Homosexuality in Comics - Part II

Tue, July 17th, 2007 at 12:00am PDT

Comic Books
Emmett Furey, Staff Writer

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Welcome to Part II of CBR's look at homosexuality in comics. For this series, CBR News spoke with nine comics industry professionals about the portrayal of GLBT (Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transsexual) characters and themes in comics, past and present. Part I introduced participants Marc Andreyko, Lillian Diaz-Przbyl, Devin Grayson, Terrance Griep and Mark Millar. In addition to biographical materials, each introductory segment will also include the participant's musings on their own comics work that features GLBT characters and themes.

Today's segment features Allan Heinberg, Scott Lobdell, Alan Moore and Greg Rucka. Parts III and IV will be the article proper, in which the participants address a wide range of topics. In part III, the participants discuss the Comics Code, the stigma of comics as a children's medium, whether homosexuality is a lifestyle choice or a genetic predisposition, and the tendency for fictional GLBT characters to be defined by their sexuality. The topics for part IV include the "gay retcon," the participants' picks for well-informed portrayals of GLBT characters in comics, and the state of the union of homosexuality in comics.

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ALLAN HEINBERG

Long before he settled on Writer as his vocation, a young Allan Heinberg tried his hand at acting. By the time he was ten years old, the Tulsa, Oklahoma native was acting in regional theater, commercials, and hosting a children's television news show. Heinberg continued acting while attending Yale University, and, after graduating, relocated to New York City where he acted on and off Broadway for the next ten years. In 1997, Heinberg moved again, this time to the City of Angels to become a writer on the Tea Leoni sitcom "The Naked Truth." He went on to write for "Sex and the City," "Gilmore Girls" and "The O.C" before being introduced to Marvel EIC Joe Quesada by comics scribe C.B. Cebulski. For Heinberg, who'd been a comics lover since he was seven years old, the prospect of writing comic books was a dream come true. It was in these early meetings with Quesada that the seeds of Heinberg's breakout hit "Young Avengers" were planted.

Heinberg realized he was gay as early as seven or eight years into his life. "But ofcourse, I had no functional vocabulary for those feelings at thetime," Heinberg told CBR News. "And as a Jewish kid growing up in Tulsa, Oklahoma, I didn'twant to be gay, so I didn't think I actually was gay for quite sometime. Most of my friends were female at that point, so I wentthrough high school and freshman year of college believing I simplywanted a close, male friend."

When Heinberg fell in love with a boy during his freshman year at Yale, it cemented his sexuality for him and for the rest of the world. "I fell deeplyin love with someone who proudly identified himself as gay, and Ithought, 'Well, if he's gay, I must be, too,'" Heinberg said. "But I never hid mysexuality. At least, not consciously.I honestly had no idea I wasgay until I fell in love -- in spite of my near-complete collection ofOriginal Broadway Cast Albums." As is often the case, Heinberg's friends and family realized he was gay before he came to terms with it himself. "My finally figuring it out came as a reliefto everyone."

Gay couple Wiccan and Hulkling
Heinberg's first foray into comics, "Young Avengers," introduced a team of youthful superheroes who banded together in the wake of "Avengers Disassembled." The title also featured one of Marvel's high-profile gay couples, Wiccan and Hulkling. Hulking is a shape-shifting Skrull, and some fans decry the fact that not one but two of Marvel's high-profile gay couples include shapeshifters of indeterminate gender (the other being Xavin from "Runaways") but Heinberg is of a different mind. "It's actually meaningful to me that someone like Hulkling -- whohas the ability to change shape, to hide, to appear 'normal' -- doesn't," Heinberg explained. "He simply is who he is."

Heinberg has enjoyed complete creative freedom when exploring homosexual themes in his comics. "If anything, I've been perhaps a bit too self-censoring, wanting to make sure that I'm notexploiting thecharacters' sexuality for the sake of pushing mainstream boundaries," Heinberg said."My primary goal in all my work is to keep the story moving forward atall times. When you're fighting Kang the Conqueror, it's tough tofind time to make out."

