Last Friday the New York Times published “Out of the Closet and Up, Up and Away” about Skin Tight USA at the Stonewall Inn in West Village.
The Skin Tight party — in which the costumes range from the familiar (like Spider-Man) to ones that only a comics geek would recognize (like the 1993 version of Superboy) — is one way that gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender comic book fans are expressing themselves today. They are coming out, loud and proud, in blogs, peer groups, Web comics and more, simultaneously pronouncing their sexual identity and their devotion to comic books. But it wasn’t that long ago that the environment was less than welcoming for those who wanted to make the two seemingly disparate worlds one.
Those who didn’t grow up as superhero fans and/or students of the queer in popular culture may not realize that there has been a longtime gay/lesbian subculture of interest in those men and women in tights. Recognition of this interest occurred as early as 1954, when Fredric Wertham published Seduction of the Innocent, a diatribe against comic books that led to a Congressional inquiry and the establishment of the Comics Code Authority.
“Comic books stimulate children sexually. That is an elementary fact of my research,” he argued on p. 175. Then, later, “The muscular male supertype, whose primary sex characteristics are usually well emphasized, is in the setting of certain stories the object of homoerotic sexual curiosity and stimulation.” (p. 188).
Batman and Robin were called out, specifically, as a problematic case of pederasty in comics.
At home they lead an idyllic life. They are Bruce Wayne and “Dick” Grayson. Bruce Wayne is described as a “socialite” and the official relationship is that Dick is Bruce’s ward. They live in sumptuous quarters, with beautiful flowers in large vases, and have a butler, Alfred. Batman is sometimes shown in a dressing gown. As they sit by the fireplace, the young boy sometimes worries about his partner: “Something’s wrong with Bruce. He hasn’t been himself these past few days.” It is like a wish dream of two homosexuals living together. Sometimes they are shown on a couch, Bruce reclining and Dick sitting next to him, jacket off, collar open, and his hand on his friend’s arm. […]
Robin is a handsome ephebic boy, usually shown in his uniform with bare legs. He is buoyant with energy and devoted to nothing on earth or in interplanetary space as much as to Bruce Wayne. He often stands with his legs spread, the genital region discreetly evident. (p. 191)
Needless to say, reading Seduction of the Innocent is an exercise in campy fun nowadays — “good heavens, beautiful flowers in large vases! Your honor, I rest my case.” Go ahead and read Seduction yourself, especially Chapter 7. Some parts are pretty amusing; other parts will make you glad that some of comics’ worst offenses (especially violence against women) were reined in.
Of course, Wertham was absolutely right in his suspicions. Only the most naive of readers could possibly miss the Batman and Robin subtext. (Their relationship, as a side note, was inspired by Sherlock Holmes and Watson, another couple often given a queer reading — a Holmes/Watson comic with canonical text can be found here). And the rest of those early male superheroes were much the same. Although they hadn’t settled down into Bruce and Dick’s comfortable companionship, they nevertheless ran around in skin-tight suits doing manly things with other men and hiding their true selves from the women in their lives — none of whom they married, at least no longer than a hallucinatory or alternate-world sequence.
Wonder Woman, Wertham helpfully pointed out, served as a role model for lesbians.
Where Batman is anti-feminine, the attractive Wonder Woman and her counterparts are definitely anti-masculine. Wonder Woman has her own female following. They are all continuously being threatened, captured, almost put to death. There is a great deal of mutual rescuing, the same type of rescue fantasies as in Batman. Her followers are the “Holliday girls,” i.e. the holiday girls, the gay party girls, the gay girls. Wonder Woman refers to them as “my girls.” (p. 193)
Wertham could be dismissed as reactionary, but in fact we know from anecdotes both published and spoken that some members of the GLBT community were inspired and aroused by superheroes as children. For example,
Novelist and art critic David Galloway (1987) testifies that, contemplating Warhol’s painting, he was transported back to adolescent erotic fantasies inspired by Superman comics — fantasies in which he recognized the emergence of his own homosexuality. He recalls “lying in the grass imag[ing] Superman’s pulsing thighs hovering over me. The forbidden world of comics thus acquired a fresh, engrossing dimension of Taboo. Batman and Robin suggested nimble variations on the theme, but Superman remained my own tender, indigo-haired ravager” (quoted in Collins & Cowart, p. 115)
Edward H. Sewell Jr.’s chapter “Queer Characters in Comic Strips” provides a history of the comic-strip recognition of homosexuality. He notes that a (coded) gay male character was introduced in 1936, and a lesbian in 1939, in Milt Caniff’s Terry and the Pirates, but it wasn’t until 1976 that an openly gay male character appeared in a comic strip — Andy Lippincott in Gary Trudeau’s Doonesbury.
But those are hardly comic-book superheroes. What about those daring young men and women in tights? When did they come out of the closet as well as out of of the phone booth?
The 1960s included some parodic gay and lesbian heroes, but the mainstream comic industry in America waited until the late 1980s and 1990s to feature openly gay or lesbian characters, starting with extras and walk-ons and moving into supporting characters. Marvel’s Northstar was one of the first major superheroes to come out as gay, in 1992, the same year the British comic 2000 AD introduced muscular gay exorcist-priest Devilin Waugh, who was consciously created as a foil for Judge Dredd.
Since then, a number of other openly gay superheroes have been created, several of them appearing in X-Men, a series that has always been read as a metaphor for various oppressed or repressed subcultural groups. (Of interest, in the backstory for Colossus, who is gay in the Ultimate X-Men spinoff, we see him keeping a much-creased Captain America poster under his bed — perhaps he hid it because he grew up in Russia, but….). And an established, living-together gay superhero couple, Apollo and Midnighter, is featured in The Authority.
By contrast, relatively few superheroes have come out as lesbian. However, the 2006 lesbian incarnation of Batwoman makes her as the most mainstream, well-known LBGT superhero — Batwoman, after all, has been around in one persona or another since 1956. There’s still no comparably vintage, openly gay male superhero yet.
At least, not outside the Stonewall Inn.
Collins, Bradford R. & Coward, David (1996). Through the Looking Glass: Reading Warhol’s Superman. American Imago 53.2, 107-137.
Quote originally from Galloway, David. 1987. “Pop Goes the Hero.” In Superman at Fifty: The Persistence of a Legend. Edited by Dennis Dooley and Gary D. Engle. Cleveland: Octavia. 116-22.
Sewell Jr., Edward H. (2001) Queer Characters in Comic Strips. In Matthew P. McAllister, Edward H. Sewell, Jr., and Ian Gordon (Eds.), Comics & Ideology. New York: Peter Lang, pp. 251-274.
Wertham, Frederic. (1972 [originally printed 1954]). Seduction of the Innocent. Port Washington, N.Y.: Kennikat Press.
A useful list of “Lesbian, Gay, and Bi Super-Heroes” can be found online courtesy of Beek’s Book; it includes both mainstream and indie comics.
Comic-book panels shamelessly ripped off of Superdickery.