To mark the passing of a bigot, let’s look at how gay people have fared on the pages of American comic books.
Sometimes, writing a sentence can be an absolute joy. For example, this sentence: It was announced yesterday that Fred Phelps, the founder of anti-gay hate group Westboro Baptist Church, died of natural causes at 84 years old. However, I come not to bury Fred Phelps, but to laugh about the fact that by any reasonable measure, his life was an astounding failure.
As I write this, same sex marriage is fully legal in 17 states, plus the District of Columbia, and several lawsuits winding their way through the appellate courts have the potential to expand equal marriage rights to all fifty states. And that’s not even taking into account the fact that the notion of equal rights for the LGBT community has become so mainstream, even a majority of young republicans support same sex marriage. When history remembers Phelps at all, it’s going to remember him as the “god hates fags” guy who succeeded only in convincing people on the fence to support gay rights.
Having one’s life’s work remembered not only as hateful, but also a pitiful failure? That’s one hell of a legacy. To commemorate that legacy, let’s take a look at 5 pivotal moments from comics history that encapsulate the successes and setbacks the LGBT community has had on the pages of American comic books.
Wonder Woman: Sexual Subversive?
Nope, Wonder Woman isn’t gay. But the story behind her creation proves that even as early as the 1940s, American culture was already undergoing vast social changes that would go on to make Fred Phelps’ pathetic hatemongering pointless.
Wonder Woman creator William Moulton Marston was a psychologist and writer credited with inventing a precursor to the polygraph test. He also lived a shockingly unconventional life that was, without hyperbole, decades ahead of its time. Married to fellow-psychologist Elizabeth Holloway Marston (herself also having contributed to his invention), the couple actually lived in a polyamorous relationship with Olive Byrne, a former student of William’s, that appears to have been romantic between all three people.
William, a vocal proponent of an early form of feminism that veered close to a belief in the superiority of women, created Wonder Woman as a contrast to the square-jawed brawlers that dominated (and still dominate) comics in that she would defeat her enemies with the power of (strong, authoritative) love. With input from Olive and Elizabeth, he notably based the character in part on the two of them. He also incorporated clear themes of bondage and submission, particularly of men submitting themselves to women. And true to his somewhat oddball ideas, his Wonder Woman stories are also notable for clear, though subtle moral lessons involving the power of love – especially erotic love – to conquer evil.
Decades later, Wonder Woman would go on to influence not only young feminists, but young gay people as well, including comics writer Allan Heinberg and artist Phil Jimenez, both of whom have worked on Wonder Woman comics. But in the years after Marston’s death in 1947, DC comics set about drastically downplaying and removing most of his psychosexual concepts from the series. They couldn’t get rid of it all, of course, and Wonder Woman’s basic design and backstory, not to mention her lasso of truth, stuck around. By the 1950s, her strength and independence were used by critics to claim she was a lesbian. Slurring gays and women’s equality with a single insult is tough to pull off, but Americans just knew how to work harder in the 1950s, I guess. Good thing no one was there to wave around “God Hates Invisible Jets” protests signs.
The Battle Over Batman and Robin’s Living Arrangement
Like Wonder Woman, Batman isn’t gay, and also like Wonder Woman, he enjoys the distinction of being one of the first fictional characters to be attacked on the basis of anti-gay slurs. In 1954, a psychiatrist named Fredric Wertham penned a positively awful book called Seduction of the Innocent that held comics were a pernicious influence on America’s children. He claimed they contributed to juvenile delinquency and myriad other depravities, but the book’s most famous assertion, and the one which caused the most concern, is that there was a clear homosexual relationship between Batman and Robin.
It’s hard not to snicker at the hokey way Bruce Wayne and Dick Grayson were portrayed, but it’s equally hard to take seriously the suggestion we’re looking at anything other than a clueless attempt at wholesome, Boy Scout-style stuff. But, this was in the bad old days when homosexuality was classified as a mental illness. And the accusation also played into cold war paranoia about the nation’s ability to compete against the Soviet Union, the fitness of America’s boys, and so on. Thus, as ridiculous as it sounds, a full-blown moral panic ensued, and things went so far that congressional hearings were held to get to the bottom of the matter.
As it turns out (shocker), Wertham was a fraud. He committed numerous ethical violations, including manipulation, invention and in some cases falsification of evidence, misrepresentation of sample sizes, and the passing off anecdotal data as rigorously scientific. All so he could grind his axe about effete men, homosexuals, and juvenile delinquents. But that wouldn’t be known until decades after his death, when other scientists finally examined his research. Instead, his book had a lasting, negative influence.
The controversy his book caused led the comics industry to create the Comics Code Authority self-censorship organization, which severely clamped down on anything remotely controversial. This was especially true for content in any way related to GLBT subject matter. DC, for instance, made sudden, sharp changes to remove any possible gay tone from Batman, including the introduction of a girlfriend for Batman named Batwoman. Yes, they created what might be the first beard in comic book history, in order to stop people from calling Batman gay.