SCOTT LOBDELL

While writer Scott Lobdell might be best known for his runs on "Uncanny X-men" and "Generation X," he began his career at Marvel writing Canada's premier super team, "Alpha Flight." His run on the latter marked a milestone for homosexuality in comics. In "Alpha Flight" #106, Northstar AKA Jean Paul Beaubier became the first mainstream superhero to come out of the closet.

Northstar comes out

But when Lobdell set about outing Northstar, neither he nor Marvel knew just how much media attention the event would garner. "When I managed to land my first series at Marvel, 'Alpha Flight,' we were a little behind schedule and I was asked to come up with an inventory story; a stand-alone issue that can be plugged in anywhere in the series in case people are late with their deadlines," Lobdell said. "Northstar had always fascinated me because he was always so angry. Why was that? Everyone working in comics and many fans knew he was gay -- the always talented [Northstar creator] John Byrne made it very clear in both the comics and in interviews. But no one in the comic book universe seemed to know it. There were a few subtle lines here or there over the course of the series, but for the most part, his homosexuality seemed to be something of a secret to his fellow heroes and the Canadian population as a whole.

"Now, as much as I loved the character, I felt that the Angry Man doesn't allow a writer to go very far when telling monthly stories," Lobdell continued. "Heck, even Hawkeye needed to mellow out, eventually. My feeling at the time was that if I was going to write Northstar convincingly, I was going to have to move him past his anger. Upon examining the character, I felt that here was a handsome, mostly heroic young man who had fame, fortune, and even great super powers that he used only because he wanted to keep an eye on his half-baked twin sister. So what was he so angry about?"

Lobdell ultimately decided that the superhero was angry at a society that forced him to keep his sexuality a secret. "While I certainly don't think all closeted gay men are angry, I'm speaking specifically about Jean Paul," Lobdell clarified. "He used his anger to keep people away from him, from getting close, from discovering who he was. If you disliked him for being an arrogant prick, then you were not going to be able to get close enough to learn who he really was. If you didn't like him for who he pretended to be, then you wouldn't be able to judge him for who he was."

Lobdell submitted three stories to editor Bobbie Chase and her assistant, Chris Cooper. The one they selected saw Jean Paul outing himself after adopting a baby afflicted with AIDS, which was published as "Alpha Flight" #106. "About two months into my run, the regular artist Tom Morgan was running a little behind, and as the Northstar inventory story was ready, it was scheduled to run," Lobdell said, "And that was pretty much that-- until the book hit the stands!

"The media reaction was awe-inspiring and to the best of my recollection it was 98% positive. For years, I kept the only clipping I've ever kept from an article, and that was the editorial in the crapfest we call the 'New York Times.' They called Northstar's outing 'a welcome indicator of social change.' That was nice."

"Alpha Flight" #106
The national media attention was as much a surprise to Marvel as it was to Lobdell. "Nobody who read the story or approved it editorially or solicited it or marketed it or even ordered it at stores thought it was going to be anything more than another issue of 'Alpha Flight,'" Lobdell said. "Look at it this way, we went back to a second printing, another 60 thousand a week after it came out. That was a total of 120 thousand for a book that could easily have sold seven times that much in those days. The book was selling out everywhere, with international exposure. If Marvel had thought they were about to print a phenomenon, they certainly would have printed many, many more in advance. But we didn't know because we didn't think it was going to be very interesting to anyone other than 'Alpha Flight' fans."

Although Lobdell was removed from the book two months before issue #106 hit stands, the writer emphatically denies it had anything to do with the content of that or any other issue. When "Alpha Flight" editor Bobbie Chase left the book and passed the torch to Rob Tokar, it quickly became clear that Lobdell and his new editor were not on the same page when it came to Canada's premier super team. "Rob Tokar is a great and generous guy, but we had two distinctly different views of the book," Lobdell said. "As was his right, he felt the need to move it in a different direction and I was let go."

Fortunately enough for Lobdell, his unscheduled departure from "Alpha Flight" freed him up to take the reigns of "Uncanny X-men" from Chris Claremont, who had just concluded a long run on the title.Years later, Lobdell had the opportunity to write Northstar again, this time in the pages of "Uncanny X-Men," and in one issue the subject of the character's sexuality did take center stage. "I had a blast having [Northstar] square off with a fellow mutant who was a big ignorant homophobe, and Jean Paul slapped him around for his slurs," Lobdell said. "That was fun, and maybe the best example of how I would have at once not sought to throw it center stage, but not walk away from it if the character or character interaction called for it."

