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The Patron Saint of Superheroes

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

Tag Archives: gay

Last month I looked at LGBTQ characters in the early comics years. There were very few and most were negative. Starting in the 90s, that all changes.

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Publishing in DC’s non-Code Vertigo imprint, Neil Gaiman’s Sandman introduced comics’ first overt and non-fantastical trans characters in 1991, another “Wanda,” who Shawn McManus renders with awkwardly masculine features. Within Code-approved comics, scripter William Messner-Loebs revealed the first openly gay character, the Pied Piper, in Flash #53 the same year. Flash asks whether the Joker is gay and the former 60s supervillain answers: “He’s a sadist and a psychopath … I doubt he has real feelings of any kind… He’s not gay, Wally. In fact, I can’t think of any super-villain who is … Well, except me of course” (Messner-Lobes & LaRocque 1991).

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Marvel now allowed Scott Lobdell to script Northstar’s declaration in the 1992 Alpha Flight #106: “For while I am not inclined to discuss my sexuality with people for whom it is none of their business – I am gay!” (Lobdell & Pacella 1992). Mark Pacella’s cover features a close-up of Northstar’s shouting, eye-clenched face and the header: “NORTHSTAR AS YOU’VE NEVER KNOWN HIM BEFORE!” Pacella also renders him in the hyper-muscular style that was standard for male superheroes in the 90s. His costume, the same worn by all Alpha Flight members, is non-symmetrical and so metaphorically a rejection of simple binaries.

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Four months later at DC, Legion of Super-Heroes writers Mary and Tom Bierbaum revealed that Element Lad’s long-time girlfriend had been born in a male body and was transforming it with the fantastical drug Profin. The two continue their previously heterosexual relationship now as male lovers: “it doesn’t matter,” says Element Lad, “You just have to understand – this is not what’s changed between us […] anything we shared physically … it was in spite of the Profin, not because of it!” (Bierbaum et al 1992). The relationship echoes Tristan and Isolde of a decade earlier, only now with a gender-fluid character accepting a male sex identity through the resolution of a same-sex male romance. Male homosexuality had entered superhero masculinity.

In 1993, the year President Clinton signed “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” into military policy, Milestone Comics’ Blood Syndicate #1 introduced scripters Dwayne McDuffie and Ivan Velez, Jr’s Masquerade, a black trans man who assumes a male form as a shapeshifter. The same year, DC’s Vertigo published two limited series featuring gay superheroes as title characters: Grant Morrison and Steve Yeowell’s Sebastian O and Peter Milligan and Duncan Fegredo’s The Enigma, which included an image of a gay kiss and a full-page image of the naked lovers entwined in bed after sex: “two men redrawing the maps of themselves.”

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In 1994, David Peter scripted the Pantheon superhero Hector as gay in Incredible Hulk. In 1997, Supergirl featured the shapeshifter Comet who alternates between a female human identity and a male centaur. In 1998 James Robinson’s Starman #48 featured the title character kissing his boyfriend. Alan Moore included a trans woman incarnation of the female superhero Promethea in 1999. In 2001, Peter Milligan and Mike Allred’s X-Force #118 included a kiss between two male superheroes, and the following year in The Authority #29 Mark Millar and Gary Erskine married superheroes Apollo and Midnighter, whom creator Warren Ellis had established as openly gay in 1999. Writer Judd Winick introduced the openly gay character Terry Berg to Green Lantern in 2001, and the 2002 #154-5 “Hate Crime” plot portrays his brutal beating and Green Lantern’s near deadly retaliation—reversing the 1980 and 1988 portrayals of gay men as violent predators.

