Lonely Gods:
Social Minorities in American Superhero Comic Books

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Homosexuals in Comics:

 

Comics of the 1990s

« Continued from the 1980s...
     Homosexual portrayals of the Joker were not limited to the 1980s but continued through the next decade. This gay characterization became so obvious that other comic book characters in other comic book series separate from Batman talked about it.
Is the Joker Gay?
Well, Is He?
In one issue of Flash from 1991 written by William Meisner-Loebs, the hero Wally West discussed the Joker with the former villain Pied Piper. Upon hearing that Pied Piper once met the Joker, Wally asked, "You've heard the rumors, after all. How, maybe, [the Joker is] gay? What did he seem like to you?" 1 When Pied Piper expressed his disbelief at this notion, Wally pressed him. "Guy's like that, you can always tell...there are signals." 2 William Meisner-Loebs certainly picked up on the Joker's signals that were present from the early 1980s. He also used the opportunity to create some characterization of his own, having Pied Piper reveal that he was gay. This obviously shocked Wally, who found a way to immediately end the conversation and leave. 3

     Notably, the mere inclusion of a friendly gay character could be perceived as a threat to the hero's masculinity.
I like San Felipe
Flash Knows What He Likes
This held true within Flash, for later in the same issue Wally traveled to San Felipe in search of a former dictator. Arriving on the beach with incredible speed, he managed to slow down just enough to ogle the topless women sunbathing there, commenting to himself: "I'm gonna like San Felipe!" 4 Flash's masculinity and heterosexuality thus reaffirmed, he could now battle the issue's villain and save the day. Despite the inclusion of this scene, this issue ignited a storm of letters to the publisher. In the 57th issue of Flash, an entire two pages were devoted to fan reactions to Piper's coming out. While the series editor Brian Augustyn noted the fan letters were "overwhelmingly positive", 5 several negative letters also were printed. These letters were generally religious in tone, and several quoted scripture and, in one case, the United States Constitution. One such reader declared: "American comics are created by folks such as [the author William] Loebs who are so out of touch with the righteous mainstream that the values of such a writer run rather radically contrary to those of our culture." 6 This same author further commented: "Does Loebs so despise the Judeo-Christian values of American culture as to present as a positive moral option the sexual lifestyle of a practitioner of homosexual copulation .... When will we see a comics character show true friendship to a homo by revealing the Redemptive power available to him?" 7

     Several other letters in this issue discussed the interaction between comic books and culture. Those opposed to homosexuality viewed comics only as a form of simple entertainment, such as one writer who dismissed the series as "homosexual propaganda". "What are comics for? To entertain, right?" this fan reasoned. "Now, if there were no homosexuals in Flash, it would still be entertaining, right? .... I can only perceive the Piper's revelation, not as a means to entertain, but as a way for Mr. Loebs to preach his view of morality into the consciousness of the populace." 8

     Piper was not the only character to "come out" in the early 1990s. After a full one hundred issues of Alpha Flight, team member Northstar was finally allowed to say he was gay. This began in 1991 with publication of the one hundredth issue, where a fan letter mentioned Northstar's early hints of homosexuality and wanted this plot line to be resurrected. "Wouldn't it be wonderful if you could revive the Northstar as a gay character story line again?" this reader asked. "Could it be that comics have grown up to the point in which Marvel could openly discuss gay characters in their comics?" 9 Realizing the potential, Marvel did just that in issue 106. While fighting a super villain in downtown Toronto, Northstar was thrown into an alley where he discovered an abandoned baby girl. Taking the child to a hospital, Alpha Flight soon learned the abandoned baby had AIDS. Adopting the baby as his own, Northstar began to promote AIDS awareness. This act enraged the retired superhero Major Mapleleaf, whose gay son died of AIDS the year before. Mapleleaf decided to attack Northstar for this perceived injustice to his son.
Northstar Says it
Well, finally...
"My son Michael was a victim of AIDS as well!" Mapleleaf monologued as he traded blows with Northstar. "But he was gay - so people didn't afford him the luxury of being 'innocent'. There were no press conferences, no fund-raisers, no nightly news updates .... And now you come along! You with your cute and sweet and photogenic little orphaned girl .... My son wasn't guilty of anything. But because he was gay, he didn't rate!" 10 View Image Northstar responded with a punch, yelling back: "Do not presume to lecture me on the hardships homosexuals must bear. No one knows them better than I. For while I am not inclined to discuss my sexuality with people for whom it is none of their business - I am gay!" 11 This revelation only enraged Major Mapleleaf further. "As a member of Alpha Flight," he said to Northstar, "You're one of Canada's most prominent public figures, both here and abroad! Before that, you were a renowned Olympic athlete! Don't you realize the good that you can do?! By not talking about your lifestyle - by closeting yourself - you're as responsible for my son's death as the homophobic politicians who refuse to address the AIDS crisis!" 12 View Image Northstar finally ended the fight with several more blows before coming to an amiable conclusion with Mapleleaf. "We do agree on one thing, sir. It is past time that people started talking about AIDS. About its victims. Those who die ... and those of us left behind." 13 View Image

