Caped crusaders are out and proud this year at Comic-Con International. Even Superman and Batman at the Prism Comics booth wear snug Underoos, capes and chef’s aprons — but not much else — as they entertain passersby. T-shirts featuring “Glamazonia: The Uncanny Super-Tranny,” “Wuvable Oaf,” a hairy-chested wrestler-type in pink shorts. and other less-famous characters line the walls of Prism’s booth — the unofficial hub of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender (LGBT) community at this week’s convention.
“It feels revolutionary,” says Scott Covert, decked out as Batman’s sidekick, Robin, at one of the convention’s many panels about gay culture and the comic book world. He flips the lip of his cape as he adds, “There’s more tolerance this year.”
Gay Geekdom celebrated last month when Marvel’s mutant superhero, Northstar, married his longtime partner, Kyle, in “Astonishing X-Men No. 51.” The day the issue was released, comic book shops nationwide, including L.A.’s Meltdown Comics, hosted commitment ceremonies, vow renewals or parties; and there was a legal same-sex wedding at Midtown Comics in Manhattan.
Also in June, DC Comics resurrected the original Golden Age Green Lantern, featuring Alan Scott as a gay man. Even Archie Comics’ All-American Riverdale was the site of a biracial, military-themed, same-sex wedding earlier this year.
The effects of such publishing milestones are palpable at Comic-Con, which is seeing more gay-themed panels, parties, signings and off-site events than ever before, notes Justin Hall, author of the just-released “No Straight Lines,” a retrospective of LGBT comics.
“Queer fandom is absolutely galvanized by seeing more accurate representations of ourselves,” he says. “There’s a snowball effect.”
“It’s always been going on under the surface, but now there’s a real queer presence,” adds Love Ablan, a self-described pop culture nerd who’s bisexual. “Even among non-queer fans. My super-straight guy friend is totally into this comic about queer bears.”
Gay characters have long been featured in underground and alternative comics. Howard Cruse’s “Gay Comix” and Alison Bechdel’s “Dykes to Watch Out For” were groundbreakers in the ’80s. Even in mainstream comics, gay superheroes aren’t exactly new. For decades costumed crime fighters have been subtly nodding to LGBT themes through coded subtext.
There’s been speculation about Wonder Woman’s island of all-female, immortal Amazons, for example, and the homoerotic tension between Batman and Robin has been a source of conversation (and jokes) for years. X-Men’s Northstar, long shrouded in gay innuendo, officially came out in 1992, breaking the taboo; and Batwoman made her debut as a lesbian in 2009.
But openly gay characters from major publishers, like Archie Comics’ Kevin Keller, have been rare. Comic books were traditionally aimed at teenage boys and they were scrubbed clean of sex and violence from the mid-’50s into the ’80s by the now-defunct comics code authority. That core audience, however, has grown up and society is more open to gay narratives.
“It wasn’t until about 10 years ago, though, that they started fleshing out gay characters. Before that, they felt gimmicky — the token Mexican guy with the sombrero,” says Hall. “That’s why the Northstar marriage is so important — it humanizes them.”
Writer James Robinson, who brought the Green Lantern back as gay, took to heart fan criticism that gay superheroes were seemingly gratuitous or one-dimensional. “My goal was to present him as a fully rounded human being whose sexuality is merely a part of who he is along with his style, wit, bravery and innate goodness,” he says.
Some, however, see this year’s high-profile same-sex weddings as buzz-generating, monetary plays rather than attempts at diversity. After all, Kevin Keller’s debut in a Veronica book sold out — the first issue to do so in the company’s history. X-Men’s gay wedding issue, “No. 51,” placed 12th among all comics published in June, with more than 82,000 comic shop orders.
“That’s a huge event-driven boost in sales,” says John Jackson Miller, founding editor of Comichron.com, which tracks comic book sales figures. “Announcing it to the world and telling comic book shops ‘you should order this because it might be in the newspapers’ is a stunt. It’s a press release-driven phenomenon.”
“We did this story because gay marriage became legal in New York state,” argues Marvel Editor in Chief Axel Alonso. “When anything happens in the world — the World Trade Center falls, whatever — we respond to it.”
Indeed, pop culture is a cyclical beast, both reflecting and shaping the news. And it’s self-perpetuating: as more gay characters show up on TV, in films and in comics, their narratives help promote broader tolerance and understanding — not just among fans, but among creators and editors in the industry.
“One of my concerns as a cartoonist, was a fear that my creativity would be defined by being gay,” says Cruse, whose collection of non gay-themed work, “The Other Sides of Howard Cruse,” was just released. “There are some high-profile mainstream comics creators who are still in the closet, but overall, there are more welcoming attitudes toward gay employees.”
Openly gay comics editors are key to forwarding the medium in a truly diverse direction, says Joan Hilty, a former DC Comics editor. “Gay characters don’t pop up in comics because straight editors want to do a solid, but because gay editors want to tell stories about people who are like them.”
Hilty will appear on Saturday’s Gays in Comics panel, which is celebrating its 25th anniversary. It’s one of the longest-running panels at the convention, offering a window into how much openly gay fandom has grown at Comic-Con. Hilty was an early panelist.
“In the past, we struggled to fill three rows of seats,” she recalls. “Now it’s in one of those huge screening halls — and it’s standing-room only.”
Still, others see gay superheroes as just a trend. “It used to be dead superheroes. Now it’s gay superheroes,” says Ciro Nieli, executive producer of Nickelodeon’s “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.” “Next year it’ll be dead gay superheroes who come back as Chihuahuas!”
– Deborah Vankin
RECENT AND RELATED
PHOTOS: Faces of Comic-Con 2011