LGBT Characters, Themes Throughout Comics History

Fri, June 15th, 2012 at 11:30am PDT | Updated: June 15th, 2012 at 1:20pm

Comic Books
Alan Kistler, Guest Contributor

Over the course of this year's LGBT Pride month, there has been major attention paid to new developments in comics. Soon after Marvel Comics' openly gay hero Northstar proposed to his boyfriend Kyle, DC Comics reimagined Alan Scott, the original Green Lantern, as an openly gay man. Marvel announced Northstar's nuptials on "The View" and it certainly provoked a lot of chatter among non-comic book readers -- but LGBT characters are nothing new to superhero comics, although their road has been a difficult one involving censorship in several forms.

In general, sex and sexuality wasn't greatly explored in early comic books, although the topics were given some focus in the pornographic cartoons known as Tijuana bibles. Some Golden Age comic books have been interpreted as having LGBT undertones. Wonder Woman is one example, as her backstory involves having grown up on an island solely inhabited by women. Another is the female villain Sanjak from "Terry and the Pirates," whom some believed lusted after the hero's love interest.

The establishment of the Comics Code made it difficult to address LGBT issues and characters like Northstar in comics

However, undertones and LGBT themes, intentional or not, were eliminated when the Comics Code Authority came into being. During the late 1940s and early 1950s, comic books came under attack and suspicion by critics. Several cities experienced angry parents and critics holding mass comic book burnings. Dr. Frederic Wertham was one of the leaders of the charge, speaking on the dangerous influence of superhero comics, claiming that the stories inspired children to embrace anarchy, violence, crime and homosexual behavior. Horror comics and true crime anthologies also came under fire. In 1954, Wertham published his views in the book "Seduction of the Innocent." That same year, the Comics Magazine Association of America formed in response to the fear about comic book content and set up a code of "ethics and standards" for the medium. The Comics Code Authority did not have any official power over comic book publishers, but stores would not carry comics that did not have the Code's stamp of approval, marking it as safe for children (similar to how theaters respond to the MPAA rating system).

Though some of the Code seemed easy to follow (no graphic violence or sex, no nudity, no exaggeration of female body parts or explicitly sexual poses, no cannibalism), other rules seemed to hamper storytelling. There were rules about villains not being allowed to conceal weapons, lest children learn how to do it themselves (hence, why villains such as Captain Cold and Heatwave have very obvious holsters). Crimes could not be shown in detail for a similar reason. Evil had to always be defeated. Police and government authorities could not be shown in a villainous light. Excessive use of slang and references to "physical afflictions" were to be avoided. Villains and criminals were not to be painted sympathetically.

There was not strictly a rule against LGBT characters and stories, but the Code had several rules concerning how sex and love were to be portrayed and three of these rules were used to prevent LGBT characters from showing up.

"2. Illicit sex relations are neither to be hinted at or portrayed. Violent love scenes, as well as sexual abnormalities are unacceptable.

"4. The treatment of love-romance stories shall emphasize the value of home and the sanctity of marriage.

"7. Sex perversion or any inference to same is strictly forbidden."

What constituted "sexual abnormalities," "perversion" and "any inference" was completely left to the discretion of the CCA Administrator. So although it didn't say "homosexuality has no place in comics," that's how the Code chose to use it, particularly in conjunction with the rule #4. Having LGBT characters would be an inference of "perversion" or "abnormalities" that went against the "sanctity of marriage."

Comic book creators didn't rock the boat by trying to challenge the Code. Even so, many were often surprised by just how often the Code found problems with their work anyway. Drawings of guns firing were sometimes asked to have smaller puffs of smoke because larger ones implied greater violence, for instance. Batman's detective stories sometimes came under scrutiny due to the Code believing that his comics could actually instruct children on how to be criminals. To combat rumors that Batman and Robin were involved in any kind of homosexual relationship, the character Kathy Kane AKA Batwoman was introduced as a new love interest for Batman (though Catwoman had been around for years, she was not seen as a viable love interest since she was a criminal and the Code demanded she be punished and not glamorized in any way).

Even if a creator did wish to bring LGBT ideas or themes to the surface, there seemed no point as the Code would quash it before the story ever reached print. This didn't stop readers from reaching certain conclusions on their own. Introduced in 1963, the hero Element Lad of the Legion of Super-Heroes (super-powered teens living in the 30th century) made a reference to the fact that he was out of his element with girls and later seemed unconcerned when he had to break dates with girls in order to help the Legion save the day. In time travel stories that showed Element Lad's older, adult self, readers learned that he didn't get married.

