Lonely Gods:
Social Minorities in American Superhero Comic Books

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Homosexuals in Comics:

 

Comics of the 1980s

« Continued from the 1970s
     Although Marvel is often conservative in its portrayals of homosexuality, it published one of the first mainstream depictions of gays in 1980. This story "A Very Personal Hell" appeared in the twenty-third issue of The Hulk!, 1 and was written by Jim Shooter, who was also Editor-In-Chief of Marvel Comics during this time. This story addressed several adult themes, including homelessness, drug abuse, drug addiction, single parenting, domestic violence, suicide, and prostitution. Beyond all of this, the story became infamous due to its depiction of two gay men trying to rape Bruce Banner in the showers of a YMCA.
Hulk
It's Fun to Stay at the YMCA
While in Manhattan to find a cure to his occasional transformations, Banner stays overnight at the "Y". While using the public showers, he is confronted by two other men, Dewey and Luellen. Before Banner can react, they force him to the ground. "You're soft! And all pearly white - and you've got the cutest little cheeks!" Luellen remarks. "Think He'll whine, Dewey?" 2 As Luellen left, Dewey stood over Banner, taunting him the entire time. "Do you play, sweetums?" he asked as he stripped off his shirt. When Banner answered no, he continued: "Well, then, you won't like it this time ... but I will!" 3 Horrified by the situation, Bruce Banner managed to escape from the two of them and ran out the building into an alley. "I'm going to throw up!" he commented as he cried. "God, what they were going to do to me! Oh my god ... how can anyone? It, it seemed like a nightmare while it was happening, but, Lord, now...! It was real! They were really going to...!" He cut off, his horror and revulsion too much as he changed into the Hulk who immediately went on a rampage through the city. 4

     Instead of showing homosexuality in a neutral light, this scene made gay men out to be sexual predators. Comic author Peter David later commented on this in an essay from 1992, writing "it was not a sequence that did much for Marvel, gays, Bruce Banner, or, for that matter, your local 'Y'." 5 Political and religious discourse of the late 1970s and early 1980s also held these same stereotypical views. In 1977 anti-gay activist Anita Bryant defended her views by claiming that homosexuals were a threat to her children. "I was standing up for my rights as a mother to protect my children after I realized what the threat the homosexuals were posing." 6 In 1983 anti-gay activist Paul Cameron mentioned a connection between homosexuals and criminal acts. "Cameron [wrote] that gays were ten to twenty times more likely to be child molesters than their peers, and five to twenty times more likely to commit bestiality. It was Cameron who claimed that a person was fifteen times more likely to be murdered by a homosexual than a heterosexual." 7 Although Cameron based these statistics on hearsay and deceptive research, his views influenced many political and religious activists. Conservatives such as William Bennett and Pat Buchanan cited a previous study of his indicating the average life span of a gay man was only thirty nine. 8 Other religious figures warned that gays were predators. In a fund raising letter, Jerry Falwell wrote homosexuals were "after my children and your children!" 9 The rape scene of The Hulk! conformed to these stereotypical views being discussed in politics and the media of the early 1980s.

     Sadly, the near-rape of Bruce Banner was typical of Marvel's callous treatment of gay people during this decade. The only other portrayal of homosexuality at Marvel was Alpha Flight's Northstar, a character intended to be gay even though he did not officially "come out" until the early 1990s. This was in part due to the comics code which still contained the "sex perversion" clause even after its 1971 revision. The code updated the treatment of sex in other ways, specifically forbidding the depiction of rape. 10 This may seem at odds with the inclusion of gay rapists in The Hulk!, but this magazine did not include the comics code seal on it due to its adult themes. More common superhero stories were far more constrained. In addition to the code, Editor-In-Chief Jim Shooter prevented stories focusing on gay heroes in the Marvel Universe during his tenure as Editor. 11 The creator of Alpha Flight, John Byrne, decided to work around this and create a gay hero when he began the series in 1983. As Byrne later recounted on his website: "I had to find ways to make those characters more three dimensional. One of the things that popped immediately into my head was to make one of them Gay. I had recently read an article in SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN on what was then (the early 80s) fairly radical new thinking on just what processes caused a person to be homosexual, and the evidence was pointing increasingly to it being genetic and not environmental factors. So, I thought, it seemed like it was time for a Gay superhero, and since I was being "forced" to make ALPHA FLIGHT a real series, I might as well make one of them Gay." 12

