Since the emergence of the superhero comic in American society, romantic relationships have played a pivotal role in the lives of almost every single protagonist. Male superheroes have been represented as celebrations of stereotypical masculinity, employing their great, brute strength in order to complete great acts of bravery and valor, and then after inevitably defeating their foes, they further prove their masculinity by obtaining the attention of female love interests. Superman has his Lois Lane, Bruce Wayne has a string of lady loves throughout the series, and even Peter Parker, who is not your stereotypically masculine hero, has his Mary Jane. Likewise, female superheroes like, Wonder Woman, who are portrayed as successful and independent role models also usually have a male love interest to go home to. Both men and women take part in romantic relationships in almost every superhero comic, and yet for many years only heterosexual superheroes could be found in American comics.
The idea of homosexuality in the superhero realm was first debated by Dr. Frederick Wertham in his controversial book Seduction of the Innocents (as was mentioned in a previous blog written by Phantommiriag), when he asserted that superheroes in comics were perverting the minds of America’s youth through their perverse homosexual agenda. He specifically focused on Robin from the Batman comics, saying that he was clearly a homosexual character bent on corrupting the fragile, juvenile psyche due to his usual role as the “damsel in distress” as well as his proclivity to don bright green underwear in lieu of pants. Wertham also went so far as to describe Batman and Robin’s life in the mansion as “like a wish dream of two homosexuals living together.” (x) Wertham’s subsequent censorship campaign led to the establishment of the Comic Book Code of 1954, which stated a few rules subtly forbidding the portrayal of homosexuality in comics. The code stated that “the treatment of love-romance stories shall emphasize the value of the home and the sanctity of marriage” (aka, marriage between man and a woman). Then to further clarify their point, they declared that “sex perversion or by any inference to same [was] strictly forbidden.” The implication is clear today, and it certainly would have been understood in the 1950s as well. This stigma existed for many decades, and it was unheard of to create a comic with a homosexual character or even any kind of reference to homosexuality at all. This discouragement coupled with a societal oppression of open homosexuality were responsible for the lack of homosexual characters in superhero comics.
Thankfully, our society has changed substantially since Wertham’s crusade, and although there are many heated political and societal debates regarding homosexuality, the comic community has been very proactive in updating the superhero universes by adding several homosexual characters. The main audience of these types of comics are children and teenagers, two age groups which could benefit immensely from the positive representation of homosexuality, especially when considering the heated and often ugly political debates over the matter. In 1992, Marvel Comics not only revealed that the X-Men character, Northstar, was gay but he actually came out, which is a very important process in understanding, accepting, and valuing one’s sexual identity and can be a very frightening prospect for any young person. Northstar’s revelation is delivered in a strong and confident manner, while he’s pulverizing some villains, and after coming out, he goes on to lecture his foe about the importance of AIDS awareness. To say the least, pretty badass coming out story.
Then, in 2012, in Marvel’s revamped X-Men comics, they had Northstar propose to his boyfriend, Kyle, then they were married in a later issue. This storyline was discussed as far back as 2011, when gay marriage was legalized in New York City, where Northstar (Jean-Paul Beaubier) and Kyle live in the comics. The marriage between Kyle and Jean-Paul that we see at the top left is a celebrated affair in a very public, outdoor area and they are being cheered on and supported by many of their superhero friends. The portrayal of other, heterosexual superheroes as accepting of the marriage is also very important because children are more likely to be understanding and accepting of ideas that they see their favorite heroes encouraging. Likewise, in DC Comics’ newer version of the Green Lantern comics in 2012, Alan Scott is portrayed as a gay man. Scott is seen in the panel on the bottom left, kissing his boyfriend in exactly the same way a male character would kiss a female love interest. No attention is drawn to the fact that they are both men, and their public displays of affection are not kept behind closed doors so as not to offend the delicate sensibilities some readers might possess; their relationship is out in the open and it is displayed in a very positive light. The modern takes on the sexuality of these two classic superheroes seems like a way that DC is evolving to fit a new, more progressive readership that values the presence of homosexual role models in their comics.
In addition to the portrayal of male gay relationships in modern superhero comics, there have been some recent portrayals of lesbian superheroes as well. Batwoman, or Kate Kane, is one of the most notable examples, due to her popularity among fans and is another example of DC Comic’s revamping of older characters in their new series. When the original Batwoman, Kathy Kane, first showed up in the Batman comics back in the Golden Age of comic books (1930s-1950s), there was no hint of her homosexuality, but again to appeal to a different audience, the character was re-imagined for the DC’s new series, The New 52 as a lesbian. Kate’s explicitly reveals her sexuality to a commanding officer in the army, thus violating the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy and resulting in a forcible discharge. At one point, Kane was also in a long-term relationship with Renee Montoya, (aka: The Question), although they eventually split up. Then, very recently in February 2013’s issue of Batman #17, Batwoman proposed to her girlfriend, Maggie Sawyer. It has not yet been revealed if Maggie will accept Rennee’s proposal, but considering the results of Green Hornet and Northstar’s proposals, it seems likely that there will be another superhero wedding.**
The addition of homosexual superheroes in comics has definitely helped them to connect to a new audience, and also the portrayal of accepted, encouraged homosexual relationships in a genre that is read by many children and teens can only help to dissuade homophobia and provide comfort and support to any young person dealing with the issues illustrated in these comics.
(For a more complete list of homosexual comic characters, check out this webpage.)
(**Special thanks to Cottontail, who brought to my attention some inaccuracies in the fifth paragraph regarding Batwoman and the Question! It has been edited accordingly.)