9 Controversial Situations Involving Gay Comic Characters That Shockingly Did Not Lead to the End of Civilization as We Know It
1. Green Lantern
DC’s New 52 reboot was an opportunity for writers and artists to update and redefine the company’s flagship characters, and while most of them went the predictable “give the chicks bigger gazongas” route, there were some genuine surprises in the mix. Case in point: Green Lantern is now gay. No, not Hal Jordan or Guy Gardner; it’s the first Green Lantern, Alan Scott. In this new reality, the Green Lantern of Earth 2’s Justice Society is a 20-something media mogul who also happens to be gay (you may safely assume all variations on “no wonder his weakness is wood” have already been made). While he’s not the “real” Green Lantern, his attachment to a superhero franchise that most non-fans have heard of makes him just high-profile enough to attract the usual outrage from the usual suspects. “Why do adult gay men need comic superheroes as role models?” wailed the perpetually pearl-clutching American Family Association through its One Million Moms website, in a media release that answered its own question by using the words “brainwash” and “indoctrinate” to make its point. Personally, I think they should worry less about exposing children to comics with gay people in them and focus on the more shocking revelation; namely, that gay people in the DC universe have infiltrated the powerful media industry! Gasp! Can you imagine if something like that ever happened in real life?
2. Terry Berg
Of course, that wasn’t the first time a Green Lantern book has courted controversy by suggesting gay people exist. Back in 2000, a young man named Terry Berg joined the cast of the ongoing Green Lantern title, working as an intern at the magazine that employed Kyle Rayner, DC’s headlining Green Lantern at the time. After a few storylines in which Berg comes to grips with his crush on a flattered-but-straight Rayner and deals with the other challenges that come with being a gay teen, he is beaten and left for dead in a horrific gay-bashing incident that enrages Rayner to the point of tracking down and beating the assailants just as savagely. Berg’s story earned writer Judd Winick many kudos and awards from the gay community, and also a great deal of enmity from conservative groups and comic fans alike. Not surprisingly, the anti-gay Family Research Council condemned Berg’s very existence, but numerous self-identified GL fans also took to the message boards to express their disgust, accusing Winick of pushing a gay agenda and focusing on sensationalistic but statistically rare crimes like the then-recent Matthew Shepard murder, instead of the kinds of crimes that a superhero “should” be involved with. Author and cultural studies professor Michael Bronski (A Queer History of the United States) suggested the negative response to Berg’s appearance revealed a deep anxiety about the presence of open homosexuality in a superhero story: “[C]hronicling the adventures of two guys on their own has been a compelling narrative to men of all sexual orientations. That is one of the superhero comic books’ great sources of appeal and one of the reasons why they have been so successful with both little boys and bigger boys. This is not to say that comic books and superheroes are about nothing but repressed homosexual longings. Such reductionism would be silly. One of the pleasures of reading comics — or any literature — is that they give way to a multitude of readings that inspire a wide range of insights. But because we live in such a homophobic culture, the homoeroticism in comic books is always going to be one reading that raises anxiety as well as hackles.”
Extraño has the distinction of being the first openly gay superhero published by either Marvel or DC, beating Northstar’s outing by a full five years, but you’re not going to find a lot of people willing to give him credit for that. It might have had something to do with his name, which translates from the Spanish as “strange.” No doubt he was given this name because the magician hero is basically Doctor Strange with a Peruvian accent, but the idea of calling an openly gay superhero the equivalent of “queer” in his home language — well, you can understand why it rubbed some people the wrong way. Debuting during DC’s Millennium mini-series in 1987, it was clear from the start which way he went even if DC wouldn’t use the “G-word” at the time, and any lingering questions about his orientation were dispersed by the loose, colorful garments that made up his superhero uniform and his tendency to call himself “Auntie” while dispensing advice to his fellow New Guardians. And as if that weren’t skating too close to the edge, one of his team’s first super-villains was the Hemo-Goblin, a vampire-like creature that infected several of the characters with HIV by scratching them, leading Extraño to reveal that he, too, was HIV-positive. Not surprisingly, several readers wrote in to express their concern over the misinformation about HIV transmission (a heated topic at a time when many still did not understand the nature of the disease) and Extraño’s characterization, which some thought was a little too stereotypical. He got a makeover soon after, but it wasn’t enough to overcome the many other problems with the series, and the team ended up dumped on a remote island playing caretakers to a band of mutated creatures. Few noticed.