     The character Byrne selected was Jean-Paul Beaubier, also known as Northstar. Jean-Paul, an Olympic athlete and wealthy celebrity, was gifted with the mutant powers of superhuman speed and flight. He became a reluctant member of Alpha Flight only after discovering he had a twin sister, Jeanne-Marie, who was also on the team. Taking the codename Northstar, Jean-Paul's tenure as a member of Alpha Flight was characterized by his arrogant attitude that frequently led to fights with other members, broken only by his devotion to his sister.

     Byrne also noted the difficulties he encountered in creating a gay character. "Of course, the temper of the times, the Powers That Were and, naturally, the Comics Code would not let me come right out and state that Jean-Paul was homosexual, but I managed to 'get the word out' even with those barriers." 13 A close reading of the early issues of Alpha Flight clearly make Northstar gay, even if presented in a very subtle way. In Northstar's origin tale, included as a back story in Alpha Flight issue 10, the team founder James Hudson described how Northstar used his mutant powers to become a world champion skier.
Not Interested
He's Not Interested
"You went on using your mutant abilities, growing more and more famous. And, once you turned pro, richer and richer. You had it all - money, fame, women ... although the women don't seem to have interested you." 14 To prevent this from being too obvious, Hudson quickly provided an easy explanation. "I suppose like a lot of jocks the winning is all that really matters." 15 Regardless of the subtlety, fans clearly were aware that Northstar was being written as a gay character, and he garnered fans for this reason. In a letter published in Alpha Flight issue 16, one fan obliquely mentioned this. In a lengthy letter predicting which character would die, 16 this fan reasoned it would be Northstar. "His powers are redundant, being duplicated by [his twin sister] Aurora. He is mean and shallow. Although I'm sure his death will cause much consternation in certain segments of the populace, he must be the one." 17 This author was certainly aware of the homosexual "segments of the population" who picked up on the hints about Jean-Paul.

     Alpha Flight creator and author John Byrne left the series after issue 28, and new author Bill Mantlo began writing for the comic. Under Mantlo, Northstar's homosexuality became far more open. In issue 41 published at the end of 1986, both Northstar and his sister Aurora attended a round table discussion amongst Alpha Flight members on whether to allow the new character Madison Jeffries to become a member.
costume
What are you implying?
Aurora voted yes, just as long as she could design his costume. Northstar retorted, "Something impossibly form-fitting, no doubt." Unfazed, Aurora quipped, "Since when do you object to having attractively dressed men about, my brother?" 18 In this same issue, another new character Purple Girl discovered she had the ability to control other people's minds, and immediately decided to use them on Northstar. As he recovered during the subsequent issue, Northstar reported, "She used her powers to make me serve her - love her! I felt violated - as if I'd been raped!" Team leader Heather Hudson immediately replied: "And by a woman! No wonder you're so upset!" 19 Although these open characterizations of Jean-Paul's homosexuality seem mildly progressive at first, a dark side to this plot line emerged. Northstar soon contracted a mysterious illness that left him coughing all the time. These coughing fits began in issue 42 and became worse over the next eight issues.
by a woman
By a Woman
In issue 44, the reader learned that Northstar still carried wounds from previous battles that refused to heal. 20 View Image Alone with his sister in this issue, Northstar asked her, "Why doesn't it heal, Aurora? And my cough! I have always been in excellent health - an athlete - never ill a day in my life! What is wrong with me?" When Aurora questioned why he did not yet consult the team doctor, he replied: "Perhaps - because I was afraid of what he'd find!" 21 View Image

