As a celebration of Martin Eden’s recent Spandex graphic novel – that follows the first all gay super-hero team – this is the first in a short series of features that focus on the theme of LGBT representation in comic book culture. As an overview of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender representation in comic books this article is mostly limited to the more prevalent Marvel and DC universes because of their overall ubiquity (also for the sake of brevity), though it will touch briefly on Archie comics’s Kevin Keller, Dark Horse’s Buffy, and a few other sources just for good measure. As with any issues of equal representation this has been something that has evolved over time, arguably at a slower pace than other areas of media, and it hasn’t been without it’s controversy. It’s safe to say that there exists a decent contingent of comic book fans that fall into the LGBT camp so there is a large audience that want to read about homosexual superheroes, or at least see a fair reflection of reality. It’s been a bumpy ride with some faltering, stereotype laden, steps but there has been progress from the first appearance of a homosexual comic book character to the present crop of story lines that not only depict gay friendships and relationships but that blur the boundaries of gender identity and represent the truly diverse nature of sexuality and gender expression.
US TV show Queer as Folks’s cornucopia of gay cliches heavily featured comic books as positive reinforcement for gay culture when Mikey went from office worker, to comic book store owner, to comic book co-creator with Justin in creating gay superhero Rage. Similarly Marvel’s X-Men can in general, with it’s outcast mutants and stories about discrimination, be interpreted as frequently allegorical of LGBT equality issues, or indeed the concerns of any minority (which makes Sir Ian McKellan’s turn as Magneto, in the abominable X-Men 3, succumbing to the ‘cure’ all the more painful given his status as an adoptive queer patriarch.)
The most relevant period of comic book history for the representation of LGBT culture is the past 20 years; approximately since Northstar’s coming out in Marvel’s Alpha Flight in 1992. Prior to this any reference to a homosexual lifestyle was only subtly hinted at through heavily veiled references due to being banned by the Comics Code Authority in the United States. When, in 1989, this ban was overturned Marvel, DC, and other US based comic distributers that are governed by the CCA were able to openly make reference to homosexuality. This didn’t stop people inferring certain relationships however, the most obvious being that of Batman and Robin.
The possible relationship between Bruce Wayne and Dick Grayson has been a constant interpretation for decades, one that’s difficult to argue with, indeed Batgirl was introduced in1956 in an attempt to discredit the rumours started by psychologist Fredric Wertham’s book The Seduction of the Innocent that reported that the relationship between “‘Batman’ and his young friend ‘Robin’” was inherently homosexual. Innuendo abounds in Batman and Robin’s relationship from lying in bed together to Robin tearing a naked Batman from the shower. Let’s face it, Robin’s costume is hot pants for crying out loud and that’s to say nothing of the bastion of camp that was Batman, the 1960′s TV series staring Adam West. Further allusions exist in Wonder Woman where the all female island of Paradise that appeared in 1941 and could be interpreted as plainly lesbian, or in the relationship between Mystique and Destiny in X-Men. Destiny was introduced in Uncanny X-Men in 1981 and spent a lot of time with Mystique, but nothing was ever said about their relationship and so it wasn’t until writer Chris Claremont revealed sometime after that he had intended them as lovers.
Though Northstar is most often quoted, due to popularity, as being the first openly gay comic book character this is not the case. Prior to Alpha Flight issue #106, the storyline where Northstar actually said the words “I am gay” and that deals with him caring for a HIV positive surrogate daughter, there was Extraño in DC Comics 1988 series Millennium. Extraño unlike most other subsequent gay Superheros (with the possible exception of the Rawhide Kid, a gay cowboy who attracted negative attention for largely being the butt of innuendo) was an amalgam of almost every gay male stereotype, flashy, camp, referring to himself as ‘Auntie’, he was later confirmed to be HIV positive following an encounter with an ‘Aids Vampire’ named Hemo-Globin – all in all he was a mixture of hilariously dated clichés that were more than a little insulting. DC also had a couple of homosexual characters crop up in Alan Moore’s seminal classic Watchmen, which alluded to a relationship between Captain Metropolis and Hooded Justice, that Moore later confirmed in 1988, along with the lesbian Silhouette character who was murdered with her lover in their bed.
