Sidekicks, mutants, and goddesses
What makes superhero culture so queer.

By Annalee Newitz

IT'S A WARM Friday afternoon, and people are drifting in and out of Comix Experience, a large, airy comic book store on Divisadero Street. A teenager is thumbing through back issues of Wolverine, and a woman is beaming into the pages of a Strangers in Paradise collection. Meanwhile, at the counter, there's the usual ongoing comic book geek banter. Some days you might overhear a penetrating analysis of the X-Men; others, you might find yourself drawn into a debate about which issue of Dork is the most psychotic. Today, Brian Hibbs, the irrepressible store owner, and Jeff Lester, his wisecracking sidekick, are deep in a serious discussion of queerness in comics.

"The shock value is gone," Hibbs says. "When Northstar [a mutant hero from Alpha Flight and now a member of the X-Men] came out almost a decade ago, it was kind of shocking. But now you see characters in comics who are gay all the time." Today there are ongoing gay characters in mainstream titles like Superman (Maggie Sawyer, head of the Metropolis Police Department's Special Crimes Unit, is a lesbian), The Flash (communist ex-villain Pied Piper came out recently), and The Incredible Hulk (Hector, part of a superhero family called the Pantheon, is gay). Plus, Hibbs and Lester say, wildly successful series like The X-Men, with its several spin-offs, not only have gay characters but also "have a huge gay readership because the substance of the book is all about being alienated and trying to fit in, and you can read a very pro-gay message into it."

Ever since a conservative doctor named Fredric Wertham started making noises in the 1940s about the homosexual subtexts in many comic books, comic book geeks have known – or feared – that there was something just a little queer about their textual preferences. It's hard to deny the sexual implications in books that follow the adventures of nerds with secret identities and social outcasts with superpowers. It wasn't until the 1970s that you began to see underground comic books with openly gay characters, and Northstar didn't punch his way out of the closet in Alpha Flight until the early 1990s. But the plots of perennial favorites like Batman nevertheless had what Xena: Warrior Princess devotees like to call "the subtext." Indeed, the queer subtexts of comics are what make these fantasies of heroism compelling. What we read as "queer" in the lives of superheroes are all those things that make them vulnerable, different, and ultimately human.

And now superheroic queerness is writ large all across U.S. popular culture. As critics never tire of remarking, Hollywood has been crazy about comic book characters for the past several years. We've seen movies, TV series, and video games that center on fantasy heroes like the Hulk, Spider-Man, and Daredevil, who are taken from actual comic books; we've also been introduced to characters like Neo (from The Matrix), Buffy, and the Terminator, who are cinematic originals but act as if they've been ripped from the pages of some Marvel title. Indeed, TV superhero Buffy has inspired at least three comic book series and a few graphic novels.

Not so innocent

If we believe Wertham's assertion that there is something essentially queer about superheroes, it makes a strange kind of sense that queerness is becoming acceptable in mainstream culture at about the same time comic books are. Once the province of socially awkward boys in back rooms, comics are now the sort of thing regular people read on the subway. Queers, too, are more visible than ever in North America. Homosexual marriage has finally been legalized in Canada, and top-rated TV show Will and Grace has brought more queers into typical American living rooms than ACT-UP ever did. Perhaps the figure of the queer is alluring for the same reasons the superhero is. Both are misunderstood, secretive, and dashing; often they live just outside the law. Of course, there's one significant difference between real-life queers and comic book characters: in the fantasy world of comic books, the superhero always wins.

Wertham's 1954 book, The Seduction of the Innocent, explicitly blamed comic books for creating a generation of sexually perverse juvenile delinquents. He was particularly unhappy about the relationship between Batman and Robin, as well as the improper messages Wonder Woman was sending to young girls. Although comic book historians often blame Wertham for the abysmal sales of comic books in the 1950s, one could just as easily credit him with codifying the kinds of scenarios that ultimately make comics successful. It's telling that in the year after The Seduction of the Innocent scandalized the nation, one of the most popular movies of adolescent angst ever made, Rebel Without a Cause, drew its power from a surprisingly Batman-like plot: brooding hero with an excellent car and family trauma engages in heart-stopping acts of courage while his boyish, homoerotic sidekick looks on adoringly.