ALAN MOORE

One of a short list of comic creators who truly revolutionized the comic industry in the '80s, Alan Moore needs no introduction. Anarchist, vegetarian and magician are just a few of his titles, and while he is decidedly heterosexual, Moore is nothing if not a friend to the bi- and homosexual communities. One of his most strident activities in the support of gay rights came in 1988, when a particularly bigoted amendment to the UK's Local Government Act 1986 called Clause 28 decreed that local authorities "shall not intentionally promote homosexuality or publish material with the intention of promoting homosexuality" or "promote the teaching in any maintained school of the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship."

"AARGH" (Artists Against Rampant Government Homophobia)
"We were, over here, being subjected to some of the excesses of the late Thatcher government, which included this thing called Clause 28, which, more or less, was striving to remove the word 'homosexuality' from the dictionary," Alan Moore told CBR News. "They really wanted to get rid of the concept of homosexuality. And they were talking about how no schoolteacher should promote a gay lifestyle, by which they meant, no schoolteacher should talk about homosexuality in anything other than tones of disgust. It was a particularly insidious piece of legislation, and it seemed to be only have been dreamed up simply to throw a sop to the homophobic tabloid press over here, and to shore up the Torries' waning popularity with their right-wing power-base."

At the time, Moore was involved in a romantic relationship with his then-wife, Phyllis, and their mutual girlfriend, Debbie Delano. "We were concerned about what was happening, and we figured that with the amount of contacts that we had, we could probably put together a very decent anthology book that was protesting about that, so we immediately just called up everybody we knew, and asked if they'd like to contribute something." The fruit of their labor was a comics anthology called "AARGH" (Artists Against Rampant Government Homophobia) and was first published by Moore's own publishing company, Mad Love, in 1988.

"It was a mixed bag, as all anthology books are. Some pieces were better than others," Moore said. "Of course, also, with any charitable anthology, you have the problem of people doing this for free, so you perhaps can't be as critical as you might be. That said, I thought that there was some fantastic stuff in 'AARGH,' and we certainly raised a huge amount of money for the Organization for Lesbian and Gay Action.

"It was a funny organization, they'd initially been very suspicious of us when we approached them, because we were heterosexual, or bisexual, and that was seen as being the next best thing to the oppressor," Moore continued. "They did cheer up a bit after we gave them the 17,000 pounds, that did put a smile on their face, and they were much more happy to see us. It was a great experience, we learned a lot about how to put together a magazine for publication, and I'm still proud of 'AARGH,' it was a fine piece of work."

Despite this and many other acts of protest, Clause 28 remained on the books until 2003. " It was never really enforced," Moore remarked. "Because actually thinking about it, it would be very difficult to rigorously enforce that, and I think that wasn't really where the culture was going, so it tended to hang around on the statute books as an embarrassment until 2003 when I think finally the government, in one of its more benevolent moves, finally ditched this albatross and consigned it to its rightful place in history."

Moore's own contribution to 'AARGH' was an eight-page history of homosexuality called "Mirror of Love," illustrated by Steve Bissette and Rick Veitch. "When we were putting the magazine together, I was thinking very hard about what my contribution should be, and I ran through a few different ideas that weren't very good," Moore explained. "Preaching against homophobia and stuff like that, whereas I figured that what I actually wanted to do was something that was more positive. Something that was more pro-gay than anti-homophobic. So I decided that it would be interesting to see if I could get a history of gay culture from its inception into eight pages, because comics is a very elastic medium, and I figured that I probably could do that." Fresh off writing "Brought to Light," a book in which he condensed the activities of the CIA from the end of WWII to the '80s into a mere 30 pages, Moore's goal did not seem too farfetched.

"So I set out boldly to try and come up with a history of gay culture, because at that time, I fondly imagined that I could just go down the corner bookshop and ask to see their histories of gay culture, which was incredibly nave," Moore said. "We found out that such a thing did not actually exist. And the only thing to do was to find as many sources as possible. Books of gay writings and gay poetry were invaluable, and also I know that we had to go through a lot of quite obscure research, we had to sort of find essays or theses that had been written at universities."