Element Lad was one of the early comic book superheroes who was implied to be gay

By the mid 1970s, several LSH fans had concluded that Element Lad was gay and many fan-fiction stories were written involving him in same-sex encounters with other team members. Legion writer Jim Shooter seemed fine with allowing this belief to continue. Years later, however, Element Lad was given a potential love interest in the new female character Shvaughn Erin (although their relationship seemed largely platonic with a spiritual connection rather than sexual).

By the 1970s, small press and self-published "underground comix" had greatly risen as an alternate to the mainstream, often specifically focusing on content that wasn't allowed by the Code. These comics became more widespread as comic book specialty shops rose into existence. And, of course, Japanese manga was free to showcase same sex relationships since the Code didn't really apply to material from another country.

The Code also didn't really apply to newspaper comic strips. In 1976, the series "Doonesbury" introduced a new character named Andy Lippincott. Regular cast member Joanie Caucus was attracted to Andy but wound up heartbroken when he explained that he was gay. Andy vanished from the strip later that year, but returned in 1982 as a gay rights activist. In 1989, he resurfaced again, diagnosed with AIDS in a storyline that won the Pulitzer Prize and gained the fictional character a panel on the AIDS quilt.

Meanwhile, back in mainstream comics, the Code loosened up a bit by the late 1960s and was officially revised starting in 1971. A few creators made implications that characters were gay, though often this was done in a negative light. In a 1980 issue of "Rampaging Hulk," the hero Bruce Banner was attacked in a YMCA shower by two men who intended to force him into sex, a fate he desperately escaped and which disgusted him so that he quickly turned into the Hulk and went on a rampage. This story was written by Jim Shooter, then Editor-in-Chief at Marvel Comics. It has been reported that although the Code had lightened considerably, Shooter declared a policy that there were "no gays in the Marvel Universe."

Censorship still brought a couple of storylines to a halt. The X-Man Nightcrawler was born with a demonic appearance (indigo skin and fur, golden eyes, fangs, strange digits, tail) and had no idea who his parents were. When he met the mutant shape-shifter Mystique, he was amazed that her true appearance involved eyes and skin color identical to his own. Some believed that this meant the shape-shifter was Nightcrawler's mother. But Mystique was often seen in the company of a woman named Destiny and the original intention was that they were lovers. What's more, a story was going to reveal that Destiny was actually Kurt's mother and that Mystique, while in the form of a man, had been his father. This story was given a definite "no" and so Mystique was indeed revealed to be Nightcrawler's mother.

Despite the Code and censorship attitudes, writer/artist John Byrne had created a gay character in 1979: Jean-Paul Beaubier, the hero known as Northstar. Introduced as a member of the Canadian superhero team Alpha Flight, Northstar was a brash former celebrity athlete with mutant powers. While Shooter was in charge, Northstar could not come out as a gay man and so this was only hinted at in dialogue and behavior, enough so many readers were able to deduce the truth.

Captain America's childhood friend Arnie was also implied as being gay in the late 1970s

Similarly, "Captain America" had the hero reunite with a childhood friend Arnie. Arnie was obviously very close to his male roommate and even wept when the man was in danger. Although they didn't directly say it, readers were given enough clues to figure out that Arnie was gay and that Captain America himself was not only aware of it, he didn't mind one way or the other. In a later story, the Red Skull (Cap's arch-enemy and Hitler's former enforcer) kidnapped Arnie and put him in effeminate make-up before forcing him to refer to himself as a "freak" and a "disease" hated by other people.

In 1982, DC Comics produced its first maxi-series, a direct market project entitled "Camelot 3000." It was published without the Comics Code Authority stamp and marketed as a "mature readers" story. The adventure focused around Arthur and Merlin rising again in the year 3000, after which they find the Knights of the Round Table are also around, reincarnated as new people. Arthur and Merlin then find each of the knights, restoring the memories of their former lives. A woman named Amber is shocked when she regains memories of being Sir Tristan. Now seeing herself as a man trapped in a woman's body, she hates what she perceives as her new weakness and the situation is worsened when she learns that her old love Isolde has also been reborn as a woman. Though Isolde, memories restored, still loves Tristan and believes they can be together again, Tristan sees this as impossible and improper since she is no longer a he. Writer Mike Barr broke some serious new ground for DC fans used to more typical superhero stories.

After John Byrne left "Alpha Flight," writer Bill Mantlo took over and was much more direct about Northstar's sexuality. Jean-Paul's sister Aurora commented on her brother not complaining about men in tight costumes and his teammates sympathized when he had to deal with the advances of a woman. Then, in early 1987, Northstar began showing signs of illness. He seemed aware that there was something wrong with his health and a villain later remarked that he sensed "decay" in the hero. It has been said that the original intention was to reveal that Jean-Paul was HIV-positive in "Alpha Flight"#50, which would also confirm that he was HIV-positive or had AIDS, but that the Code (and/or Shooter) would not allow this. So in issue #50, Northstar instead was magically cured and then discovered from Loki, Asgardian god of mischief and lies, that he was descended from a race of elves and his biology wasn't properly adjusted for Earth's environment, causing illness. He then bid goodbye to Earth and went to live in the land of the elves.

