.

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Before DC revealed which of their mainstream heroes they were outing, I guessed Green Arrow. So I was half right. Probably I was thinking of the Green Parrot, the bar not a superhero. I don’t know if the Green Hornet is gay too, but he had his own suspiciously cute sidekick long before Batman met Robin.

So when Green Lantern flew out of the closet last week, I didn’t burst into song about DC’s bravery and boldness, but I was happy enough. Founding member of the Justice League. Not one of the big three, but right up there with Flash and that guy who talks to fish. With a good writer, he could be the Kurt Hummel of the superhero ensemble cast.

Except DC had already rebooted Green Lantern and the rest of the Justice League last year. And that Green Lantern remains as clumsily heterosexual as he was in his recent Hollywood flop. All of the hype was about the other Green Lantern. You know. The one who lives on Earth 2?

I teach a course on superheroes, which is pretty much what you need to understand the ever evolving DC multiverse. So let me make it simple: Earth 2 ain’t us.

Clark Kent and Bruce Wayne are names almost as iconic as their alter egos. But only comic book readers know the world of difference between a Hal Jordan and an Alan Scott. Hal suddenly unmasking his inner homosexual to his tolerant teammates? That would be news. But Alan? Yes, he was the original 1940 Green Lantern. But he was never a member of the Justice League, and he hasn’t starred in his own comic book in over six decades. Unless you’re visualizing a clashing red and green uniform with a high-collard cape, he’s not the Green Lantern. When DC first rebooted their universe in the late 1950’s, Lantern got the full makeover: costume, origin, secret identity. The retired Alan Scott didn’t belong to a Corps of interplanetary policemen. He was an Aladdin’s lamp knock-off. His lantern was magic.

And I have absolutely nothing against him. But a gay Green Lantern on Earth 2 is not earth-shattering. It’s just earth-2-shattering. As one reader commented at comicbookmovie.com: “So what if he’s gay? This is Earth-2 and this is not the same Alan Scott from the golden age, this is an alternate version of the character like the gay Colossus in Ultimate Marvel.”

That’s right. Gay superheroes aren’t just secondary characters like, say, Oscar Martinez on The Office. Their entire universe is secondary.

And yet the conservative activist group One Million Moms (they don’t think much of Ellen DeGeneres either) is orchestrating an email campaign “to change and cancel all plans of homosexual superhero characters immediately.” Alan Caruba calls the new old Lantern “a form of gay indoctrination for a new, younger generation.”

If only. It’s neither a step forward for gay rights or a step backwards. Writer James Robinson suggested converting the Earth 2 Lantern only because the reboot erased the character’s gay son. So the cosmic quotient of gay superheroes remains the same: pretty damn small.

Meanwhile, anything goes on an Earth 2. Remember those sibling mutants Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver? They’re the reigning incest couple on Ultimate Marvel. But don’t worry, they’re still their former and perfectly wholesome selves back here on Normal Earth. Just like Heterosexual Hal.

What DC really deserves credit for already happened. And it happened without the headlines and conservative backlash.

While last year’s gay reboot news swirled around the lesbian Batwoman, the real change was for Apollo and Midnighter, comic book’s leading gay superhero couple.  Like the gay Green Lantern, they lived in a different universe. In fact, DC had them quarantined in their own imprint, WildStorm, a previously independent publisher DC bought up in the late 90’s. Readers feared the reboot would wipe out not just the heroes’ marriage but their sexualities. But not only do the two remain gay, they and their secondary dimension were welcomed into DC’s mainstream continuity.

Apollo and Midnighter now hang out with former Justice Leaguer Martian Manhunter. Who, incidentally, is green. But for once the straight guy is the secondary choir member. It’s Apollo and Midnighter belting out the lead duet.

[A special thanks to AfterElton.com, where a version of this post originally ran.]

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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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