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.
When I was approached to write this weekly column for Gay Pride Month (that would be June), my initial reaction was to feel honored to be considered. Visibility on the subject is perhaps our most potent tool for understanding. Every positive example, whether it be through mass media entertainment or via humble blogs such as this, helps to humanize the issue just a little more for those who don’t quite understand it. More importantly, each hopefully provides a small amount of encouragement to the young kids who might be struggling with their identity. So, here I am, sharing my thoughts and sensibilities as a lifelong comic book fan… with a gay spin.
I grew up during the ’80s. In the South. Not the deep South of small town life that Hollywood makes to look so damned quaint. Or conversely, that the nightly news trumps up to look so god awful backwards and poor. No, mine was your typical suburban family lifestyle, albeit surrounded with a hint of cotton and a breath of marshland (Georgia), and then later came a slant toward the political (Northern Virginia outside of DC). I imagine my surroundings had been much the same as any other white middle class community found around the country, though perhaps with a greater focus of church on Sundays. I was a kid coming of age during the time of Star Wars, Atari and cassette tapes.
However, my great passion was comic books (and baseball, but let’s stay on topic). My love for the medium began with The Legion of Super-Heroes, thanks to those nifty little digest compilations published by DC Comics and found in convenience stores. A Superboy-led team consisting of Lightning Lad with his purple and white bolted uni, Cosmic Boy and Ultra Boy, Timber Wolf (the original Wolverine), and my favorite, Karate Kid, in his orange belted gi. On and on they appeared on the pages, all handsome and muscled under their skin-tight costumes. To this day, I hold a special place in my heart for those 30th century heroes. My Legion love soon graduated to an obsession for The New Mutants and Power Pack, not to mention the standard fare of Uncanny X-Men, Alpha Flight, The Avengers and The Amazing Spider-Man, all published by Marvel Comics. DC Comics heroes took a bit of a back seat, though they remained part of the staple. As you can see, I gravitated toward kid and teen groups who were coming of age alongside me, granted, while they were playing super-hero. Maybe subconsciously, I longed for that kind of life-and-death companionship, where nothing could break their bonds. Still, none were gay. And sadly, it never occurred to me that any of them could actually be gay. It just wasn’t an option.
I, of course, was harboring this growing secret inside me while I escaped into my fantasy worlds. I wasn’t lonely per se, as I did have a handful of friends and family. It was just incredibly isolating. There was little to no visibility of gay people out there for me to better understand what was going on with me. I desperately wanted to see examples of gay people in the world. I just never looked toward my comics for that fulfillment. Perhaps, because I knew that Marvel and DC could never write such a character into their stories. Think of the shitstorm, for lack of a better word, it would have created at the time. Comics were still “for kids”. Vertigo and MAX lines had yet to be created “for adults”. The closest they would come are the side jokes made about Batman & Robin, and the lustful insinuations made by fanboys of Wonder Woman and her Paradise Island of all women. The “Big Two” comic book publishers were absolutely and utterly devoid of gay content. And I could find no fault in that as a young struggling teen. It was the world we lived in. Later, rumors would surface that there was actually a “no homosexuals” policy at Marvel. However, then-Marvel Editor-in-Chief Jim Shooter denies such a policy ever existed. Regardless, there was the Comics Code Authority to contend with during that era, which would have shot down the stories immediately. What they failed to understand overall though was that I wasn’t some susceptible kid needing protection from so-called sexually deviant subject matter. I was a scared boy, growing progressively more lost, who simply needed the reassurances of a friend. Comics happened to be my most trusted “friend” at that age, and they let me down with their silence.
There was an alternate independent world of comics, but for me that consisted of mutant turtles, realms of magic, trollords, fish police and a peculiar barbaric aardvark. Then again, there were those elves being reprinted, ironically enough, through Marvel at the time. A small black-and-white title called Elfquest, whose main two characters Cutter and Skywise held a lifemate bond together, even sharing their secret soul names with each other that normally would only be shared with their “wives”. Yet still… not truly gay.
And then came a single revolutionary moment…
In 1992, a character well-known within the Marvel universe came out, shockingly and defiantly. Alpha Flight hero Northstar admitted he was gay, and it was a game changer. Perhaps even more important, when I went back to re-read his early adventures that I grew up with, there they were… the clues and tell-tale signs that writer/artist John Byrne had written into the character from the beginning! Right in front of my face the entire time! This wasn’t just a retro-conversion of a character. This was a character who harbored this same secret all along like myself! We were out there in the world after all. It was at that moment that I questioned: Were there others?
