Kapow! Blam! Zap! These widely recognized bubble expressions have been a mainstay of comics. But whether you’re an avid comic book reader or just a casual fan, you’ve probably noticed a few changes lately. A number of beloved characters have come out of their illustrated closets. More importantly, they are part of main story lines, presented as intricate, well-written characters that just happen to also be LGBT.
“I’ve noticed our readership has appreciated that too,” says Tate’s Comics + Toys + More staff member, Anthony Ruiz. “Because when you focus on the sexuality of a character before the quality, it just comes off as pandering — and nobody likes that.”
Comic books as we recognize them today originated in the 1930s, but weren’t a popular medium until the early 1940s. Their demographic then — straight, white, male teens — wasn’t looking for any insight into LGBT culture. And though Fredric Wertham’s 1954 book, Seduction of the Innocent, warned of the influence comics had on impressionable youth, making outrageous claims about Wonder Woman’s strength and independence being signs of her lesbian tendencies, the norm was actually
to “keep it straight.”
Characters like DC Comics’ Batwoman were afterthoughts, indeed created as love interests in the 1950s to take some of the homoerotic heat off of main heroes like Batman and Robin. Fast forward to 2006, and the modern superheroine has been reintroduced as a Jewish, ex-military officer with a slew of romantic partners — and she’s out and proud.
A classic villain like Catwoman was also originally cast as a dangerous temptation for Batman. But earlier this year, she was revealed to be a canon bisexual — and her story is poised to explore this side of her through a lesbian relationship.
“Boy, it sure wouldn’t have been possible when I was writing,” says Lee Goldsmith, a Miami resident and a veteran in the industry, writing for comics since the 1940s. He penned characters like Wonder Woman, Green Lantern and The Flash back when staying straight in story lines was a priority. “You had to be very careful about your choice of words and your choice of phrases,” he says.
Now, the out and recently married 93-year-old is prouder than ever of the industry where he made his career. “It’s joined the rest of the world, and kids today are so much more sophisticated than they were then.”
This evolution has been slow to come, to say the least. The first openly gay superhero in Marvel Comics history, Northstar, didn’t see daylight until 1992’s Alpha Flight #106. He would later marry his long-time boyfriend, Kyle. And while characters from the X-Men universe like Colossus and Iceman were recently outed in alternate story arcs, others are officially part of the community — like Mystique who’s bisexual.
“I think we’re seeing gay roles finally explored with some real depth and across a variety of “types” in mainstream superhero comics,” says Phil Jimenez. The illustrator has created and worked on several LGBT characters over the years, including Lord Fanny from The Invisibles, Sera from Angela, Anaya and Iphthime from Wonder Woman and Kevin Zapada from Otherworld, among other gender queer characters.
“I think [this] is the result of creators pushing for it to expand their creative opportunities and better reflect the world they live in, publishers who understand the social and economic drive to be more inclusive with their output and a more vocal consumer base, who have used the Internet to push for a more inclusive, diverse stable of characters across many superhero universes,” he concludes.
As for the backlash, it’s been minimal. “You’ll always have some people who have something negative to say,” says Ruiz. “But the positive voices drown out the whisper of negativity around that.”
There has been a rise in the visibility of LGBT character-driven books among the general comic book readership, from both those within the LGBT community and outside. “We’ve had the material there,” says Ruiz, “but people are starting to notice them, and they are starting to stand out less as they become the norm and just a normal part of the comic landscape.”
As a result, writers and illustrators are getting bolder, too, including aspects of current LGBT culture into their story lines. A character from The Authority, The Midnighter, has his own self-titled main continuity book. Known as one of the first gay superheroes to be in a relationship, he married (and later divorced) Superman-like character Apollo. Now single, he has an active sex life, meeting men via apps like Grindr and Scruff.
And the fan base is responding. Sales for The Midnighter are strong. “We sold out of issue #1 the day it came out,” says Ruiz. “Comics (especially the big two) have had a long history of LGBT characters, from Mystique, Hulkling and Wiccan [lovers and members of the Young Avengers] to Obsidian, Batwoman and so many others. It really has become normal to have LGBT characters in comics to some extent.”
A bevy of fascinating stories and characters are now a permanent part of the comic book world, and writers, illustrators and readers are reaping the rewards. Stop by your local shop and see what’s in store.
Here are a few titles recommended by Tate’s Comics + Toys + More:
The new Jem and the Holograms
What it is: The new take on the classic 1980s cartoon is truly outrageous. Kimber
and Stormer are now both lesbians.
Notoriety: It debuted earlier this year with an updated storyline that is more realistic. Forget supermodel-ready musicians; now it’s all about real-world design.
What it is: Dubbed “Runaways meets Lost,” six new students arrive at a prestigious prep school only to find that something sinister lurks behind its hallowed doors.
Notoriety: The series found commercial success from its inception, with four printings of the first issue alone. The first volume of the trade paperback edition (containing issues 1-6) sold 10,000 copies in a month.
What it is: An event comic with three oversized, 48-page issues, it details the end of the world over the course of three days and features an LGBT lead character.
Notoriety: Nominated for “Outstanding Comic Book” by GLAAD
What it is: This story follows a group of girls at a summer camp and the strange creatures and supernatural phenomena they encounter.
Notoriety: Nominated for “Outstanding Comic Book” by GLAAD, this comic has become so popular that 20th Century Fox is working on a live-action adaptation.
What it is: The lead character was introduced back in 1964 as a villain, but has appeared in many books, including The Mighty Avengers. This self-titled book features an LGBT character in a supporting role.
Notoriety: Nominated for “Outstanding Comic Book” by GLAAD