For a special weekly series during the month of June, guest columnist Dane Hill shares his experiences as a gay comics reader and the power of being represented. Read Part 1 here.
As the ’90s rolled in, so too did college in Virginia. And those years quickly came to be the darkest of my life.
To this day, when I reflect on them, an echo of those days’ pain hits me from the past. Think of times when you’ve felt forced to travel some place where you had no desire to go. Now consider having to stay in that place for four years. It was maddening! Like glass in the brain. Honestly, I have no idea how I was able to stick it out and get my degree. It took five and a half years in the end, including a much-needed semester off just to regain a sliver of sanity, but I did it.
At the time though, those first couple of years in particular, I wanted to be anywhere but there. No one suspected the secret clawing to get out of me. I hid it well. But, I was a pressure cooker without any relief valve, and a breakdown was slowly building. To make matters unbelievably worse, my roommates were about as straight as they came. Hell, two of them — two very large, very southern fellas — were actually on the university football team! It didn’t help either that I’d developed an unrequited crush on one of the others.
Meanwhile, there remained little to no gay visibility, comics or otherwise, to toss me a lifeline. I was a starved squirrel looking for nuts in a barren landscape. Not that I would have found time to read any. My escape into the world of comics was curbed by necessity. Studies became the priority. Not to mention the lack of steady income. I was on my own for the first time in my life. learning to navigate the world of personal finance and responsibility. Testing my discipline each week was a tiny comic store on the outskirts of campus. I’d make the occasional jaunt over to it just to get off campus and see some old “friends”. Maybe walk back with three or four titles that piqued my interest in my weaker moments. All the while, my secret was eating away at the inside of me more and more, week by week.
And that’s what made Northstar’s coming out so special. During my second year of college, in a hobby that I’d grown up with and was passionate about, there finally came a release that helped cool the pot that boiled over.
Here’s a sad secret though. When that pivotal issue of Alpha Flight did finally come out… I missed it! The title had been off my radar for years by then. By the time I’d heard the media uproar about the story, the comic shop had sold out. Even if it had not though, I would never have had the guts to buy it. Imagine if one of my roommates had discovered the issue hidden away in my room, my own scandalous stash of “porn” under the bed. I honestly don’t remember when I actually got around to reading the story. Months? Years later? Remember, this was before the internet and eBay made everything so ridiculously accessible. But none of that mattered at the time. The fact was that a well-known hero was gay, and that was good enough for me. In my mind, he was instantly the best character in comics.
Now, don’t get me wrong. Northstar as a character wasn’t anything special. To this day, he’s near exclusively known as “the gay super-hero”. Not known as well as someone like that bad-ass canuck with claws. Or that tragically funny guy with webs. Or that old-fashioned patriot with a shield. No hero-framed descriptor makes you think of Northstar. (The speedster with pointy ears? No. The twin brother with attitude that runs and flies super fast, and has a semi-cool starburst costume? Lame.) No, he was a third-string character on a second-rate team. In their heyday, Alpha Flight, a team born in the late ’70s, wanted to be the next X-Men, but never quite took off in popularity the way those other mutants did. Ask AF’s fans though and you will hear plenty of fond memories of the team, but the title never quite made tent-pole status for Marvel. Try to think of any impact character from them other than Northstar. Go on, I’ll wait….[pauses to watch Glee]….Ok, I’m back. Anything? No? That’s what I thought. The single most defining event from some 130 issues of the title was that one of its characters came out of the closet.
Of course, it’s natural to not immediately understand the ultimate impact of some random event that changes the way we look at the world. Usually not until you reflect back on it years later in its historical context. Northstar was certainly not like The Beatles exploding onto the cultural scene. Or Apple’s iPod changing how we buy music. But he was very much a turning point for gay visibility in comics. He’s the “Grandfather of Super-Hero Gays”, if you will. (I’m sure he’d just adore that moniker.) Not impacting the entre industry or fanbase as a whole by any means. Just a very under-represented segment of that fanbase that desperately needed an arm thrown across their shoulder to reassure them that they are ok too.
The majority of fans seemed to take the reveal in stride, which in itself was incredibly encouraging. Which made Marvel’s backpeddling all the more baffling. For that matter, popular opinion from those who had read the issue seemed to be that, while Northstar’s coming out was long overdue for a mainstream super-hero character, the story itself was poorly written and didactic. When I did finally got the chance to read it, for me, the issue read like Shakespeare. I was so overwhelmingly taken by the simple fact that a Marvel hero, one I’d grown up with, had actually said he was gay. This disconnect between the “straight” readers and me just highlighted how deprived I’d been for some kind of visibility. One man’s junk is another man’s treasure. What I had in my hands was a diamond, and I eagerly awaited further revelations into Northstar’s life.
So, as each new Alpha Flight issue came and went (and I made damned sure to buy those issues!), and no more of Northstar’s sexuality was mentioned, hope ebbed with each passing month until all I felt was resentment at Marvel’s treatment of the character. It was something of a betrayal. The final insult was the Northstar mini-series that came out after the Alpha Flight series ended. Exactly what purpose did Marvel think it served when it completely disregarded his sexuality? Would you create a new-born mutant mini-series, but ignore the fact that he has powers? Cowards. Maybe Marvel felt that the character was too high profile, and tried to shove him back in the closet.
