Gay Times Article II


Gays and lesbians in superhero comics

When was the last time you read a comic? No doubt many of you will claim not since the Dandy, the Beano or even further back to Boy's Own. And no doubt many will claim they are you too old for such childish matters now. Or is it simply that comics hold no interest for you on an emotional or aesthetic level? After all, they're all the same: a bunch of mildly–muscled men prancing around in highly–coloured body suits, saving the world and getting the girl, right? For the most part, that is the dominant image because it is true. But there is a gay sub–culture in comics that is slowly creeping into the mainstream conscious of the comic world.

The appeal of super heroes to gay men especially should be apparent although may be reasonably dismissed as stereotypical. These men have flawless skin, gorgeous bodies, perfect hair, X–ray eyes (always handy when it's dark), strong forearms and natty, striking threads. Since the turn of this decade, the muscle quotient has risen, as has the sensitivity.

As for homosexual super heroes, the skies are not cluttered with Muscle Marys zooming about and clobbering nefarious thugs. There has only been one openly gay comic character. Northstar ("Montreal's most eligible bachelor") came out two years after Alpha Flight (now defunct) hit the shelves in 1990. Confirmation of his sexuality ("Do not presume to lecture me on the hardships homosexuals must bear... No–one knows them better than I!") had been spotted by eagle–eyed fans long before Marvel decided to bring him out through an AIDS story. Northstar was eventually killed off by the readers with "no more reason" than they "just didn't like him".

While comic writers tend not to cast gay characters, there is tremendous scope for camp imagery and language. Most notorious of all is The Joker (not the portrayal by Caesar Romeo in 1966 and certainly not the 1989 depiction by Jack Nicholson) who is – and always has been since his debut in 1940 – an extremely camp character. The Joker's style is very theatrical and his crimes always have a melodramatic and vicious edge to them. His clothes are eccentric though definitely dapper with his trademark lavender jacket, orange shirt and a flower in his button–hole. His thick pancake make–up covers a nasty set of acid burns but is reminiscent of a drag queen's slap. He calls Batman "Darling" and spends long, lonesome nights at Arkham Asylum dreaming of his adversary. The Joker was originally intended to be homosexual but Bob Kane (Batman's creator) decided it "would not be appropriate". Exactly why remains a mystery.

Actually it doesn't take a Herculean amount of effort to work out why. The comic book world is monopolised by straight men – they write, they draw, they buy and read – so it's easy to understand that straight men would rather not read about gay super heroes.

"Sadly that's all probably very right," says Terry Moore, creator of Strangers In Paradise. "The majority of comic buying public are young men and what proves that is the success of the `bad girl' comics [Barbwire, Femforce and their ilk]. The comic houses were looking for something that would sell, and that reduced comic industry down to sex appeal. Normal female characters ended up looking like exotic dancers!"

There are very few women writers and a handful of female colourists and illustrators, so change is slow, but there has always been a huge number of big–breasted women with flowing locks and skimpy outfits. Even early sprites such as Marvel Girl and Sue Reed from Fantastic 4 were stuck with pointed breasts and thigh–high knickers: only recently have the women been seen to battle on equal terms with the big boys. It is openly acknowledged by the industry that these women never fail to shift comics from the shelf to the bedroom.

So, in the tradition of gay sub–text, various super heroes were pushed forward for attention. The rumours about the "true nature" of the relationship between Batman and his Boy Wonder Robin, who've been together since 1938, are legendary. "At home, they lead an idyllic life. They live in sumptuous quarters. It is like a wish dream of two homosexuals living together. Sometimes they are shown on a couch, Bruce reclining and Dick sitting next to him, jacket off, collar open, and his hand on his friend's arm," says Dr Frederick Wertham in his 1954 book The Seduction of the Innocent. His view is dismissed by many for the reason that he missed the point, loudly spoken, that Bruce and Dick are "no more than father and son."

