Positive Cynicism – DC Comics: still not as progressive as Archie

Aaron Davis

Aaron R. Davis

Let’s be honest, here: superhero comic books mainly survive as power fantasies for adolescent boys. That’s what has allowed comics to survive for so long, and that’s what continues today.

Yes, obviously there’s more to it than that, and the best writers transcend those origins and write thoughtful, exciting epics of great humanity, but those instances are rare and rightly remembered. So what I’m saying is that there should be no one surprised that a medium that has spent decades confusing “strong female character” with “basically a man with tits who can punch the Thing” also can’t get its head around homosexuality.

Attempts began in earnest to change this when Archie Comics came in and introduced its own gay Riverdale student: Kevin Keller. Kevin’s a great character — he’s gay, and there’s no pushing that essential character component aside, but it also doesn’t define who he is and what he can do in a story. And to the publisher’s credit, Kevin has quickly become one of the major characters in the Archie universe. In a country embarrassingly slow to accept that love has no gender barriers, it’s beautiful to see a comic book company once thought hopelessly stuck in the past forge ahead into the present.

Over at Marvel Comics, patting itself on the back because it had the “bravery” in 20-fricking-12 to make Spider-Man a black kid (in an alternate universe), they’re going to let two gay men get married in June. Northstar was a member of Alpha Flight and suddenly shouted out his homosexuality to the world in 1992. To be fair, John Byrne apparently always intended Northstar to be gay, but wasn’t allowed to reveal it because of the Comics Code Authority and a policy at Marvel against openly gay characters. Northstar became Marvel’s first openly gay superhero, if by openly gay you mean his sexuality wasn’t mentioned again for 10 years. But hey, now he’s getting married, and in an issue of an X-Men comic, so at least that’s something.

And then there’s DC. DC has a lot of problems right now, stemming from its controversial, ham-fisted decision to reboot its entire continuity (in a way that immediately created continuity problems). There have been a lot of criticisms, but right now the issue of not having any major gay characters has actually taken a back seat to the rather horrible job DC does of depicting women or even employing them. As far as I know, they do have some gay characters. The new Teen Titans member Bunker is gay — made obvious, depressingly, by his purple and lavender outfits — and there’s Batwoman, even though she’s always come across to me like a 15 year-old boy’s fantasy of a lipstick lesbian. I don’t even know if the Midnighter is still gay in the new comics, though he used to stand out as one of the few times comic books got a gay superhero right, and not being afraid to subvert fanboy expectations (the character was in the macho Punisher/Wolverine/Batman mold, but also in a committed relationship with another hero, whom he married and adopted a child with).

Well, with Northstar getting married over at Marvel, DC has decided it needs to up the stakes in the progressive game by having a major gay character. At first they said they’d introduce new gay characters, but when questioned by The Advocate over why DC made so many changes to their characters in the reboot (age, marital status, race, size) they hadn’t thought to change any sexual orientations, DC’s co-publisher (and the guy making all the messes) Dan Didio said that he was going to reintroduce one of the DC Universe’s established characters as “one of our most prominent gay characters.” Fan speculation began in earnest, further fueled the next day when a VP at DC announced that this character would be a major, iconic male character.

That was good news, because my first, kneejerk reaction was that the newly gay character would be Wonder Woman: since they’ve basically turned her into a more pissed-off version of Xena, making her a lesbian just seems like the next obvious step in their mad dash to see how many clichés they can throw into the mix.

But who would it be? I had a few discussions about this. It obviously couldn’t be Batman or Superman; they’re too iconic and DC doesn’t have the guts to piss off the intense, hardcore Batman fans (though, come to think of it, a gay Superman doesn’t seem entirely implausible). DC had to establish the super-potency and uncontrollable lust of Batman — a character I’ve always regarded as embarrassingly asexual — by having him boff Catwoman in the first month.

It couldn’t be Aquaman, because he was something like the only major character who didn’t have his marriage destroyed by the reboot to coddle writers who weren’t creative enough to be cut off from the hoary plot devices of love triangles and supervillainesses who are too sexy to control yourself around. I figured, if an iconic, major DC character would end up being gay, it would probably be the Flash. Then we could forget all about Dan Didio’s insistence that Flash no longer be married to Iris West so he could “play the field”…

But word has come out this weekend that the gay character is going to be Alan Scott, the original Green Lantern. The character from the 1940s who now exists in a miniseries that takes place in an alternate universe. Iconic? Major? I do not think those words mean what DC thinks they mean.

Now, DC has yet to confirm it, but if this is true, it comes across as just another of DC’s lame publicity stunts. DC and its inexplicable supporters have been talking this up as though the outing of a major character was going to be a real game-changer in the world of comics. Does a non-comics reader even know who the original Green Lantern is? Non-comics readers don’t even know what Earth 2 is. Hey, want to make sure you never have a second date? Explain during the first one what Earth 2 is.

The Earth 2 Justice Society really just gets by on the nostalgia factor of readers like me who love Golden Age comics; this is a change that impresses no one. (And, to look at comments sections, merely inspires a lot of jokes about Alan’s weakness to wood and the flames he creates with his ring … though someone won the commentary, in my own opinion, by saying “I’m more surprised that all the other Green Lanterns are straight.”) It’s not a game-changer in even the most generous sense of that term. It’s just a halfhearted attempt to jump on the bandwagon and say “Look, we’re progressive; we have a gay character … somewhere.” It’s pandering of the worst kind.

It’s disappointing, but I only have myself to blame for expecting anything else even for a second.

When I was a kid, being bullied and tormented about my weight or not having a girlfriend, I always took solace in comic books. There were the X-Men, outcast and hunted for being born different. That meant a lot to me. When I felt like a freak, I could enter a fictional world where the freaks were powerful enough to fight back. Things like that help give a kid dignity and strength. Today, having a gay alternate universe Green Lantern feels less like dignity and more like a cheap attempt to exploit an audience that the two major comic book publishers have no problem talking down to. It’s the illusion of progress, a phantom of inclusion, and in a world where seven-year-olds commit suicide to get away from homophobic bullying, it’s just not good enough.

Aaron R. Davis lives in a cave at the bottom of the ocean with his eyes shut tight and his fingers in his ears. You can contact him at samuraifrog@yahoo.com

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