At least in the universe of Batman, the crushed-out sidekick doesn't have to be shot, and the hero's parents are no longer around to torment him. You can see why kids might turn to comic books for self-affirmation.

Trina Robbins, a feminist comic book historian and author of one of the first-ever comics about lesbians, says the single most influential comic book for her before the 1970s was Wonder Woman. Created in the '40s by William Moulton Marston – who also, incidentally, invented the lie detector test – Wonder Woman was about "women working with women," Robbins says. "She's an amazon, she comes from a world of women, and certainly it's hinted that it might be a world where women love women too." Robbins is displeased by what she sees as the cluelessness of today's Wonder Woman comic: "I think straight men have been really intimidated by her, so DC has had to increase her breast size and shorten her skirts. None of the guys [since Marston] have really understood her. Now she worships Zeus, but why would she do that? Her mythic origin is woman-centric; she only worships goddesses."

Of course, as Robbins points out, men have been inspired by Wonder Woman too. "Strong women and gay men love her," she says. "There are always so many Wonder Women at the Halloween party in the Castro every year. And why not be someone really interesting if you're going to do drag?"

At Comix Experience I ask Hibbs and Lester what they think about the Wonder Woman subtext. "Look at some of this old stuff – it's really full of sexual imagery where the woman is in charge," Lester says, showing me images from a bound collection of the 1940s comic books. A woman buying a comic book from Hibbs overhears our conversation and grins conspiratorially at us. "Transformation Island," she says with a laugh, referring to the island off the coast of Wonder Woman's birthplace, Paradise Island, where Wonder Woman brings criminals to reform them. Often this rehabilitation takes the form of rather sexy-looking bondage and a lot of oddly enthusiastic groveling. Sometimes former arch-villains have to eat and drink out of dishes on the floor. The prettily tied-up figures look like they could have been borrowed from 1950s S-M magazine Exotica.

Marston's unconventional relationships with his wife and his lover – who knew about each other and were quite content with the arrangement – taught him that women benefited from autonomy and freedom. Wonder Woman was his self-conscious effort to teach women they could be as strong and heroic as men. Although there are a lot of homoerotic scenes in the early comic book, mostly featuring naughty villains and schoolgirls, what made Wonder Woman so damn queer was its heroine Diana's easy self-confidence in a pop cultural landscape littered with timid secretaries, femmes fatales, and domesticated mothers.

Superheroes and sodomy

If contemporary Wonder Woman comic books haven't made good on their early feminist promise, the contemporary superhero-goddess from Promethea does. Written by comic book auteur Alan Moore (famous for titles like Watchmen, From Hell, and The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen), Promethea is a mythic figure conjured generation after generation by artists who turn into her by depicting her in pictures or writing. Sophie discovers her Promethean powers one day when she writes a poem about the superhero and suddenly finds herself endowed with tremendous strength and a magical caduceus.

Juggling college homework with superpowers, though, begins to wear on Sophie so much that she takes a trip into the Immateria, the realm of the imagination where Promethea was originally conceived. She leaves her best friend Stacia in charge of being Promethea while she's gone, which leads to a rather bizarre lesbian plot twist wherein Stacia falls in love with an earlier incarnation of Promethea, Grace, who has been sent to watch over her in Sophie's absence. The whole mess is resolved – weirdly – in the court of King Solomon. Promethea remains one of the most compelling meditations on heroism and the imagination you would hope to find on the shelves of a comic book store.

Moore's comic books have never shied away from homosexual plot lines. In the latest issue of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen – which is a far cry from the sanitized version you'll see on-screen later this summer – Mr. Hyde complains about Dr. Jekyll's repressed homosexuality and then proceeds to anally rape the Invisible Man in a scene that ends with a spectacularly graphic murder.

