On LGBT Characters in Superhero Comics
Given the recent news that a longtime DC hero (or villain, maybe) would soon be reintroduced as a "prominent gay character," not to mention the impending nuptials of Canadian mutant Northstar to his boyfriend Kyle Jinadu over in Marvel's Astonishing X-Men, it seems that mainstream superhero comics are becoming a friendlier place for homosexual characters. What's typically thought of as a medium that caters mostly to adolescent straight boys is getting a little more diverse, which is definitely something worth celebrating. Sure, it's only two characters out of hundreds, but change starts small, after all.
Of course, there are already a couple prominent LGBT characters in mainstream comics… well, LGB anyway… but the ratio of straight white males to everyone else is still heavily weighed in favor of the former. Of those characters that already exist, we'd be remiss if we didn't give a special shout-out to DC's Batwoman, a title that stars Kate Kane, a wealthy socialite/crime-fighter and proud lesbian. The book deftly juggles superheroics with a very realistic, nuanced portrayal of her budding relationship with Gotham City PD Captain Maggie Sawyer, and it does so in a way that's not exploitative.
Really, Batwoman writers JH Williams III and W Haden Blackman understand that that's the key to portraying a great non-straight character… don't make the book ABOUT that character's sexuality. That's a trap all these stories are going to have to avoid going forward, because to do so objectifies the characters in a way that makes everyone uncomfortable. That means that at a certain point we shouldn't need to read about how Northstar is gay, any more than we read about how Superman is straight… which is to say, not that much. In other words, straightness is a trait which Superman possesses, but that alone doesn't define him. Now, would it be interesting to see a story about how Northstar's homosexuality might make the road to his marriage more difficult, for instance? Yes, of course. But, again, these books have to be careful not to get into exploitative territory… Northstar, Batwoman and whoever else need the same humane, multi-dimensional portrayal that someone like Peter Parker gets (as multi-dimensional as is possible in a superhero comic, anyway).
But while we wait for DC to tell us which classic character will be given a new sexuality, while we wait to see how Northstar's engagement will fair against evil mutants and New York citizens alike, all we can do is guess at what the future might hold. Hopefully, it's a place where our LGBT brothers and sisters can feel welcome even in a medium that may have seemed alienating. And while fan reaction has been split on things like this before (there was a pretty serious uproar a month ago when DC writer Grant Morrison offhandedly told Playboy that just the concept of Batman was "very, very gay"), generally fans seem to be pretty cautious-to-positive about this recent string of announcements. This may seem like a stretch, but perhaps some of that change can be credited to President Barack Obama, whose groundbreaking announcement in support of gay marriage has changed the tenor of its discussion at least a little bit. DC's Senior Vice President of Sales Bob Wayne even echoed Obama's words when he said that DC's stance on gay characters "has evolved."
Undoubtedly both DC and Marvel are working good timing and buzz to their advantage here. They're probably going to make tons of money selling these comics, and they're guaranteeing the historical significance of their product. However, that doesn't invalidate the results of their marketing. Superhero comics represent a very small chunk of our culture, true, but that chunk ought to exhibit the same kind of inclusiveness and diversity that the rest of our society does. And if you doubt that, well, who could've guessed in 1975 that a CANADIAN would become Marvel's most popular superhero? (We love you, Wolverine!)