One such obscure paper was "Sodomy and Heresy in early modern Switzerland." "That was one of the only papers that I could find that filled in a couple of the gaps in people's perception of homosexuality," Moore said. "But once I got my teeth into it, I found that I was able to at least put together a rudimentary, a skeletal history of the evolution of gay consciousness that I was quite pleased with. Delivering it in that poetic style actually made it a lot easier, because poetry is a compressed language. It says things very gracefully using as few words as possible. So that was the ideal way to tell that kind of story, and to get the kind of detail in that we were able to do in that. It was a bit crammed, but I was very proud of the fact that we had been able to get a fairly comprehensive history of gay culture into just eight pages, and it wasn't forced or clumsy, that it had got a certain elegance to it."

Out of print for more than a decade, "Mirror of Love" was recently re-released by Top Shelf as a hardcover volume with new art by Jose Villarubia. "When he first got in touch with me, Jose was asking if it would all right to do a performance of "The Mirror of Love" at some kind of queer drama festival somewhere in Baltimore," Moore explained. "Jose's got a lot of contacts who are in the theater world, and he'd put together a one man show based on 'Mirror of Love,' and he was just asking my permission to do that, so we were delighted, and asked him to send a video over. And I'm pleased to report that amongst his many other talents, Jose is a great performer.

"He'd done such a good job on it that when he later asked if it would be possible for him to actually apply his artistic abilities and his photographic abilities to reinterpreting 'Mirror of Love' as a larger work, I was, again, overjoyed to think of it being done like that. No disrespect to the artists who handled the original strip, because they did a fantastic job with the space that they had, but the opportunity to see Jose expanding upon the work and making it into a lavish little 80-page volume, that was too good to pass up.

"It was good to be able to take a poem, basically, on a subject that is probably not covered very much, at least in comic book culture, and to see how the comics medium could be used to tell that kind of story, so on that technical level, it was something that I was very interested in, and seeing what Jose had done with it was the culmination of nearly 20 years' involvement with that particular work. It was nice to see if finally blossoming into such a lavish and gorgeous form."

"Lost Girls"
"Mirror of Love" was not the first time Moore had dealt with gay themes in the comics medium, and it would not be the last. "Lost Girls" is an erotic graphic novel 16 years in the making. Created by Moore and his current girlfriend, artist Melinda Gebbie, "Lost Girls" chronicles an encounter between "Alice and Wonderland's" Alice, "The Wizard of Oz's" Dorothy Gale and "Peter Pan's" Wendy Darling during which they recount to each other tales of their own sexual escapades. Homosexuality is just one of all manners of sexual behavior that's explored in the massive volume, also published by Top Shelf. Currently available in the U.S. and Canada, the potentially controversial book has been so widely accepted as to make Moore wary.

"I sometimes suspect that perhaps people are just trying to lull us into a false sense of security before they send in the lynch mob," Moore said. "We didn't know, when we were putting this book together, how it was going to be received." The book was begun during the Clinton administration, but by the time it was completed, America had made one of its "periodic swings to the right," and this understandably gave the creators pause.

Perhaps surprisingly, "Lost Girls" saw more trouble with the US's neighbor to the north, not because of homosexual themes, but because of its depiction of underage sex. "The book had been seized [by Canadian Customs], which we'd been anticipating, because there are quite tight laws in Canada," Moore said. "Our wonderful publisher, Chris Staros, had already been working with a Canadian customs lawyer anticipating such a problem, and put together a dossier of the critical response to 'Lost Girls,' and a letter from me and Melinda where we gave an outline of our intentions for the book, and we got back this fantastic letter from the Canadian government saying that it was definitely not child pornography, it was definitely not obscene, and that it was instead a genuine work of art."

