Gay Superheroes & Same-Sex Marriage: Why Comics? Why Now?

Same-sex marriage is a political hot-button topic right now, and today, the issue spilled over into what many would call an unlikely arena: Superhero comic books.

While a decade ago, "Men in Tights" may have been in the title of a film parody about gay heroes, superhero comic book publishers have started taking the idea of gay caped crusaders very seriously. And they're turning it into a selling point for the mostly male audience that reads comics — including a vocal contingency of gay comic book fans.

 

This morning, Marvel Comics revealed on ABC's The View that the June issue of Astonishing X-Men will feature the superhero team's first gay marriage. X-Men team member Northstar, who is openly homosexual, will marry his boyfriend, Kyle, in issue #51.

Also this week, DC Entertainment, which publishes stories about iconic characters like Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman, is publicizing the fact that there will be a 'coming out' issue soon for one of its "most prominent" superheroes. The company, which recently rebooted the history of all its characters, will reintroduce a formerly "straight" character as now being gay.

This clambering for attention follows on the heels of Archie Comics getting unprecedented mainstream attention and sell-outs for a comic that featured gay marriage. "We're glad Marvel and DC are finally coming around to embracing the diverse world we live in," said Archie Co-CEO Jon Goldwater of the current trend. "As a company, Archie led the charge when it came to showing gay marriage as a part of our characters' day-to-day lives."

Yet Archie's character wasn't a superhero. So the Astonishing X-Men issue announced today does represent a milestone in that it's a high-profile superhero team embracing gay marriage. While Newsarama reported on DC's inclusion of a gay superhero in the Justice League of America last year, the X-Men issue will be a first for superhero gay marriage. And it's definitely part of a growing trend toward sexual diversity in comic books.

According to avid comic book fans and creators, it's not surprising that superhero comic books would feature gay issues, because the genre has always been riddled with themes of secret identities, persecution and social issues. Plus, there's a vocal part of comics' Internet fan community that is homosexual.

Comics' "Queer" Audience

Joe Faust, one of the voices behind the popular fan-driven podcast "Comic Book Queers," said there's a significant audience of gay readers who buy superhero comics. "We're always surprised at the conventions by the number of other fellow fans that are out there," he said. "There's a lot of overlap there between comic book fans and the gay community."

Why? Faust believes it's all about the secret identity.

"Superhero comic books, at their root, are often about a person who puts on a different costume, a secret identity, and has a whole separate life that he has to keep hidden from his family and his loved ones, and I think that resonates with a lot of people — particularly gay kids," he said. "I think a lot of us who are fans started out when we were young. So there's something about that story of 'no one knows who I really am, but I'm still trying to do the right thing.'"

Social Commentary — for Kids?

Gay rights aren't the first "issue" that comics have attacked head-on. The medium has a long history of including social commentary in its comics — as Newsarama explored last year.

"Comics should be a cutting-edge medium, and it's good to see them fighting for social change," Paul Cornell, a novelist and comic writer who's worked on X-Men comics, said of the X-Men marriage.

But Faust said he thinks the comic industry's sudden interest in gay marriage is actually a little late, as is much of the "social commentary" in comic books. "I think I would argue that comics are usually a little bit behind the curve," he said. "Even though the market for comic books continues to age, I think there will always be somewhere this sense that comic books are ultimately a kids game. And so you'll see these sort of cultural milestones being hit on cable television, for example, which is much more geared toward adults than comic books."

 

Comics are often perceived as a child-oriented medium, even though most buyers are over 18. For decades, most comics even followed strict guidelines under the banner "Comics Code Authority," an organization created to keep controversial subjects out of comic books so children would be protected. But last year, the Comics Code Authority officially became defunct, and comic publishers have been self-labeling their titles instead.

When Archie Comics featured a gay marriage scene on the cover of Life With Archie #16, the Toys 'R' Us stores that carried the publication were threatened with a boycott by the family-focused group One Million Moms. "Unfortunately, children are now being exposed to same-sex marriage in a toy store," the One Million Moms website said. "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."

