One of my favourite writers (comic book or otherwise), is Gail Simone, a woman whose grasp of dialogue and nuances of character is so sharp she begs few parallels amonsgst her contemporaries – yup, she’s that good folks. In the late 1990s, Gail created a website with the rather disturbing title “Women in Refrigerators”, a site that took a rather sharp and disparaging look at the ill-advised treatment of female characters in the comic book industry, many of whom had been injured, killed, raped, sexually assaulted or depowered as some form of “plot device” to “further” some story. Her unblinking view of the portrayal of women in the medium encouraged both creators and fans, for better or worse, to reevaluate the effect and impact of these stories, and encouraged and spearheaded some widespread, positive change for the better throughout the industry in regards to the respect and treatment of these important female characters. And so, inspired as I’ve been by Gail’s quiet but forceful movement for change, I couldn’t help but ponder over the treatment of LGBT characters in this industry that I’d loved since my childhood.
And first of all…can I just say it’s 2011. And times, they are a-changing. And that’s not to take away by any means from the gay rights movement and the many issues faced by gay, lesbian bi and trans people on a day-to-day basis. But in my mind…really, who CARES at this point? Hasn’t gay culture saturated the media enough, with at least a handful of recognizable to most real life role models of actors and singers and athletes now loud, proud, and out…and yet still loved and admired by their adoring fans? Knowing this, how bad could the comic book landscape be?
Pretty bad it seems.
And if you belong to Marvel, downright dangerous to your being.
Take Northstar for instance, or Jean Paul Beaubier, one of the first prominent openly gay heroes of the Marvel Universe. A world renowned ski champion and former terrorist (it’s complicated!), pointy eared mutant, and a charter member of Canada’s very own superhero team, Alpha Flight. Seems ol’ Northstar’s been killed and brought back so many times I’ve lost count, but one of the more memorable now you see him, now you don’t moments involved fellow X-men and mutie Wolverine impaling (no sub context here) Jean Paul through the chest with his metal claws, only to have him return a short time later as some zombie killer. Currently back in good health and living the superhero dream once again, he’s been happily involved a same-sex relationship of late, only to recently see his partner brutalized by yet another terrorist group, then hospitalized and now clinging to life (my guess is it’s because they dared to do the nasty). Then there’s another hero with the unfortunate name of Freedom Ring, who was introduced with much fanfare in 2006 and then killed off quite brutally a mere four issues later (with his finger sliced off and then graphically impaled (again with the impaling!!) on numerous spikes, including one through the groin and another protruding from his anus. Geesh. Literal much? And then there’s Karma (Xi’an Coy Mahn) of the New Mutants, a lesbian Vietnamese girl, first raped as a child, then later, through the course of various storylines, kidnapped, disfigured, marred, and possessed, a possession that caused her for a short time to become grossly obese (we’re talking the size of a large sofa), and who most recently lost a leg to amputation in battle. A woman, a minority and a lesbian? Let’s face it….poor Xi’an didn’t stand a chance. I could go on, but suffice to say things only get more twisted, sadistic, and brutal when you’re “gay” in the Marvel World. My feeling is the next company retreat at Marvel should involve some intense psychological examinations of writing staff with the hopes of determining why those “icky” feelings these writers experienced that popped up playing shirts and skins in gym class so long ago has somehow evolved into this hot mess.
Over at DC, things don’t fare a great deal better. First, for your consideration, a flame haired, hot to trot lesbian, the new Batwoman (Kate Kane), former army brat and former army vet, and victim of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, who left the military after refusing to disavow her involvement in a same-sex relationship. Since taking up the mantle of the Bat, Kate’s been tortured, abused, and even stabbed through the stomach a few times and left for dead (well, she was actually killed and brought back through something called the Lazarus Pit, but that was Grant Morrison’s work, the enfant terrible of the comic writing world, so that one’s OK, cuz he’s cool and I like his name.) So, in retrospect, I suppose she hasn’t fared so well, even if all the while she looks great while doing it in skin tight black leather. Then there’s Renee Montoya, an alcoholic ex cop who after years of destructive relationships with various women (including Batwoman) and totally bottoming out while facing her alcohol demons, now patrols the streets as DCs premier superhero detective, the Question, who’s mask is one of no face, literally. Or how about Obsidian, son of Earth 2s Green Lantern (long story!) whose homosexuality is attributed to being sexually abused by his step father (you know, it made him gay), and who’s powers are over darkness and shadows, meaning he gets to go insane on a regular basis while hiding in a dim closet, before he gets brought back to the side of the angels by his green-skinned hipster sister Jade, whom he’s just a little too close with. And perhaps the latest and greatest debacle…a new character created for the Teen Titans called Bunker who can create force fields that look like brick walls (shades of Stonewall perhaps?). The artist on the book, Brett Booth, claims he wanted his look to cause your gaydar to go off at first sight, meaning this dude was going to be obvious with a capital O. YOu know, a flamboyant, effeminate, downright swishy superhero in purple tights. Um, clearly no walking stereotype to see here, people.