As far as the book's depiction of homosexuality goes, Moore asserts that society is perhaps much less accepting of gay themes in the here and now than they once were. "It's not unusual to have hot girl on girl action in heterosexual pornography," Moore said. "And it never used to be unusual --I'm talking back in Victorian golden age of pornography-- to have hot boy on boy action. It was, I think, a lot more open back at the end of the 19th century; it was a much more polymorphous kind of approach to sex, and we wanted to try and bring that back, to make it a much more 'omnisexual' piece of work that could potentially appeal to anybody, irrespective of their sexuality. We didn't want to do this just for heterosexual men, we wanted to try and be more inclusive. "And the response that we've had has been generally very good," Moore continued. "The reviews that we've heard about seem to have been generally good and, you know, amongst gay people that we know, I think that they like the material. Our gay friends seem to have enjoyed it."

GREG RUCKA

Former Gotham City detective Renee Montoya is a lesbian
Greg Rucka is an accomplished writer of both novels and graphic novels. Born in San Francisco in 1969, the young Rucka received his first writing accolades at just ten-years old when he won a Steinbeck County short-story contest. More recently, Rucka collaborated with Geoff Johns, Grant Morrison and Mark Waid on DC's epic "52," which showcased two openly gay characters: one-time Gotham City detective Renee Montoya, and Kate Kane AKA Batwoman. Montoya was first outed during Rucka and Ed Brubaker's "Gotham Central," but Rucka is adamant that the reveal was far from a retcon.

"It wasn't a decision to make her gay-- that was the character to me," Greg Rucka told CBR News. "It was clear the first time I read her. Other people out there wrote her as straight, and every time I read it, I read it that it was 'bearding.' She read to me as gay and in the closet. And I don't know why I saw that in the character, but literally from the moment I laid eyes on that character, I thought, 'Oh, she's in the closet.'

"I remember, somebody came up to me and said, 'There was a story where she was out on a date. There was a Coast Guard guy,'" Rucka recalled. "And all I could think was, 'You've never heard of bearding?' That was who the character was to me. And while people can argue that, 'Well, that character to me was not the character she is now,' apparently my take on the character was one that DC didn't oppose."

The announcement that the new Batwoman would be gay made national news even before the character had seen her first panel. Rucka couldn't claim responsibility for the character or her sexuality, but he did say creating a gay character with one of DC's marquee icons was a calculated move. "And what are our three marquis icons? The Bat, the S-shield and the two W's," Rucka said. "And the decision was made, by who I do not know, that they would go back in the DC history, and they'd go, 'You know what, we haven't had a Batwoman in a while. We're going have Batwoman, and this time she'll be gay.'"

The new Batman is a former flame of Montoya's
Rucka was quick to point out that it wasn't DC who made a big deal about the character's sexuality-- it was the national news media. "Frankly, I think there are people at DC who really, really wish that [New York Times] story had never run," Rucka said. "Because there was all this sound and this fury, but nobody had seen the character yet! And when things like that happen, it certainly gives the appearance of sexuality being more important than character. And sexuality is an element of character, not character. Saying the character is gay is like saying that character is white. It's an element, but it isn't the person. So unfortunately, Kate kind of got tarred going out of the starting gate, people are inclined to look at her skeptically.

"She was in development before '52' started," Rucka continued. "One of the things we were asked to do was to incorporate her. In '52,' she's revealed little by little, because she's not a primary character in '52,' she's a secondary character. So we're not focusing a lot on her. She will be in the spotlight soon enough, and then people hopefully will decide if they like the character.

"There's a lot of talk about the 'DC agenda,'" Rucka went on. "And you know what, there is an agenda, but that doesn't mean somebody in editorial is walking around saying, 'You, introduce three new black characters, two Arabs and one homosexual.' That's not the way it works. The agenda is, very overtly, to diversify the world of the DC universe because for the longest time, the DC universe was white and male, and that's not representative. And, yeah, that's pursuing an agenda. You know, people say it like it's a bad thing."

To Rucka, the question of homosexuality is strictly a civil rights issue. "There was a line that I had in 'Wonder Woman,' it was in the book that she published, in quotes, 'Love is the flower that wants to grow.' So let it grow already, don't legislate it. People should know what's out there."

Come back tomorrow for Part III, in which the panelists discuss the Comics Code, the stigma of comics as a children's medium, whether homosexuality is a lifestyle choice or a genetic predisposition, and the tendency for GLBT characters to be defined by their sexuality.

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