Still, the most famous and popular comic book characters have definite parallels with a gay lifestyle. D.C.'s Superman and Catwoman and Marvel's Spider–man and the X–Men all lead dual lives. If they do reveal their alternative persona to anyone, and not all of them do (it will probably be a cold day in hell when Peter Parker reveals his web cartridge to Aunt May) it is usually their closest friends and their family. They fight a continual battle against prejudice. Once again, Aunt May is vehemently bigoted about Spider–man (as is his boss, newspaper editor J. Jonah Jameson) and the X–Men constantly battle a right–wing politician called Kelly who plans to banish all mutants to a distant island and quarantine them. A majority of the work these super heroes do is under the cover of night. Some support the underdog (Batman recently cracked a child abuse ring), some try to vanquish the discrimination put in place by perfidious media and narrow–minded authoritarians (Charles Xavier, the telepathic genius behind the X–Men, has an unerring belief that mutants and humans can live happily side by side). Superman and a majority of X–Men were born with their mutant powers (Spider–man `contracted' their powers from an accidental insect bite and Batman simply works out) but many don't realise they possess such power until they reach their early teens. Some try to resist the change and deny the urge. Others (take the Boy Wonder for example) embrace the new culture and lifestyle with relish, creating gaudy, vivid apparel and arrogance. But many of them go through a transformation that goes far further than just putting on a snazzy, tight outfit. The spirit of solidarity that develops is tremendously strong, and although there may be differences of opinion, they stick together and protect each other from the slings and arrows of outrageous morality. Whereas many of the older characters are, without exception, strong ýindividuals with a trenchant sense of right and wrong (if you call them they'll be there in a flash) many of the younger heroes just want to party (call them and you get the ansaphone).

You need to forget what happened in the Silver and Golden ages of comics. The D.C. and Marvel universes are now vastly distinct from those halcyon days, and constantly undergoing change. There are more black protagonists now than ever. Spawn, Chapel and Pitt (all gargantuan he–men with muscles galore and their own titles), Sovereign 7's leader Cascade, Martha Washington (a flat–topped, combat wearing member of a futuristic super–military force) and the X–Men's Bishop and Storm, but the biggest change has been the amount of lesbian characters. They seem to be the flavour of the year. But the uneasy feeling still remains that lesbians are popular with comic heads in the same way they are with readers of soft porn magazines. You have to buy the comic to find out, because no matter how many interviews and articles are written about the titles, homosexuality and lesbianism are never, ever mentioned.

A lesbian lifestyle is completely invisible in most depictions, possibly with the exception of Strangers In Paradise, an extremely hot title that has shaken the comic world by its manly shoulders. The third mini–series of the title dealt with a lesbian relationship between Katchoo, an out lesbian since issue one, who had a crush on Francine, an overweight straight who she rents a house with.

The creator, Terry Moore, is unaffected by the fuss his creation has caused, to the point where there are even Katchoo and Francine lookalike contests in the States. "I didn't have any agenda or a campaign or subliminal message in making Katchoo a lesbian," says Moore. "I try to create these real people and let them walk around in my head." And the reaction from readers has been nothing short of brilliant. "It was exactly what I wanted. I probably got the exact reaction that anyone with agenda is trying to get."

Neither did matter to Moore whether his main protagonist was a lesbian or straight. "I had this real impish idea. I miscast it on purpose and you could really see what people where saying if you threw a different light on it. In the first few issues, everybody was concerned about who was who, and then reader gets beyond that and concentrated on love and friendship. The purpose is to teach everybody that love is special, and look at the damage we do to each other."

Moore is a little wary of the attention Katchoo may get as a paper role model. "She's not a poster child for any cause. Katchoo makes a terrible example. If you pinned her down, she'd get really mad. The character is trying to find new ground, finding that things aren't black and white. I don't want them to become Mickey Mouse icons."

