Tara Block details the history of LGBT themes and characters comic strips, comic books, and the graphic novel world.
Was the marriage of Northstar in X-Men—a story that stole the headlines in past months—the first appearance of the LGBT and queer community in comic books? Tara Block of TrèsSugar says no, and brings us another great post about the prevelance of the LGBT community in illustrated culture.
Comic-Con kicks off today, and the San Diego convention is filled to the brim with superhero, movie, video-game, comic-book, and more pop culture enthusiasts ready to get their geek on. One area of fandom wildly celebrated at the convention is comic strips and comic books. We’ve been seeing this genre in the news lately thanks to a recent push to make comics more open to LGBT themes after being heavily censored by the Comics Code Authority up until 1989 (not that the restrictions prevented everyone from writing about gay characters). The road to a lesbian Batwoman and a gay Green Lantern has been rocky, but let’s see how homosexuality has been portrayed both positively and negatively in comics over the years.
Sanjak in Terry and the Pirates
While the character didn’t explicitly come out of the closet, cartoonist Milton Caniff alluded to the homosexual orientation of French naval officer Sanjak in the 1938 to 1939 edition of his comic Terry and the Pirates. The villainous woman disguises herself as a man and calls herself Madame Sud, then essentially hits on the protagonist’s girlfriend, April Kane.
Milton said in those days you couldn’t have an outed homosexual character in a comic, but he hinted at Sanjak being gay. He even named her after a Greek island next to the island of Lesbos, from which the word “lesbian” is derived.
Batman and Robin
The creators and writers of DC Comics’ Batman franchise have been adamant that the superhero and his sidekick Robin (Dick Grayson) are not gay, but many people would beg to differ. With comics like the one pictured from 1954, it’s no wonder psychiatrist Fredric Wertham asserted in his book Seduction of the Innocent (1954) that “Batman stories are psychologically homosexual.” And the jokes and parodies about Batman and Robin’s gay relationship are aplenty, including the famous animated parody “The Ambiguously Gay Duo” that aired on SNL in 1996.
While DC Comics superheroine Wonder Woman isn’t gay, her feminist qualities were too much for sexist men of the ’40s and ’50s when she first lassoed her way onto comic-book pages. Psychiatrist Fredric Wertham said in his 1954 book Seduction of the Innocent that Wonder Woman’s strength and independence meant she must be a lesbian.
There are rumors that Smurfette was introduced to The Smurfs comic in 1966 to prove that the all-male Smurf village wasn’t full of gay inhabitants. But theintroduction of Smurfette’s story seems more offensive to women than to the gay community.
Smurfette is created as an “evil” character by the wizard Gargamel, as is evidenced by her hideous appearance of brown hair and plain outfit. After she stirs up trouble with the boys, Papa Smurf transforms her into the sweet, blond bombshell we’re all familiar with — naturally causing all the male smurfs to chase after her.
LGBT themes have been explored in underground comix since the early ’70s. One of these alternative comics is Gay Comix, which was published from 1980 to 1998. Many of the early story lines were autobiographical from the homosexual artists involved in the series, and themes included falling in love, coming out, and sex. Even though the comics featured gay relationships, they weren’t as sexually explicit as some of the other graphic novels in the genre.
Japanese Yuri and Yaoi in Manga
Manga, aka Japanese comics, have featured both gay and lesbian relationships since the 1970s. Yuri (Girls’ Love) is the term for lesbian relationships in anime and manga, while Yaoi (Boys’ Love) is the term for male gay relationships. The stories involve sexual experiences, but they focus on the romantic and intimate relationships as opposed to pornographic material.
In yaoi, the two male characters are usually called “seme” and “uke,” slang for anal sex. These martial-arts terms could be a reference to the male same-sex relationships that used to take place between the samurai and their companions.
Beginning in the ’70s, yuri followed a common plot line that would involve a more mature-looking woman with a young admirer. They would have to work through a family upheaval of some kind, deal with a scandal due to their lesbian relationship, and then the older woman would die in a tragic ending.
