Celebrating LGBTQ History: June 7, LGBT Comic Book Characters

7 Jun

In the past few weeks comic books have received a great deal of attention in the broader media, mostly because of two major developments involving gay superheroes. One is the upcoming wedding of long-standing gay hero Northstar (more on that below). The other is the re-introduction of a major DC Hero as gay.

This week, DC released Earth 2 #2, featuring new versions of some of the oldest heroes in the company’s history. (This is part of a complete redesign that started in the fall.) Alan Scott, the original Green Lantern, appears in the comic with his long-time (male) partner. For casual comic fans, it’s worth noting that this Green Lantern, introduced in 1940, has a magic ring rather than an advanced alien power ring. (For more on the complicated history of the dozens of Green Lanterns, visit the Gay League.) Alan Scott is a major character, and rebooting him as gay shows DC’s commitment to diversity in its characters. The introduction of his partner was handled beautifully, simply as a facet of Scott’s life. Writer James Robinson indicates that he intends to keep things in that narrative vein.

Openly gay and lesbian characters in comic books are a relatively new phenomenon. The tight restrictions of the Comics Code Authority – which almost wiped out hero comics in the 50s – kept any mention of sexuality out of comics until the 70s. Even as the Code eased through the 80s and 90s, the major comic publishers were reluctant to present LGBT characters in what was still perceived as a children’s medium. Jim Shooter, Editor-In-Chief of Marvel Comics from 1978 to 1987, famously prohibited any gay characters from appearing in the company’s publications. Even with this history, however, there are plenty of great gay and lesbian heroes to celebrate.

Perhaps the most famous is Northstar. Created by John Byrne in the pages of the X-Men in 1979, he was a member of the Canadian team Alpha Flight. He is the first mainstream hero to actually identify as gay, famously uttering the words in 1992. Byrne has said that he always intended Northstar to be gay; the writer and artist also introduced one of the first gay-from-the-start characters (Detective Maggie Sawyer in the pages of Superman in 1987. Northstar is now in a long-term relationship (with a non-hero) and is slated to get married in June. The announcement of his impending nuptials was made on The View, showing just how much press these four-color heroes are getting in the wake of big hero movies like The Avengers.

Another LGBT member of the mutant hero franchise is the villain Mystique. She is a lesbian in the comics, including a rare longstanding romantic relationship with Destiny. This aspect of the character was written out of the films. The Pied Piper is another gay villain. This long-time foe of the Flash came out in 1991 and took on a much larger supporting character role in the series. His portrayal won DC Comics one of the first GLAAD Media Awards for a comic book.

Batwoman is a lesbian hero who survived the DC reboot largely intact. Ironically, the original Batwoman was introduced in 1956 as a romantic foil for Batman to deflect criticism about the supposedly homoerotic nature of his relationship with Robin. When the character was re-introduced in 2006, Kate Kane was an open lesbian from the beginning. The stories are some of the best written and illustrated in recent comics and feature LGBT plotlines including references to Don’t Ask Don’t Tell. (Kane has also started dating Maggie Sawyer, pointing out the limited number of women in the DC lesbian dating pool.)

Another famed gay couple are Apollo and Midnighter. The heroes were initially published by Wildstorm, a company that was absorbed by DC in 1999. While not clearly gay from the outset, their orientations and relationship developed over time. They eventually married (the first gay marriage in a mainstream comic) and adopted a daughter.

Many newer LGBT characters are teen heroes. Writers get the chance explore the characters coming to grips with their powers and sexual identities simultaneously. In the case of Hulkling and Wiccan, two members of Marvel’s Young Avengers, the boys were much more concerned with their parents learning they were superheroes. This couple has been very well developed, resulting in two of the best LGBT representations in comics. Fellow Marvel teen Karolina Dean, a member of the Runaways is a lesbian; she’s in a relationship with a shape-shifting, bisexual alien, Xavin. In DC’s latest version of the Teen Titans, another gay teen has recently been introduced, the Mexican hero Bunker. He hasn’t had a major role to play yet, but he has been out since his introduction.

Set 1000 years in the future, DC’s Legion of Super-Heroes has introduced a number of LGBT characters. Most of these have been evolutions of long-standing characters. Heroines Shrinking Violet and Lightning Lass had been published for over 30 years (and had both had superhero boyfriends) when they began a relationship. Still going strong as a couple in the latest Legion series, they are one of the longest-running pairs in comics. Element Lad was long believed by fans to be gay when he gained a girlfriend in police officer Shvaughn Erin. A few years later, it was revealed that Shvaughn was really Sean, a man who took a drug to become a woman to be appealing to Element Lad. When Sean settled into life as a man, Element Lad stayed with him. This was one of the first bisexual and transgender storylines in comics. Recently, trainee heroes Power Lad and Gravity Kid were shown to be a couple and implied to be married.

Special comic book notice should go to Kevin Keller. While not a superhero, Kevin is another character who was introduced as gay. He is also remarkable because he is published by Archie Comics. He’s one of their most popular characters and was awarded his own comic title only a year after his first appearance. He also celebrated his wedding in a “possible future” Archie series, Life With Archie, a very sweet ceremony.