Alan Scott is hardly the first comic character to be re-invented as gay, nor is he the first to attract controversy because of it. Mainstream comics took a
long time to openly acknowledge the existence of homosexuality, partly because of the long-standing Comics Code Authority ban on any reference to sexuality, and also because it was generally understood in the old days that most comic readers were too young to understand the concept (note this is in reference to the mainstream titles; gay characters and creators have been a part of the alternative scene for as long as there’s been one). By the 1990s, neither of those restrictions were in place, and Marvel allowed writer Scott Lobdell to confirm what a lot of fans already suspected: Northstar, the super-fast member of Canada’s Alpha Flight team, was gay. Mind you, this was the early ’90s, and the impact of that revelation was slightly muted by a horrendously executed story involving attempted infanticide and a book-long, all-agape battle scene, but hey, the ’90s. And then there was the small matter of Marvel’s follow-up, which involved cancelling the Alpha Flight title soon after, ignoring Northstar’s sexuality in follow-up appearances, and banishing him to guest-star limbo for almost a decade. Conspiracy-minded fans saw his post-announcement treatment as evidence of Marvel caving to conservative pressure, instead of a more likely excuse involving the company’s piss-poor management throughout that decade. But Northstar can’t complain: as one of Marvel’s more visible gay characters, he scored a sweet spot in the X-Men line-up in 2001, affirming the team’s commitment to diversity in all its forms, and will share Marvel’s first-ever gay wedding cover with his partner in the upcoming Astonishing X-Men #51.
5. The Rawhide Kid
Northstar was an example of a character whose coming out was done with the best of intentions. The Rawhide Kid? Not so much. Originally one of the many interchangeable Western stars in Marvel’s stable, the Kid (who debuted in 1955) was one of the last cowpokes to ride into the sunset when the superheroes took over. Cameos and forgettable mini-series were his lot in life until Slap Leather, a 2003 mini-series in which he never comes right out and says he’s… you know; instead, he engages in the kind of wink-wink, eye-rolling innuendo that makes it all but obvious where he prefers to park his cowboy boots at night (the cover of his first issue, seen here, is another not-too-subtle hint). In one scene, for instance, the Kid comments on the clothing preferences of the Lone Ranger, calling his mask and powder-blue outfit fantastic: “I can certainly see why the Indian follows him around,” he says. Reaction to Marvel’s decision to publish the series, which featured words by writer/comedian Robert Zimmerman and art by original Kid artist John Severin, was predictable; CNN’s Crossfire had Stan Lee square off against a spokesperson for the Traditional Values Coalition, who kept harping on about what kind of message this book was sending to children, confirming that her ignorance in all matters extended to the demographics of Marvel’s then-current readership (to say nothing of the small-minded assumption that anything appearing in a comic book is by definition “for the kids”). Fans were also not quite sure what to make of the series; while some decried any depiction of cowboys being manly in a certain way (Brokeback Mountain was still a few years away), others thought the whole thing smelled like a cheap publicity stunt on Marvel’s part, with some questioning why the book was published under Marvel’s explicit-content MAX imprint despite its only “adult” content being the sort of sly double entendres that wouldn’t have been too shocking to hear on an episode of Will & Grace.
6. Kevin Keller
Sure, we made snide remarks about Jughead’s disdain for female companionship or Reggie’s obvious sublimation issues (was it really Veronica he was lusting
after all those times he schemed to keep her and Archie apart?), but it’s fair to say nobody ever expected a member of the Archie gang to officially come out of the closet. But just as only Nixon could have gone to China, only a company with the wholesome image that Archie Comics enjoyed could, in 2010, introduce a charming, clean-cut teenager who was unapologetically gay. As co-CEO Jon Goldwater said at the time, it only made sense to add a gay character to the cast. “Archie’s hometown of Riverdale has always been a safe world for everyone,” he said. “It just makes sense to have an openly gay character in Archie comic books.” Keller’s first appearance involved the usual Riverdale hijinks; namely, Veronica Lodge fell head over heels for the new kid in town without realizing she wasn’t really his cup of chai. And what happened after that was… well, nothing. He met the rest of the gang, they hung out, had the usual crazy misadventures and that was that. Then came an issue of Life With Archie in which Kevin married his partner and… well, you can guess where this is going. Perhaps realizing that no one really cares what they think about a fictional character’s sexuality, the conservative American Family Association decided to go the what-about-the-children route, suggesting that stocking the above issue at Toys ‘R’ Us was an unacceptable intrusion of gayness into innocent young lives: “Unfortunately, children are now being exposed to same-sex marriage in a toy store. This is the last place a parent would expect to be confronted with questions from their children on topics that are too complicated for them to understand.” Given their tone, one assumes that Toys ‘R’ Us employees were instructed to throws copies of this issue directly into the faces of children. Naturally, Archie Comics stood by its decision to publish the wedding issue: “[T]hey have every right to their opinion, just like we have the right to stand by ours,” it said in a statement. “Kevin Keller will forever be a part of Riverdale, and he will live a happy, long life free of prejudice, hate and narrow-minded people.” Until the AFA decides to set up a branch office there, anyway…