Watchmen Marks The Moment Gay People Are Treated Like Human Beings In Comics
The first real crack in the invisibility of gay people in mainstream comics arguably came with the publication of Alan Moore & Dave Gibbons’ Watchmen. With only two confirmed gay characters (and one possible third), Watchmen was not overtly created as a comment on gay rights. However, it deconstructed the fascistic undertones of the super hero genre, giving particular focus to the way authoritarians tend to enforce social hierarchies rather than simply fight for justice. One of the more subtle ways Alan Moore accomplished this is with his depiction of gay characters.
In the miniseries’ backstory, the character Silhouette is publicly outed as a lesbian and subsequently fired from The Minutemen, the group of costumed adventurers who inspired the vigilantes in the main story. Soon after being rejected by her former friends, she winds up murdered by a former adversary seeking revenge (and, presumably, able to find her more easily thanks to the public humiliation she’d just endured.)
Another scene has the character Hooded Justice save Silk Spectre from being raped by The Comedian. Hooded Justice delivers a severe beating to The Comedian, until the Comedian mocks him for being gay and implies he’s not afraid to blackmail Hooded Justice over this information. It is later implied that The Comedian kills Hooded Justice, in part over lingering anger from this event, and in part because The Comedian simply despises him.
While these are tiny aspects of the overall story, the somewhat realistic depiction of the way the professional and personal lives of LGBT people were perpetually at risk of being ruined, as well as the clearly sympathetic, tragic portrayal, represented a major leap forward.
The First Openly Gay Super Hero
Once the gay rights movement had started to become mainstream in the late 80s and early 90s, the major comic publishers began to take steps to meet the new reality half way. This included creating openly gay superheroes. There’s apparently some debate about who technically got there first, but there’s no question Marvel was the first to make it official when Alpha Flight member Northstar officially came out in Alpha Flight #106 (1992).
The character, created by John Byrne in 1979, was apparently always intended to be gay, but for whatever reason – rumor has it Jim Shooter had a “No Gays in the Marvel Universe” policy when he ran things – it was never stated outright. The closest he came during the 80s was a vague disinterest in women, a trait characterized at the time as the result of his devotion to other pursuits like skiing. Northstar’s coming out was a huge event at the time, but unfortunately, this remained the only real mention of Northstar’s sexual orientation for the rest of Alpha Flight’s run. It would be almost a decade before Marvel would commit to the characterization. (Though it gets better – Northstar married his partner Kyle in 2012 on the pages of Astonishing X-Men, and Marvel didn’t bat an eyelash when anti-gay hate group One Million Moms complained.)
Of course, that’s still better than DC, whose first attempt to create a gay superhero was a half-assed mess that also dripped with unfortunate implications. I speak of Extraño, introduced in 1988 as part of New Guardians, a character that was, without hyperbole, an embarrassment. Embodying perhaps the largest collection of stereotypes contained within a single character, he was: a spicy hispanic; a flashy, Liberace-esque dresser; a mincing showman prone to referring to himself as “auntie”. And in case you hadn’t got the message, his name means “strange” or “odd” in Spanish.
Making things worse Extraño never once talked about his sexuality in any way. But that’s OK, because his enemies included an “AIDS vampire” called Hemo-Goblin, and he was later confirmed to be HIV positive himself. Oh right, that’s not OK at all. FAIL, DC. DC must think so too, however: New Guardians was cancelled after 12 issues, and Extraño has since been for the most part quietly absent from DC comics. Read more about him here.
Apollo and Midnighter Have Comics’ First Same-Sex Wedding
If there’s one thing Slashfic writers want almost as badly as a Kirk/Spock relationship or a Harry/Ron relationship, it’s for a Superman/Batman team up to get a hell of a lot more romantic. Sadly, that’s never going to happen, but the next best thing occurred on the pages of The Authority, the Justice League pastiche put out by DC’s now-defunct Wildstorm imprint.
With The Authority, series creator Warren Ellis managed to combine Silver Age optimism and 90s grit, plus real world sociopolitical themes, in a way that didn’t feel absurdly dumb. And he did it in part by having the series’ Superman stand-in – Apollo – fall in love with the series Batman stand-in – Midnighter – just like comic-reading slashfic writers have wanted since the 1970s.
Their relationship was revealed in issue #8, 4 issues before Ellis handed writing duties over to Mark Millar. Millar took the series in a very dark direction, but rather than tone down the relationship between Apollo and Midnighter, he made it one of the series central themes. What made it more remarkable, at least to people used to seeing gay characters treated like afterschool specials or the subjects of Very Special Episodes, is that they were treated for the most part like just another loving couple, albeit with parties who happened to have incredible super powers. (And who both basically took a “whatever works up to and including straight up murder when it comes to saving the world” approach to crime fighting.)
For some reason, a lot of people treated the 2012 marriage of Marvel’s Northstar to his fiancee Kyle as the first same sex wedding seen in American comics. But those people are hilariously mistaken. The actual first same sex wedding happened between Apollo and Midnighter in 2002, in The Authority # 29. That’s a full 12 years before we could definitively declare Fred Phelp’s lifelong mission a failure. That’s what I call progress.