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Superhero Comics

by Sophie Kreeger

INTRODUCTION

Why does it matter whether or not there are any openly queer superheroes?  As an avid comics fan and a queer person, I can tell you that it matters very much.  Representation in the media–that includes books, movies, TV shows, music, comics, and much more–is an important way that people who are members of minority groups learn about what their identities mean and how to talk about them.  For queer people, especially queer youth, “media are the primary site of production for social knowledge of LGBT identities.  It is where most people, including those who will come to identify as LGBT, first see or get to know LGBT people.  In other words, media circulate the social grammar, appearance, and sites of LGBT people” (Gray 12).  Since queer people learn how to make queer identities partially (or even primarily) out of the media representations of queer that they have the opportunity to encounter, the question of representation becomes vitally important.

Who is included or left out of the media representations of queer?  What kinds of stories do those characters get to have, and what does that tell an audience about the narrative of queer (for example, do love stories for queer characters always end in tragedy?)?  What do non-queer characters say and do to tell the audience what they think about queerness?  These are just a few of the questions and concerns that arise when thinking about queer representation.

Of all the media realms in which queer people have started to be represented, I find superhero comics to be one of the most personally important and historically interesting.  As a genre that has struggled with the question of audience and identity (are comics “low art” or “popular culture”?  are they “for kids” or “too violent and sexualized”?), it is fascinating to see the changes in how superhero comics have made queer themes, characters, and subtexts visible and invisible in different political climates.  But on a more personal note, I want to argue that openly queer superheroes matter because superheroes represent ideals of truth and justice, the best people humanity has to offer, role models who are fighting to make the world a better and safer place.  And because I’m queer, I want to be able to open up a comic book and say, “Look.  This hero is like me.  Maybe I can make the world a better place, too–not despite the fact that I’m queer, but because of it.”

THEMATIC QUEERNESS OF SUPERHEROES

There are many thematic elements of superhero comics that can be read as queer, independently of the question  of whether specific superheroes have queer identities.  These queer themes are an integral part of the story arc that makes a superhero out of a “normal citizen,” and thus mark the genre itself as a queer one.  I’m going to focus on three of these queer thematic elements: the mask, the mutation, and the politics.

The Mask: Secret Identities and the Closet

One thing pretty much all superheroes have in common is the differentiation between their superhero personas and their civilian personas.  Batman, for example, is the name of the guy in the cape and the tights, whereas Bruce Wayne is the man who wears suits and goes to parties and lives in the mansion his parents left him.  Superheroes guard the secret of their civilian lives carefully, keeping the truth of their superhero lives from their closest family members and even romantic partners.  At the same time, they make sure that only their closest allies in the superhero community learn the name they go by when they have take off the mask.  Much like the experience of a closeted queer person, having a superhero identity is a constant labor of managing who knows what.

In the 1987 Batman movie, directed by Tim Burton, there’s a fantastic scene where Michael Keaton’s Batman has met a woman he really likes and wants to tell the truth about his identity.  He promises himself he’s going to talk with her about it, but can’t get the words out in the moment, as is reduced to whispering under his breath to himself, when her back is turned, “I’m Batman!  I’m Batman!”  He can’t come out of the closet to her, much as he yearns to.  As an audience member watching this scene, the queerness of this moment stands out starkly to me.  For the story of Batman to work, the two worlds have to remain separate, because Batman is all about self-denial.  But for another superhero, in another story, the coming out might be a success.  (For more about this, scroll down to the section on Wiccan and Hulkling).  Either way, this moment of tension between two separated identities resonates with the experience of being closeted, and exemplifies how this trope of the mask is a queer one.

Mutations: Adolescence and Self-Discovery 

Superheroes get their powers (if they have them) in a myriad of ways.  But one of the most popular explanations for superpowers was invented by Marvel Comics’ Stan Lee in the sixties: cellular mutations.  Rather than the clumsy explanation of a scientific experiment gone wrong (like Bruce Banner/the Hulk), the idea behind mutation as the source of superpowers was that it could manifest in anyone–superheroes didn’t all have to be scientists in their day jobs.  But it was still important for superheroes to have “an origin story,” a transcendent moment of realization that being a superhero is what they are meant to do.

So in the mutant superhero paradigm, a nascent superhero (Kitty Pryde from the X-men, for example) would discover during her adolescent years that there was something special about her, something that made her different from everybody else, something that both separated her from her community and made her yearn for a different community full of people more like her.  The process of recognizing the superpower, forming an identity around it, and seeking out fellow mutants to create a found family–which is what the X-men really are–provided a plot device to get superpowers to unlikely heroes.  But it also resonates with the experience of queer youth, discovering not a superpower but a sexuality and/or gender that makes them different from those around them.  So the idea that mutations would be the cause of superpowers queers the genre, by bringing into superhero stories a trope of adolescent discovery of a minority identity.

