Homosexuality in Comics - Part IV

Thu, July 19th, 2007 at 12:00am PDT

Comic Books
Emmett Furey, Staff Writer

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Welcome to the fourth and final installment of CBR's look at homosexuality in comics. In Part III, participants Marc Andreyko, Lillian Diaz-Przbyl, Devin Grayson, Terrance Griep, Mark Millar, Allan Heinberg, Scott Lobdell, Alan Moore and Greg Rucka discussed 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 gay, lesbian and bisexual characters to be defined by their sexuality.

In this final segment, the participants weigh in on the so-called "gay retcon," put forth a few of their favorite GLBT comic book portrayals and discuss the state of the union of homosexuality in comics.

Story continues below

When it comes to portraying characters as gay in comics, Devin Grayson admits the amount of editorial latitude she's given depends upon the legacy of the character in question. "The Powers That Be are pretty good these days about letting you choose to make a character of your own design homosexual or bisexual, but the closer you get to an established character, the harder it becomes," Grayson said. "And although I sympathize with that decision in many respects -- it's not fair to retcon an established character just to make a socio-political point -- the problem with that policy is that, for the sexual identity issue to have weight in the world of superhero icons, the so-identified character has to be an icon."

Despite the controversy surrounding the as-yet under-utilized new Batwoman, Grayson believes Kate Kane may just be the best of both worlds. “ I thought we were on to a nice solution when DC asked me to develop a new, contemporary Batwoman who would be a lesbian from the start," Grayson said. "That would allow us to have a character with a Bat emblem across her chest who was homosexual without retconning any currently used characters, and we could also ensure that her sexuality could be a minor character note rather than a major story revelation."

Grayson actually liked the infamous New York Times write-up that stirred up the Batwoman controversy in the first place, but again, the fact that the piece made such a big deal of the character's sexuality before the hero even graced the page of a comic book went a long way towards nullifying any positive effect Batwoman might have had on the industry. Consequently, the character was relegated to the backseat of the "52" event rather than the forefront of her own title.

In fact, Grayson was eight months into the development of the proposed "Batwoman" title when she found out from a newspaper article that the project was dead, and to this day, the writer has not received so much as a phone call from upper editorial on the matter. "That reversal really surprised and disappointed me," Grayson admitted. "I won't pretend not to be resentful of how badly DC treated me in that exchange, but the majority of my concern and sympathy goes out to the character, who was basically thrown away by a company which had a lot of support to make her successful and unique. My experiences up to that point had been much more positive, although admittedly less ambitious, and it was really sad and discouraging to see the ball so badly dropped."

When Greg Rucka first conceived "Half A Life," the "Gotham Central" storyline in which Detective Renee Montoya comes out as a lesbian, he fully expected to get a lot of flak from DC. As it turned out, "DC never once had a problem with anything we did," Rucka said. "There were people in the comics community, in the professional community, who weren't happy. But nobody at DC ever gave us anything less that absolute support."

By way of example, Rucka points to a panel description he wrote into the script for an issue of "Gotham Central." "Renee was starting a character spiral," Rucka said. "She had been in this fight, and she goes home, and her partner Daria is there, and I had a note saying, the panel description was, 'they're in bed, Daria's asleep. Renee is awake and staring up past us. And it should be clear that they had sex, they made love.' And I remember sending that script in with a note to the editor saying, 'I suspect this is going to give us grief, but I'm really going to fight for it because this matters.' One of the things that's going on with the character is all of these things are going to extremes."

Rucka wasn't asked to change a single panel.

There were a few scenes that appeared in the original "52" breakdowns which none-too-subtly intimated that Montoya was engaged in sexual congress with another woman, but Rucka insists the reason those scenes never made it to the published issues had less to do with the homosexual content and more to do with sexual content in general. "That's the litmus for me, is it because we're puritanical prudes, or is it because we don't like the fact that they're gay?" Rucka posed. "And more often than not it's that we're puritanically prudish. It's easier in this country to show somebody literally getting their head shot off than showing two people having sex. And that is kind of fucked up."

Mark Andreyko echoed the sentiment, saying, "I think most Americans still retain the puritanical DNA of our Founding Fathers and are nervous around any sexuality. We, to our own detriment, would rather have our kids watch "Saw" or play "Grand Theft Auto" than have them see --gasp-- a naked body or people making love in a film. It's sort of creepy."

Scott Lobdell was one of the first writers to out a long-running superhero character. In issue #106 of Marvel Comics' "Alpha Flight," team member Northstar came out to a villain during a fight. And while the milestone did receive its share of media attention, Lobdell asserts that there is one key difference between the outing of Northstar and the handling of gay characters today. "The glory of Marvel in the '90s to me was that all the envelope-pushing came out of the stories and the characters," Lobdell said. "This was a time when were telling exciting stories about interesting characters.

"Without slamming anyone, it feels that the envelope-pushing that's done nowadays is done in an effort to break through the clutter," Lobdell continued, referring to the example of Ron Zimmerman's "Rawhide Kid" miniseries. Lobdell reiterated what many of this article's other participants have already said: the decision to make Rawhide Kid gay seemed to be more about getting an "Entertainment Weekly" blurb or a joke on The Tonight Show than it was about telling a good story.

"Sure, those things happened when Northstar came out of the closet," Lobdell said, "but they happened because he came out of the closet, as opposed to he came out of the closet in order for those things to happen.

"In retrospect, some ten or twelve years later, it would be fun to repaint those days as, 'We were trying to challenge social mores! We were trying to break down walls!  We were standing up for a minority!' We weren't. We were just trying to tell a Northstar story that was worth the price of the book that month."

Lobdell believes that more often than not, it was the fans, not the editors, who reacted most strongly to GLBT issues in his work. "One time I had Storm and Yukio about to kiss in a panel in 'Uncanny X-Men,'" Lobdell explained. “ Editorially, no one blinked. But the fans? They went ape. I always thought of [Storm] as the most open-minded, tolerant and cautious of all of Marvel's characters, while apparently some people saw her differently."

The incident dovetails with another issue that has been hotly debated by purists over the years, the Retcon. Short for "retroactive continuity," retcon is the comics industry term for a change in a character or their backstory that contradicts previous stories or information. In an industry where fans often decry the slightest change, one can imagine how a sudden change in a character's sexuality tends to be received.

One thing to keep in mind, however, is that in the world of mainstream superhero comics, the cast of characters has been more or less set in stone for over half a century. Discussing homosexuality in what was once upon a time a children's medium was considered taboo, and as a result, none of the Golden and Silver Age characters were gay, at least not openly. But as fans of comics grew older, so too did the stories, particularly in the more adult stories pioneered by the likes of Frank Miller and Alan Moore in the 1980s. Along with that came characters with many and varied sexualities, and sometimes newly outed characters who had been heretofore presented as heterosexual.

As far as Alan Moore is concerned, when in doubt, create a new character. "Personally, when I was back working in the mills of mainstream comics, I worked with a number of the big-time, mainstream characters," Moore told CBR News. "And I never had any compulsion to violate what had previously been laid down about the character. And I found that generally that still gave me plenty of freedom to re-imagine the character in quite a radical way.

"I was never tempted to sort of suggest a gay relationship between Batman and Robin," Moore continued. "I mean, come on, that has been the subject of infantile jokes, many of which I laughed at when I was at school. It's not really saying anything interesting or important. It's an attempt to shock and outrage, and it's very middle class.

"There are a lot of people who will kind of use outré sexualities to pepper their work, and you get the impression that they're trying to shock their parents. That they somehow find these concepts shocking, and that is why they present them in a shocking way in their stories, because there is some middle-class sensibility that they, the authors, are still outraged by the stuff. If you want to talk about a gay relationship for something other than shock value, come up with your own character, it's not that difficult. And think them through. And give them a decent raison d'être and give them realistic behavior and dialogue, see how that works. Because, frankly, to sort of just paste a sexuality onto a character is probably not going to do the character any service and it's probably not going to do the story any service.

"I'm sure that it's probably quite fashionable, probably a lot more fashionable than it was a few years ago, to have the odd gay character. I'd be prepared to bet that probably most of the gay women characters are still babes, I would imagine. Very few diesel dykes. I suppose it's better than it was, even if it's not perfect. I suppose all of these things should be kind of basically heralded as a breakthrough, they're all an improvement upon the way that comics used to be.

Element Lad: Gay?

"I remember back in the day that there was a whole sub-class of comics fandom which was completely obsessed with the Legion of Superheroes. And I know that they'd all decided that one of the characters, Element Lad, was probably gay. They based this upon the fact that he had a pink costume. So, if you're going to talk about issues like that, then try not to base them upon fatuous, sort of simplistic, idiotic kind of things, which unfortunately, comics are still plagued by to a large degree. There's a lot of that kind of inane thinking.

