Posted by Corey Blake
I graduated from college at the end of 1995. My biggest transition yet – true adulthood. And more importantly – personal freedom. I was practically overcome by this incredible sense of relief I’d never dreamt of before. A heavy mix of pride in achieving my degree and curiosity over a completely open future ahead. After 23 years of studies, I would finally be able to turn my attention inwards and focus on me.
Nerdily enough, one of my first thoughts after that final final exam was: “I can pick whatever books I want to read forever!” I gleefully made a list – Jules Vernes’ and H.G. Wells’ works… check! Crichton and Terry Brooks… check and check! And oh, there’s this wizard book I soon kept hearing about… Harry something-or-other… meh, I’d get to that at some point if it lasted. My curriculum was my own.
The real prize though… the golden apple… was my huge backlog of comics that continued growing weekly. An endless supply of my first passion. I’d never be without again.
Meanwhile, I’d been tip-toeing out of the closet to one person here and another person there for a few years by that point, never quite comfortable enough to come out to everyone in full-on pride mode. Telling my parents seemed an insurmountable obstacle I’d have to face eventually. Or maybe an asteroid would hit the planet and save me. Yes, facing the prospect of coming out to the parentals holds that kind of utter terror. I needed confidence. I needed support. I needed to see and read every little mention about a gay person, no matter how slight. Frankly, it became an obsession.
Luckily, Hollywood came to the rescue as I mentioned previously. Britain and the international studios even more so with their far superior open-mindedness. There was a treasure trove of gay films from around the world making their way to our shores. When Beautiful Thing was released in 1996 to a handful of theaters around the country, I rode the metro to Dupont Circle in DC literally every day to watch that movie. 10 times? 15? I lost count at some point, the film was that powerful for me, a welcome daily boost of inspiration. (And no, I didn’t have a job at the time.)
Gay visibility in comics, however, slipped back into something of a lull for a few years in the mid to late ’90s. At least at Marvel and DC. So thank God I had those movies and TV shows. In particular, Will & Grace premiered in 1998 and was an immediate megahit, bringing an enormous amount of visibility into households everywhere. It was the water cooler show that made talking about gays fun, rather than the always life-or-death struggle-to-be-accepted politically tinged moral debates. There was levity. We could be your friends. Your family. Even more, you wanted us to be your friends and family. There was a carefree wicked, raunchy humor to having us around. Being gay suddenly became, dare I say, cool? A couple years later, Showtime took the hook to an all-new hyper-gay level with its unapologetically in-your-face sexfest Queer As Folk, which was actually an Americanized version of a show that debuted the year before in the U.K.
Obviously, I was no longer the confused teen anymore from ten years earlier. I’d made it through those high school and college years by the skin of my teeth. I was no longer desperate, nor was I bottling up my emotions as I had previously. Now, I was simply searching. My own personal quest to feed this insatiable hunger for all things gay. Gradually, they were getting easier to come by.
As with any cultural shift, once one industry successfully penetrates the mainstream market and people’s homes, in this case Hollywood, other industries soon follow like bears to the honey pot. That seemed to be the case for the comics industry following after. As the millennium flipped anew, Marvel and DC began exploring characters’ sexuality with renewed fervor and freedom. Readers were ready. The Code was quickly becoming an historical afterthought. Gay was in.
And DC imprint Wildstorm fired the first shot across this new societal bow with The Authority, initially by Warren Ellis and Bryan Hitch. Midnighter & Apollo were Wildstorm’s answer to Batman & Superman. With a gay twist. They may have been lovers, but they were also about as bad-ass as they came. As far from stereotypically gay as could be. They’d laugh in the face of the real Batman & Superman’s moral codes, and then kick the sh*t out of them just to make their point. Eventually, they would marry, and even adopt and raise a child together.
Marvel answered with gay characters Phat & Vivisector in Peter Milligan’s and Mike Allred’s X-Force. Soon after, the company made a major media splash with the announcement of their Rawhide Kid mini-series by Ron Zimmerman and John Severin, retro-fitting the old classic western character with a new sexual identity. While the series ended up being a huge disappointment for me, the fact that a gay character headlined his own series was a major triumph. Marvel trumpeted the character being gay as the entire selling point! Could we possibly have gotten to the point where being gay was now a marketing tool to be exploited? Remarkable!
As if in a battle of one-upsmanship between the “Big Two” publishers of super-hero comics in North America, DC then re-introduced long forgotten character Batwoman in its 2006 event series 52. For the first time, they had a gay character within their signature Batman titles. And not just a side character, but one of the actual “Bats”. They even had her take over long-running title Detective Comics, a critically acclaimed run by Greg Rucka and J.H. Williams III that continues to influence today’s Bat books.
Furthermore, we weren’t seeing just single characters any longer, as if stuck alone in their universes as the token gay representative. No, now we had couples. Relationships were being acknowledged for the first time. It was another shift in representation.
Give Marvel credit, a few years after the Rawhide Kid debacle (unintentionally (?) offensive stereotype jokes), they introduced super-couple Hulkling & Wiccan in Allan Heinberg and Jim Cheung’s Young Avengers. Perhaps less remarkable for the idea that they were introducing more gay characters than the fact that these characters were teenagers, in a book marketed as a teen team book, written with the teen set in mind. Phat & Vivisector of X-Force may have been teens (I honestly don’t know), but the audience for that book was much more adult-oriented. Until then, there seemed an unwritten rule that gay characters had to be adults. As if showing kids as gay or struggling with their sexuality would somehow turn those impressionable young readers toward the rainbow path of leather chaps and Lady Gaga. A silly notion, and Marvel came to recognize that.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t note that, since the early ’90s, creators themselves have been brave enough to come out in the industry. Back in 1991, P. Craig Russell is cited as the first mainstream artist to come out. Following him a year later was then up and coming artist Phil Jimenez, today a superstar in the industry. Eric Shanower. Heinberg. In a field that one would think artists might be hesitant (ie. for kids), these creators and more have courageously led the way in the real world, refusing to submit to those who would fear of their influencing young minds.
As the 2000s edged forward, and more and more characters came out (Obsidian, Julie Power, Terry Berg, Mystique & Destiny, Pied Piper, Renee Montoya, Rictor & Shatterstar, and earlier this month, the original Green Lantern Alan Scott), visibility in comics tipped the scale past a point of no return. And yet, there was still a somewhat conservative element to most of the characters and storylines. Physical interaction was few and far between, and hot button topics were all but ignored. For all their mainstreaming, these characters still revolved around the edges of the general public’s awareness, maybe dipping a toe in here and there without taking a full plunge.
That would change in 2010 with the shocking introduction of a character from perhaps the most unexpected of publishers….
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.
Tags: Alan Scott, Allan Heinberg, Batwoman, Beautiful Thing, Bryan Hitch, Dane Hill, DC Comics, Detective Comics, Eric Shanower, gay, Green Lantern, Greg Rucka, J.H. Williams III, Jim Cheung, John Severin, Marvel Comics, Mike Allred, P. Craig Russell, Peter Milligan, Phil Jimenez, Queer As Folk, Rawhide Kid, Rawhide Kid: Slap Leather, Ron Zimmerman, The Authority, Warren Ellis, WildStorm, Will & Grace, X-Force, X-Statix, Young Avengers