The Politics of Mutant Identity: Magneto vs. Xavier

For minority groups, the debate about whether to politicize around the goal of assimilating into the majority culture or liberating the community from it is an ongoing and fraught process.  Regarding this debate within the queer community, Miranda Gray writes, “While some activists, certainly radical lesbian feminists, sought broader social revolution through liberation from the confines of heterosexuality, others fought for recognition and validation of gay and lesbian people to live and love just like everyone else.  These ‘wars of position’ would later be characterized as a struggle between liberationist and assimilationist politics” (Gray 7).  There is a fascinating parallel between this “war of position” in the queer community and the literal war that occurs in the mutant community of Marvel comics.

Once, the founder of the X-men (Professor Xavier) and their archnemesis (Magneto) were best friends.  They dreamed of making the world a better place for the mutant community, of which they are both members.  But their disagreement on the issue of assimilation or liberation caused an angry schism between them.  Magneto wanted mutants to form their own self-sufficient community that would not be reliant on humans, and in fact would someday come to replace them.  He was militant, forming what can only be termed an army of angry mutants to take action against the United States government whenever it attempted to enact unfair legislation (See, for example, Uncanny X-men #141).  He wanted to strike back against the people who had oppressed him all his life.  The Professor, on the other hand, advocated a sort of tentative assimilation, in which his students the X-men would live apart from the human community but venture into it and protect it, in the hope that one day the prejudice and intolerance would end, and the two groups would integrate.

Instead of being able to work together, Professor X and Magneto formed rival groups of mutants that ended up fighting against each other more often than not, perpetuating more violence on the mutant community instead of healing them from it.  Although at the beginning of the X-men story Magneto’s perspective was painted as villainous and Professor X’s as the obvious right choice, writers and editors have been treating the issue with more complexity as time has gone on.  This has a lot to do with the politics of the time–the conversation looks a lot different now than it did in the sixties and seventies, when the X-men title was first getting started.  It has become increasingly clear that neither Xavier nor Magneto is completely in the right on this issue–and much like Gray’s “wars of position,” it’s a battle nobody can win.

For more information about Magneto’s character arc, check out this page from the Marvel Database.

 

SUPERHEROES WITH QUEER IDENTITIES

Northstar: The First Superhero to Come Out of the Closet

In the early nineties, there were no queer superheroes who were out of the closet.  It’s impossible to say that there were no queer superheroes at all, because the queer themes and subtext that enrich superhero comics leave plenty of room for queer interpretations of superheroes who had not announced or expressed a queer identity.  But a watershed moment for representation in comics came in March of 1992, when Northstar, a lesser-known superhero from the failing series Alpha Flight, shouted his coming-out speech at a homophobic villain.  This was the first time a superhero claimed a queer identity in mainstream U.S. comics. Although this coming-out can definitely be seen as sensationalistic and  not really the ideal type of representation for the queer community, we have to acknowledge that the mere fact of his coming out when no superhero had done so before makes Northstar an important figure in the history of queer superheroes.  To read more about how Northstar has been coded queer since before he came out in ’92, try Cosmo Felton’s article about homosexuality in comics during the 1980s.

Northstar is still active as a superhero today—he’s a member of the X-men now—and he recently got married to his boyfriend, a non-superhero named Kyle (In Astonishing X-men #51, June 2012).  This made him not only the first out superhero, but the first gay superhero to get married after some states legalized same-sex marriage (including New York, where Northstar lives).  For an interesting perspective on why this marriage may not be a great move for fans of gay superheroes, check out Andrew Wheeler’s opinion piece for the website Comics Alliance.

Batwoman: The Marriage That Never Was

Kate Kane/Batwoman, a character who is part of the Batman family, has a fascinating history.  When she first appeared (in Detective Comics #233, published in 1956), it was in response to allegations that Batman was gay: they provided her as a female love interest to make sure people knew Batman was straight (read more about the allegations here).  But when DC rebooted her as a superhero in her own right in 2006, with a monthly title all to herself, they decided to write her as a gay woman.

Why did DC decide to write Batwoman as a gay character?  “It was from conversations we’ve had for expanding the DC Universe, for looking at levels of diversity,” said DC Vice President Dan DiDio.  “We wanted to have a cast that is much more reflective of today’s society and even today’s fanbase. One of the reasons we made her gay is that, again when you have the Batman Family—a series of characters that aren’t super-powered and inhabit the same circle and the same city—you really want to have a point of difference. It was really important to me to make sure every character felt unique.”  This is really interesting to me.  He mentions representation–and the possibility that there might be queer fans who would identify with a gay Batwoman.  But also it’s about sensationalizing her, making her “feel unique.”

In February of 2013, Batwoman proposed to her girlfriend, launching her title toward a storyline that was supposed to include DC’s first gay marriage.  But a few months later, it hit the press that the DC management were cancelling the marriage the writers had planned.  DiDio justified the decision by saying that the characters in DC storylines were meant to put their identities as heroes first, sacrificing the possibility of a personal life to continue fighting for the greater good.  “They put on a cape and a cowl for a reason,” he said.  But as Rob Bricken points out in the article linked previously, other characters in the DC universe–straight characters–are married, and the editorial staff have no problem with those relationships.

The creative team who had been working on Batwoman’s monthly title, writers J. H. Williams III and W. Hayden Blackman, announced that they were quitting in response to this and other editorial decisions.  “DC has asked us to alter or completely discard many long-standing storylines in ways that we feel compromise the character and the series,” they wrote in their letter to Batwoman readers.  Shortly after the article linked above was published, CBR added this update: “A DC Comics spokesperson has contacted CBR News, saying, ‘As acknowledged by the creators involved, the editorial differences with the writers of ‘Batwoman’ had nothing to do with the sexual orientation of the character.'”

Nevertheless, the fact is that a queer superhero who was engaged to be married is now no longer going to have a wedding or a marriage.  The erasure of that plot point–which would have shown readers that both DC as a publishing house and characters in the Batwoman story are supportive of a queer relationship–is an act of homophobia, even if the reasons for cancelling it did not include an explicitly hateful message about Batwoman’s queer identity.

Wiccan and Hulkling: Heroes, Teammates, Boyfriends

Wiccan and Hulkling are members of the new superhero team the Young Avengers, a group of teenagers who admire and emulate the Avengers so much that they also put on costumes and fight evil.  Each of them has a set of powers and an aesthetic that matches with one of the Avengers: Wiccan is a Thor look-alike, and he can cast magic spells, including one that gives him the ability to fly; Hulkling is as green and strong and the Incredible Hulk, only with much less of a temper, and he can also shapeshift into a variety of appearances.  In addition to being superheroes and teammates, however, Wiccan and Hulking are also boyfriends.

Why is this kiss so important?  It’s not the first kiss between gay superheroes, nor is is the first kiss between these two superheroes, who were in a relationship long before we get to know them at the beginning of their story in Young Avengers.  But, as Wheeler writes in this beautiful editorial, “This is a kiss between two characters who have long-ago acknowledged their attraction and already established their devotion. And that’s why this kiss is remarkable; because it took seven years to show a kiss between two characters who must kiss each other every day. It’s a remarkable kiss because of all the times we haven’t seen it.”  What makes Wiccan and Hulkling such a milestone for the history of queer superheroes is just how normal their relationship seems: it has a place in the narrative in the same way a straight relationship would, without sensationalizing the fact of their queerness.

In this fantastic scene from Young Avengers #7, Wiccan and Hulkling decide they definitely need to tell their parents the truth about being superheroes.  Wiccan says to his mom, “There’s something you should know.  And it might be hard to deal with at first, but–” and his mom cuts him off by telling him that she knows, they’ve always known, and that they love him and are proud of him.  His dad welcomes Hulkling into the family, and his mom hugs them both.  Instead of coming out as superheroes, they’ve come out as boyfriends!  What’s really lovely to me about this scene is that by scripting it this way, writer Allan Heinberg suggests that every previous story in which a superhero attempted to tell someone about his or her secret identity was a story about coming out of the closet.  He’s not only telling a story about two specific queer superheroes, but continuing in the tradition of queering superheroes as a genre.

CONCLUSION

Representation matters, and superheroes–as champions of social justice issues and role models who are meant to portray the best humanity has to offer–are an especially important type of character to showcase diversity.  Superhero stories brim with queer themes, including the mask/the closet, self-discovery/identity formation, and the politics of assimilation vs. liberation.  These themes make superhero comics an exciting place to continue the vital work of telling more stories about queer characters.  From Northstar, the first hero to come out, through the disappointment of Batwoman’s cancelled marriage, to the milestone of Wiccan and Hulkling’s non-sensationalized relationship, we see superhero comics trying out different ways of representing queer people as heroes.  My hope is that we have reached a time and a political climate in which the number of queer characters in comics (and across the media) will continue to rise–and that the stories comic books tell about them will get the chance to diversify as their presence increases.  And as these queer superheroes inspire and empower the people who read about them, whether they identify as queer or not, they will not only be making the world inked onto the page a better place, but the world of their readers as well.

CITATIONS AND LINKS

Here is a list of the works and websites that I’ve cited on this page.  If you’re looking for a specific comic book, your best bet is either to do a search on the internet, or to find your local comics shop and talk with the person working there.  Comic books can be really expensive, which is a problem that could be the topic for a different piece of writing, but many great comics (especially the older ones) can be found in compilation form printed in black and white on newsprint for much cheaper than the fancy glossy color versions.  You can also get online (also called digital) versions of some comics directly from MarvelDC, and other publishers–they mostly cost money but some are free.  I personally find these difficult to read, but some folks love them.

Comics

Alpha Flight #106, words written by Scott Lobdell and art pencilled by Mark Pacella.  Published by Marvel Comics, March 1992.

Astonishing X-men #51, words written by Marjorie Liu and art pencilled by Mike Perkins.  Published by Marvel Comics, June 20th 2012.

Batman: Gotham Knights #32, words written by Devin Grayson and cover art (shown) by Brian Bolland.  Published by DC Comics, October 2002.

Batwoman #17, words written by J. H. Williams III and W. Haden Blackman, and art pencilled by J. H. Williams III.  Published by DC Comics, February 20th 2013.

Uncanny X-men #129, words written by Chris Claremont and John Byrne, and art pencilled by John Byrne.  Published by Marvel Comics, January 1980.

Uncanny X-men #141, words written by Chris Claremont and art pencilled by John Byrne.  Published by Marvel Comics, January 1981.

Young Avengers #7, words written by Allan Heinberg and art pencilled by Andrea DiVito.  Published by Marvel Comics, October 2005.

Young Avengers: The Children’s Crusade #9, words written by Allan Heinberg and art pencilled by Jim Cheung.  Published by Marvel Comics, March 2012.

Online Articles

“At Last: Hulkling & Wiccan Share First Kiss in ‘Young Avengers: The Children’s Crusade’ #9,” by Andrew Wheeler for Comics Alliance.  Link: http://comicsalliance.com/hulkling-wiccan-first-kiss-young-avengers/

“Can Batwoman’s Gay Marriage Rescue DC Comics From Angry Fans?” by Rob Bricken for i09.  Link:  http://io9.com/5986032/can-batwomans-gay-marriage-rescue-dc-comics-from-angry-fans

“Comic Relief,” by Michael Bronski for The Phoenix.  Link:  http://www.bostonphoenix.com/boston/news_features/top/features/documents/02404906.htm

“Dan DiDio Talks Batwoman,” by Ben Morse for Wizard Universe.  Link: http://web.archive.org/web/20080121160605/http://www.wizarduniverse.com/magazine/wizard/000326617.cfm

“DC Forbids Batwoman’s Gay Marriage, Creative Team Leaves,” by Rob Bricken for i09.  Link: http://io9.com/dc-wont-allow-batwomans-gay-marriage-to-be-depicted-1257106266

“DC’s Explanation for Why Batwoman Can’t Get Married is Nonsense,” by Rob Bricken for i09.  Link: http://io9.com/dc-s-explanation-of-why-batwoman-can-t-get-married-is-n-128443849

“Homosexuals in Comics: Comics of the 1980s,” by Cosmo Felton for Lonely Gods.  Link:  http://www.lonelygods.com/h/80s.html

“Magneto/Max Eisenhardt: Earth-616,” on the fan-made wiki Marvel Database (no author listed).  Link: http://marvel.wikia.com/Max_Eisenhardt_(Earth-616)

“Northstar’s Nuptials: The Only Same-Sex Marriage I’m Opposed To,” by Andrew Wheeler for Comics Alliance.   Link: http://comicsalliance.com/northstar-gay-marriage-comics/

“Williams, Blackman Leave ‘Batwoman,’ Cite Editorial Interference,” by Kevin Melrose for Comic Book Resources.  Link: http://www.comicbookresources.com/?page=article&id=47715

Books

Gray, Mary.  Out in the Country: Youth, Media, and Queer Visibility in Rural America.  New York: New York University Press, 2009.  Print.

Other Resources (Not Cited)

“Homosexuality in Comics, Parts 1, 2, 3, and 4,” by Emmet Furey for Comic Book Resources.  This is a great piece that features interviews with comic book writers who are queer and/or have written queer characters about their work, the Comics Code, representation, and the “gay retcon.”

“In and Out: A History of Marvel’s 2006 Gay Policies,” by Andy Mangels for Prism Comics.  Link.  Slightly outdated but still, a useful history of editorial policies about gay characters in Marvel Comics.

Wright, Bradford W. Comic Book Nation.  Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003. Print.  This is a fantastic book about the connections between comic books and politics; a history of mainstream comics in the U.S. from their birth in the 1930s until the time of its publication.


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