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The Patron Saint of Superheroes

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

Tag Archives: Green Lantern

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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How any Hollywood exec fantasized that last summer’s Green Lantern could have spawned a Harry Potter-replacing franchise remains an unfathomable mystery. Three exposition-bloated minutes in and my ten-year-old son mumbled: “This isn’t very good.”

But the writers (seven names in the credits, never a good sign) got one thing right. When Lantern drops onto his love interest’s balcony (how many times has Superman pulled that maneuver with Lois?), she sees through his silly little disguise in seconds. And when he finally gets his kiss at the end, she first asks:

“Hal, can you take off the mask?”

If I were going to write a Superhero Guide to Love and Sex, that would be the first entry. Rule #1: Expose yourself. A superhero’s most intimate act is unmasking.

The advice originates from the roots of the genre (Spring-Heeled Jack, Scarlet Pimpernel, Zorro). It branches during the 1930’s into monkishly celibate heroes (Doc Savage, Superman) and earthier heroes with indulging fiancés (the Shadow, the Spider). And it’s still the core of 21st century superhero romances.

When DC turned their death of superman comic book arc into the PG-13 cartoon Superman: Doomsday in 2007, Anne Heche voiced Lois Lane’s annoyance with Superman for keeping their (surprisingly sexual) relationship a secret. Not only does he limit their trysts to the Fortress of Solitude (the ultimate bachelor pad), but he’s not confirmed his secret identity to her either. This Lois (for once) can see through Clark’s glasses, so she’s not miffed because he’s keeping her in the dark. She’s hurt that her lover isn’t committed to their relationship enough to show his real self. (That, by the way, is what you call a metaphor.) It only takes a scrape with the afterlife for the Man of Steel to come around. In the last scene, the post-coital Lois looks up from Superman’s bedsheets to see Clark putting on his glasses. Intimacy at last.

Staying in 2007, Austin Grossman’s novel Soon I Will Be Invincible plays by the same romance rules. The love-struck cyborg Fatale longs for her teammate Blackwolf:

“Our lips touch, and for a second it’s everything I thought it would be. The metal in my jaw is awkward but somehow exciting, and he kisses back. I pull him down to me, get his weight against me. I’d forgotten what it was like to want something this much. He reaches up under my shirt, and the feeling is so good it makes me want to cry. Nobody but a surgeon has touched me there for a really, really long time.

“Then I make a mistake. I reach for the mask, and he catches my arm, ready to break it. His jaw sets, and I’m dealing with Blackwolf again.”

For a superhero, unmasking is more intimate than sex.

It’s another team member who eventually lands Blackwolf. The two “are making out in the rain like high school kids,” and “Blackwolf’s mask came off, showing the shock of white hair he usually keeps hidden.” Even Fatale admits “it’s just about the most romantic thing I’ve ever seen.”

The mask means the same to gay superheroes. The hero of Perry Moore’s Hero (2007 was a banner year for superhero sex) masturbates to online porn of wide-nippled Uberman (the one page I mumbled over when reading aloud to my kids). But he doesn’t find real intimacy until he and the better half of his dynamic duo have shared identities. The novel’s most touching (and gently erotic) scene takes place not in bed but during a picnic lunch in a public park:

“I . . . placed my hands on his face. . . With one palm over his forehead and the other palm over his nose and mouth, I looked into those deep, dark pupils and saw the way he used to look at me when he was Dark Hero, when I didn’t know. Goran took my hand off his mouth and held it. He raised it to his mouth, placed his warm lips in the middle of my palm and kissed it. . . . I reached my arms around Goran, pulled him in, and our lips met.”

For a superhero, a happy ending means getting your mask off.

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“The trend in uniform design is more toward making costumes for superheroes than uniforms for athletes.”

That’s ESPN reporter Paul Lukas. He’s also the editor of Uni-Watch.com. A website devoted not to sport teams but their uniforms. Lukas is not a fan of U of Maryland’s new string of high fashion helmets and jerseys. Under Armour (they’re designing all of Maryland’s varsity uniforms) is championing the new menswear trend of garishly bright colors.

But it’s not new for comic books. Joe Shuster’s Superman made the first superheroic fashion statement seventy years ago. And comic book heroes are still working the runways.