"I can remember Stan Lee, I believe, when he was asked why he'd never had any gay characters in his comics, answered that he had always written one of the Howling Commandoes as being secretly gay, by which it turned out he meant the English one, Private Percival "Pinky" Pinkerton, because, I think, that Stan Lee probably thinks that England is just some gay paradise where everybody talks in a gay way and has gay manners. It's very much like comic books as they are applied to say Native Americans, or to Black Americans, it's kind of embarrassing when you look back at those early 1970s attempts to do black superheroes, where they're all talking in this blacksploitation movie fashion, and have ridiculous afros. I suppose these are steps in the right direction, it's just that they're frequently embarrassing at the start.

Stan Lee's "Pinky" Pinkerton
"I can remember male comic writers trying to write feminists or women's libbers as we used to call them then. And they'd make these kind of strident, threatening Amazons. And it was always a kind of a reflection of the minority in the mirror of straight, white, male culture. It was always our hopes and fears that were being reflected, rather than anything real."

Devin Grayson is definitely of the mind that mainstream comics are resistant to the indoctrination of new iconic characters, and that even if the industry was more accepting of new blood, new characters could never hope to have the same impact as the decades-old guard. "It's a tough issue," Grayson said. "I do believe in being respectful to the history and original intent of the character, and as a fan myself, I know how much I hate it when I connect with a character around some quality or event that someone later destroys. These heroes are meant to be for everyone, and generally speaking, the rule to live by is 'do no harm.'

"But that said, we also have to acknowledge that queer readings tumble out of old comics like subscription pull-outs, and there are several cases where it's more of a stretch to insist that the character's straight than vice versa," Grayson continued. "I believe that it's possible to write a respectful story about an established character that broadens or contradicts prior assumptions about their sexuality, but I also believe that there would be a lot of resistance to that, and a lot of it would be perfectly understandable."

Terrance Griep cited an early '90s portrayal of the Golden Age Doctor Mid-Nite in Len Strazewski's run on a previous volume of "Justice Society of America" as one which he was sure was leading to just such a retcon. "I mentioned it to a writer friend, one who's as open-minded as they get, and he went ballistic," Griep said. "Interestingly, the writer, Len Strazewski, didn't know what I was talking about when my writer friend mentioned it to him, but Len understood my interpretation once he re-read the issue at my urging."

For Griep, whether or not a retcon is appropriate depends heavily on context. "Doctor Mid-Nite worked because he was unmarried and never seemed all that interested in his secretary's flagrant advances. Suddenly deciding that a dependably-heterosexual character is gay feels disingenuous to me. Handled well, I don't think either approach is right or wrong. Re tconning is not the only way to explore these themes, but I think GLBT characters generate more buzz when that gender identity is dovetailed into a pre-existing character."

Another outing that created a bit of a stir was that of Gotham City Police Detective Renee Montoya. Writers Greg Rucka and Ed Brubaker brought the long-running supporting Batman character to the forefront in DC's "Gotham Central," and it was during their run on said title that it was first revealed that Montoya was gay. But Rucka insisted that this could hardly be called a retcon. As far as he was concerned, nothing about the character as she'd been previously presented ruled out the possibility of her being gay. (For more on this see Part II).

Mark Andreyko's "Manhunter," which follows the exploits of prosecutor-by-day, vigilante-by-night Kate Spencer, caused a bit of a stir among the fan community when it was revealed that the boyfriend of Spencer's openly-gay co-counsel, Damon Matthews, was none other than Infinity, Inc. veteran Obsidian, who is also the son of Golden Age Green Lantern Alan Scott. Obsidian's alter ego, Todd Rice, struggled to come to terms with his sexuality in the pages of "Infinity, Inc." and during his tenure as a member of the Justice League, but it wasn't until Rice began dating Damon Matthews in Andreyko's "Manhunter" that the character fully embraced his homosexuality.

Andreyko doesn't recall any particularly egregious examples of clearly established heterosexual characters having their sexuality unduly retconned, but admits that Obsidian blurs the line. "Roy Thomas gave Obsidian failed, awkward, unconsummated romances in 'Infinity, Inc.,' which Gerard Jones extrapolated and danced around in 'Justice League,'" Andreyko explained. "Thus, looking back on the character's history, gayness seems logical. Now, if somebody suddenly turned Wolverine gay, that is untrue to the character and just bad plotting, like when they turned the Punisher black in the '90s.

"Some of these fictional characters project things on their own. I mean, we all know Peppermint Patty, Marcy, Velma, Snagglepuss, Jabberjaws, Vanity Smurf and Brainy. Well, they're all gay, right?" Andreyko laughed.

Terrance Griep, whose comics credits include a stint writing "Scooby-Doo," also alluded to Velma's sexuality with a wink and a nod.

