Queer Quest 10 – Superqueeros?

By Ashley R. Lierman

First of all, I’d like to begin by apologizing to everyone for the title of this column. Sorry. I have no excuse for myself.

With that said, this blog has reported a number of times over the last two years on developments involving queer characters in superhero comics. And with Avengers: Age of Ultron out last week, I think it’s a good time for a review. Last year, in my first column, I noted the 2013 introduction of the first openly transgender character in mainstream superhero comics: Alysia Yeoh, Barbara Gordon’s roommate at the time in Gail Simone’s run of Batgirl. This past March, this blog reported on a same-sex kiss in issue 39 of the current Catwoman run, written by Genevieve Valentine, that confirmed Selina Kyle as bisexual. And just recently, we reported that Brian Michael Bendis’s All New X-Men #40 outed Robert Drake, or Iceman, as gay. Clearly it’s been a busy few years for LGBT characters in comics, even in the most mainstream (and therefore often most conservative) domain of superhero comics. Surely this should be cause for celebration, right?

Well… yes and no. Of course there’s no question that more representation is a good thing, and it’s always a bit of good news to see part of the world of superhero comics change for the better. The only trouble is, by the very nature of superhero comics, it’s sometimes very difficult – if not impossible – to make those changes stick.

We’ve all heard people call comics “graphic novels” when they’re trying to make it sound like comics are actually worth serious consideration and study. Not only does that reveal a lot about the speaker’s personal prejudices when it comes to media, it’s technically incorrect (a graphic novel is its own thing, quite distinct from a serial comic book; I assume I’m preaching to the choir in this column, but if you’re confused, you can read more about the distinction here) – and, I’d argue, very misleading. Although comics constitute a print medium, comics in general and superhero comics in particular are most closely analogous not to novels, but to television series. Even leaving the visual piece aside, like a TV show, comics often run over a span of years or decades (indeed, depending on the title, often much longer than many TV shows), and tend over the course of their lives to be written by many different people, either as a team or consecutively. In fact, superhero comics tend to get even less consistency in this area than TV shows. While television writing is generally guided by a head writer and at least tends to retain some of the original creative talent from beginning to end, superhero comics writers and teams tend to swap out entirely on a fairly regular basis, and while they do also generally have management from a head writer at the label level, even within individual titles authors can branch off in pretty dramatically different directions.

And that can be a real issue (so to speak), because there are other characteristics of superhero comics that just exacerbate this creative splintering. Between spin-offs, reboots, competing canons, alternate timelines, and more, there’s kind of no such thing as a single, sole “canon” for a superhero comic in their current form. What’s done in one issue of one title can just as easily be undone, or redone in different contradictory ways, in half a dozen others. Indeed, at least within the Big Two of Marvel and DC, this seems to be used as a vital failsafe that can keep equilibrium even through the illusion of major, shocking, hype-worthy change: perhaps the most famous (and formative) case being the 1992 “Death of Superman” storyline. (For a hilarious and also insightful recap of that narrative arc and how it “broke death” in superhero comics, see Max Landis’s Death and Return of Superman, although be warned of plenty of not-safe-for-work language.) A revelation about a character that may seem huge – like, for example, their sexual or gender identity – can end up absent from the overarching story like it never happened, a mere hundred or twenty or two issues later.

With some of these developments I’ve listed, in fact, we can already see this happening. This past December, less than two years from the exciting news of a groundbreaking trans character, Batgirl’s new writing team faced outrage over their offensive, transphobic depiction of a villain in the comic. Almost as troubling, though, it was pointed out, was the fact that in their run, Alysia Yeoh herself seemed to have been reduced to little more than a footnote. In many ways, the title’s total progress in the direction of representation looks like one step forward, two steps back. Similarly, even outside of the accomplishments listed here, back in 2013 excitement about Kate Kane/Batwoman’s proposal to her girlfriend Maggie Sawyer was quickly squashed when DC refused to allow the same-sex wedding to occur on-panel. This decision was partly responsible for the creative team’s eventual departure, and in December 2014 the title – much valued for featuring what was at the time DC’s most prominent gay superhero – was cancelled altogether.

“Oh, come on,” some of you may be starting to think by this point, and not unfairly so, “at least it still happened! Isn’t any representation ever good enough for her?” And I’ll admit, I can be pretty demanding, especially in a media culture where it’s rare enough to see any queer characters at all. I’m not trying to burst into Iceman’s (or anyone else’s) coming out party yelling “JUST WAIT UNTIL THE OTHER SHOE DROPS!” (For one thing, at the very least, the other shoe is unlikely to be on Bendis’s foot, and bless him for that.) Of course it’s a good thing, and an important thing, to see queer characters of all kinds appearing increasingly in these mainstream, popular titles, no matter what may happen later down the road. Future writers may be able to rewrite the current story of what’s going on with a superhero, but they can’t erase the old issues, or turn back the tide of mounting acceptance and even welcome for diversity in the industry these new developments represent. As long as we still have Simones, Valentines, Bendises, and others like them out there in the industry, and more on the way, there’ll still be people pushing to make positive changes, and to support those with marginalized voices who are trying to break their way in and tell stories of their own.

So make no mistake, iffy track record aside, it’s still going to put a smile on my face every time I see a story about another queer character or same-sex kiss in mainstream superhero comics, and I’ll keep sharing them with you on this blog when they come along, for as long as I’m able. They do mean something, even if only as a barometer reading the current weather in popular geek culture. But I hope you’ll understand if, at the same time, my cheerleading may be a little muted when it comes to any one new development or another, at least as far as this particular genre of comics goes. I’m still reserving my enthusiasm for when the Big Two can show by their actions that they really are ready to be agents of change… and to actually make those changes last.


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