And yet, just a year or so later, from that point going forward I’ll call “After Northstar Announced Love” (um, I’ll work on that), writer Peter David came out with a gay character of his own in his book The Incredible Hulk. Coincidence? Who knows? Perhaps David was influenced by Northstar’s revelation when he made hero Hector gay. Maybe when Northstar’s hullabaloo came and went, he thought to himself, “Well, that wasn’t so bad. World didn’t end. Marvel got a lotta press. Let me just slip in another little side-character into my book who’s also interested in some mano-on-mano, and see where it leads…” And thus, Gay Hector was born. I didn’t know, that was me pure speculating on my part. David may have had the character’s sexuality planned long before Northstar jumped out of the closet and yelled yoohoo. It’s entirely possible that David was blindsided when beaten to the punch by that egomanical Canadian speed freak (hmm, maybe that’s his descriptor).
At any rate, thanks to Hector, I made sure to pick up every issue of the Hulk series, just in hopes of catching him in a panel or two. Yet, knowing there’d never be much when I opened the pages. But, you know what, when you’re starving, any little nugget looks like a feast. Hector’s role was such a small one though that I honestly don’t recall much beyond loving new artist Gary Frank’s pencils, and the Pantheon being a gaggle of demi-gods helping Hulk out or being his entourage or something. The highlight I can recall was a quick meeting between the recently out Northstar and Hector, shooting the breeze. And yes, as everyone suspects, all gays know each other and hang out together. So of course Hector would be hanging with Northstar at some point. (Excuse me while my eyes roll out of my head.) Still, it was a fun little moment that also served to highlight just how very few characters in this massive universe were actually gay at the time. Two. Out of how many hundreds or thousands of chatacters. Two. A third-stringer, and a….tenth-stringer? (Hello hello hello hello…. Anyone else else else else…. Echo echo echo echo….) Still, Hector was another tiny lifeline that gave me a taste of renewed hope every month, so I commend Marvel for that effort.
Around that same time, a new wave of mainstream and cult-fave independent titles came to market. I personally refer to this period of time as my Silver Age of Independents, what with the introduction of Bone, Cavewoman, Wandering Star, Penthouse Comix (ironic, no?), and the stunning Strangers in Paradise by Terry Moore. Beautiful art and richly written characters, the two female leads Katchoo and Francine appeared to be in an obvious relationship together. The book was so well produced, that I didn’t mind overlooking the detail that Francine didn’t consider herself gay. The story spoke for itself, and became part of the fabric of this newly evolving gay era of comics.
My college years were also a time of immense transitions and shake-ups within the industry. A handful of the most popular artists of the day split from Marvel and formed their own company Image Comics. Another upstart company called Valiant Comics took fandom by storm. Between Image and Valiant, the “Big Two” were put on notice that they had better up their game if they wanted to keep their market share. Soon though, as if the pendulum had swung the other way, distributors fell and comic shops nationwide closed their doors. The entire market had come crashing down seemingly overnight. Valiant was gone within a few years, and Marvel had declared bankruptcy. The industry was in shambles, along with my life.
By that time though, the notion of comics being strictly for kids had become archaic, ever since Watchmen and Batman: The Dark Knight Returns turned the industry on its head and toward a darker path in the mid-80s. The medium progressively grew up over those years. Stories became grittier, more real than fantasy, and thematic license expanded to the point that soon nothing seemed off-limits, punctuated by the mid-90s by writers like Garth Ennis with his hyper-violent signature style that made him a household name with fans on books like Hellblazer, Hitman, and his magnum opus Preacher. By comparison, the reveal of a gay character seemed positively tame.
Simultaneously during this time, the Comics Code Authority was showing its age, cracks forming in its foundation. How do you regulate an industry whose most popular products are increasingly breaking all the rules, rules that you are meant to enforce? When a market aims for adults, the rules for kids become irrelevant. Advertisers cared less and less for the Code’s seal on a book’s cover, and by the early 2000s, Marvel announced that they would no longer submit any of their titles to the CCA. By 2011, the Code became defunct, for years having been less a true review arbitrator and more a simple licenser of its trademark seal to anyone who still wanted to slap it on their cover, family-friendly Archie Comics being the final hold-out.
On the bright side, thankfully, my craving for visibility was making real progress in the 90s from another industry – Hollywood! Movies like The Birdcage (which I HATED at the time with its over-the-top effeminate caricatures of gay life, but audiences made it an unexpected blockbuster) and In & Out (which I LOVED and became a modest hit, but then gay audiences found it unappealing with it’s tamed utter lack of passion between the supposedly gay leads…I couldn’t win!). TV also stepped forward in big way with Ellen DeGeneres coming out of the closet both in real life and on her show as the first gay TV lead. That episode was a ratings juggernaut, once again proving that mainstream audiences were ready for gays. Then came ratings smash hit Will & Grace (aka Jack & Karen), which changed everything. If there had been any doubt left in Hollywood’s mind that “gay” wouldn’t play, then that notion went out the window with this widely popular show. Despite the collapse of the comics industry, gays unabashedly found their way into my living room and everyone else’s.
History will look back on the 90s as the turning point for gay rights on a cultural impact level. Mainstream audiences were given glimpses into that culture through different mediums, gays came out of the closet more and more, and understanding slowly grew with each new movie, person, TV show, or comic that introduced yet another example of gay life.
But I’m getting ahead of myself! In terms of gay visibility in comics, the 90s mostly felt like snack after snack after snack. When would the real meat hit our tables?? Well, along came the 2000s, and gay representation would finally explode in ways undreamt of less than a decade earlier…
Southern grown Dane Hill has worked in the dot-com industry for the past 15 years, having put his Drama degree from the University of Virginia to good use. His passions have been comic books and baseball since he was knee-high to a grasshopper.