In Alpha Flight (a series centred around a Canadian team reminiscent of the Avengers) Northstar’s sexuality was rarely discussed beyond issue #106 when he outed himself in an encounter with Major Mapleleaf who was disgruntled that Northstar’s surrogate baby daughter Joanne received gushing attention from the media when his own son Michael’s death from AIDS was shunned because of his homosexuality. Marvel was commended for taking on such a poignant subject when the fallout from the spread of AIDS during the 1980s was still being felt. Northstar’s outing was handled fairly well, he didn’t feel his sexuality was particularly anyones business but he publicly acknowledged it in a bid to increase media attention to HIV and AIDS health issues, certainly a well intentioned reason. What was a shame was that it never went much beyond that issue, and for a decade Northstar’s sexuality was largely ignored. But the word was out, there was a gay superhero and Marvel was quick to point out in issue #110 that the response was over 76% positive, though that didn’t stop some people from voicing some staggeringly small minded commentary – see the responses Marvel printed in issue #110 (left).
Around the same time as this was happening at Marvel, DC introduced it’s first transsexual character in Kate Godwin who, as Coagula, had the ability to dissolve solids and liquify solids. Kate appeared in Doom Patrol in 1993 and was a male-to-female transsexual who at first appeared as a lesbian but was later involved with male characters too making her one of the only transgendered bisexual characters to appear in comics. Concurrently in Neil Gaiman’s fantastic Sandman series attempted to redress the lack of realistic representation of trans characters with Wanda, a pre-op transexual woman, in A Game of You. Wanda was a secondary character living in the same building as Barbie, the protagonist, as well as a lesbian couple Hazel and Foxglove. Gaiman’s writing has always garnered praise for its accurate portrayal of the full range of peoples despite the largely fantastical or supernatural universes that they tend to inhabit.
Roughly speaking the next LGBT appearance of note came from DC’s Midnighter and Apollo in Stormwatch in 1998. Midnighter is endowed with bioengineered strength and speed and has a tendency for highly violent vigilante justice. Apollo has a multitude of powers including flight, strength, invulnerability, and he can create blasts of solar energy. The pair have drawn comparisons as a gay teaming of Batman and Superman – a fact backed up by Apollo, like Superman, being dependant on the sun for his powers. Midnighter and Apollo shared the first gay kiss in a comic in 2000, and have since married and adopted a daughter Jenny Quantum, but they have attracted their fair share of criticism for the sometimes particularly harsh treatment (one storyline has Apollo raped) and constant homophobic abuse they receive from villains with Alan Moore stating that the characters are an example of a “strange attitude” that exists towards LGBT themes and also calling them “vicious muscle queens.”
When Northstar joined Marvel’s X-Men in 2001 he later found himself becoming a mentor for gay teen mutant. Anole, introduced in 2003, was initially conceived as a character that would commit suicide following his parents negative reaction to his sexuality, Marvel eventually altered the story owing to the controversial nature so that Anole’s family was much more accepting. Anole’s sexuality was again only alluded to rather than stated outright and it wasn’t until after Northstar’s apparent death and in seeking the advice of fellow mutant Karma, who is openly lesbian, that he was officially outed in 2006. Anole later joins the young X-Men where he was joined by Jonas Graymalkin (introduced in 2008). Graymalkin is revealed as a 200 year old mutant that was trapped underground in a state of suspended animation having been buried by his father as a reaction to his sexuality. The pair become friends with Anole providing support for Graymalkin following the treatment he received at the hands of his father and they are amongst a very small group of gay comic characters that are friends rather than lovers.
Green Lantern’s writers attracted controversy with a storyline in 2003 where Kyle Rayner’s 17 year old assistant Terry Berg is gay bashed by three homophobes after kissing his boyfriend, David, on the way home from a club. Previously Berg, a civilian and not a superhero, had come out to Kyle revealing the crush that he had on his boss – Kyle, completely unaware, had been bragging about his relationship not noticing the jealously coursing through Terry. What followed was a moving scene of support from Kyle who reassured Terry that he had nothing to be scared or ashamed of and the pair formed a very strong friendship.
Because of their strong friendship, Kyle feels like a protective big brother of sorts so Green Lantern’s reaction to Terry’s assault and comatose state in Hate Crime is fairly extreme and filled with anger; he tortures the whereabouts of two of the assailants from the other and then nearly beats them to death in retaliation. Though Green Lantern’s emotive reaction is hypocritically deplorable the overall message of the story attempts to promote a more tolerant attitude (not just towards sexuality but race and appearance also), Terry is horrifyingly brutalised forcing the President to make a speech calling for education, and stating that “tolerance and understanding begins at home.”
In 2006 DC re-introduced the Batwoman series with Kate Kane (rather than Kathy) as a lesbian who had been romantically involved with Renee Montoya, an openly lesbian former Police detective who takes on the role of Question when her mentor is killed. Kate Kane is depicted as a positive female character, a kickass lipstick lesbian, and has been remarked as being the most high profile gay character in DC’s roster. Willow from Dark Horse’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer series of comics, has always been a prominent and positive lesbian presence in comics, joined by her lovers Tara and Kennedy, a fellow witch and a powerful slayer respectively.