     People did start talking, albeit more about Northstar than about AIDS. Northstar's homosexuality received immediate media coverage, with most newspapers praising the issue for its social awareness. A New York Times editorial wrote: "The comic audience is made up mainly of teen-agers, the group that will benefit most from discussions about sexuality and disease prevention. And the new story lines suggest that gay Americans are gradually being accepted in mainstream popular culture." After comparing Alpha Flight to earlier comics that promoted equality for African Americans and women, the article concluded: "Mainstream culture will one day make its peace with gay Americans. When that time comes, Northstar's revelation will be seen for what it is: a welcome indicator of social change." 14 Renee Graham from the Boston Globe quipped "It's a long way from wondering whether Lois Lane would ever figure out Clark Kent's secret identity." She also noted the overwhelmingly positive response from gay rights activists. 15 Comic author Peter David also praised the issue in a lengthy article, but mentioned a few drawbacks such as the limited distribution of Alpha Flight. "Since Alpha Flight is direct-only ... the chances are that Joe Average wouldn't be able to find it. Anyone who's interest is piqued enough to try and seek out a copy would go down to his local 7-11, be told by the guy behind the counter that they'd never heard of Alpha Flight, and perhaps presume the whole thing was a hoax." 16 David also asked a pertinent question about Northstar's revelation. "Northstar's coming out ultimately ... boils down to this: What next?" 17

     While David pondered over possible future plot lines that focused on Northstar's homosexuality, Marvel Comics was particularly leery of touching on such a controversial issue again. Northstar's revelation generated a massive amount of fan reaction, and the series editors mentioned the "immense response" when they printed several fan letters in Alpha Flight issue 110. Similar to the fan reaction when Pied Piper came out in Flash, the letters page of issue 110 printed several letters which praised and damned Northstar, including opinions from the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation and the Ku Klux Klan. 18 Fearful of garnering more controversy, Marvel prevented stories about Northstar's sexuality for several years afterwards.
What is he?
Subtle Enough for You?
Jean-Paul did not discuss his homosexuality at all through the remainder of Alpha Flight 19, and it was only once obliquely addressed in issue 114 when the character Walter Lankowski briefly referred to Northstar's "recent announcement". 20 This silence continued through 1994 when Northstar was featured in his own four part self-titled miniseries. This miniseries pitted Northstar against a new villain, Carl Kerridge, who hated Northstar because he was gay. However, no character in this series ever actually stated Northstar was gay, and instead used various hints to bring this point across. In the first issue, a minor character described Northstar: "He's arrogant, pig-headed, highly contemptuous of authority, and he's ... well. You've all read the file." 21 In the third issue, Northstar faced the villain Arcade who also hinted at his homosexuality. "I feel quite sorry for Northstar, admire him really," Arcade said to himself, "The courage to bare his soul and all that." A footnote that explained this comment said only "see Alpha Flight #106." 22 View Image When Northstar finally confronted Kerridge in the fourth and final issue, he continued these hints as he described his reasons for hating the mutant. "You are change, you are disorder." Kerridge explained. "You and your kind typify the malaise that infects the modern world ... the insidious progression towards a society lacking the most basic grasp of morality." 23 View Image As Kerridge attacked Northstar, he continued his rant. "I've watched you flaunt your difference for the whole world to see, delighting in your genetic and emotional quirks." 24 View Image

     While these open portrayals of homosexuality proved controversial, their existence demonstrated the mass media was beginning to adapt to this demographic. In 1989 the Comics Code underwent a revision that expressly allowed mentions of homosexuality. Prior to this the Comics Code forbade any mention of homosexuality, described as "sex perversion". In 1971 the comic industry updated the Comics Code to allow stories about the dangers of drug use, but this code still included the "sex perversion" clause. 25 The Code changed a third time in 1989, and this revision described homosexuals as a distinct minority group. "Recognizable national, social, political, cultural, ethnic and racial groups ... will be portrayed in a positive light." This included "social groups identifiable by lifestyle, such as homosexuals." 26 The new Code mentioned homosexuality again when describing characterizations. "Character portrayals will be carefully crafted to and show sensitivity to national, ethnic, religious, sexual, political and socioeconomic orientations." This section concluded by stating: "Heroes should be role models and should reflect the prevailing social attitudes." 27 By mentioning homosexuals in the new Comics Code, the comic creators and editors clearly understood gays were becoming a recognizable part of society. While homosexuals gained more prominence in the media during the early 1990s, they did so through political controversies. Beginning in 1992, conservative political and religious groups began to push for restrictions on gay rights, arguing that since homosexuality was a "choice" gays should not be eligible for equal-rights protections. In the state of Colorado an Amendment passed stating "Homosexual, lesbian or bisexual orientation, conduct, practices or relationships shall [not] ... entitle any person or class of persons to ... any minority status, quota preferences, protected status or claim of discriminations." 28 Another measure in the state of Oregon in the same year went even further, likening homosexuality to pedophilia. This measure not only did away with any protected status for gays, but also took measures to actively combat the idea of homosexuality. "The State Department of Higher Education and the public schools shall assist in setting a standard for Oregon's youth that recognizes homosexuality, pedophilia, sadism and masochism as abnormal, wrong, unnatural, and perverse and that these behaviors are to be discouraged and avoided." 29

     The Oregon law did not pass, but it only failed by a small percentage. 30 The Colorado Amendment did pass but sparked national protests by the gay community, including a boycott on traveling to Colorado. 31 After legal challenges, this Amendment was ultimately overturned by the United States Supreme Court. 32 While gays may have been gaining more prominence in the media, negative views of homosexuality continued unabated, seen in the widespread support for Amendment 2 and Measure 9 in Oregon. This conflict burst into the pages of the comics whenever gay characters were introduced, echoed in the myriad fan letters. This controversy continued into the next decade, even as more gay characters continued to be introduced.

Continue to 2000 and Beyond »
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