Sexual identity often appears as a fact-of-life character trait in popular comics
For nearly 70 years, teen boys devoured adventure stories featuring musclebound men in skintight uniforms — and yet no one made too much of the homoerotic subtext so long as the stories avoided “sex perversion or any inference to same” (per the 1954 Comics Code Authority).
But comics by their very nature appeal to outsiders.
Readers who felt they didn’t fit in — basically everyone in high school but the homecoming king and queen — could live vicariously through the exploits of mild-mannered rejects transformed by extraordinary superpowers, and gays were no exception.
The revolution of LGBT representation began in the underground comics of the late 1960s, crossed over to the funny pages in 1976 when Garry Trudeau introduced an openly gay character in his “Doonesbury” strip and eventually reached mainstream comics in the mid-1980s as writers began outing characters in superhero comics.
“For every hush-hush good portrayal like Arnie Roth in ‘Captain America,’ you have a Bruce Banner getting raped in the shower in what they were trying to position as an adult ‘Hulk’ magazine in 1980,” says Roger Klorese, president of Prism Comics, a nonprofit org supporting LGBT comics creators.
Today, sexual identity frequently appears as a fact-of-life character trait in popular comics titles — which is exactly the type of casual inclusion GLAAD celebrates with its media awards.
“I think one of the good-news changes in society is that we’re not dealing with a closeted world,” says Paul Levitz, publisher and prexy of DC Comics. “Now it is a reasonable factor of someone’s humanity — just as they would describe someone as being tall or handsome or scholarly or athletic — that part of characters’ depths can come out of their sexuality.”
DC published three of this year’s five GLAAD nominees and has won seven of the 10 awards given in the category since 1992.
“For most of their history — certainly from the start — comics have been a marginal art form,” says Michael Chabon, who won the Pulitzer for his novel “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay” about two golden-age comics creators, both Jewish, one of them gay, “so I guess it’s not surprising that they’ve attracted artists over the years who live at the margins.”
Though comics historically tackled issues of race and class equality before the more mainstream media dared address such topics, “it’s not as progressive as people would think, largely because the public perception is that comicbooks are for children,” says Andy Mangels, whose 1988 article “Out of the Closet and Into the Comics” offered a seminal look at the gay characters and creators in comics.
Allan Heinberg, the openly gay creator of GLAAD-nominated “Young Avengers,” has courted such controversy by including two gay lead characters, sidekicks to the Hulk and Thor, in a superhero title for teens.
“In issue after issue, the most fascinating part was the letters page,” Heinberg says.
After the first issue, readers wrote in to ask whether the characters were gay, and Heinberg hinted that he intended to explore the kids’ identities, “sexual and otherwise,” prompting more letters of support and criticism. In issue seven, the couple came out to their supportive parents.
“Being a television staff writer is largely about ventriloquism,” says Heinberg, who also produces the primetime soap “The OC.” ” ‘Young Avengers’ is actually the first project that is purely my voice. Those kids, straight and gay and black and white — and green in one case — they really love each other, and that’s the message.”
Love, not sexuality, is also the central theme of Terry Moore’s long-running “Strangers in Paradise” series, which has been nominated for six GLAAD awards over its 13 years.
The independently published slice-of-life story centers on two female soulmates constantly grappling with their unconventional relationship.
“I don’t have a political subtext to this,” Moore says. “My only agenda in ‘SIP’ is to write about love, values and things that break us apart and bring us together. I’m not really interested in labels or role-playing or styles or genders even.”
Moore’s message connects with readers who fall outside the traditional comics-reading demo, including “Herbie: Fully Loaded” director Angela Robinson, who is working with Moore to adapt the books to live-action.
Also screen-bound is Brian K. Vaughan’s “Y: The Last Man,” an apocalyptic sci-fi story in which a virus has killed all but one man on earth, leaving the surviving women to seek companionship among members of their own sex in various provocative permutations.
“Most comicbooks are a fragile balance between kissing and punching,” Vaughan says. “It began as just wanting to explore characters and what happens when they can’t be with the ones they love.”
The remaining two nominees continue previous GLAAD-nominated series “Gotham Central” (featuring lesbian detective Renee Montoya) and Alan Moore’s “Top Ten: The Forty-Niners” (a prequel in which future police captain Steve Traynor finds his first male lover).
“It’s not just important to include LGBT characters, it’s important to show all kinds of characters,” says Mangels. “You don’t have to turn ‘Justice League’ into ‘Will & Grace,’ but LGBT characters can create all sorts of new angles to explore.”