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Why I Love Comics: 3 Social Justice Gimmicks That Worked

Ross Lincoln | 17 Jul 2014 20:15
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The HIV epidemic inspires Northstar to come out of the closet

Story: "Northstar as you've never seen him before."
Culminating in Alpha Flight #106, 1992.

Northstar is notable for possibly being the first openly gay superhero in mainstream comics, but the process by which Marvel allowed him to finally come out of the closet is a tortured affair that perfectly mirrors the progress of the gay rights movement during the 1980s.

As I noted back in March, Northstar was from the start conceived of as a gay character. However, Marvel initially resisted all attempts by its writers to officially identify him as such. As a result, during the 80s, when (so it's rumored) Jim Shooter had a "No Gays in the Marvel Universe" policy, Northstar's sexuality was only hinted at, largely via his lack of interest in women which, it was explained, owed to his dedication to professional skiing (relationships would get in the way, you see.)

That kind of thing is maddening of course, but when Marvel finally decided to stop suppressing the character's sexuality, it did so in a way that almost made up for more than a decade of enforced invisibility. Initially, Bill Mantlo wanted to write a story in which Northstar became infected with HIV and developed AIDS. Marvel quashed that, though elements can be seen in the storyline directly preceding his coming out that saw him facing an unspecified illness that prevented his mutant powers from healing him.

That illness was eventually cured, but soon after, during a battle with Mr. Hyde, Northstar comes across an abandoned baby who, it is soon discovered, was infected with HIV in the womb. He adopts the infant, and she becomes a national cause celebre when her condition becomes public knowledge. One of Northstar's enemies attempts to murder her, but though that attempt is foiled, the baby's condition is too far advanced, and in issue #106 of Alpha Flight, she dies from AIDS-related complications, with a devastated Northstar cradling her in his arms. Inspired by the death of his adopted daughter, and lamenting the stigma of AIDS, Northstar decides right then to come out, and he announces to the media that he is gay.

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This story did two things very well. First, it portrayed HIV as a disease that anyone can get, directly confronting the still-lingering idea that it was a gay disease. The earliest version of the so-called "cocktail" of drugs that now can keep the onset of AIDS at bay indefinitely was still more than four years way, so it's difficult to overstate how important it was to treat the sufferers of the disease in a sympathetic way (this was a year before Philadelphia even!). Second, it somewhat - and I stress only somewhat - captured the importance of the idea the gay rights movement had long advocated, that only by making themselves known could gay people combat the stigmas associated with homosexuality. It hardly needs to be said that in 1992, being openly gay could potentially ruin one's career, no matter your job. It's difficult to remember but it was only after Northstar came out that we began to see the beginning of the wave of openly gay public figures that we now take for granted.

No, I'm not suggesting that Marvel comics is responsible for the successes of the gay rights movement. But it is fair to say that this storyline is an important step in helping mainstream the concept that gay people are normal. Even if, you know, it involved a super powered mutant.

Author's note: article slightly edited for clarity after publication.

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