     When placed into the context of the mid 1980s, the nature of this mysterious illness becomes clear. Beginning in 1981, a new disease began to receive significant media coverage. "Young homosexual men in the prime of life were dying suddenly from a rare pneumonia, pneumocystis carinii, or wasting away from an unusual cancer." 22 These bizarre symptoms were caused by a new virus labeled Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome, or AIDS. This new affliction spread very fast, reaching forty thousand cases by 1985. 23 Since AIDS was concentrated in the male homosexual population, it was soon labeled a "homosexual disease" or even a "gay plague". 24 Northstar's mysterious new disease, coming in 1987, had symptoms identical to AIDS. "[AIDS] destroyed the body's natural defenses against infection, making the victim susceptible to a host of opportunistic infections which the body seemed incapable of resisting." 25 Much like other forms of media, Alpha Flight author Bill Mantlo clearly linked homosexuality to AIDS. From this standpoint, the logical way for Northstar to reveal his homosexuality was to have him die of AIDS.

     Intending to do just that in the 50th issue of Alpha Flight, Mantlo continued to have Northstar sicken. The 45th issue revealed that Northstar knew about his disease. In the previous issue, the villain Pestilence noticed that Northstar had "decay" inside him. View Image Soon after fighting this villain, Northstar thought to himself, "Pestilence ... said he was accelerating the decay within me - and hinted that I would soon die of a pre-existing disease!" 26 By the next issue, Northstar could not even speak an entire sentence without coughing.
Pre-Existing Disease
Northstar's Disease
In issue 48, Northstar finally decided to seek out help for his illness by consulting the team doctor Scramble who had the ability to transmute living tissue. Standing outside Scramble's operating theater, Northstar ruminated to himself, "If Scramble either cannot or will not cure me - I will die, a victim of a disease with which I was already infected when my encounter with Pestilence accelerated it. But I have had many good years. Fame. Fun. Fortune. Special friends." As Northstar mentioned this, the comic panel filled with several images from his past, including one of him having a night on the town with two attractive young men. 27 View Image Northstar's quest for a cure from Scramble failed, as Scramble transformed himself into the creature Omega and immediately attempted to destroy Alpha Flight. By the end of issue 49 the team managed to destroy Omega, but during the fight Northstar finally succumbed to the disease and collapsed. 28 View Image This led to issue 50, where Northstar would die of AIDS. This act would also stereotypically reveal his homosexuality.

     The editors at Marvel did not allow this to happen, and author Bill Mantlo had to change his story. Instead of Jean-Paul dying, Alpha Flight went on a lengthy quest to a mythological underworld to search for a cure for him and his sister. 29 Trapped in the dark tunnels with his sister, the Marvel Comics villain Loki appeared and explained the "true" nature of Northstar's illness to them.
Cured!
So That's How You Cure AIDS...
While seeking to prove the existence of elves, Jean-Paul and Jeanne-Marie's father captured one and later married her. After giving birth to the twins, their mother was killed by other elves in retribution for polluting the elvish bloodline. This inhuman parentage gave the twins their powers, but also led to their debilitated states. "The pure blood of Alfheim pulses in your veins!" Loki explained. "Such purity cannot long survive upon midgard! The stress of surviving on an impure earth soon afflicted Northstar physically, and Aurora psychologically! You could both be cured, were you to be infused with the pure light of Alfheim!" 30 View Image Aurora sacrificed her powers of light by giving them to Northstar, View Image who was instantly cured and restored to perfect health. 31 Once the adventure concluded Northstar left the team and traveled to the realm of Alfheim to be with his people. 32 View Image Author Peter David later cynically wrote, "That's right...he wasn't gay. He was just a fairy. That's muuuuch better." 33

     During this same decade another character change began to take place. The main Batman villain The Joker adopted increasingly feminine and homosexual tones. While this is overtly apparent in the 1986 miniseries The Dark Knight Returns, other Batman comics of this period include these sexual characteristics.
Darling
The Joker's Darling
In many ways the Joker was given feminine characteristics to make him appear more disturbing and sinister, and he often juxtaposed effeminate language with semi-psychotic rants. In one particularly telling instance the Joker narrated to himself soon before his final confrontation with Batman in The Dark Knight Returns: "They could put me in a helicopter and fly me up into the air and line the bodies head to toe on the ground in delightful geometric patterns like an endless June Taylor dancers routine - and it would never be enough. No, I don't keep count [of my victims]. But you do. And I love you for it." 34 This characterization is driven home during the many instances in which the Joker described Batman in terms more fitting of a lover than a nemesis. Throughout the entirety of The Dark Knight Returns, the Joker uses a variety of affectionate phrases such as "darling" and "my sweet" when referring to Batman. 35