Writer Fabian Nicieza, who has written Northstar for X-Men comics, scoffed at the complaint with sarcasm. "You mean because it's a comic book for kids and it could end the institution of marriage as we know it?" he said. "My opinion of the inclusion of gay marriage in comics is the same as anywhere else: It should be both the right and the choice of the people involved and anyone else's opinions shouldn't matter."

 

Archie also defended its gay marriage issue by pointing out that it reflects the real world. "As a company we don't look to trends or political movements to make our editorial decisions," Goldwater told Newsarama. "The bottom line is, Riverdale is a place where everyone can feel safe and like they belong, no matter their race, gender or sexual orientation."

This "reflection" of the real world has been a struggle for companies like Marvel and DC, because their most iconic superheroes were created in the 1940s. Superhero teams like the one featured in Marvel's hit movie The Avengers and DC's popular Justice League comics and cartoons are usually populated by white men.

Comics writer Judd Winick, who created the lead Asian-American character in the cartoon series The Life and Times of Juniper Lee, has championed for years the inclusion of more gay characters in comic books.

"It really feels like, culturally, fiction should be more ahead of reality," Winick said. "There's, give or take, over 130,000 same-sex couples that identify themselves s married. And as much as this seems to be a part of the zeitgeist, a discussion within our culture, a political football, one would think that there would be more stories about same-sex marriage.

"With our stories about beings for other worlds, realities, dimensions, the idea that two characters of the same gender getting hitched should be a simple thing," he said.

The X-Factor

The fact that the gay marriage will occur on an X-Men team also feels appropriate to fans and creators who have been fans of the superhero team since its creation in 1962 by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby. The X-Men is based on the idea that there are "mutants," and within the comic, they are often persecuted for being different from "normal" human beings.

"There's a lot of parallels in X-Men stories because that team origin's came from being, you know, 'born different,'" Faust said. "There's a metaphor there. From their outsider status, they're the most obvious metaphor for the gay community, so it doesn't surprise me at all that they're the ones that are having this gay marriage."

Novelist and comic writer Mike Carey, who just finished a run last year as the writer of Marvel's X-Men comic, said the fact that the issue is being addressed publicly makes it good timing for Marvel.

"It's very timely," Carey said. "Given that the X-Men has always been about prejudice and persecution, and has always championed an ideal of inclusivity and tolerance, this is obviously entirely in keeping with the book's ethos, and entirely to be welcomed."

 

Northstar, who was originally a member of a Canadian superhero group, has been openly gay since 1992, when writer Scott Lobdell was given permission to have him "come out" and announce his homosexuality in Alpha Flight #106. That announcement also made headlines and caused controversy.

Lobdell told Newsarama he's thrilled that Marvel has taken the next step and given the character a marriage. "There are still places in America where the idea of gay marriage is met with fear and loathing the same way mutants are in the comics," Lobdell said. "But any time we as an industry can help move along the national dialogue it is a good day worth celebrating."

"I'm glad it's Northstar," Winick echoed. "He's kicked open a few doors. Being carried across the threshold seems like a nice way to go as well."

Headline Grabbing

As comic book fans know, publishers like to get mainstream press coverage to sell more comics. But creators and fans alike acknowledged that — while they like getting more attention for the medium they love — they are a little uncomfortable with the hype that publishers get for including gay characters and topics in their comics.

"It is significant that there's a gay marriage, because it's another touchstone along the path," said podcaster Faust. "But that book is already pretty significant, because there's already an openly gay couple. We've seen them kiss; we've seen them be affectionate with each other; they're living together. So as exciting as the wedding is, the wedding is almost an 'event.' It's almost an afterthought."

Lobdell also wondered at the media attention for gay character, but only because he wants more of them. "Twenty years ago he came out and it was in all the newspapers," the writer said, remembering when he first wrote Northstar as a gay character. "Twenty years later and it makes headlines that he's getting married. Let's hope that in 20 more years, gay comic book characters don't make the news at all because they are as common as capes and cowls!"

Len Wein, one of the more famed X-Men writer because he created Wolverine, was even uncomfortable being asked what he thought of today's announcement.

"What a shame this sort of question still even needs to be asked," he said. "My attitude is more power to them. I hope the two of them will be very happy together."

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