Mark Millar is of two minds on the issue. "Sometimes it's a crass headline-grabbing tactic and desperate looking," Millar said. "But even then, some old uncle who'd been married with kids suddenly coming out of the closet happens in real life and shocks the family. Similarly, I suppose, this could happen in the Marvel or DC Universes. But it can be a little silly when you're getting down to Tin from the 'Metal Men' or something."

That superhero comics have changed so little over the last 60 years is actually what pushed Lillian Diaz-Przbyl away from the mainstream towards manga. "The fact that you have to retcon to deal with sexuality or anything else new and different is a big part of why superheroes don't hold my interest," Diaz-Przbyl told CBR News. "I want to read stories where characters change and grow, and if that means discovering their sexuality, and revealing new sides to their previously-established personality, that's absolutely how it should be."

For Alan Heinberg, it all comes back to context. "It depends on the character, the writer, and the larger story being told," Heinberg said.  "For example, exploring established characters' sexuality worked beautifully for Keith Giffen and Tom and Mary Bierbaum during their tenure on 'Legion of Superheroes.'"

As far as positive characterization of gay characters in comics goes, Heinberg also lauded Brian K. Vaughan's "Runaways," "Ex Machina" and "Y: The Last Man." "Greg Rucka's work in 'Gotham Central' and '52' was inspiring," Heinberg added.  "And I hear there's great stuff happening in 'Manhunter' and 'New X-Men" as well."

Mark Andreyko lauded Renee Montoya as the a "standard-bearer" for gay characters in comics. "I sort of like Frenchie being gay in 'Moon Knight,' too," Andreyko said. "That adds a lot of that whole relationship." Andreyko also referenced favorably Wiccan and Hulking from "Young Avengers," and Colussus from 'Ultimate X-Men,' despite the latter's "minimal screen time."

On the other hand, Andreyko was underwhelmed by the outting of "Alpha Flight's" Northstar. "And the creepy-predators-at-the-YMCA issue of the old 'Hulk' Magazine is as bad as it gets," Andreyko remarked.

"There have been consistently terrific portrayals of homosexual and bisexual relationships in independent comics for decades, but in mainstream super heroics, it's still pretty rare," Devin Grayson stated. "There are a few good examples, though, and a lot of bad ones, but I'm going to refrain from naming them because the tally quickly points to specific writers, and I don't want to be negative about any fellow writers who are at least trying to be more inclusive."

"T he single most positive portrayal of a gay super-hero is 'Top 10's' Jack Phantom," Terrance Griep declared. "She's likable, competent, and I loved in the first issue of the first series that she took Toybox out for coffee to see if Toybox's sexual hinges might swing her way. And when she found out they didn't, they became friends. Finally, a GLBT character who just happened to be lesbian, but was allowed to express her sexuality in a non-exploitative way. It was perfect."

Alan Moore said that had been precisely his goal with "Top Ten," to tell a story with an ensemble cast of characters with widely varying ethnicities and sexualities, while at the same time not making those things much of an issue. "That seemed to be a decent way of approaching it, just not thinking about the sexuality of the character, but thinking about them as a character first, and then, if their sexuality happens to be gay or otherwise, then that's fine," Moore said. "But you don't want sit down and think, 'Oh, I wanna write a gay character.' You know, because that is incredibly condescending, and it's the wrong way to go about it."

Moore singled out one aspect of Frank Miller's popular "300" as a particularly egregious example of poor research as it relates to GLBT issues. "There was just one particular line in it where one of the Spartan soldiers -- I'll remind you, this is Spartans that we're talking about -- one of them was talking disparagingly about the Athenians, and said, 'Those boy-lovers.' You know, I mean, read a book, Frank. The Spartans were famous for something other than holding the bridge at Thermopylae, they were quite famous for actually enforcing man-boy love amongst the ranks as a way of military bonding."

This fact actually featured prominently in Moore's eight-page graphic history of homosexuality, "Mirror of Love." "That specific example probably says more about Frank's grasp of history than it does about his grasp of homosexuality, so I'm not impugning his moral situation there," Moore clarified. "I'm not saying it was homophobic; just wasn't very well researched. You do still find regrettable examples of this, but I think that if people point them out when they arise, if they're debated, then that can only be a healthy thing.

"And there are some fantastic gay artists and writers out there who are doing a lot to change people's perception," Moore continued. "Like the excellent Howard Cruse. I think that 'Stuck Rubber Baby' was a fantastic piece of work. And more recently, Alison Bechdel with 'Fun Home.'"

