WoQW: A Comedy of Eros!

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In recent weeks Marvel Comics has come under fire for it’s handling of gay and lesbian characters. Part of this falls squarely on the hands of Joe Quesada; a man whose usually a natural salesman, but has in recent months has had a gratuitous case of foot-in-mouth disease. To be fair his behavior hasn’t quite reached the level of Erik Larsen defending the first amendment right to draw giant boobies but it’s still downright embarrassing to watch as a comics fan.

For those who haven’t read Andy Mangels excellent history of this fiasco the fun began in back the February 3rd edition of his popular “Joe Fridays” interview column. Responding to a question as to why the Rawhide Kid wasn’t featured in Marvel’s then upcoming series of Western comics because his inclusion would force the company to bump up the titles up to a Max rating. To Joe’s credit he actually went out of his way to praise the Rawhide Kid mini-series of a few years ago.

One week later found himself awkwardly defending his words from the previous week.

“Rawhide was labeled MAX because the major hook and focus of the project was the sexuality of the main character, a 50-plus year old established character. The reason the books featuring the characters you named in your question don’t carry a MAX label is because that’s not the focus of their books. The sexuality aspect of their lives is just one part of the whole that makes up their books, as opposed to Rawhide, where the fact that he was gay and his history was the major point of the book.”

Now here is where poor Joe starts to find himself standing on slippery moral ground. True “Rawhide Kid: Slap Leather” focused on the character as gay man, but it’s not like Marvel was all of a sudden publishing something Gravitation in which the series protagonist Shuichi is losing his pants to another man right off the bat . (Amusingly enough Tokyopop actually gives Gravitation an “Older Teen” rating, which is arguably less strict than Marvel’s Max rating.) All things, for all the suggestive covers “Slap Leather” was pretty much on par with an episode of Will & Grace in terms of objectionable content.

Flash forward a few months forward to Wizardworld Philadelphia in which following a question regarding the hype surrounding the new Batwoman, Joe Q. had this to say.

“Any time comics can reach the mainstream that way, it’s good for comics. The fact that Marvel has done gay heroes before is not as important as that.”

Well I duhno”¦ Joe, maybe if you gave a gay character a solo spotlight in a title that didn’t carry a “mature readers” label and actually promoted it Marvel might be the company receiving all of the press coverage. (Not that positive press coverage inherently translates into sales, as the sadly underrated Araña proved.)

Flash forward to August at the Wizardworld Chicago in which Joe Quesada soon found himself plunged face first into a slapstick comedy of Eros. The man who gave us Civil War, Ultimate Marvel, and countless other risky dynamic moves suddenly couldn’t make a concise statement on Marvel’s policy regarding gay characters, which seems to ok gay superheroes in general audience rated team books, but not solo titles which would require “Max” adult ratings.

“The last thing we want to do is have everybody come down on the entire comic book industry,” Quesada said, going on to remind everyone of the pressure the industry was under after the publication of Frederic Wertham’s Seduction of the Innocent in 1953, which cast a negative light on the supposed homosexuality of Batman, Robin, and Wonder Woman. “And I do think it is ridiculous.”

It must have been a painful, awkward moment for Joe Quesada defending a downright indefensible policy. It was perhaps an even more painful and awkward to be a comics fan watching a man who had made a name for himself shocking people acting as if he was castrated. An editor dedicated to pushing the boundaries of what the medium could be and stood for was suddenly bringing up the ghost of Fredric Wertham and cowering in fear of groups like Focus on the Family.

There was a time in the late 60s when comics writers deeply wanted to write about more important issues than Lex Luthor robbing banks, and Spider-Man fighting the Vulture. This resulted in many classic works along with a few awkward signs of the times. Two topics however seemed too hot to handle: the civil rights movement and the War in Vietnam. Thought Jack Kirby would create comics first Black superhero, the Black Panther, it would take six more years before Marvel launched it’s first solo title with a Black lead character with Luke Cage, Hero for Hire in 1972. DC meanwhile would wait until 1977(!) before launching Black Lightening.

It was perhaps an even more painful and awkward to be a comics fan watching a man who had made a name for himself shocking people acting as if he was castrated. An editor dedicated to pushing the boundaries of what the medium could be and stood for was suddenly bringing up the ghost of Fredric Wertham and cowering in fear of groups like Focus on the Family.”