George Perez and Jesus Merino just retailored the Man of Steel’s skintight threads with a Kryptonian armor design (the red briefs have, mysteriously, vanished). And Sara Pichelli stitched a sassy new suit for Ultimate Spider-Man (the black and red is almost as bold as the brown skin underneath it).

In Hollywood, superhero costume design is its own industry. Look at just this year’s super fashion:

Designer Anna B. Sheppard trashed the spandex and went with a looser fitting cut for Captain America. The leather straps and metal buckles say “1940’s.”

Alexandra Byrne was thinking “ancient modernism” for Thor. The biggest challenge was the cape, which had to merge “completely believable” with the “sublimely magical.”

Ngila Dickson abandoned real-world fabrics. The Green Lantern costume is entirely motion-captured computer graphics.

David E. Kelley recently shot a Wonder Woman pilot for NBC, but his Amazon’s costume make-over didn’t make it into the fall line-up. Despite all the film fashion fun, the only superhero costumes on TV are on ESPN. Primetime heroes won’t touch them.

Syfy’s Alphas launched last summer. The team of superpowered government agents fight evil mutants in their street clothes. There’s not as much as a logo on their lapels.

Across the Atlantic, the BBC’s Misfits sport matching orange jumpsuits, but only because the characters are juvenile offenders clocking community service hours.

NBC’s Heroes solidified the trend in 2006, but it was the CW’s 2001 Superboy adaptation, Smallville, that first scissorsed the costume off a superhero.

The 1993 Lois and Clark, the 1988 Superboy, and the 1990 The Flash series all still featured their hero’s iconic wardrobes. Which was part of the problem.

“The appearance of realism in a super-hero costume,” explains Michael Chabon, “made from real materials is generally recognized to be difficult to pull off.” In fact, he goes on, it’s “hopeless” because the true superhero costume exists only on paper.

This is most obviously and hilariously true in the earliest attempts to move superheroes from comic books to screen. If you don’t admire Anna B. Sheppard’s Captain America, take a look at the 1944 film serial.

Adam West’s Batman could get away with leotarded camp in the 60’s. William Katt’s Greatest American Hero still could fifteen years later. The goofiness of their costumes was part of the appeal. But Tim Burton raised the bar with Batman in 1989. Low-budget leotards no longer cut it. Michael Keaton in Bob Ringwood’s award-winning batsuit changed the playing field. The 2000 X-Men said it outright: leather is better.

At least on the big screen. Responding to the same challenge, TV designers opted for a simpler solution. If it’s hopeless, why try?

Stan Lee never liked costumes anyway. “I always felt if I had a superpower,” Lee says in Confessions of a Superhero, “there’s no way I would wear a costume. I’m a show-off; I’d want everybody to [know]–I wouldn’t wear a mask, conceal my identity. And I wouldn’t want to look like some idiot in a costume.”

When he and Jack Kirby posed their first superhero team on the cover of a Marvel comic book in 1961, the Fantastic Four were no more fashion forward than the Alphas. The Thing made his debut in a men’s clothing store (“I’m sorry, mister, I just don’t have anything big enough for a man your size!”). It’s not till issue three that Invisible Girl reveals her secret superpower:

“Susan! You designed a costume for yourself!”

“And for you, too! It’s time we all had some colorful costumes!”

But now the anti-fashion fashion is filtering back into comic books. When Grant Morrison and Rags Morales revamped Action Comics, they made the most radical costume choice imaginable: Superman in work boots, blue jeans, and a t-shirt. There’s still an ‘S’ on his chest and a cape on his back, but the iconic unitard of the original comic book superhero is gone.

These surface changes are more than just surface changes. In comic books, costume is character. A change in tights is a change in meaning. The spandex look has marked superheroes as exotic outsiders since the 30’s. They fight for humanity, but their second skins separate them. They remain alien and so alienated.

Or they did. When TV’s Alphas or Misfits or Heroes perform extraordinary abilities in ordinary clothes, they are also performing their humanity. They are just people. People with really freaky skill sets, but at their core (which is a product of their surface) they are human. While their big screen brothers want to remain larger than life, the 21st century TV superhero is dressed for small-scale integration. We all pull our pants on one leg at a time.

So if you’re a costume connoisseur, stick with college football.

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