Perry Moore, author of the great gay superhero young adult novel Hero, wrote an analysis of the fate of LGBT characters in comics. While costumed crimefighting is hazardous in general, he maintained (rather convincingly) that gay and lesbian comic characters suffer more disfigurement and death than their straight counterparts. A prime example is Freedom Ring. One of the rare Marvel heroes introduced as gay, he appeared in 2007. He was a complex character who’s sexual orientation was a simple fact rather than a plot point. Only a few issues after he first appeared, however, he was gruesomely murdered.

Despite this treatment of some LGBT heroes and villains, there are many active in the pages of today’s comics. Queersupe and the Gay League are great resources. Even with the introduction of new characters (and outed old ones), however, equal treatment of the affection between LGBT heroes is still not as visible. Comics are making great strides and the fans seem very supportive of Northstar, Batwoman, and the new/old Green Lantern. Let’s hope that these celebrations of the best in the human spirit continue to grow, better reflecting the vast diversity of people.

12 Responses to “Celebrating LGBTQ History: June 7, LGBT Comic Book Characters”

  1. prideinmadness June 7, 2012 at 7:20 am #

    For about a month of the summer I’m working at a comic book camp. I wonder if I can slide this stuff in there!?

    • Robert Hulshof-Schmidt June 7, 2012 at 7:24 am #

      Comic book camp? Color me Green Lantern with envy! Yes, I think you should. I have an article on librarians as superheroes, too, if you want to be really subversive…😉

      • prideinmadness June 7, 2012 at 7:29 am #

        We’re spending some times talking about gender stereotypes so maybe I can bring it up there! Or when it’s my turn to run a “counsellor topic”!

        Librarian superheros😛 That would be my dream job!

  2. Jennifer Carey June 7, 2012 at 9:19 am #

    I love it, Robert, when you write about comic books. It gives me my nerd fix!

    • Robert Hulshof-Schmidt June 7, 2012 at 9:25 am #

      Thanks, Jennifer. I enjoy getting my geek on and promoting social justice at the same time. Is that wrong?

  3. nevercontrary June 7, 2012 at 5:23 pm #

    I had no idea there were so many comic book characters that were gay. Maybe I should start reading comic books?

    • Robert Hulshof-Schmidt June 7, 2012 at 5:33 pm #

      There are certainly more characters than there used to be, especially leads, and they tend to be much better written, too. Still a small percentage of all the characters, but it’s getting better. If you really want to dip your toe in the water, start with Batwoman. Beautifully illustrated, very well written, and interesting characters.

      • nevercontrary June 7, 2012 at 5:35 pm #

        Ok how do I find the first one? Just google it?

      • Robert Hulshof-Schmidt June 7, 2012 at 5:45 pm #

        Or I’ll try to make it even easier. Her first appearances were in Detective Comics 854 – 863. The first two story arcs are available in a single trade volume, Batwoman: Elegy. Since DC rebooted its continuity (which Batwoman survived with minimal change), she’s had her own title, now on issue #9. The single comics should be available from many comic stores online or you can buy digital copies from Comixology.

      • nevercontrary June 7, 2012 at 5:54 pm #

        Thanks !!

  4. Jay June 7, 2012 at 5:54 pm #

    Thanks for this article, Robert. Your knowledge of popular music and comic books is unrivaled in my circle of acquaintance, and I’ve always found it a pleasure when you “get your geek on” and share the breadth and depth of your perspective.

    Which prompts to ask about Alan Moore and Joel Schumacher. Moore’s Watchmen was the greatest comic-book experience of my life, and I’m grateful to you for introducing it to me. While LBGT-related content is incidental in Watchmen, his Lost Girls was a rather bold foray into erotic comics, and included significant lesbian-themed material, and I’m curious to hear your thoughts on this widely-acknowledged comic-book genius.

    As to Mr. Schumacher, his film Batman and Robin was widely derided, in part due to its homo-eroticism. Is his work perhaps an example of how to badly incorporate LGBT themes or visuals into a Superhero context? I’m inclined to think so, but your perspective on the topic is undoubtedly better informed than mine, which prompts me to ask your opinion.

    • Robert Hulshof-Schmidt June 7, 2012 at 6:05 pm #

      You make me blush, sir. No insubstantial credit for a chunk of my musical knowledge belongs to you, btw.

      As for Alan Moore — the Watchmen is one of the finest finite series ever crafted. His work has been all over the map, frankly, but it never fails to be interesting. By odd coincidence DC is publishing a series of “Before Watchmen” sequel titles that launched this week as well. Moore refused to have anything to do with it. I’m sure they’ll sell well (at least initially), but it seems a shame. Among his best works are the Killing Joke (in which Barbara (Batgirl) Gordon is shot by the Joker and paralyzed) and League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, whose genius and whimsy the movie scarcely touches.

      As for Joel Schumacher…his work is a bit more spotty. Frankly Batman and Robin was so awful on so many levels that it’s hard to factor in the vague homo-eroticism. I would agree that it was badly done and misplaced, but hardly the downfall of a film that could fall no farther.

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