21st-century comics continued the expansion of LGBTQ representation, including John Constantine in Hellblazer (2002), Moondragon and Marlo Chandler-Jones in Captain Marvel (2002), Renee Montoya in Gotham Central (2003), Xavin and Karolina in Runaways (2003), Miss Masque in Terra Obscura (2003), the rebooted Rawhide Kid in Rawhide Kid: Slap Leather (2003), Hulking and Wiccan in Young Avengers (2005), Freedom Ring in Marvel Team-Up (2006), Erik Storn as Amazing Woman in Infinity Inc. (2007), Daken in Wolverine Origins (2007), Loki in Thor (2008), Kate Kane and Maggie Sawyer in Batwoman (2011), Bunker in Teen Titans (2011), Miss America Chavez in Vengeance (2011), Northstar’s marriage in Astonishing X-Men (2012), Alan Scott Green Lantern in Earth Two (2012), Hercules and Wolverine in X-Treme X-Men (2013), and Alysia Yeoh in Batgirl (2013). 2015 alone includes Iceman in Uncanny X-Men, Sera and Angela in Angela: Asgard’s Assassin, Catman in Secret Six, Alpha Centurian in Doomed, Harley Quinn and Poison Ivy in Harley Quinn, Batwoman in DC Comics Bombshells, and Catwoman. Probably the most prominent challenge to the superhero’s traditional gender binaries is Deadpool, who in the opening pages of the 2016 Spider-Man/Deadpool #1 “Isn’t it Bromantic?” Joe Kelly and Ed McGuiness depict in an explicitly sexual conversation with Spider-Man as the two are tied together and about to be killed by a demon horde as they hang upside down.

DEADPOOL: I have to tell you one last thing that is, in my humble opinion, the single most important thing you need to know in the whole universe right at this second … If you don’t stop squirming, I am totally going to “unsheathe my katana” all up against your “spider eggs.” And by “katana” I mean –

SPIDER-MAN: What is wrong with you?

DEADPOOL: What?! I’m a red-blooded Canadian male! It’s friction and junk-biology and spandex grinding on leather and just please stop wiggling your webbing –

SPIDER-MAN: Would you just shut up so I can think!

DEADPOOL: Don’t yell at me … that’s totally one of my turn-ons. (2016: 1-3).

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The 2015 film Deadpool also alluded to the character’s pansexuality—a stark contrast to the contractual agreement between Sony and Marvel requiring that Peter Parker be “Caucasian and heterosexual” (Biddle). Finally, new Wonder Woman writer Greg Rucka stated in an interview that Wonder Woman’s home island “is a queer culture” and that Wonder Woman “has been in love and had relationships with other women,” facts he hopes to “show” rather than “tell” in future episodes (Santori-Griffith 2016).

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Visually and narratively, however, LGBTQ superheroes are often little different from heterosexual, cisgender superheroes. “Though demarcated by an explicit declaration of their same-sex object choice,” writes Panuska, “it is often difficult to otherwise cordon … ‘gay’ superheroes from their heterosexual counterparts” because they still conform “to the traditions of a nearly 80-year-old genre” and so do not “stray from traditional associations” (2013: 25). While female and LGBTQ superheroes have significantly challenged the traditional superhero formula, Michael A. Chaney in the Encyclopedia of Sex and Gender still concludes that the genre affirms “the fantasy of a masculine universe” in which “the objectifying conventions of superhero illustration disrupt the very forays into progressive gender politics (cyborg sexuality, transgender, nongender, etc.) that superhero stories increasingly undertake” (2007).

John G. Cawalti, writing in 1976 while black superheroes embodied racist stereotypes and LGBTQ superheroes were non-existent, analyzed the relationship between formula literature, such as superhero comics, and the culture that produces it, arguing that such “stories affirm existing interests and attitudes by presenting an imaginary world that is aligned with these interests and attitudes” and so “help to maintain a culture’s ongoing consensus” by “confirming some strongly held conventional view” (1976: 35). The comic book superhero—white, male, heterosexual, cisgender, and non-disabled—has served this function since its conception. But, as Cawalti also argues, popular fiction formulas also “assist in the process of assimilating changes in values to traditional imaginative constructs” and so “ease the transition between old and new ways of expressing things and thus contribute to cultural continuity” (36). The comic book superhero, a continuous cultural construct since 1938, demonstrates this capacity by evolving in response to larger social attitudes, reflecting progressive shifts within conservative norms. The history of black and LGBTQ superheroes demonstrates that superhero comics are rarely agents of cultural change, but that once a social attitude has shifted, comics quickly follow and so reinforce the new status quo.

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Well, he’d like to be. Mr. Incredible was Santorum’s surprisingly witty answer when asked by nine-year-old Ari Garnick what superhero he most liked. (As previously discussed, the rest of the Republican field went with the yawningly obvious Superman. Republicans in Tights.)

