Lonely Gods:
Social Minorities in American Superhero Comic Books

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Homosexuals in Comics:

 

Comics of the 1970s and Prior

     Prior to the 1980s, homosexual characters in superhero comics simply did not exist. In many ways this stemmed from the lack of open discussion about homosexuality in printed media of the 1940s and 1950s, resulting in a paranoia about the content of comics marketed to children and adolescents. Psychologist Frederic Wertham wrote the most famous remarks on this in 1954 when he described in his work Seduction of the Innocent that Batman and Robin were living a homosexual lifestyle.

     Seduction of the Innocent is not a work about Batman. Rather than focus his efforts on superhero comics, Wertham devoted much of his criticism to the acts of violence in crime comics. Surprisingly, many of his conclusions are still valid. A significant portion of the book discussed the sexist and demeaning portrayals of women in comics, and the negative effects these had on young girls. 1 Wertham also briefly discussed how the racism of jungle comics increased the racial prejudice of young children. 2 In latter sections of the book he described the effects of comic book advertising on the body image of young girls,and finally decried the amount of violence on children's television shows. 3 These arguments make Wertham out to be an extremely rational, progressive figure. This progressive stance, however, faltered when Wertham shifted his discussion to superhero comic books.

     Of the four pages where Wertham discussed Batman, most of his criticism focused on the relationship between Batman and his much younger sidekick Robin. "The Batman type of story helps to fixate homoerotic tendencies by suggesting the form of an adolescent-with-adult ... type of love-relationship. In the Batman type of comic book such a relationship is depicted to children before they can even read." 4 Wertham gained more ammunition for his attack by the lack of strong women in Batman stories. "There are practically no decent, attractive, successful women. A typical female character is the Catwoman, who is vicious and uses a whip. The atmosphere is homosexual and anti-feminine. If the girl is good looking, she is undoubtedly the villainess. If she is after Bruce Wayne, she will have no chance against Dick [Robin]." 5 Wertham concluded his analysis of Batman by writing "in many adolescents the homoerotic , anti-feminist trend unconsciously aroused or fostered by these stories is demonstrable" 6 Notably, Wertham did not explicitly state that Batman and Robin were gay. He merely wrote that a homoerotic atmosphere permeated the comics.

     Wertham was not alone in his criticism of comic books. During the 1950s the entire American culture became hypersensitive to any supposed portrayal of homosexuality. The root causes of this new awareness were twofold. The demographic changes caused by World War II created growing homosexual communities in large metropolitan areas. In their comprehensive examination of American sexuality, authors John D'Emilio and Estelle Freedman attribute great importance to World War II. Many gay men and women who either joined or supported the military during the war began to notice the presence of a larger homosexual community and were usually eager to join it. "[The War] created substantially new erotic opportunities that promoted the articulation of a gay identity and the rapid growth of a gay subculture." 7 This growth did not halt when the war ended, but grew further as many of the men and women who participated in the war moved to major cities. "The changes set in motion by wartime continued after demobilization. Many gay men and lesbians, having experienced so great a transformation in their sexual and emotional lives, did not return to prewar patterns." 8

     Beyond the war, the Kinsey Reports of 1948 pushed homosexuality into the mainstream consciousness. Alfred Kinsey published a lengthy study entitled Sexual Behavior in the Human Male, and produced some surprising conclusions. "Among males he found that fifty percent acknowledged erotic responses to their own sex, over one-third had had a post-adolescent homosexual experience that resulted in orgasm, four percent were exclusively homosexual as adults, and one out of eight respondents were predominantly homosexual for at least a three year period." 9 This study was met with outrage and disbelief. "Americans at first reacted negatively to the Kinsey report because it pointed up the discrepancies between our stated sexual norms and our actual sexual behavior and therefore thought to threaten the moral fabric of society." 10 In response to this, the American government took several steps to curbing homosexuality. During Congressional testimony in February 1950, State Department officials revealed several government employees had been dismissed because of homosexual activity. The final report of this committee wrote that homosexuals lacked "emotional stability" and "moral fiber". 11 A panic spread through the government, and civilian dismissals from government jobs "increased twelvefold over the pre-1950 rate." Likewise, dismissals from the military doubled during this same time. President Eisenhower even issued an Executive Order in 1953 that barred homosexuals from all government jobs. 12 These actions created the image that homosexuals were suddenly appearing everywhere in American society. Betty Friedan even noted in her work The Feminine Mystique that "whether or not there has been an increase in homosexuality in America, there has certainly been in recent years an increase in its overt manifestations." 13

     When placed alongside this paranoia about homosexuality, Wertham's allegations become more reasonable. His comments on the negative effects of comics were also widely received. Seduction of the Innocent was reviewed by almost every newspaper in the United States, as well as many in Canada and Britain. 14 Most of these publications enthusiastically praised the work. National Education Association Journal considered Wertham's work to be the "most important book of 1954", and Library Journal lauded Wertham for his "substantial evidence" on the dangers of comic books. 15 While some reviewers disagreed with Wertham's research methods, they nevertheless agreed with his central arguments that comic books were harmful to children. 16 One week after Seduction of the Innocent was released, Wertham testified for the Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency and reprised many of the book's arguments. Representatives of several comic book publishers also testified, but they failed to sway the Senators. "[The comic representatives] put up little defense of the industry generally, and their comments tended to support Wertham's arguments, particularly as they pertained to mass culture." 17 Under the threat of government action, the publishers banded together and introduced a new editorial code to regulate the content of comic books.

     The resulting 1954 Comics Code, much like Wertham, only addressed homosexuality in passing, as its authors were more concerned with violence and obscenity. Nevertheless, a section titled "Marriage and Sex" listed seven regulations. Following six rules dealing with marriage and respect for parents, the final point stated "sex perversion or any inference to same is strictly forbidden." 18 Homosexuality was included since it was viewed as a mental illness. 19 This clause remained in the Comics Code for over thirty years until the code underwent a third revision in 1989. Likewise, any discussion of homosexuality was absent from comic books for several decades. While independent or "underground" comics touched on this controversial issue 20, the major publishers DC and Marvel withheld any mention of homosexuality until 1980.

Continue to the 1980s...
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