Of course, in retrospect, I suppose the comic industry hasn’t exactly done everything wrong. I mean, Marvel has Wiccan and Hulkling, two teenagers and Young Avengers so madly in love, even if their love is so wholesome and chaste they’ll probably be in their late 50s and in some serious need of Viagra before they even think about consummating it. And they did indeed go there with X-men Rictor and Shatterstar, characters for years interpreted as gay by many fans and snickered about by others since their creation, although their relationship seems ill-defined at best with Rictor always questioning his bisexuality and Shatterstar as try-sexual (Krypto, watch out! Oh wait, wrong company!) And although I’ll remained somewhat concerned about her health, I have high hopes in the positioning of a character like Batwoman – this isn’t some minor Z character…she belongs to superhero “royalty” after all. To entrust that symbol with such diversity in the form of a pale skinned, tattooed, pierced, ex military, smokin’ hot lesbian says something, no?
What I do find most striking – what I’ve become much more aware of through my “day job” of working with youngsters – is how adult oriented the comic industry has become. I’ve always viewed comics as a great way to encourage kids to read, to capture their attention and build their love for the written word and for art as a form of expression, even if, in this case, it exists in a four-color world in little rectangular boxes, However, as I sift through books to see what would be appropriate for my little peeps, it seems I often come up rather short, as the very overt sexuality and the good ol’ T & A and the gouging bodily wounds on the brightly colored covers abound plentifully. That said, I’ve always loved how my favourite comic shop, Strange Adventures, has kid friendly comics on spinner racks (!!) brightly displayed as soon as you enter the store, and how it’s owner Cal always encourages kids to try out books that are age appropriate and yet still fun and action orientated enough that they still might enjoy, so that kids and parents may find what they’re looking for easily, and the child can be spared the post traumatic stress disorder that may come from thumbing through the titles on those high up shelves.
Which again leads me to wonder WHO these books are marketed towards, as clearly it’s not the young ‘uns. And if we can agree on that, then we can also agree we’ve not entered some time warp and are now back somewhere deep in the 80s where Daisy Duke and her daisy dukes reigned supreme and the closest we got to cultural diversity was Arnold and his “what you talkin’ about Willis?” Or, in other words, it’s the 21st century, we’re all adults here (even if’s supposed to be a kid-centric industry), and as adults we come from different backgrounds of ethnicity, status, religion, politics, and orientation, and we can handle….furthermore we want, we need, we crave….all those bright and shiny differences that life in its infinite wisdom throws at us. And you know something? I have to think that when the comic book industry figures that out, and can perhaps honor those differences…then perhaps the industry won’t die, won’t be left behind, and can once again be the bright shiny beacon of hope it was always intended to be.
In the meantime I think I’ll create my own superhero of sorts. He’ll be tall and blond, strong and muscular, yet with a lithe swimmers build (gotta explain that abnormally long torso somehow!), and he’ll drive a silver Volvo named Bjorn (the car’s Swedish, after all!), and his power will be to search out and rescue long forgotten treasures, and reunite them with their long-lost but rightful owners. His trusty sidekick and not so secret (mostly because he can’t stop talking long enough to keep one!) lover will be the dark to his light, and will use humour and charm and his wily ways to infiltrate society at large (wait! He sounds like the bad guy!), persuading evil doers to instead do his bidding, because, really, he’s a cool guy and clearly he knows where it’s at. And let’s not forget their pet cat, who’s orange and chubby and sleeps all day and looks like an unmade bed most of the time, but clearly is the mastermind behind all this do goodin’.
Hey, wait a second….I resemble that remark!