While Moore plays with the complexities of queerness, the principal struggle in the X-Men books is simple enough for anyone even glancingly familiar with queer politics to recognize. As Erik Dussere notes in an article on Salon.com, the battle between Professor Xavier and arch-nemesis Magneto is a fantasy version of the clash between gay-marriage assimilationists and radical queer activists. Xavier wants the mutants to be decent, quiet people accepted by mainstream society, while Magneto thinks all mutants should flaunt their powers and use them to rule over humans.

What readers can identify as queerness in their favorite characters from, say, X-Men, isn't necessarily a sexual orientation, although it can be. It's these characters' difference, their otherness – the thing that makes them strong but also makes it impossible for them to ever find true companionship among ordinary people. Hibbs says he's had a lot of conversations about this issue when customers ask him which comic books are interesting for black people. "A lot of my customers are black," he explains, "and sometimes they want to know which authors are black, which illustrators, what have you. But the fact is that the most popular comic book among black readers by far is Thor, who is about as Aryan as you can get. I think it's because people buy characters that they like – if they're black or gay or whatever, that's great. But people identify more with plot lines and situations, not characters per se."

Clearly there is something to this, although it rankles queer fans that so many openly gay comic book characters are either marginal or ridiculous. The Flash's nemesis-turned-buddy Pied Piper has appeared in the series on and off for decades but is hardly a main character. And the recently released Rawhide Kid, about a flamboyant, queeny western action hero, is at best drearily campy and at worst, according to Lester, "played for fanboy homophobia." There are no mainstream comic books devoted entirely to gay characters. Enigma, about a character whose superpowers make him gay, offers a fascinating portrait of super-queerdom but was only a limited series. Love and Rockets and Strangers in Paradise, series that feature a number of strong gay characters, are in the vein of graphic novels. Their real-life characters and situations are a far cry from the action-packed fantasies of superhero comic books. Open queerness doesn't seem to mesh with superhero-ness very well.

Comics are good for you

And yet, according to former comic book writer Gerard Jones, queer kids turn to superheroes for a sense of identity. "Fantasy characters let kids try on different selves, and for kids going through sexual- and gender-identity questions, having openly queer characters in comic books gives them even more selves to try on," explains Jones, who recently published an anti-Wertham book on the psychological importance of superhero fantasies called Killing Monsters: Why Kids Need Fantasy, Super-Heroes and Make-Believe Violence. His main concern is that gay characters in comics are treated so "ham-handedly," their potential complexity reduced to the level of an after-school special.

"When Northstar came out, it could have been useful, but they reduced it to an easy political line about gay bashing versus tolerance," Jones says. "They deflated a complex character by just doing a story about queerness and its implications – it's like doing a nonwhite character and everything is about that. But you need to get some of the messiness and complexity of the world in there. Being gay isn't just about 'being gay.' " Jones recalls his favorite queer plot line in some books he wrote for Justice League. In the story two of the characters were best friends who identified as heterosexual but whose friends all assumed they were gay. "I had fun with that. They didn't want to be uncool and say, 'We're straight,' but there was some anxiety. I like to see heterosexual characters being forced to relate to queerness in different ways."

As long as the queer heroes keep on coming – whether their sexuality is part of a subtext or out in the open – it's certain that heterosexuals will be dealing with them. A nice, healthy dose of The X-Men or Promethea might be just what we need to make queerness as ubiquitous and extraordinary as comic books.

Of course, the idea that comic books might be good for us is still as radical as it was back in the 1950s. Hollywood is pumping out superheroes, but meanwhile Congress continues to hold hearings about whether the comic-style bloodshed of video games is causing adolescent violence. Indeed, conservative critics have often intimated that part of what was so "sick" about the Columbine shooters – aside from their obsession with becoming caped crusaders – was their intense relationship with each other. Outside the politely homophobic meeting rooms of Washington, D.C., young comic book nerds are routinely called faggots by their less imaginative peers.

What remains certain is that there is still something profoundly affecting about the simple stories of power and vulnerability that animate the pages of even the silliest comic books. As long as these stories are inspiring bravery among the oppressed, and fear in the hearts of the authorities, our superheroes are doing something right.


June 25, 2003