Peter Parker? No, he had Mary Jane. Daredevil? Maybe! Bruce Wayne? Despite all the jokes, I could suddenly see truth behind him! Alex or Jack from Power Pack, or Sam Guthrie from New Mutants? The possibilities suddenly became endless. These were no longer code-named heroes, but “real” characters living secretly underneath the pages. I read my comics with an entirely different perspective. My world shifted a step to the left, and I knew it was getting better.
Of course, Northstar’s sexuality vanished again for the better part of a decade, as if his declaration had earned him a spot on the inactive roster at Marvel. It was obvious that his sexuality still made the Powers That Be at the company jittery. I liked to imagine that there had been a small conspiracy inside Marvel, and maybe there had been, to get that issue (Alpha Flight issue #106) quickly out the door and to the printers before those nervous big-wig suits caught wind of it. Get it out to the world once and for all, for better or worse, the creative team’s own internal defiance like the character himself, the Comics Code Authority be damned. I feared someone may have lost their job by standing up with integrity. Whatever the consequences or reasons for shoving Northstar back into the closet, it was too late. Comics changed forever that day. Particularly for a certain segment of readers. A character was out. Like a genie from his bottle. And there was no going back. Gay kids got their example, and a whole new world opened for them.
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.
One of the biggest days in comics is happening tomorrow – Free Comic Book Day! This is an annual event where free comics are given away to anyone who walks into a comic book store, and many stores have special sales and events, as well as artists on hand for free sketches, and lots more. Check out FreeComicBookDay.com for more details and to find participating stores near you.
The LA comedy quartet Jawiin put together this video to explain how Free Comic Book Day works (while addressing some confusion about the day):
Golden Apple Comics is opening at 10 am with free Gamma Labs and Hubert’s Lemonade drinks and a Cinco de Mayo taco bar with purchase. Our own Scott Shaw! will be doing Simpsons sketches, plus there’s a sidewalk sale, $5 grab bags, a kids play area, a bounce house, and more. Plus signings by Felicia Day and the cast of The Guild, Andrew Chambliss (Buffy the Vampire Slayer Season 9), Scott Davis (Wrath of the Titans), Marc Andreyko (Manhunter), David B. Schwartz (Idolized), Peter Calloway (Anti), and Geoffrey Thorne (Prodigal: Egg of First Light).
Meltdown Comics will hold their Free Comic Book Day festivities from 11 am to 9 pm. As if giving away free comics wasn’t enough, they’ll also give you a 20% discount on any Marvel Comics products if you show your Avengers movie ticket stub. Plus a 50% off sale from 11 am to noon, 30% off all back issues, sidewalk comics by the pound ($3/lbs.), a Marvel Comics grab bag of 10 comics for $10, and more. Greg Weisman (Gargoyles), Victor Cook (Mecha-Nation), Caleb Monroe (The Remnant), Brandon Easton (Shadow Law), Scott Lobdell (Teen Titans) and creators from Archaia Entertainment (writers Tim Beedle [Fraggle Rock], Mike Kennedy [Bleedout] and Heather Nuhfer [Fraggle Rock]) will all be signing throughout the day.
Collector’s Paradise in Winnetka and Pasadena wasn’t content just having Free Comic Book Day. They’re expanding it to Free Comic Book Month with special events, signings and sales throughout May. But for tomorrow, there’s a 3-for-1 sale, and appearances by writers Ed Brubaker (Fatale), Steve Niles (30 Days of Night), Joshua Fialkov (I, Vampire), writer Corinna Bechko and writer/artist Gabriel Hardman (Planet of the Apes), writer Kyle Higgins (Nightwing), the Mind the Gap team of writer Jim McCann and artists Rodin Esquejo and Sonia Oback, Shane and Chris Houghton (Reed Gunther), and Matt Whitlock (Peanuts).
The Comic Bug in Manhattan Beach has so many creators, like Richard Starkings (Elephantmen), Joshua Dysart (Harbinger), and Jeff Stokely (Fraggle Rock) and fun stuff to give away, they made a 20-minute preview video (special password at the end of the video gives you a 25% discount!):