Home > analysis, comics > A Comic Opinion: Depictions of the LBGT in Mainstream Comics

A Comic Opinion: Depictions of the LBGT in Mainstream Comics

Of late I’ve been really interested in representations, writings, and visual depictions of marginalized groups in art mediums, comics specifically. It’s a topic I feel like isn’t really properly addressed by the comics community on the scale that criticisms are made of other art mediums. It seems ironic that the news items most heavily picked up by mainstream news media regarding the mainstream comics community involves treatments of marginalized voices, but the comics community itself doesn’t spend nearly as much on the matter. Last years’ announcement of introducing Miles Morales, a black latino mix, as the new Ultimate Spider-Man received a good amount of attention. And yesterday, the announcement of the ‘gay marriage’ of Marvel’s Northstar character and his boyfriend, as well as DC’s announcement of one of the New 52 characters as ‘turning gay’ in the upcoming months also provided much discussion. With these recent announcements made by both Marvel and DC yesterday I felt that it was about time for me to start talking about it. In this case, giving a sense of where gay characters began, about depictions of homosexuality in mainstream comics (specifically Marvel and DC), why now, and what does this all mean.

The image accompanying Marvel’s announcement

Well, the easy part to answer is the emergence of LBGT characters within the main universes of DC and Marvel. If any individual is to be given credit for adding a homosexual character into mainstream comics it was writers Steve Englehart and Joe Staton with the introduction of Extraño in 1987 with the series’ Millennium and New Guardians. The character was not only foreign, but made very effeminate in what is a perceived stereotype of homosexuals in mass media. Those same series also contained a fellow character, Jet, who contracted HIV/AIDS. The point to make about these characters is less their inclusion, but the depictions of homosexuality. Both Extraño and Jet were stereotypes of homosexuals in the late 1980s. The stereotyping of the former is one that persists in mass media today with such shows as Queer Eye for the Straight Guy. Whereas, the characterization of Jet is important to understand as its a byproduct of conceptions and fears of HIV/AIDS and the homosexual community (in this case spreading rapidly via cuts). As such the depictions of Extraño and Jet can be largely be seen in the same line as the depictions in other media formats. Since then, DC has largely put homosexual characters into supporting roles. This has changed only slightly, with characters such as Renee Montoya taking a central role in Gotham Central and 52. It’s only with the recent announcement of a main character of the DC 52 becoming gay has the company given significant attention to the issue.

Extrano, DC’s first and most flamboyant gay character

Marvel, on the other hand, has a far more complex history to it. In the 1980s, Marvel’s Editor-in-Chief Jim Shooter forbid any homosexual characters in the Marvel universe. In the ’90s this was slightly lessened allowing for LBGT characters, but comics had to have an ‘Adults Only’ label printed on them that heavily featured these characters. Even in these series there wasn’t much intimacy between homosexual characters and the rating label largely stemmed from the fact that these characters had a separate sexual orientation than the content of the comics. While DC’s depictions were originally based off stereotyping of homosexuals, Marvel’s publishing (or lack thereof) was largely reactionary. While Shooter’s legacy was controversial in Marvel itself, his attitudes to homosexuals didn’t define the general Marvel policies, especially given the adult ratings in the ’90s. It was around this period that Marvel began to introduce openly gay characters into their universe, often taking supportive, yet prominent roles in team serials. In George Haggerty’s Encyclopedia of Gay Histories and Cultures he states that Marvel’s inclusion of homosexuals, when compared to DC, was “less prolific but more deliberate.” This can be evidenced in the recent announcement of Northstar’s ‘gay marriage.’

But why is this happening now?

Well, the most obvious answer to that is that the issue of gay marriage has entered public conscious at a massive level in the past few years. Regardless, of your standing in a political spectrum and your level of access to current dissemination of news media, you’ve probably heard of trends in gay marriage politics, as well as likely carrying your own opinion on the matter. The reason Marvel is doing this now is because the issue is at its height of consciousness and with President Obama’s approval of it, has an easier time of accessing the comic purchasing demographic (as well as a few extra readers interested in the subject). The other part of this announcement is the relative obscurity of the character. Northstar is a character small enough that he isn’t known by mainstream society and could be missed by comic readers who don’t happen to read the series’ he is in. His marriage to his boyfriend carries little weight in the whole of the Marvel universe. But, it carries symbolism.

Dan DiDio and DC: Not sure where to go on the issue

While the Marvel announcement is definitely provoking and interesting in regards to the heavy amount of news attention it has received, DC’s announcement of a new ‘gay’ character that was previously ‘straight’ is the real case that needs to be examined. DC has yet to reveal which particular character is ‘turning gay,’ though, that matters little in the overall meaning of it all. Last year, Dan DiDio stated in an interview with the LBGT magazine The Advocate:

“One of the things we’re very focused on doing for these types of stories is rather than [change an existing] character, we want to make sure that this is the basis of who that character is right from the start. So if we’re going to introduce a gay character in Teen Titans, we want to make it a new character and make sure that is an iatrical [integral was probably the word intended here] part of who he is, or who she is, right from the start so we can really lean and grow with her or him.”

Of course, the recent decision by DiDio and DC is probably a mixture of influences from the Marvel announcement, changes of LBGT issues in the political atmosphere, and the growing concern of diversity (of race, gender, and now sexual orientations) in mainstream comics today. But, is it alright to have a character ‘turn gay?’ By this I mean, follow DiDio’s rhetoric and try to avoid and develop a LBGT character from their creation rather than ‘making them homosexual.’ Yes, it’s possible for there to be an explanation of changes in orientation (a vast majority of the LBGT supporting characters are bisexual, a result of possible orientation retconning), but it doesn’t give much attention to the community itself.

Renee Montoya is probably my favorite depiction of LBGTs in mainstream comics

What mainstream comics need is a character who is intended to be homosexual or transgender, and potentially openly so. It’s quite possible to also make this a part of the development of the character amongst their relationships (mostly non-romantic) and their fellow heroes. Renee Montoya remains my favorite depiction of an LBGT character in mainstream comics as her orientation is involved in thoughtful ways in the main narrative and is explored via the relationship with her family. There is a reason why most of Marvel’s homosexual characters are mutants, because it gives them more than one level of discrimination to deal with.

Complexity of sexuality and the importance of orientation differences is important to convey to readers to create a healthy comic readership. While these new announcements have the potential to grow into something else, they are most likely receiving mass attention because of other debates regarding LBGT issues in contemporary society. Comics have the potential to become a vehicle in aiding the transition from an era of stereotyping and reactionism (as seen in the ’80s and ’90s) to a dynamic system of orientations.


[Note: This is my first time discussing issues in the LBGT community and marginalized images in comics. Please give me feedback on approach for possible future discussions. I would to hear/read it.]

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