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Comic Book Heroes Never Really Die

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Tall buildings. Shadowy figures. It is a dark night in Gotham City, filled with madmen on the loose, a corrupt police force, and nobody left who is stupid enough to care. In the warehouse district, a wolf-man threatens a former detective and her partner. They are trapped, backs against the wall, no way out. Dead, practically. When, out of nowhere, Batwoman appears to save the two from the clutches of evil. She slams the villain and knocks him out, leaving through the window just as she came. The detective and her partner are safe, for now. But what neither they, nor the unconscious wolf-man yet realize, is that this Batwoman… bats for the other team.

For years, comic books have dealt with issues fantastic and foreign, from alien invasions to demonic possessions. Comic books have long been symbolic of the wildest and most daring dreams of our culture, pushing the boundaries and imaginations of young boys and asking them to think big. But in this excellent and increasingly lauded medium, in a format that can acknowledge the whole universe, there has been historically little room for homosexuality.

Recently, DC Comics made news when it announced that the new Batwoman, Kate Kane, would be rewritten as a “lipstick lesbian” for their best-selling series “52.” Akin to the playboy lifestyle of Bruce Wayne (Batman), Kane would have numerous romantic entanglements with women. What was so shocking about the announcement, however, was not that an LGBT character—the most prominently featured one to date in the comic world—would be appearing in the seemingly sacrosanct pages of DC, but that this portrayal was considered to be honest.

Although DC and Marvel were not the first comic book companies, and are still not alone, they have been the most financially successful comic publishers on the market. As rivals, Marvel and DC tend to steal plot devices and individual superheroes back and forth between each other so much so that they have endured criticism for their similarity. However, over time, DC has managed to venture out more due to its rotating editorial policy, while Marvel has stayed more conservative due to the editorial autocracy of its founder, Stan Lee.

Homosexuality has always been a hard pill for American media to swallow. It was only after many decades of radio, TV, and movies that genuine gay characters emerged. In comparison, countries abroad are much more tolerant. Sailor Moon, a popular Japanese comic book, and later Saturday morning cartoon, featured a lesbian couple, Sailor Uranus and Sailor Neptune. When the show was being translated for an American audience, references to the couple were changed so that the two were now cousins. This caused more than one reviewer to comment that Americans seem more comfortable with incest then with lesbians.

Batwoman, however, was not the first American character to be LGBT. That title belongs to Ultra-Humanite, widely regarded to be the first supervillian, gay or otherwise. Created in 1939, he was a mad scientist who had the ability to transfer his consciousness into any body. He was intended to be the antithesis of Superman, his first opponent; while Superman was agile and strong, Ultra-Humanite was crippled, but had an astounding intellect. By today’s standards, he seems like standard bad-guy fare—a maniacal criminal mastermind facing a superior superhero.

But in his third appearance, Humanite’s entry in the record books became more interesting. After his original body was destroyed by Supes, Humanite was forced to transplant his mind into the nearest human, fictitious actress Delores Winters. This made him the first transgendered character to appear in print, certainly racy by 1940s standards.

While it was left decidedly unclear whether he went after anyone romantically during his stint as a woman, the crime boss did note to a fellow ne’er-do-well that “my thoughts, my desires, my ambitions, are still those of the middle-aged scientist I see myself to be.” It should be noted however, that this was not written as any sort of serious commentary by DC’s writers; soon after, Humanite came to inhabit a giant flying ant, a mutated albino gorilla, and even a glass dome.

DC has no monopoly on gay characters. It was Marvel who brought out the first queer hero, the French-Canadian Northstar. Northstar, a marginal character at best in the Marvel universe, was more of a token than a detailed portrait of a person; the butt of bad writing and Marvel’s lack of comfort with the subject matter.

In the late ‘80s, a writer at Marvel ran a story in which Northstar was infected with a mysterious illness, and planned to kill off the still-straight-to-the-public character when the illness was to be revealed as AIDS. Marvel’s editorial staff would have none of it and forced a change in the plot; instead of dying from AIDS, Northstar was “retconned”—his back story changed—to be a mystical creature who could not be separated from his homeland without contracting this illness. This change in the story was heavily ridiculed and prolific comic writer Peter David later described the incident as “Northstar’s not gay, he’s just a fairy.” Due to the public mockery of the story, the retcon itself became retconned, a tremendous feat of backpedaling on Marvel’s part.

Later, Northstar became featured more prominently when, during the AIDS crisis in the 80s, he adopted an HIV-positive orphan in his grand “coming out” gesture. To the comic world, this was considered groundbreaking, when in reality it was the only the perpetuity of a stereotype—that gay man battling AIDS.

DC and Marvel have since included gay superheroes and villains but largely kept the matter of their sexuality either secondary to their character or not featured it at all, except in minutiae. (Shape-shifting Mystique, known as one of the few bisexual characters in mainstream American comic books, had an extended relationship with her Brotherhood teammate Destiny, although Marvel editors did not allow this fact to be confirmed for several years.) The announcement of Batwoman as a “lipstick lesbian” is in truth not very groundbreaking, as it just adds to her unattainable allure among men. However, the announcement and its repercussions are important because they expose the weakness of comic books; in imagining outer space and issues of cosmic importance, concerns on a more human scale are often overlooked.

A notable exception was Neal Adams’ groundbreaking comic book, “Green Lantern/Green Arrow: Hard-Traveling Heroes,” in which the conservative Green Lantern and liberal Green Arrow dealt with various social and political problems. In one issue, an old black man approaches the intergalactic hero Green Lantern and tells him that he has heard that Lantern has done a lot for the people of other planets, the “green skins.” Then why, he asks, doesn’t he do anything for the “black skins” of Earth, a question to which our hero is unable to respond.

If comic books have the potential to imagine other worlds in vivid imagery, then it is certain that they have the power to depict the intricacies of the here and now. However, what DC and Marvel take for granted is that the places they describe in their stories are far away, products of their imagination alone. Race, class, gender, and sexuality are products of people, but are very real. If Batwoman is a lesbian, why does she have to be so conspicuously designed to be a male sex object? If Northstar is gay, why does he have to automatically deal with AIDS?

For young men and women, comic books are an escape from reality, but in order for them to be meaningful they have to have a touch of truth. Hopefully, one day, in the pages of our favorite trade, we will find the same touch of truth given to the queer community that is afforded to those who are far more alien.

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Updated 5:17 pm, July 20, 2018
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