Extraño in DC Comics
DC Comics’ first obviously gay character was the flamboyant Peruvian magician Extraño, who first appeared in Millennium #2 in 1988 and then in the spinoff series New Guardians. The superhero angered many by being a stereotypically jovial gay man in colorful clothing, not to mention his name is Spanish for “strange.”
New Guardians continued to be controversial by having a plot line in which several team members are infected with HIV through the scratch of the Hemo-Goblin. This misinformation about AIDS transmission plus the effeminate Extraño made the short-lived series offensive to the gay community.
Andy Lippincott in Doonesbury
Garry Trudeau’s Doonesbury became the first widely distributed comic strip to take on LGBT themes when it introduced gay character Andy Lippincott in 1976. Andy’s story line, which included his diagnosis with HIV in 1989 and AIDS-related death in 1991, earned Garry a Pulitzer Prize nomination. It also caused a handful of newspapers to boycott the strip.
Mark Slackmeyer in Doonesbury
Another Doonesbury character ruffled feathers when he came out in the comic strip in the ’90s. The strip followed the relationship of liberal NPR host Mark Slackmeyer and his politically conservative partner, Chase Talbot III, including their onair “outing” in 1996, marriage in 1999, and separation in 2007.
Kate Kane as the New Batwoman
Batwoman was originally created in 1956 as Batman’s love interest, but DC Comics reintroduced a new Batwoman, Jewish lesbian Kate Kane, in 2006. Kate is a socialite who was discharged from the military due to her sexual orientation. She’s also in a relationship with former Gotham City police detective Renee Montoya. In 2010, DC Comics gave the new Batwoman her own comic-book series.
Lawrence Poirier in For Better or For Worse
Lynn Johnston received hate mail and death threats from anti-gay readers when she had a teenage character, Michael Patterson’s friend Lawrence Poirier, come out in her comic strip For Better or For Worse in 1993. Despite the opposition, Lynn was a nominated finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Editorial Cartooning for the story line. The Pulitzer board said the strip “sensitively depicted a youth’s disclosure of his homosexuality and its effect on his family and friends.”
DC Comics’ Midnighter and Apollo
While Batman and Superman may not get together in an official sense, their modern counterparts Midnighter and Apollo from rogue superhero team The Authority do — even getting married in 2002’s graphic novel Transfer of Power.
Buffy the Vampire Slayer
Dark Horse’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer comics feature the lesbian characters from the TV show Willow, Tara, and Kennedy, but the comic-book series takes some liberties by having Buffy enter into a brief same-sex sexual experience. After she has a one-night stand (twice) with another girl, the creators call it experimentation, not coming out.
Rictor and Shatterstar in Marvel Comics
In Marvel Comics’ X-Factor, depowered mutant Rictor and his friend Shatterstar share a shocking kiss, with writer Peter David saying afterward that the characters are bisexual. The comic was one of the first mainstream comics to feature a gay kiss, earning itself the 2011 GLADD Media Award for Outstanding Comic Book.
Kevin Keller in Archie Comics
In 2010, Kevin Keller was the first gay character to join Archie Comic Books. Co-CEO Jon Goldwater explained the decision: “The introduction of Kevin is just about keeping the world of Archie Comicscurrent and inclusive. Archie’s hometown of Riverdale has always been a safe world for everyone. It just makes sense to have an openly gay character in Archie comic books.” Sorry, Veronica, I don’t think you’re Kevin’s type!
Northstar in Marvel Comics
Marvel Comics officially outed its first major gay character, Canadian superhero Northstar, in 1992, even though creator John Byrne said the character had been gay since his inception in the ’70s. Then just last month, Northstar wed his longtime partner Kyle in Astonishing X-Men #51. There was even a real same-sex wedding at New York’s Midtown Comics to commemorate the release of the issue!
DC Comics’ the Green Lantern
Since Alan Scott debuted as the Green Lantern in 1940, he’s been straight, even marrying twice and having children with both wives. But DC Comics announced this year that it is reintroducing the Green Lantern as a gay character. This new, younger version of the railway engineer turned crime fighter is now the publisher’s most famous and well-known outed superhero.
Writer James Robinson says this about the reincarnated gay superhero: “Alan’s sexuality is just one facet of him, along with his innate goodness, valour, charisma, and skill at leadership.”
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