7. Wonder Woman
Ha, that got your attention! I’ll be honest; I have not read every single comic featuring Wonder Woman over the past 70 years, so I can’t definitively say whether it’s ever been hinted that Wonder Woman prefers the company of women. I’m pretty sure we would all hear something about it if DC ever decided to show that; loudmouth conservative groups come in handy that way. To the best of my knowledge, Wonder Woman has always been depicted as heterosexual, from her relationship with Steve Trevor to her budding relationships with other superheroes, notably Batman in the Justice League cartoon and Superman in a handful of alternate-reality tales. But for one brief moment in late 1989, a story in her own title suggested that Wonder Woman was, if not herself open to female companionship, surrounded by plenty of women who were. In Wonder Woman #38 (DC, 01/90) — a tale titled, appropriately enough, “Forbidden Fruit” — a dozen representatives of “Man’s World” have been invited to Paradise Island by the Amazons, who are eager to end their isolation from the rest of the world. While the scientists and government leaders enquire about their areas of interest, a clergyman asks if the Amazons “miss the sharing God intended for the sexes” (“sharing” being code for “naked nookie,” if you didn’t catch his meaning). His host’s answer: some Amazons stay chaste and others “choose the way of Narcissus” (you can figure that one out), but most Amazons “find satisfaction in each other — three thousand years can be a long time, Reverend.” It was the first time DC acknowledged the obvious, and it was bold enough in those more timid times to garner the kind of media attention that Wonder Woman hadn’t seen since the days of her TV show. I’ve given up following DC’s New 52 Wonder Woman title, so it’s entirely possible DC has gone back to that well and outed a few more Amazons, but the lack of foaming press releases from the usual moral-minded hand-wringers leads me to believe DC hasn’t gone there yet.
8. Buffy the Vampire Slayer
Answering the prayers of Buffy slashfic writers around the world, Joss Whedon & Co. took comic-book Buffy to the one place she never went during her TV show: another woman’s bed. The background: Some four years after Buffy the Vampire Slayer ended its seven-season run, Whedon and Dark Horse Comics launched Buffy the Vampire Slayer Season Eight, continuing the story of Buffy and friends fighting the forces of evil and darkness. At the start of the series, Buffy is leading a small army of slayers-in-training, and one of them, Satsu, is very upfront about her feelings for Buffy. One thing leads to another, and we see the scene above, followed by the hilarious discovery of the post-coital lovers by, well, everyone (“Oh, merciful Zeus!” indeed). Given that most Buffy fans tend to be more open-minded about these matters than the average person (to say nothing of the fact the deed happened in a comic book instead of on a far more public TV episode), you might think this bit of plotting wouldn’t have generated much controversy. But sure enough, not every reader was on board with straight Buffy’s openness to new sexual experiences: “How could you?” wrote one anonymous letter writer. “She was a role model for young girls. Now parents will forbid them to watch the show. You just confirmed cliché: there are no strong women; every one of them has some ‘gay’ within.” But story scribe Drew Goddard saw things differently: “At the end of the day, what’s the big deal? Regardless of who is hopping in bed with whom, there are still vampires to slay and worlds to be saved. It just means there will be more silly conversation to be had while stabbing things.”
First introduced in 1956 as a potential love interest for Batman, Kathy “Batwoman” Kane fought crime with her “utility purse” full of crime-solving
makeup and jewelry (don’t ask) until a new editor pushed her out the door in ’64. When DC decided to re-introduce the character in 2006, it made a few changes, not least of which was ditching the whole “love interest to Batman” angle. All right, let’s just come out and say it: she’s a lesbian. And darn open about it, too. Naturally, the idea that any member of the high-profile Bat-club — even a character who is so far removed from her original incarnation as to be completely brand new — could be gay caused a bit of a media frenzy, with numerous news articles dutifully reminding the non-fans of the many ways in which old characters have been altered to appeal to a new, more diverse generation of readers. It’s a testament to the open-minded nature of most comic readers (kind of a pre-requisite, when you think about it, since sci-fi/fantasy fans don’t tend to be fundamentalist by nature) that Batwoman’s orientation in and of itself was hardly an issue for them. On the other hand, some fans did grouse that the whole “yep, she’s gay” thing smelled a little too much like a publicity stunt… and then there was the rather obvious fact that selling most male comic fans on the merits of a gorgeous superhero who likes kissing other girls isn’t exactly an impossible task. DC seemed to get the message and toned down its “lipstick lesbian” messaging, making her sexuality just another aspect of her fascinating, always-evolving character. Which is as it should be.