"I'd say things are better than they've ever been," Alan Heinberg said of the state of the union of homosexuality in comics. "And that there's always room for improvement."

From Lillian Diaz-Przbyl's perspective, homosexuality in comics isn't that much of a hot button issue, but it probably all comes down to context. Every whiff of homosexuality at Marvel or DC is hemmed and hawed over by fans and critics alike, but the yaoi and yuri manga that is published under Tokyopop's BLU line has received little to no criticism.

"We have been very careful how we've marketed our BLU line, and we're absolutely clear that it's not for kids, but in spite of that, I expected a lot of negative feedback and angry parental letters, but almost 2 years into this, we've gotten none," Diaz-Przbyl said. "I've had gay comics bloggers criticize the medium for its unrealistic representations of homosexual relationships, and the occasional cranky fanboy at a convention who's like, 'Ew!' But aside from that, no one seems to be all that bothered by it. In fact, one of our series, and a couple of a rival company's catalogs has been nominated for awards from the Young Adult Library Services Association. If the libraries are comfortable with this kind of content, I think that says a lot. Maybe yaoi, and manga in general, is still more niche than we like to think, but either way, it's nice that it's been accepted so smoothly.

"The fanboy reaction to stuff like Alex Ross's recent 'JSA' shows that there's still a strong current of homophobia in a lot of the market," Diaz-Przbyl continyed. Diaz-Przbyl is referring to Ross' cover for "Justice Society of America" #7, which depicts a pronounced bulge in Citizen Steel's pants. That the comics community would bemoan the highlighting of the male anatomy but welcome with open arms the similarly exaggerated proportions of the average superheroine can be seen as an example of hypocrisy as well as homophobia.

"But there are a lot of queer readers out there too, and hopefully that will push the industry in new directions," Diaz-Przbyl said. "Yaoi has certainly done consistently well in the direct market, so there are plenty of comic book stores out there who recognize the market for this sort of material."

Terrance Griep, for his part, believes that comics is such a small medium that it is effectively off the radar. "I think as an entertainment medium , comics have done a remarkable job of walling themselves off from the mainstream," Griep said. "I think we are collectively beneath the notice of the outside world, so questions of gender identity, or anything else, don't even register."

Mark Millar feels that undue media attention gay mainstream characters receive to this day is one of the biggest hurdles comics has left to overcome. "Every time I read a news item on a new, upcoming development and then hear that he or she is (gasp) gay or lesbian I just groan," Millar said. "Just like comics being for adults as well as kids, I feel this is ancient history now. It's like a press release saying the new Green Lantern will have red hair or an Asian dad. It's essentially meaningless. But maybe I'm overly optimistic because I spend my life surrounded by liberals and because it's not an issue that affects me on a day to day basis as it probably does for gay and lesbian creators."

"There is still a ways to go before we have a proper balanced, realistic portrayal of gay characters in comics, but there are some really healthy signs," Alan Moore said. "Yes, there are still a lot of problems, but I think that culture is kind of on a ratchet to a degree, I don't think that it can slip back significantly from where it's at now. I think that it would take a lot for the gains that we've made to be turned back, so I look forward to a healthy and liberal future for the medium. And I think that there are signs that it is moving that way. Perhaps not fast enough, but at least it is moving."

“In mainstream superhero comics, we still have a very long way to go," Devin Grayson agreed. "To some extent, the issue in our medium is complicated by character continuity -- it's difficult enough to begin to make people comfortable with the presence of homosexuality and bisexuality in contemporary life. When doing so also negates or in some way infringes upon the past, that's even harder on people. Were there gay people in the '40s working on and reading comic books? Of course there were! But they didn't do so in an overtly inclusive way, so when those of us who can read between their lines suggest a retroactive 'correction,' we come up against decades worth of readers who want the fantasy part of their childhoods, at least, to stay 'untainted' by what they consider somewhat uncomfortable contemporary political issues.

"I know that a lot of the people in positions of power in this industry today (not all of them, but a lot) are very open-minded and dedicated to the idea of fair representation -- sexually, racially, gender-wise, across the board," Grayson continued. "But that doesn't mean that they necessarily know how to make those changes, or have the guts to do so.

"Comics are already well behind mainstream media and advertising in terms of promoting the positive inclusion of gay characters, and I wouldn't look for the industry to be a prominent civil rights beacon anytime soon. But overall, the trend toward inclusion, although slow, has been steady and positive, and when the right people are in the right places and in the right frame of mind, the medium will be capable of some truly inspiring leaps forward."

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