Words of Questionable Wisdom: Looking Back in Horror at the History of Gay Comic Book Characters.
Northstar As You’ve Never Known him Before!
By: Paul Sebert
A new Batwoman is set to debut, Young Avengers has received a GLAAD Media Award, and Smallville is entering it’s 6th season on the CW Network. It appears that gay comic characters aren’t just for independent titles, fan fiction and former Real World stars anymore. Yes it appears that we’ve entered an era of unheard of diversity and inclusively in our industry. Except on the DC Comics message board which is about as friendly and diverse as a Klan rally.
But alas fellow comics fans, things weren’t always so enlightened. Gays and Lesbians have probably had the hardest time of any minority receiving representation in the medium, which speaks volumes considering that my fellow columnist Jeff Ritter spent over a month talking about the shoddy representation Blacks, Hispanics, and Asians have received over the years. But let’s look back at the proud pioneers who changed things.
Young Love #197
The year was 1973, and the romance comics that were very popular in the 50s and early 60s were going the way of the dinosaur. DC brought in Captain America creator Joe Simon to give their teen books a much needed shot in the arm, so he decided to create a bold new character that would address topical issues in a manner that young readers could understand. That character was Prez the first teen president, a book that lasted all of 4 issues.
The next year DC’s long-running series Young Love was nearing it’s 200th issue celebrated by offering 100 pages for 50 cents in issue #197, and the cover hyped a feature entitled “Strange Girl! The Story They Dared Us To Print!”
As you can see the cover isn’t exactly subtle, as the lead’s friends friend whispers “Liz isn’t interested in boys if you know what I mean.” Anyway the story goes to great lengths to establish the titular “Strange Girl” as a butch stereotype who isn’t interested in boys, plays high school basketball (apparently somehow less acceptable in the 70s), and gasp wears pants to school. Yes I know I’m shocked. We also get this rather unsubtle scene, as she attends a sleepover with a girl named Anges.
Then the story suddenly shifts gears and Liz winds up meeting a nice boy named Fred and falls in love.
A. Liz is in fact NOT a Lesbian but actually a just Tomboy, making one wonder what’s so daring about D.C. doing this story.
B. Liz was a lesbian, but the writer was under the misguided assumption that a gay and lesbians can change their orientation at a drop of a hat, and all you really need to do is dump you girlfriend for the nearest available member of the opposite sex.
C. The writer wanted to write Liz as a Lesbian, but changed the plot at the behest of a more conservative editor.
D. The editor thought that adding a tease of lesbian subtext on the cover would sell an otherwise straight forward romance story.
Well here’s a little capper that appears on the last panel of the comic. Feel free to wince.
[Special thanks to was Scans Daily poster Lynd Ward for these pics.]
New Guardians #1
In 1988 DC Comics introduced an invention that would change the history of event comics, Millennium the first weekly crossover event. We can only hope the guilty parties were punished, as Millennium stands as one of the most ill-advised crossover events of all time. The basic plot involved The Manhunters trying to wipe out people selected by one of the Guardians to be the next step in human evolution. The heroes have to find these highly evolved people dubbed “New Guardians” and protect them from the Manhunters. This proves problematic as it turns out that in EVERY SINGLE TITLE a supporting cast member is secretly a man hunter in disguise including The Flash’s father, most of the population of Smallville, and even Pan of Greek myth in the pages of Wonder Woman.
But just who did the Guardian chose to be the people who would pass on their genes for the future of humanity?
RAM – Takeo Yakata, a Japanese youth turned into a crystal android computer thingy.
Floro – Jason Woodrue, the villain formerly known as the Floronic man. A living plant.
Thomas Kalmaku – The former Green lantern Eskimo side-kick “Pieface.” Now grown up and thankfully losing his rather insulting nickname. He now has the power to “become one with the world’s positive essence.” Whatever that means.
Betty Clawman – A woman turned into a spiritual being that lives in dreamtime.
Harbinger – Hi I’m “Lyla” you may remember me from Crisis on Infinite Earths.
Jet – Celia Windward a Jamaican woman with a ludicrous accent and the ability to control electricity.
Gloss – Xiang Po, a buxom Chinese lass who draws power from mystical dragon lines around the earth. And no I can’t explain what that means.
Mai-Ti – With the power of heart!
Oh and finally we have this guy.
ExtraÃƒÂ±o – Gregario De La Vega who was essentially in terms of powers and concept a Mexican version of Dr. Strange, if Dr. Strange were a foppish prissy over-the top effeminate gay stereotype who dressed in outlandish costumes and referred to himself as “Auntie.”
