Growing up a geeky, bespeckled teenager in rural Ireland was far from ideal. This, coupled with the fact that I was struggling with my sexual identity, left me feeling confused even at the best of times, and so I found refuge in the pages of comic books. One comic book in particular struck a chord with me: Ultimate Spider-Man.
Brian Michael Bendis’ take on the classic hero updated him for the 21st century, made him younger, and pitted him against his greatest foe yet: teenage angst. Though I loved this series very, very much, it was in the pages of Ultimate X-Men that I first encountered LGBTQ+ issues in comic books.
Bundled with Ultimate Spider-Man for the newsstand market, Ultimate X-Men was often printed in the backpages, overshadowed by the former. I wasn’t a major X-Men fan particularly, so I took a general apathetic approach to the series. That was until I became aware of the interactions between two fan favourites: Colossus and Nightcrawler.
Colossus, in the Ultimate Marvel continuity, was openly gay and his acceptance of his sexuality created a rift between him and his former best friend, Nightcrawler. My interest was piqued. Never before had I seen gay characters in comic books, and Nightcrawler’s refusal to accept Colossus for who he was represented all the apprehensions I had about fully embracing my sexuality.
Marvel’s decision to include an openly gay character in an X-Men series complimented the book’s inherent themes of acceptance and equality. Many have even interpreted the ‘mutant gene’ as a comic book metaphor for sexuality. You can’t choose to be a mutant after all.
Comic books like Ultimate X-Men had begun to portray LGBTQ+ characters in a more positive light by the turn of the century, it had been a long journey prior, mainly due to the Comics Code Authority (CCA).
The CCA was formed in the 1950s as a response to anxieties perpetuated by psychiatrist Fredric Wertham in his book Seduction of the Innocent. He claimed that comic books were one of the main causes of juvenile delinquency because of their violent nature, and that characters like Batman and Robin were “psychologically homosexual.”
Wertham’s theories created major panic upon publication, and the CCA was formed to quell public fears. It set strict guidelines to which comics now had to adhere. This included a ban on referencing homosexuality, meaning LGBTQ+ peoples would not be overtly represented for many years; though a few writers attempted to bypass this guideline through the use of subtext.
In an early attempt by DC to dispel any notions of homosexual undertones present in their comics, Batwoman was introduced in the 1950s as a love interest for Batman. She appeared sporadically as a supporting character for many years before fading out completely in the 1980s.
She was then reintroduced in 2006 as openly lesbian, making her one of the most prominent LGBTQ+ characters in mainstream comic books. In an ironic move by DC, the character that had been introduced to highlight Batman’s heterosexuality was now proudly queer.
The character again received widespread media attention earlier this year when writers J.H. Williams and W. Haden Blackman announced that they would be stepping down from the Batwoman title, due to creative conflicts with DC over the character.
Among these creative conflicts with DC was the company’s refusal to allow the writers to marry Batwoman to her long-time girlfriend, Maggie Sawyer. According to DC, this move did not stem from blatant homophobia, but rather from the company’s creative standpoint that “superheroes should not have happy personal lives.” This caused outrage among fans who had hoped to see a more realistic depiction of LGBTQ+ characters in the medium.
This was not the first time DC had faced criticism for their treatment of LGBTQ+ characters. In 2012, DC teased that they would yet again reintroduce a pre-existing character as gay, stirring much fan speculation.
The comics company also stated that the character had not yet been seen in the new 52 (their new rebooted universe) as of yet, ruling out the company’s ‘big three’ – Batman, Superman, and Wonder Woman. It was finally revealed on June 1st, 2012 that Alan Scott, the first Green Lantern, was the character in question.
While many believed that having such a leading character who embraced his sexuality fully was a step forward for LGBTQ+ representation, others were disappointed to discover that this version of the Lantern existed on Earth 2, an ‘alternate’ reality, placing him outside of mainstream continuity. This was considered a cop-out by some fans.
Counter to DC’s decision to keep Batwoman unwed is Marvel’s decision to allow Northstar, of X-Men, to marry his partner Kyle Jinadu, in a major comic book wedding in Astonishing X-Men #51.
Northstar was one of comic’s first openly gay characters, having come out in an issue of Alpha Flight in the early 90s. Though creator John Byrne had always intended his character be openly gay, the CCA’s guidelines, combined with Marvel’s strict ‘no gay superheroes allowed’ policy in the 1980s, prevented him from addressing it fully.
Instead, Northstar’s disinterest in women was credited to his competitive nature; having a girlfriend would only hinder him. Despite coming out in the early 90s, Northstar would not share a kiss with a boyfriend character for over a decade, and there was little reference to his sexuality in the years following, either by supporting characters, or Northstar himself.
Although gay characters have come to the fore in comic books in recent years, trans* people remain surprisingly under-represented in the medium. Despite the potential that characters like Marvel’s shape-shifting Mystique hold, very little has been done to make use of them for trans* storylines.
Gail Simone, writer of DC’s Batgirl, recently revealed that Alysia Yeoh, a supporting character in the book, is transgender. An activist and roommate of Barbara Gordon’s, Yeoh has been featured in the book since 2011, and is also bisexual. Simone has made efforts to distinguish between gender identity and sexual orientation.
It was also announced very recently that one of Marvel’s classic villains, Loki, played by Tom Hiddleston in the Marvel cinematic universe, is not only gender fluid, but also bisexual. These issues will be addressed by writer Al Ewing in the upcoming Loki: Agent of Asgard series.
The CCA and all its strict guidelines became increasingly flexible over the years, and depictions of gender and sexuality became clearer and more realistic as a result. Now completely defunct, the CCA exists only in memory, allowing for better representations of LGBTQ+ people in mainstream comic books.
Although there is still a long journey ahead, there is some solace to be found in the pages of comic books for confused, bespeckled LGBTQ+ teens worldwide, and that makes me very happy.