Two Dimensional Gays

Queer comic book characters continue to evolve

LOVERS ROCK Midnighter and Apollo''s wedding. Gay bashings, outings, and domestic partnerships are not usually mentioned alongside colorful costumes, muscled superheroes, and powers beyond those of mortal men. But these controversial subjects are being tackled more than ever inside the pages of superhero comics. Storylines revolving around gay issues are gaining widespread attention inside and out of the comic book community. “I always wanted to be Wonder Woman’s little brother,” said Phil Jimenez. “Growing up, I wanted to be the only little boy on the island [of Themyescria, Wonder Woman’s all-female home]. A breastless Amazon.” Jimenez recently came as close as one could to realizing this dream. The high-profile openly gay comic book creator has been working on Wonder Woman’s monthly comic book, writing and drawing the famous Amazon for the past two years. Jimenez, whose “dream project” promises to include multiple gay characters and will be on the stands in the early spring, has received nominations for GLAAD media awards, and was listed as one of Entertainment Weekly’s “101 Gay Movers and Shakers.” Jimenez joined Jennifer Camper, cartoonist and creator of subGURLZ, Ivan Velez, Jr., writer of Tales of the Closet, Howard Cruse, creator of Gay Comics, and Denise Sudell, writer for sequentialtart.com, and many fans to discuss queer representation in comics at the LGBT Community Center (November 21.) Moderated by Joan Hilty, editor for DC Comics, all-ages line of books including Looney Tunes and Scooby-Doo, the event was sponsored by OffCenter, a new program dedicated to presenting “off-beat” experiences in the gay community, and GayLeague.com, an online venue for gay comic fans. These creators talked about comics empowering youth, forging queer identity, and influencing aesthetics well beyond adolescence. “Wonder Woman has been gay icon since her inception,” Jimenez said. “She was originally intended as propaganda showing young boys that female strength was a virtue to be admired. Personally, I’ve always been drawn to super-powered women. These are strong independent figures that were desired by men because of their power. What young gay person wouldn’t admire that?” Jimenez was not the only creator who had fond memories of relating to comic characters. Sudell explained why she loved comics since childhood. “I was always attracted to comics because of the soap opera sensibility,” Sudell said. “Not only do these stories run continuously, but the melodrama was a big draw. Lois Lane’s character always pined away for a love she could never have, [Superman’s]. As a queer person, I could relate to that. It’s the inclusion of such tragic figures that shape identity.” Sudell, a longtime writer and editor for the gay and lesbian press, thought she had grown out of comics by age ten. It was the television show Lois & Clark and the Internet’s ability to make comics fans closer as a community that brought her back to reading comics in the mid-90s. In her “secret identity,” as she called it, Sudell is an attorney working on civil rights policy issues in Washington. She recently wrote an article for sequentialtart.com chastising comics publishers for their treatment of gay characters. She was inspired to write such a rant after DC Comics seemingly killed the brooding superhero, Midnighter, in the pages of The Authority, a monthly about a globe-spanning superteam that enforce their own views of morality on the world. Midnighter and Apollo make up the comic world’s controversial openly gay superhero couple, based heavily on Batman and Superman respectively. This being the fantastic world of comics, Midnighter returned from the dead in the very next issue, and concluded the story by wedding Apollo and adopting a child. The book was cancelled after this issue, but will return in 2003 as a mature readers title. Many felt that the openness of the gay relationship was the reason for the cancellation. “There was controversy around the writer’s handling of and statements about [Apollo and Midnighter],” Hilty said, “but it’s simplistic to make DC the bad guy for the series’ subsequent demise. Gay characters always become the lightning rod for everything that’s flawed about a book.” Besides the shiny spandex and amazing powers, these two characters are remarkable in that their sexuality and relationship are considered, at least in the fictional world where they reside. As Camper said, queer people are drawn to comics because it can be drastically “opposite of the real world.” “Many characters are never vulnerable,” he continued, “Women get to kick ass. They get to be defined more by their actions than by emotions and ‘femaleness.’” Camper’s creator–owned comic book, subGURLZ, follows the adventures of three women living in abandoned subway