I'm not making this up. Almost two years later, Jean-Paul returned and it was said that he was indeed, as he'd been introduced, a human with mutant powers and not an elf. What about all that stuff Loki told him? Well -- Loki is a god of lies. He lied.

Just before the whole "he's really an elf" issue, writer Bill Mantlo also brought a transgender story element to Alpha Flight. In 1987, Walter Langkowski, who had been the hero Sasquatch before he was killed and left as a roaming ghost, got himself a new body by inhabiting the form of his dead teammate Snowbird, a woman. Walter now dealt with having people treat him differently due to his altered gender. He reluctantly changed his name to Wanda Langkowksi, as well. After a couple of years, Walter was restored to his original form and the real Snowbird was resurrected, but the storyline stayed in people's memories.

After the Comics Code was revised in 1989, Grant Morrison re-imagined Negative Man as Rebis, a hermaphroditc superhero

DC Comics brought up more LGBT characters and themes in the late 1980s. Maggie Sawyer was introduced in 1987 as a tough cop in Metropolis who many officers feared and whom Superman greatly respected. A divorced mother, Maggie was an ally and supporting character for a full year before the comics began strongly implying that she was a lesbian who had not accepted her sexual orientation until her thirties. That same year, Swamp Thing and the sorcerer John Constantine dealt with gay bashers. And around the same time, Wonder Woman met the gay brother of a friend who openly discussed his orientation and how it had led to an estrangement with his family.

1988 also introduced the DC Comics character Extraño. An effeminate Peruvian sorcerer who wore flamboyant clothing, took few things seriously, and referred to himself as "Auntie," Extraño was considered either a silly gay stereotype or an insulting one, depending on the audience. Despite this, some have argued that he is the first openly gay superhero since Northstar, although created nine years earlier, was still not out by this time. Later on, Extraño was diagnosed as HIV-positive before apparently dying at the hands of the villain Krona.

In 1989, the Code was altered yet again and now there were no rules against showing openly gay characters. In 1989, Grant Morrison took over the "Doom Patrol" series and re-imagined the character Negative Man as a hermaphrodite called Rebis. Soon afterward, Maggie Sawyer came out as a gay woman. Other previously existing characters were revealed to be gay or bisexual. In 1991, the Hulk learned that his old friend Jim Wilson was HIV-positive. Jim's appearance in the story indicated that he was now openly gay, but when the Hulk was asked how his friend had contracted the virus, he only responded "it doesn't matter." In 1993, Rebis met with a prostitute named Kate Godwin who was also a male-to-female transsexual and then became the superhuman called Coagula. Comic series such as Neil Gaiman's "Sandman" featured LGBT characters quite openly.

A year earlier in 1992, with neither Shooter nor the Code regulations around to stop it, Marvel published an issue where Northstar finally came out. Interestingly, Marvel itself didn't consider the story to be that big a deal. New writer Scott Lobdell had been asked to pitch three possibilities for a single-issue "Alpha Flight" story. Lobdell had considered that Jean-Paul's antisocial and often angry tendencies stemmed from the fact that while others might have guessed he was gay, he had yet to admit that openly or to himself and so he kept people at a distance. One of Lobdell's three pitches had Jean-Paul encounter a child with AIDS with a man pointing out that a public superhero and celebrity athlete could do a lot of good to bring greater awareness to gay issues and it was cowardly to do otherwise. Northstar agreed and publicly announced that he was gay, also adopting the child diagnosed with AIDS (who, sadly, did not survive long).

"Alpha Flight" #106 didn't seem like a big deal to Lobdell at the time, as he felt he was simply acknowledging what many readers and writers already knew about Northstar, but the issue gained national medial attention. The New York Times referred to the story as a "welcome indicator of social change." A second printing soon turned out to be necessary as the issue sold out in many locations.

Years later, Lobdell also wrote the story where Northstar first officially joined the X-Men, one of Marvel's most popular and high-profile teams. Right before joining the group, Northstar had published a successful biography entitled "Born Normal."

Obsidian, son of the original Alan Scott, came out as gay under the hand of writer Marc Andreyko

A mere few months after Northstar's coming out, an issue of "Legion of Super-Heroes" had the character Element Lad become concerned when his love Shvaughn seemed to be avoiding him. We then learned that Shvaughn had actually been born a male named Sean and that the character had been using a sex-change drug to alter his gender because he believed that Element Lad would not date him as a man. Element Lad, whose power is to transmute elements, pointed out that he understood very well that the outer shape and appearance of things was not as important as the core and that he had dated Shvaughn not because she was a woman but in spite of it.

