THE COMING OUT STORY OF GAY COMIC BOOK CHARACTERS
In 1954, American psychiatrist Fredric Wertham published the now-infamous book Seduction of the Innocent. This exposé of the mid-century comic book industry and its allegedly negative effect on youth led directly to U.S. Congressional hearings and parents across the U.S. and Canada taking up the cause of so-called moral righteousness and launching an inquiry into comic books.
The culprit? Superheroes. Thanks to Wertham, a number of parents learned that Batman and Robin were really lovers, not just crime-fighting partners. And Wonder Woman’s strong and independent nature meant that she was obviously a lesbian.
The result was the 1954 Comics Code, which prohibited, among other things, any suggestion of “sex perversion.” Until 1989, when the Code was updated to allow certain depictions of gay characters, gay people simply didn’t exist in comic book worlds, except when publishers defied the code. And although publishers were slow to accept gay characters, as societal attitudes shifted, so did comic books.
There have been gay superheroes in Marvel and DC (the two main producers of superhero comics) for decades now, although DC (the producer of Superman and Batman) has taken longer to accept diverse superheroes in its ranks.
It is probably not a coincidence that one of the first and most well-known gay superheroes is Canadian. Jean-Paul Beaubier, also known as Northstar, is a member of Alpha Flight, Marvel’s premier Canadian superhero team. Born in Montreal, Northstar is a mutant, with superhuman speed and the ability to fly. Since his debut in 1979 and his coming out in 1992, Northstar has appeared in Alpha Flight comics and Marvel’s X-Men publications both as a member of, and antagonist to, the famous mutant team.
Few can challenge Northstar’s status as a trailblazer. Not only was he one of the first major superheroes to come out of the closet, he’s also been a mentor to younger gay superheroes (Anole, see sidebar) and was the first gay superhero to get married. And yet aside from his initial coming out (which was handled rather poorly as an in-your-face AIDS awareness issue), Northstar has generally been treated as just another superhero. He paved the way for the latest generation of out superheroes who generally haven’t gone through the coming out process the way Northstar, Midnighter and Apollo, and Batwoman had to.
This new generation of gay heroes addresses the problem that Allan Heinberg (creator of Young Avengers and a writer for “Grey’s Anatomy” and “Sex and the City”) has identified. “We want it both ways, don’t we?” asked Heinberg in an interview with Comic Book Resources. “We want more gay characters in comics, but we don’t want them defined by their sexuality.”
Characters like Heinberg’s own creations, Wiccan and Hulkling, fit this description perfectly. Members of the Young Avengers, Wiccan (Billy Kaplan) and Hulkling (Teddy Altman) are teenage superheroes and boyfriends – in that order. And in a fulfilment of many comic book readers’ fantasies, Hulkling is a shape-shifting Skrull. Anole and Gray- malkin, teenage newcomers to the X-Men are similarly well-adjusted. And each of these four prominent gay heroes have a story to tell, stories that reflect the realities of readers’ lives, as good comics should.
Like many teenagers, Anole refuses to be defined by his sexual orientation, even getting angry when teammates talk about it too much. Wiccan and Hulkling stress over how to tell their parents the truth about their secret lives… as superheroes.
Yet despite the positive portrayal of these characters, the fact remains that Northstar shows up every couple years, Anole isn’t appearing in any ongoing title and Young Avengers is always on the brink of cancellation.
And what about DC? The publisher of Superman, Batman and Green Lantern has a dismal record of GLBTQ*-friendly publication. Although Batwoman came out of the closet in the early 2000s, the writers of her series quit this past summer, after DC refused to give permission for her to get married to her long-time partner.
And that’s aside from DC’s ill-advised partnership with noted homophobe science fiction writer Orson Scott Card, author of Ender’s Game.
Perhaps most interesting is Marvel’s decision to shelve its plans to make a movie about its other young superhero team, the Runaways, which features a lesbian and (arguably) transgender character. Although Marvel claims that the plans were put on hold after the success of The Avengers movie, one might wonder whether they simply got cold feet.
Although we can’t expect either Marvel or DC to rewrite (also called “retcon”) a hero’s history to make them more representative, the complete absence of gay characters from both companies’ most visible franchises, their movies, is problematic.
Unlike the superheroes themselves, the comic companies are certainly not out front, leading the charge for social acceptance of the GLBTQ* community. But the superhero universes are starting to resemble our own world. When you can open up a comic book and see a proud, gay hero flying across the page, beating the bad guys and saving the day, all while wearing the same spandex tights as the straight heroes, I think it’s safe to say we’re on the right track.
Should there be more GLBTQ* comic book characters? Tweet us at @outwords to let us know!
– Corey Shefman is a geek, and proud of it.
Want to read the stories of some gay superheroes?
Here’s where you go to read some GLBTQ* adventures:
Young X-Men: One series of 12 issues (2008), featuring Anole.
Alpha Flight: Canada’s home-grown super hero team is Northstar’s main team (1983-1994, 1997-1999 and short runs in 2004 and 2011).
X-Men, New X-Men, Astonishing X-Men: Ongoing series featuring Northstar as a semi-regular member of the X-Men team (2002-2005). Astonishing X-Men #50 and #51 (2012) saw Northstar marry his partner.
Batwoman: An eponymous series (2010). Ironically, a previous incarnation of Batwoman was created in the mid-1950s as a romantic interest for Batman, to convince readers that Batman wasn’t gay.