Buffy’s Season Eight series, that expands on the story beyond the run of the original TV show, even introduced a bit of girl on girl action for the slayer herself with a short story line involving a pair of sexual encounters with fellow slayer Satsu. The initial encounter comes as a bit of a shock to Buffy, and her friends, but while she engages at least one more time with Satsu she doesn’t identify as a lesbian, just as open to sexual experimentation. Dark Horse at least had no issue with showing the characters in bed together, and dispensed with the need for hints or allusions taking a more direct and honest route in their storytelling.
The Marvel’s Young Avengers and Runaways featuring a new generation of teenage mutants have both had gay, lesbian and transgendered characters from the outset. In Runaways Karolina Dean is an extraterrestrial lesbian character who was betrothed to fellow alien, but from a different race, Xavin. As a Skrull Xavin has the ability to shift his form and whilst initially Karolina shows no interest in having Xavin shift to a female form for her their relationship grows and so Xavin’s sexuality is fluid, frequently moving between genders, taking a female form for the sake of his/her love for Karolina. The relationship between the pair is brilliant for its complicated gender identity issues, with the characters taking time to bring up the blurred boundaries on the pages.
Hulking (Teddy) and Wiccan (Billy) in Young Avengers have a less complex relationship but have been in an openly gay teenage relationship pretty much from the start, with Billy coming out to his parents in issue #7 (their reaction is overwhelmingly positive). Billy and Teddy’s relationship is probably the most well rounded example of a gay romance in comic story lines, they show a genuine care for each other that is written into the flow of the narrative rather than being tacked on or sidelined and they are naturalistic and devoid of stereotyping. It even has the levity to bring up that Wiccan should change his name from his previous Asgardian mantle when news of his homosexuality breaks – the implication being that ‘ass guardian’ would be the too easy insult to follow, showing that the series is not without it’s sense of humour and awareness.
Archie Comics introduced it’s first openly gay character in 2010 with Kevin Keller appearing in Veronica issue #202 and going on to have his own solo title this year bearing his name. Kevin Keller is a model student, ardent patriot, comes from a loving family, and is all round just too damned nice for his own good. His stories range from his past, his friends, to running for class president and being on the receiving end of some small minded homophobia. As with most Archie characters Keller is a bold, colourful, enthusiastic character and he just happens to be gay – it’s another example of sexuality just being part of a personality rather than necessarily a feature, and the comic also hammers home the idea of the importance of family, and an enthusiasm for patriotically serving your country, all strong moral stances of importance to large amounts of the American populace. Kevin Keller is somewhat saccharine and at times sickeningly cloying, but it would be disingenuous to say it’s heart isn’t in the right place.
Some have complained that the depiction of LGBT characters in mainstream comics has been too heteronormative, that the characters are thoroughly integrated to the extent that the focus is on being a part of a heterosexual society rather than celebrating the diversity of queer culture and on the one hand this is true. The characters and relationships depicted, particularly early on, in the Marvel and DC universes are fair and even characters but not in your face about sexuality. Let’s remember though, that comics are typically read by children so it would be a touch inappropriate for Midnighter or Apollo to openly discuss the fun they had at the bear bar the night before. With more independent comics, ones that tend to have a slightly older audience, it’s more readily available to find a comic where the sexual orientation, and LGBT culture, is more at the forefront of the story and theme – Spandex is one of many examples. The desexualisation of the homosexual relationship is not just an issue in comic books, mainstream movie’s are just as guilty of stripping away that layer of gay characters and this is something that hopefully will change – gay characters kissing, or lying post-coitally in bed are on the increase.
The recent announcement of Northstar’s wedding and the outing of Green Lantern, Alan Scott in DC’s The New 52 universe story Earth 2, highlights that homosexual characters in comic books are not going away – even if it does seem to be more gay males than lesbian and transgendered characters. While some may be disappointed at the sometimes underwhelming depiction of sexual diversity in comic story lines it can’t be argued that they don’t have a reasonably vast and established presence – indeed there are a whole host of characters not mentioned above – and that presence for the most part receives the same treatment as any other aspect of the narrative; inclusion and equality are all anyone can ask for. Superhero and comic book story lines represent a mirror of the world, they explore similar themes and and issues that people face everyday the only difference is that they do them in an exaggerated world of fantasy, an escapist reality, and matters of sexual orientation, race, faith, politics and health all get the bulging, colourful, lycra costumed treatment. For a comic book fan there’s nothing more believable than having characters that you can identify with and respect. Comics can be fantastic tools of empowerment, they spread the message to take pride in who you are. It is your life, and you are super.