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The latest trend in comic books—gay superheroes
Why are the publishers of major comic books turning some of their superheroes into gay icons?
DC and Marvel, the comic book publishing giants owned by Time-Warner and Disney respectively, have apparently agreed on something: June is Gay Month in the multiverse. First came DC’s unveiling of a gay Green Lantern, which followed a month-long media circus of publicity and speculation. In May, DC had announced that one of its most famous and longstanding superheroes would soon be coming out of the closet. “Could Superman be gay?” headlines blazed.
The partnership of Batman and Robin has long been subject to such innuendo—would this be the final unveiling? And of course there’s Wonder Woman, the Amazonian dominatrix no man could beat in an arm wrestle, much less sweep off her feet. As the Hollywood tattler TMZ suggests, DC’s decision to go with the Green Lantern made all the publicity into something of a shell game, since the Green Lantern is more of an intergalactic police corps than an individual, and that there are more than 7200 Green Lanterns on the roster. The Green Lantern shown kissing another man in the second issue of DC’s Earth 2, is not, in fact, the Hal Jordan most associable with the franchise, but rather a reinvented version of another man, Alan Scott (who, first introduced in 1940, was nevertheless a married father of two).
The gay Green Lantern is thus a reboot of a reboot, a reimagined figure of a reimagined DC Universe—which, as any comics fan will tell you, is actually a multiverse. The new figure is thus so far removed from the original, only Stephen Hawking could theorize introducing them to each other. As with Kate Kane, a lesbian and the current Batwoman introduced by DC with comparable hype in 2009, the figure’s peripheral status suggests a largely commercial purpose.
Not to be outdone, Marvel Comics will host its first gay marriage proposal in Astonishing X-Men #52, due out on June 20. The issue, complete with an open-cover illustration of the ceremony and all its colorful attendees, will showcase the nuptials of the Canadian superhero Northstar and his civilian partner, Kyle Jinadu.
No longer to be contented with a simple coming-out party, Marvel is able to amp up its own exhibition of gay themes because gay characters have longer standing in its universe. Though he doesn’t have the recognizability of the Green Lantern, Northstar was first introduced in 1979, and has been portrayed as being openly gay since 1992, only a couple of years after the Comics Code Authority dropped its prohibition of such content. He is foremost among a number of what one might call ‘non-heterosexual’ characters, including shapeshifting bisexuals Mystique and Hulkling, as well as at least one artificial, bio-engineered humanoid from a dimension incidentally known as Mojoworld. The character, whose name is Shatterstar, has made clear to readers that he is anatomically equipped and sexually functional. He recently shared a kiss with teammate Rictor, a bisexual mutant with the ability to generate localized earthquakes.
The fact that homosexual characters and themes have been around in superhero comics—for decades in some cases—may cause some to ask why these publications and their campaigns are happening again. Something of an answer lies in the fact that, for the most part, these characters are being treated as sociopolitical mascots rather than as fictional beings. The majority of debates about their validity concern issues of homosexuality and gay marriage in the real world. DC Comics’ vice president Bob Wayne speaks of the decision to reveal one of its heroes as being gay as evidence of an evolved perspective, echoing American president Barack Obama’s words on accepting gay marriage. This reversed a policy outlined only last year by DC co-publisher Dan Didio that any homosexual characters would be newly introduced.
Whether or not audiences accept the new Green Lantern, there is no denying that Wayne’s words—like Obama’s—are intended to insult those who disapprove. He might have spoken of one’s perspective changing, shifting, or even becoming more compassionate, but to use the language of evolution—that’s a calculated jab, doubly so if one considers Christian audiences to be their intended target.
Whether this sort of publicity is good or bad for comic sales and gay rights movements, there remains a matter that, for its complexity, is much easier to ignore. This is the matter of imagination itself—that intensely private activity that is responsible for the very existence and appeal of superheroes.
Contrary to popular belief, literature—and this includes comic books—is not a simply a conduit by which authors can instill values in readers. It is instead a medium of communication whose significance, whatever the intention of the writer, is very much shaped by the existing experiences and positions of the reader. We are not slaves to what we read; a work of literature may ultimately lead to the alteration of one’s pre-existing beliefs, but this power is no more within literature itself than the power to change reality is within any single reader.
Introducing gay characters such as the new Green Lantern may not ‘turn readers gay’ as some advocates have quipped, but nor will his introduction fall upon so many empty canvases. As the froth of pop culture, superhero comics are never very substantial, and the reasons given by publishers and writers for including gay characters—that it is more like the real world, that it is current, or that it will encourage acceptance and open-mindedness—fail to respect the very humble limitations of their very humble medium. While readers of comics are geared to be alternative—comic-book worlds explore multiple realities, and one must be open-minded in the basic sense to have a good imagination—they are not without their own identities. They might, as publishers have claimed, have no problem with the Green Lantern being gay, but not because they’re taking their cues from DC.
Second, and more importantly, imagination is metaphysical. Sexuality, on other hand, is fundamentally physical. While imagination and sexuality might cooperate in many ways, actual portrayals of sex in comic books remains an embarrassingly taboo fringe element of comics subcultures—in essence, geekiness among geeks. Erotic anime, or hentai, has its own small corner in your local comic book shop, just like pornography in a video or magazine store. Publishers of superhero comics are not blind to this segregation. They recognize that most readers of comic books would, despite their vivid imaginations, still prefer relationships with actual people.
Superhero comics will show kisses, hugs, and occasionally some nudity, but they are still in the business of saving the Earth from shapeshifting aliens, not exploring the potential Kama Sutras of multi-limbed beings. When, in the 1995 film Mallrats, Brodie (Jason Lee) pesters Stan Lee about the erotic abilities of various superheroes, it is ridiculous and pathetic. “We never really tackled stuff like that in the old days,” the comics icon replied, waving the questions away. Even today, and despite the occasional headline-grab, comics still don’t. Stan Lee later tells Brodie’s friend, “you know, I think you ought to get him some help. He seems to be really hung up on superheroes’ sex organs. But he’ll outgrow it.”
The irony is that if there is one thing the industry can truly be condemned for in all this, it is for failing to portray the diversity of the real world. For example, the Green Lantern franchise has handled gay issues before. In 2000, the series introduced Terry Berg, an openly gay seventeen year-old assistant to another version of the Green Lantern, Kyle Rayner.
When Berg was beaten into a coma by a gang of hateful thugs, even Lex Luthor condemned the attack and its motivation, suggesting it’s far worse in the DC universe to be a gaybasher than a supervillain who routinely plots the deaths of millions (gays no doubt among them). Marvel, meanwhile, has its own examples. Among the attendees of the gay wedding on the cover of Astonishing X-Men #52, the superhero Wolverine stands prominently. Hailing from northern Canada and in almost every way a stereotype of the tough-talking, hairy-chested, tanktop-wearing, beer-drinking working man, Wolverine is nevertheless fine with all this. Somehow, his adamantine claws seem more plausible. To offer dissenting perspectives from heroes or villains, even in the names of diversity and credibility, is simply too unfashionable. For those in the business of superheroism, it all seems pretty cowardly.
Harley J. Sims is a writer and independent scholar living in Ottawa, Canada. He can be reached on his website at www.harleyjsims.webs.com
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