     It is tempting to dismiss this effeminate portrayal of the Joker as just a quirk of Frank Miller's writing and nothing more. However, this characterization was also found in several other Batman comics of the 1980s. A few years earlier in the March 1980 issue of Batman,
The Joker Expects Batman
The Joker Likes Batman
the Joker attempted to celebrate his birthday by capturing and killing all of Batman's companions. When Batman showed up to stop his plot, he said "You knew I'd be here, Joker." The Joker replied, "I'd have been heart-broken if you weren't!" 36 The effeminate version of the Joker also appeared in a graphic novel published at the very end of the decade, Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth by Grant Morrison. This graphic novel, although it employed high amounts of surrealistic and symbolic imagery, nevertheless created a disturbingly effeminate and sexual version of the Joker.
The Real Joker
The Original Joker
These homosexual overtones characterized all the dialogue between Batman and Joker in the comic, from their very first meeting in front of Arkham Asylum. As Batman discovered a line of salt around the asylum, the Joker came forward and said "Why don't you sprinkle some on me, honey? Aren't I just good enough to eat?" 37 Later on, the Joker slapped Batman on the behind, causing Batman to react angrily. 38

     This effeminate version of the Joker is actually very different and toned down from author Grant Morrison's original concept. When the graphic novel was reissued in a new edition for its fifteenth anniversary, it included the original script and some of Morrison's character sketches as supplementary material. These showed what Morrison originally intended with the Joker. This version of the Joker dressed in women's clothing and wore high heels with fishnet stockings. The original script described him as: "dressed as 'Madonna' in a black basque, seamed tights and lace-up stiletto boots .... His eyes are heavily made up with kohl eyeliner, mascara and false eyelashes .... He projects an absolute confidence that confers upon him a bizarre kind of attractiveness and sexuality. It is the attraction of the perverse and the forbidden." 39 The intention of the Joker's sexual dialogue was not to make him into a gay character. Rather, the authors gave the Joker a very effeminate appearance and mannerisms to better contrast his character with Batman, who was extremely masculine.

     Notably, these homosexual, effiminate overtones begin only during the 1980s, reflecting the perceived rise of homosexuality in America during this same decade. During the 1970s the Joker was very much straight. During the late 1970s he even developed a crush on Black Canary, the girlfriend of superhero Green Arrow. In The Joker issue 4, The Joker came to Star City (the home of Green Arrow) to further an extremely elaborate attempt to rob an art museum. While in disguise he ran into Dinah Lance (the Black Canary) and was immediately besotten with her. He gives her a boquet of roses, 40 and later kidnaps her as part of his elaborate plot. Near the end of the issue, while fighting with Green Arrow, the Joker decides to kill Dinah, lamenting "Too bad - we could have made such beautiful music together - but you probably sing off key!" 41 Dinah Lance survived this encounter with the Joker, but his crush on her continued in a 1978 issue of The Brave and the Bold. This issue featured the Joker masquerading as a loan shark, and he encounters Dinah once more while killing a man who owes him money. Still fascinated with her, the Joker pushes Dinah out of the path of an explosion he set, saving her life. 42 Batman even uses this fact to deduce that the mysterious loan shark really is the Joker in disguise. 43

     These 1970s issues clearly make the Joker straight, with none of the feminine qualities that characterise him during the 1980s and beyond. However, even with the hints of homosexuality, the Joker never becomes a true gay character. Rather, his innuendo and hints are used to make him seem more sinister or "creepy". It is this type of portrayal that guides the Joker's character through the next two decades.

Continue to the 1990s...

Notes: