john elliott debuts for pop-break.com with a look at the latest trend in comic books…the gay superhero…
There’s two points I need to get out of the way up top, so here goes: first, I’ve been a reader of comics for 27 years (since around my third birthday) and a homosexual for just about 30 years (give or take). I brought “omnipotent” in as a second-grade vocab word because Silver Surfer yelled it at Thanos at one point in an issue from 1989, and my teacher didn’t know what to do with me. Not much has changed; I’m a true-blue, bona-fide lover of what happens when you take great art, set it up as panels on a page, and add word bubbles to it. I believe that there’s a comic out there for everybody, and I’m generally full-on hootin’ and hollerin’ when mainstream press shines a benevolent light on my favorite marginalized medium. When comics get some positive attention, it’s usually a good thing.
Marvel and DC have each made big PR moves on this front in the last several weeks, with Canadian X-Man Northstar set to marry his partner of several years Kyle in this month’s Astonishing X-Men #51 and DC rebooting its original Green Lantern, Alan Scott, as a strapping, gay, multinational communications magnate in a committed relationship with another man. I should be overjoyed; after all, we’ve come a long way from even ten or twenty years ago, when a gay character in comics had to have “very special episode” storylines springing from gay bashing (like Green Lantern’s assistant Terry in 2002, the victim of a brutal hate crime) or AIDS (like Northstar’s infamous coming-out in 1992, centered around his adopting a baby dying of the disease). Here we have heroes who might be considered role models and three-dimensional characters, where sexuality is one facet of a complex and rich mythology.
I should be happy.
And I’m not. I’m worried.
Here’s why. Two reasons, one for each publisher.
Let’s start with Marvel, and the imminent gay wedding.
There’s a branding that tends to happen in pop culture, and it can be chalked up to any number of things, from marketing to short attention spans in audiences and beyond. It’s easy for single elements of characters to become their token characterization; it’s been present in Northstar ever since his coming out, and with only a handful of exceptions, almost every story in which he’s had a starring role has been about his sexuality, from his mentoring a gay student to his friendship with mutant disco queen (yeah, I just wrote that) Dazzler and, over the past several years, his relationship with Kyle. And yeah, it’s nice to see a superhero with a boyfriend go through ups and downs and dating conflicts, but I anxiously await the day where this is treated like less of a big deal and a marketing ploy; when we get to the point where Northstar is on Saturday morning cartoons as a valued member of the team, and kids love him for the reasons we all love cartoon superheroes, I’ll change my tune. But I don’t think that’ll happen here; Marvel’s got a tremendous cache of “gay cred” in play in promoting this marriage, and I can all but guarantee that Northstar will only be seen in mainstream pop culture for the next several years in the context of gay rights issues.
In the 1970s, a deluge of African-American characters had it built-in to their monikers (Black Panther, Black Lightning, Black Goliath…). Tokenism was rampant. And yeah, there were finally more black characters in comics, but this was the trade-off. And it’s an uncomfortable discussion that continues to this day. (there’s a conversation to be had about Marvel’s last major wedding, where it proudly touted Storm and Black Panther as its “two greatest African-American characters, ignoring that both are actual Africans. Jingoistic yikes.) This is exactly that situation–Marvel’s now got a gay superhero in the forefront, but gay is all he’ll ever be allowed to be.
Flipping over to DC, I have to admit I got excited when I read the press release about the new vision for the 70-year- old character, formerly a (straight) WWII vet and father of two. DC got a lot right a few years ago, where it introduced a new Batwoman as an out-and-proud “lipstick lesbian.” And this new incarnation of Green Lantern has been touted as having exactly the complexity I’m hoping for; the artist of Earth 2, Nicola Scott, stated: “He needed to be a big, strapping, handsome man that everyone would instinctively follow and love. No short order but right up my alley. Alan strikes me as an incredibly open, honest and warm man, a natural leader and absolutely the right choice to be Guardian of the Earth. His sexuality is incidental.”
And I was thrilled. I picked up the issue Wednesday, and read through it, and it’s mostly spot-on. Alan runs a business, he’s clearly a role model, and then he runs into his boyfriend Sean, and this happens:
Cool. More conversations, the men board a bullet train to a weekend getaway, Alan proposes to Sean, and…
Okay. Here’s why I’m pissed. If you’re going to talk about how functional and balanced and normal a gay character is, maybe you don’t want to BLOW UP HIS BOYFRIEND in his first appearance. There used to be an amazing site, Women in Refrigerators, which called out the misogynistic tendencies of comics to raise the stakes for male characters by doing horrific things to the women they love. Friends, this counts. This is juuuuust this shy of the movie cliche of the black guy dying first. And it bugs me. A lot.
So, what do I want? I want characters that can come out subtly, without the suspicion that there’s money to be made in which team they’re going to bat for. I want to know that there are thirteen and fourteen year old kids out there who were like me, young and gay and confused and searching for some kind of fictional touchstone to latch onto. I didn’t have that; I had Northstar, sure, but I wasn’t interested in storylines about AIDS or civil justice. I wanted–and still want–characters who are allowed to be heroic, or arrogant, or fun, or witty, or monstrous, who just happen to not be straight. These characters DO exist in minor roles in comics–but I’m demanding that Marvel and DC treat sexuality within their “major leagues” with respect and diversity, instead of this odd mix of marketing blitz.
Yep, I’m worried. And I’m not going to buy in just because there’s gay men in comics. I’m here, I’m queer. And I demand better from the medium I love.