Back then the comics industry tried to explain the feeling of Vietnam-era America without actually taking a position on the Vietnam war. Back then Jim Shooter wasn’t allowed to have a black member of the Legion of Superheroes for fear of offending distributors in the South. Now today we have titles like “Civil War” which tries to deal with the anxieties we feel in a post 9/11 world without actually mentioning the fact we have a very real war going on. Gay characters were restricted to supporting roles for fear of offending pundits who don‘t even read comics. Just how much have comics really changed in 40 years?

Though if Joe seemed half-hearted in defending Marvel’s hypocritical policy regarding gay characters, well he seemed even less intent on actually enforcing it. Months earlier writer Robert Kirkman had in stealth fashion introduced a new gay character named Freedom Ring in the pages of Marvel Team-Up. After what must have been a heated behind floor debate at Marvel’s offices, the policy was changed so that a book featuring a gay characters wasn’t automatically slapped a “Mature Readers” label. Marvel Team-Up was given some free publicity on the web and Joe was somewhat vindicated. So everyone won.

Or so that’s the way it looked for all of three weeks until Marvel Team-Up #24 when Freedom Ring died in violent fashion. Kirkman is a writer who has a habit for creating likeable characters and then abusing the heck out of them. Robert Kirkman never intended for Freedom Ring be anything more than a one-shot character he was going to kill for shock value. The timing of course couldn’t have come at a worse moment. Marvel suddenly looked more homophobic than ever, Joe looked like a hypocrite, and for the first time in his career Kirkman looked like a punk.

I doubt Kirkman really is a homophobe or a punk. Just the way that I don’t think Mark Miller is a homophobe or a punk because of the way he treated Northstar in the pages of Wolverine. See a lot of writers assume these days that a characte’s race, gender, religion, orientation etc. doesn’t matter. That’s a nice ideal, but in the real world, where the vast majority of comics characters are still disproportionately white, male, straight, and Christian sometimes it does matter. In the case of Freedom Ring killing a suddenly prominent gay character so shortly after announcing the change in policy was the worst thing that could happen. It may have meant canceling orders, literally stopping the presses, and forcing Kirkman to re-write the story at the last minute, but changing the story’s ending would have saved face for all parties involved. (Plus a “shocking ‘What-If’ alternate ending would have made a pretty good bonus for the trade.) Kirkman of apologize an would later apologize somewhat for the story.

But alas Marvel’s string of awkward moments with gay characters would continue. Issue number of #9 of the “All New Official Handbook Of The Marvel Universe A-Z” it would seem that the writers took a rather, “creative” means of trying to combine the Rawhide Kid’s earlier stories into the same continuity with the “Slap Leather” mini-series.

For a time he adopted an eccentric persona apparently intended to confuse others, even concocting false details of his childhood to cement the deception, but this failed to alienate him from youngsters enthralled by his legend, which was only enhanced after his defeat of the Cisco Pike Gang in Wells Junction.”

Needless to say Joe Q. wasn’t particularly pleased in his Joe Friday’s Column calling the entry “a screw-up plain and simple.”

So how did Marvel get into this situation? One where it seems like Joe Quesada finds himself trying to explain an asinine corporate policy one month, then having to account for a handbook write’s unfortunate interpretation of Marvel Canon the next?

The fact is that as a whole Marvel Comics in it’s current corporate incarnation is a very strange beast indeed. Keep in mind that the wing of Marvel that Joe represents, the one that actually publishes comics is very independent of the corporate entity that makes most of it’s profits from licensing it’s characters to toys, clothes, motion picture deals etc. One side of the equation needs to project a certain almost Disney-fied image to the general public, while another thrives under the relatively loose creative environment that Quesada’s created. While giving writers and creators have a larger deal of creative freedom, which also gives talents more rope to hang themselves.

The death of Freedom Ring wasn’t like Steph Brown’s demise, which was planned out by a committee of writers and editors who honestly should’ve have known better. It along with the retconning of the Rawhide Kid’s back story were simply the end result of individual writers not quite realizing what they were doing.

Alas I fear this isn’t the last time we’ve seen Quesada stumble trying to spin a current dubious corporate policy or an infuriating writing decision particularly regarding gay characters. Much like the famous dinner scene from La Cage Aux Folles, these things tend to snowball wildly out of control. I fully expect to see Quesada answering questions about the Greek boys on the china set in the next Joe Fridays.