Ok let me get this straight… the Guardian chose a small handful of people to be the next step in human evolution, which means at some point they have to all procreate and the people he chooses include a woman who doesn’t exist on our plane of reality, a plant, a robot, and flamboyant wacky gay guy.
He didn’t think this the whole way through did he?
Further proof that the Guardian didn’t really know he was doing was that he also gave powers to the comics ongoing villain, Janwillem Kroef a genocidal racist maniac working from the apartheid regime of South Africa. In the first issue Kroef set in motion a series of events that would lead into the undoing of comics first gay superhero. See poor Extrano got HIV after he was bitten by a white supremacist vampire with AIDS named the Hemo-Goblin.
Let me repeat that: HE WAS BITTEN BY A WHITE SUPREMACIST VAMPIRE WITH AIDS NAMED THE HEMO-GOBLIN!
Ok. It’s 1988, many people still think of AIDS as “the gay plague” and many within the public hold dangerous misconceptions of how the disease can be spread. (Some actually thought the HIV virus could be spread through skin contact, or saliva.) So maybe… just maybe it’s not the most socially responsible thing to have your first gay superhero contract the HIV virus through a bite?
Jet also contracted AIDs and died over the course of the series, but she’s managed to recover and is now a member of the Global Guardians. (Thanks Superboy Prime!) So perhaps there’s hope that ExtraÃƒÂ±o was continuity punched back to health.
Oh and for the record ExtraÃƒÂ±o is Spanish for “strange” which is also a synonym for “Queer.”
Alpha Flight 106
It was 1992. Alpha Flight was always something of a quirky second-tier Marvel Team book, but suddenly it a strong word of mouth buzz surrounded it upon rumors that longtime team member Northstar might have been gay. During one dubious storyline by Bill Mantlo it appeared that Jean-Paul Beaubier was suffering from the early stages of HIV infection, but the actual source of his illness was that he was really fairy (as in a magical kind.) Finally fans would know for sure as it was announced that in issue #106 in a new story by Scott Lobdell. It promised “Northstar as You’ve Never Known Him Before!”
News of this storyline set off a firestorm within the press, with the relatively obscure comic suddenly getting covered in the New York Times, ABC news, National Public Radio. It was the kind of media attention that Joe Quesada would want to bathe in.
So this being the Marvel Comics of 1992 they decided they didn’t like the outside attention and moved to quickly and effectively burry the issue of Northstar’s sexuality for fear of loosing their family friendly image. Thus Northstar’s sexual orientation wasn’t mentioned again for years after this issue. Oh, but what a story were readers in for.
Truth be told Scott Lobdell didn’t have to write a great story for this to be one of the most important comics of all time. In fact he didn’t a great story. He wrote a story about a retired Golden Age Super Mountie named Major Mapleleaf (father of the character of the same name in Lobdell’s later comedy version of the team) whose son died of AIDs. Wrecked with grief the good Major responds in the only logical manner. He decides he wants to SMASH A BABY WITH AIDS!
Naturally Northstar was not cool with this and stepped in as well, a AIDS INFLICTED BABY VS. SUPER MOUNTIE SLUGFEST wouldn’t be much of a fight scene. So fans were treated to a prolonged battle drawn by sub-par Rob Liefeld-imitator Marc Pacella. Pacella’s art made Jean-Paul look like a beefy pro wrestler, and Major Mapleleaf look like a Neanderthal. Jean-Paul eventually managed to wrestle the Major to his senses, only to watch the baby die anyway. Northstar did give this speech in mid fight though.
“Do not presume to lecture me on the hardships homosexuals must bear. No one knows them better than I. For while I am not inclined to discuss my sexuality with people for whom it is none of their businessÃ¢â‚¬â€
Ã¢â‚¬â€I am gay! Be that as it may AIDS is not a disease restricted to homosexuals as much as it seems, at times
the rest of the world wishes that were so!”
Please keep in mind this was spread out over multiple panels so it came across as if he was talking like William Shatner. Anyway the story ends with Northstar outing himself to the press. Although after this issue the character’s sexual orientation would never be discussed again until Chuck Austen’s X-men run.
So in short…it’s been a long strange trip for homosexual characters in comics, but let’s be thankful their portrayals have evolved since the days of ExtraÃƒÂ±o, Strange Girl, and baby-killing Mounties.