Northstar, the "Legion of Super-Heroes" story and the largely positive response to both, indicated to many writers that the comic book audience was ready to face LGBT issues head on. The Hulk once again encountered Jim Wilson in a special story that discussed HIV and AIDS as well as the various experiences and psychological torments the diseases bring about. Justice League member Ice Maiden came out as bisexual, but then commented that she refused to be put into a specific box or wear a label. Meanwhile, her teammate Obsidian wrestled with feelings for a male teammate. Green Lantern Kyle Rayner had openly gay friends, leading to not one but two stories (years apart) where he responded to them being violently attacked for their sexuality.

Two major examples of new gay characters were Apollo and Midnighter, introduced in the pages of "Stormwatch." As two obvious homages to Batman and Superman, the duo was introduced as heroes who had been "partners" for years. A couple of years later, the two joined the Authority and after a few more issues, Apollo and Midnighter shared a brief kiss, revealing that they were in fact "partners" in a very different sense. Writer Warren Ellis had deliberately kept the full nature of their relationship secret even from the artist because he wanted fans to see them as enjoyable characters first and not have their perceptions preemptively clouded by any prejudice.

Still, there have been times where it seems the superhero comic book industry has dragged its feet in continuing the progress of LGBT characters. Although Northstar was openly gay, he was not seen in the company of a boyfriend throughout the 1990s. The series "Gen 13" spoke about sex openly and often displayed violence, bloodshed and even acts of dismemberment -- but an issue where a lesbian (later said to be bisexual) superhero kissed a woman good-bye on the lips was altered at the last minute so that the kiss was on the cheek instead. The series "Young Avengers" received praise for having two of its teenage characters be young gay men in a positive relationship, but the couple received criticism when it wound up being years before they were ever seen having a single kiss on-panel.

Earlier in the 1990s, Marvel gave its old Western character the Raw-Hide Kid his own mini-series "Slap Leather," revising the character as a gay man (although, due to the area and time period he lived in, he was not open about it). Readers criticized that the mini-series had an "explicit content" warning label on the covers despite an absence of any extreme violence, sexual content or adult language. Many readers took it as a homophobic warning concerning the fact that the Rawhide Kid's dialogue repeatedly implied he was gay.

More recently, Archie Comics introduced the openly gay Kevin Keller as a part of the Riverdale gang's main cast

In the past decade, more and more LGBT characters have been introduced and pre-existing ones continue to come out as gay or bisexual. Marc Andreyko followed Obsidian's character growth to what he felt was a natural conclusion by having the hero realize that many of his identity issues were connected to a denial of his sexuality, the acceptance of which led to a new mental stability and a healthy relationship. Peter David called back to an unfinished sub-plot from years before by revealing that the male heroes Shatterstar and Rictor were in love, which brought criticism from Shatterstar's creator Rob Liefeld. There was a sense of things coming full circle when in 2006, fifty years after Kathy Kane was introduced to quash homoerotic implications, DC Comics introduced Kate Kane, a new openly gay Batwoman.

Batwoman has quickly become one of the highest profile gay superheroes in comics, taking over as the star of "Detective Comics" (usually headlined by Batman) for several months and now starring in her own monthly series in DC's New 52. In the past few years, Northstar's character and his identity as a gay man has been further developed, having an on-panel boyfriend at last and expressing his desire to be an asset to the X-Men and not just their token gay mutant.

Archie Comics surprised many readers by introducing the openly gay Kevin Keller as a new regular character. Keller has become the star of his own title and, in a special comic that reveals the future, readers learned that, he will become a U.S. soldier and meet his future husband Clay soon afterward. While many have praised the storyline, it has also invited criticism from certain groups such as One Million Moms, which has also condemned Northstar's upcoming nuptials and Alan Scott's reboot as a homosexual in the New 52.

How is it that Alan Scott, the original Green Lantern who also happens to be Obsidian's father, is now gay? When DC Comics decided to reboot its superhero universe, it was decided that Scott would be reimagined with a new origin as a much younger man with no children (at least, not yet). This meant that Obsidian would not be around in the new history/continuity -- but writer James Robinson decided Alan Scott could take his place as a positive gay hero, making for an interesting new take on the character. Alan Scott is not only the first Green Lantern, but is an inspirational and powerful leader to his colleagues. Some have congratulated this as a bold move that truly reimagines a previously established character rather than just modernizing his origin and his costume. Others have criticized it, saying it would have been a bigger step for progress if a more famous hero had been reimagined as an LGBT character, one known to audiences who don't necessarily read comics.

How this will all progress in the future will be determined by the creators, the industry heads, and the fans themselves.

TAGS:  gay heroes, northstar, element lad, alan scott, earth 2, alpha flight, lgbt, comics code

 
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