tunnels of Camper’s native New York. Through her mature work, she fights against the notion that comics cannot effectively address adult themes. “It is only in the U.S. where comics are seen as children’s material,” Camper said. “Comics are for adults everywhere else in the world, but the medium is marginalized here.” According to Sudell, the general perception of comics as kiddy fare is not accurate. She said that mainstream comics can address social issues competently and artfully, but in the case of homosexuality, often doesn’t because of a “perceived intended age group.” “Often the mainstream will tiptoe around the issue of homosexuality,” Sudell said. “We need to get past the after-school special approach to gay issues. There need more gays as well-rounded characters and not the problem of the week.” Readers of the monthly comic Green Lantern, about a hero whose ring grants him powers limited only by his imagination, criticized a controversial storyline for using this “problem of the week” approach. In September’s book, protagonist Kyle Rayner’s friend is the victim of a severe gay-bashing attack. The story, which was suggested by openly gay editor Bob Schreck, received a lot of attention for its subject matter, with the writer, Judd Winick of MTV’s The Real World fame, appearing on talk shows to discuss the book. Some felt the book’s portrayal amounted to preaching in favor of homosexuality, while others found it effective in showcasing Kyle’s rage and helplessness in reaction to the bashing. “Some fans got upset that a hero like Green Lantern would stalk and beat the hell out of the guys who gay-bashed his friend into a coma,” Hilty said, “but if you’ve had any experience with gay-baiting, gay-bashing or any kind of violent bullying, the story is intensely satisfying.” Another gay character controversy erupted very recently when Marvel comics announced that they are reimagining an old property to become the first-ever gay title character of a comic book. Rawhide Kid: Slap Leather, a mini-series from MAX, Marvel’s mature reader’s imprint. The Western-themed hero will “come out” in February, showing his orientation through euphemisms and campy banter rather than through gay relationships. Some fans are upset about what they see as “a drastic change to an established character,” although the MAX line is not based on continuity. Other critical readers expect to be offended by how “laughable and kooky” homosexuality will be treated. This story has received attention from mainstream media, such as The New York Post and CNN. On CrossFire, Stan Lee, creator of many of Marvel’s top-selling heroes and spokesperson for the publisher, was pitted against Andrea Lafferty, the executive director of Traditional Values Coalition in a discussion of the comic, as well as its appropriateness. The conversation focused on whether or not the comic was appropriate for children, something which host Paul Begala took them to task for, when he pointed out the comic was being released under the MAX imprint, and was not aimed, or meant for kids. While gay characters are fairly new, alleged gay subtexts are not. Critics began complaining about gay content in the comics shortly after Batman and Robin started shacking up in a mansion outside Gotham City. In the 1954 book Seduction of the Innocent, a Bellevue Hospital psychiatrist, Dr. Fredrick Wertham, claimed he knew how to read between the lines in the Batman comic books. He pointed out that Bruce Wayne and Dick Grayson, the alter egos of Batman and Robin, lived together in a “sumptuous” home with a butler and lots of pretty flowers in vases. “It is like a wish-dream of two homosexuals living together,” the author wrote, adding that Robin often walked around with his bare legs spread apart, exposing his crotch. Wonder Woman, meanwhile, came under fire in a psychiatric journal for being man-hating and “plainly lesbian.” Outside of the sub-genre of erotic comics, unsubtle gay themes didn’t start regularly showing up in comic books until the 1980s and 1990s. Now, gay supporting characters have appeared in everything from Green Lantern to X-Men. “We don’t have to tiptoe around as much as the days of Jack Kirby,” Hilty said, referring to the prolific 60s co-creator of Spider-man and the Fantastic Four. “The character of Maggie Sawyer, a lesbian cop in Batman’s supporting cast, has never been called a lesbian outright,” Sudell said. “But her lifestyle has been shown. She’s been drawn being affectionate with her girlfriend. And even though [the publishers at DC Comics] don’t say it, it’s still progress because it represents a queer life in a positive way for those that pick up on it. It’s Will and Grace vs. Queer as Folk. “As gay creators, it’s our responsibility to take the constraints and push them further.”

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