Mr. Incredible is the dad from Pixar’s 2004 The Incredibles. It’s creator, Brad Bird, worked with a budget of $92 million and grossed over $631 million worldwide. Mr. Santorum’s 2011 fundraising budget was under $2.2 million. Until he swept Minnesota, Colorado and Missouri, then he pulled in as much in two days.

But Santorum wasn’t talking cashflow with Ari. He was talking family values: “I would have to go with the guy who played in The Incredibles, because he was a good dad, cared about his family, and cared about his community and tried to do what the right thing was.”

Unfortunately, the Incredibles aren’t the kind of family Mr. Santorum would ever value.

The Incredibles hid their true selves under the name Parr (get it?) because their community hated them for being “super.” Their country even passed legislation to prevent them from living in the open. Mr. Incredible and Elastigirl didn’t choose to have superpowers. Like Lady Gaga, they were born that way. And so were their three kids. Which means a life of pretending to be “normal.”

This is the America Santorum would create for gay people. He declared that homosexuality is the same as bigamy, incest and adultery. The legislation he has in mind is the Marriage Protection Amendment to prevent same-sex marriages anywhere in the country. He would even turn the military clock back to the days before Don’t-Ask-Don’t-Tell.

So what kind of families does Santorum value?

Well, he says old style “shotgun marriages” weren’t all that bad. And with abstinence-only sex education high on his agenda, you can count on a lot more of them. Fortunately, he’s making sure there are plenty of shotguns cocked and ready. He voted against trigger locks and background checks, and he doesn’t think anyone should ever sue a gun manufacturer. His abstinence plan is double barreled too, because he thinks it will stop poverty (although a higher minimum wage apparently won’t). Stricter divorce laws are in, and mandatory inoculations for children are out, as is public education and state mandated insurance (because then forced sterilization would be okay). English would be the “official” language, and, oh yeah, the division between church and state, that’s out too. Santorum’s American will be a Christian nation the same way Iran is a Muslim one.

So if you’re gay, non-English speaking, not a Christian, be prepared to live like the Parrs. Because under Santorum’s family values agenda, your family is all you’re going to have.

But that actually worked out pretty well for the Parrs. When Mr. Incredible got himself captured by the supervillain Syndrome (currently played by Mitt Romney), his wife snapped on her elastic tights and flew to his rescue. This despite Santorum’s insistence that women not perform combat duties because male soldiers will be distracted with rescuing the damsels-in-arms. (He must have been buying popcorn during Elastigirl’s scenes.)

Santorum also thinks women should stay at home, though he doesn’t seem to mind when Mrs. Santorum moonlights on his behalf. A devoted wife’s domestic chores include writing her husband’s book without receiving credit. Karen Santorum’s name doesn’t appear on the cover of It Takes a Family or in the list of names acknowledged for helping, but Rick recently explained that Karen wrote the section attacking “radical feminists.” When a passage was quoted to him, he said he’d never heard it before. So not only did he not write his own book, he didn’t bother reading it either. (And that might be the only thing he and I have in common.)

The book Santorum should read is Baroness Orczy’s The Scarlet Pimpernel–and not because the hero sounds so gay (he’s the only superhero named after a flower). The Pimpernel is the savior of the aristocracy. When the working class rebels, he swoops in and rescues the idle rich. That’s the world Santorum thinks he’s living in under Obama’s liberal mob:  “When you marginalize faith in America, when you remove the pillar of God-given rights, then what’s left is the French Revolution. What’s left in France became the guillotine.” Santorum is even championing the division between the wealthy and the poor: “There is income inequality in America. There always has been and, hopefully, and I do say that, there always will be.” Since he also wants to dismantle the national education system that aids underprivileged children, more income inequality is a political promise he intends to keep.

So, let those home-schooled pregnant teen welfare mothers stay at home and eat cake from an English language cookbook and feed it to their closeted gay husbands after they all get home from church. (Which, sadly, maybe does sum up America.)

Since his three-state sweep, Mr. I-Want-To-Be-Incredible lost in Maine (another non-binding “beauty pageant”), but he tripled Gingrich’s numbers. Next week, it’s Arizona, Michigan and Washington. Then Super ten-state Tuesday a week after that. Despite his moment in the superhero spotlight, I’m praying Santorum, like The Incredibles, won’t have a sequel.

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