Strangers In Paradise is far more realistic than other portrayals of lesbians (whether on paper or celluloid) not just in the artwork but in the dialogue and settings, and that was a deliberate move on the creator's part ("I wanted to portray people you'd see in a restaurant or a supermarket. I can't relate to models and pin–ups and everybody I've ever met feels the same way") but now there's even a sex siren lesbian. Gen13, created by Adam Hughes and starring a bunch of renegade kids who spend a lot of time bitching at each other, has a lesbian character called Fairchild, a 6' 4" lass that few dare tangle with. She was voted the sexiest woman in comics 1996 and her face, or rather, her magnificent body, features on a number of T–shirts and posters, despite the fact that her physique has changed from a true Amazon stature to a woman with unfeasibly long legs and an eye–watering thin waistline who is non–sexual. She is no ordinary hero: in one issue, she rescues one chap, who thinks he's going to "get into some kinky stuff" only to realise she's about to kill him. She was also marooned on a desert island packed with hungry–ýlooking tribal women. One other character named Sarah Rainmaker briefly dabbled with lesbian sex, but didn't stay on that side of the fence, and now there's a spin–off from Gen13 called DV8...

Once in a while plots involving gay characters do crop up, but don't expect to see them in the major D.C. or Marvel titles and don't hold your breath for another gay superhero – if it does happen, it won't be for aeons. While most stories spin on the axis of AIDS and violence, a few pro–gay stories exist. Desert Peach is the best–selling graphic novel by Donna Barr of the camp brother of Desert Fox (Rommel). It's a total parody packed with irony and sagacity, although some of the dialogue is a little cliched, it's well worth tracking it down. One of the best–selling comics this year with lesbian characters does concern the afterlife. The third in his Death series – "The Time of Your Life" – features a closeted lesbian rock star called Foxglove, her at–home lover Hazel who trades her life with Death for that of their baby son, on the condition that she gives them more time together. Foxglove, on tour and itching to reveal her sexuality to the world, has fallen out of love with her girlfriend, but comes to her rescue when Death comes to claim her.

Usually, you have to look to the independent press to find totally gay comics, and they are scarce. Of course, Gay Comics will always feature gays and lesbians, as well as Hothead Paisan (Bad Ass Publications) but both are published sporadically, because they are funded by the creators and these people aren't rich. The comic industry is a substantial market but money is not pumped into the alternative press. Although D.C. does publish Vertigo, a string of titles that lean towards the fantastical and mystical, Marvel seem reluctant to experiment with options other than heaps of munitions, special powers aided by brawn and rescuing the proverbial princess. Image, supposedly the great pretender to the throne, has gained a reputation for demean its women and making the men meat heads.

Ms. Tree Quarterly (issue 3) recently tackled homophobia and queerbashing in a story entitled "Skeleton In The Closet" which revolved around a young gay college boy who'd been abused when younger. The antagonist in his life says that "You know all those people are sick. Queers, fags. I don't hold `em any grudge, but they're sick in the head. Among other places." Tempers flared at a demonstration again anti–gay violence ("What are you gonna do? Hit him with your handbag?") while Ms. Tree herself was falsely outed as having an lesbian affair with her mewing blonde secretary. Sandman Mystery Theatre (issues 41–43) covered a gay story over four issues called "The Phantom of the Fair" which hinged on the discovery of a mutilated and castrated body. It included cottaging, a leather–clad serial killer who tortured his victims ("You got caught, you nasty young thing, meeting men in the park and exposing your tool to them... I'll cut, I'll caress, I'll tear, I'll suck and and then I'll blow you out"), blackmail and an inept police investigation. If these have tickled your fancy, maybe you should try in November for the release of Liberal Man and the Warrior Work Out, or even Registry of Death from Kitchen Sink Press, the tale of a movement to obliterate undesirable individuals from society. If you're into lesbian vampires, you could do worse than the Widow & Luxura crossover from Brainstorm Comics, featuring a woman–spider and a vampress whose relationship "grows into something more personal, more carnal". If you think comics are roundly infantile, then you'll probably be in for a shock.

© 1995-2001 Megan Radclyffe

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