In a world populated by extreme representations of evil and fear, costumed heroes sweep in to save the day. Sometimes they pull gasping victims from burning buildings, others, they descend from the heavens at lightning speed, using super strength to pummel villains into oblivion. Heroes are heroes. They’re reflections of who we are and who we aspire to be. They are White, Black, Asian and every shade in between. When we read comic books we want to see ourselves represented in a way that’s larger than life and usually that’s exactly what we get. However, for one group, that representation has not always come easily. In fact, there was a time when intolerance and fear made it very difficult to be an LGBTQ hero in a world where anything is supposed to be possible.
It all started with a man named Dr. Frederic Wertham, who in 1954, published a book entitled Seduction of the Innocent. In his tome, Dr. Wertham argued that the comic book industry was intentionally subverting basic “American Values” by encouraging among other things, violence, crime, homosexuality and loose sexual mores. His research centered primarily around horror comics, but he also included superhero comics in his indictment as well. Given that the 50’s were a time when abject terror of practically everything ran rampant ( see also; communism, rock & roll, racial equality), Wertham found a ready audience for his fear mongering. Appearing before a Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency, without any objective evidence whatsoever, Wertham posited that comic books were a primary cause of crime committed by American youths. Concerned parents rallied around the good doctor who continued his public crusade, sometimes even holding comic book burnings to drive their point home. (Link)
Reading the writing on the wall, the Comics Magazine Association of America took preemptive measures and formed The Comics Code Authority, an industry trade group which would bestow upon any comic that met its strict guidelines, an all important seal of approval. This was not to say that comics without the seal could not be published. The reality however, was that given the simmering hostility toward the comic book industry, comics that did not bear the seal were doomed to failure. (Link)
Some of the rules created by the Comics Code centered around how crime and supernatural activity could be portrayed. Others focused on depictions of government officials, drug use and even physical appearance of popular characters (cleavage was a “no-no”). Yet, its most sweeping set of rules were trained on sexuality, strictly forbidding “illicit sex relations…sexual abnormalities…sex perversion or any reference to same”. The Code also mandated that love and romance “emphasize the value of home and sanctity of marriage”. Due to general intolerance for homosexuality during this period in history, these rules were an effective roadblock for any LGBTQ representation in comics. The rules were also written broadly enough to permit any Code administrator on any given day, capable of enforcing them as he saw fit. (Link)
One of the first victims of the Code were Batman & Robin, who Wertham implied were involved in a sexual relationship . To combat this, DC Comics introduced the character of Bat-Woman in 1966 to serve as a more wholesome love interest for Batman. As the 70’s began, LGBTQ characters and story lines still remained verboten, but Marvel Comics started to test the boundaries of the Code by introducing heroes whose sexuality was implied. Although a specific story line was nixed, a member of the superhero team, Alpha Flight, named “Northstar”, was written in a manner that called his heterosexuality into question. Pressing the limits further, both Marvel and DC began to publish certain books explicitly labeled for mature readers that eschewed the Comics Code seal. The 80’s saw the advent of AIDS, bringing issues of sexuality into the public consciousness in ways that they had not been before. In this environment, Marvel took the lead. Without explicitly labeling him homosexual, they introduced a character named Arnie Roth, a friend of Captain America who preferred the company of his male roommate, foregoing marriage. Cap made a point of acknowledging the relationship in a way that did not address his friend’s sexuality, but that instead addressed the importance of connecting with those we love. (Link)
With the 90’s came the inevitable phasing out of rules that prohibited LGBTQ characters and story lines as publishers began to realize that the Code was simply not in line with their readership’s views. In that realization, the closet doors that had held back expression of character sexuality were flung wide open. Characters like The Flash’s sometimes nemesis, Pied Piper came out (making him one of the very first openly gay villains of the start of the 21st century). Without utilizing even a hint of innuendo, DC also confirmed that some of Wonder Woman’s fellow Amazons were lesbians. Not stopping there, after 20 years of speculation, Marvel’s Northstar finally confirmed fan suspicion and identified as gay in 1992. Not long after, the wholesome Bat-Woman (the very same character who was supposed to serve as Bat Man’s beard) was reintroduced as a lesbian. The 2000’s also saw the first same sex wedding featured on a comic book cover, when Northstar married his longtime partner on June 20, 2012. This watershed moment helped clear the path for other classic characters, such as Thor’s Loki, who is now identified as “gender fluid”, Harley Quinn who has been romantically linked to DC’s Poison Ivy, along with new characters like Shining Knight, who is transgender and Marvel’s America Chavez, who is bisexual. (Link)
Even now, despite the many gains made by those creating and writing LGBTQ characters, LGBTQ heroes are more often the exception to the “norm”. It cannot be denied that although there is a clear move toward embracing diversity of all stripes, comics continue to be dominated by strong muscular male, and voluptuous, seductive female characters of the heterosexual variety. That view, however will continue to be challenged by new generations of writers and artists who recognize that the larger than life representations of every day people that comic books offer, must be inclusive of all races, genders and sexual orientations if this medium is to survive and prosper. Love knows no bounds, so why should comics?