Outhouse staff writers Punchy and Erik Galston go head to head on the hot-button issue of gay characters in comics.
VS.! is a new column on The Outhouse that takes one trending topic, two comic book fans, and six statements about that topic, throws them all together, and finds out how everyone really feels!
The rules are simple. Your host, intrepid reporter Jude Terror, will make six statements about the topic of the day. Each participant will answer whether they believe the statement to be true or false, and explain why. The first participant will speak first on the first three statements, last for the last three.
At the end, we will tally up the number of times the participants agreed with each other. Then we will take it to the forums, where everyone will get a chance to chime in.
Welcome to VS.! I'm your host and sexy bear, Jude Terror!
We decided to hit the ground running and start the column off with the hottest topic in comics today, homosexuality. With Marvel planning a same-sex wedding in Astonishing X-Men #51, and DC planning to out a prominent male character in June, the internet is buzzing with speculation, the media is fawning all over the books, and conservative groups are hilariously misconstruing things Jesus said two thousand years ago.
Our first guest this week is Erik Galston, a longtime Outhouse staff writer who has been quite vocal about this topic. Erik is an openly gay man. Our second guest, Punchy, is another staff writer who has been outspoken about publishers' exploitation of sexuality in the past. Punchy is openly British.
We've brought these gentlemen together to agree or disagree on six definitive statements about gay characters in comics. Without any further ado, let's see what they have to say.
Statement #1: Marvel handles gay characters better than DC.
Erik: Marvel has handled both the introduction of gay characters and relationships better. In Marvel the characters are well rounded and three dimensional before they come out of the closet. Whereas at DC, gay is for the most part the only characteristic for some of their gay characters. At Marvel, the characters are allowed to grow. Take Wiccan and Hulkling for example. Rather than publicize their first kiss, it came naturally and people really didn't realize that it was the first time the characters kissed.
Sure, in the past Marvel has handled characters poorly and side stepped their sexualities, but lately Marvel has done a great job with gay characters. Marvel doesn't seem to be afraid to show gay characters in loving relationships, whether its Wiccan and Hulkling or Karolina and Xavin, the characters' relationships seemed to evolve naturally.
Punchy: Well, I'd disagree that Wiccan and Hulkling were well-rounded, but overall, yes, I'd have to agree with the statement. Marvel has done a better job at having good gay characters. Northstar has been gay for a long time now and it's only now that he's been used for a "gimmick." Prior to that he was just another member of Alpha Flight or the X-Men. Karolina from Runaways is, as Erik said, a very strong character. Shatterstar from X-Factor, whilst two dimensional, is meant to be shallow, and his bi-sexuality hasn't changed his essential nature It's beside the point with him.
DC in comparison: they are tokens. Batwoman has nothing apart from being gay. That purple dude in Teen Titans... I don't even know what to say about him.
I actually think the best example of a gay character in comics at the moment is Striker from Avengers Academy. He came out, but it didn't change the fact that he's a massive, attention-seeking douche. Christos Gage didn't take the route of white-washing him or making "being in the closet" the reason he was a dick. No, he's just a dick, a fully-realised, enjoyable-to-read-about dick who happens to be gay.
Statement #2: It is better to introduce new gay characters than to change the sexuality of existing ones.
Erik: I'm torn. I think its good to do both, as, just like in the real world, gay people realize they are gay at different times in life. Sometimes they are in denial. Sometimes they just aren't sure. So to have an existing character come out, I think, is a good thing. At the same time, I can see why they would want to just create a new character. They don't want to deal with the possible backlash of having an established character come out as gay, and I believe that is a valid fear, especially since both companies are in the business to make money.
I think, for me, what matters is the story. If there is a good story reason for an existing character to come out of the closet then I'm all for it. I don't think either company should just make a character gay, or straight for that matter, just to sell books.
Punchy: True. If only because comics fans can barely handle the smallest of character changes, let alone one as relatively large as sexuality. I know that it's realistic that some people don't realize they're gay until late in life, but, in comics, you're allowed access to a character's innermost thoughts, and if you've had 30 years of someone never thinking gay thoughts, them coming out is jarring. It seems odd to use continuity as an argument here, but, to me, character consistency is the most important aspect of continuity. It has happened successfully before, in cases like with Rictor and Renee Montoya, but overall, I think you're safer with new characters. There's no fanbase to alienate.
Of course, there are examples of characters who were intended to be gay by their creators, but, due to the time period, they couldn't reveal it. Northstar is the prime example. I think this is okay. If the creator intended the character to be gay, the change is okay, but if the creator didn't, then I'd say it was a bad idea. People laughed when Rob Liefeld objected to Shatterstar being gay, but in the current comics media climate where creator's rights are almost as big an issue as sexuality, it rubs the wrong way that a character who was meant to be heterosexual by his creator was changed. However, creator rights and intent is a whole different issue. I may have opened up another can of worms.
Statement #3: DC's recently publicized newly revealed gay character will deliver on promises of being "prominent."
Erik: No matter what they say, unless the character coming out gets his own book, or is a MAJOR character like Wally West, the character won't be prominent. Sure, there will be attention given since that's what DC wants, but i don't see them doing much with the character after the fact. There aren't many "big" characters left that haven't been introduced, so I can't see whoever it is being that prominent of a character.
Punchy: False. Let's be honest here. DC only have 6 prominent characters: Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Flash, Aquaman and Green Lantern. Everyone else? Not prominent in terms of the mainstream media. Unless it's one of those characters, and I'm talking the 'real' versions, not some Earth-2 nonsense, then the gay character won't be prominent at all.
Now that I think of it, DC's only other prominent property is probably Watchmen. What if this controversy is just DC revealing outright that Ozymandias is gay? It's long been theorized, and I wouldn't put it past the modern DC to turn subtext into text here and show Ozzy getting his gay on. It would be hilarious if that was what this was about.
Statement #4: The publicity seeking over gay characters by publishers borders on exploitation.
Punchy: True. I really think that having gay characters has become a gimmick, used only to increase sales, and people really are falling for it. It's down to the fact that comics companies have pretty much run out of gimmicks. The average comics fan is very switched on to this sort of thing now. We don't automatically buy anything with an X on the front or with a big ass #1 on it. We roll our eyes at variant covers and holo-foil covers. When a character dies we immediately begin the countdown to when they come back. When "things will never be the same again," we know that they eventually will be the same again. The big comics companies are running out of ways to shock and surprise us, so they need something new.
That something new is sexuality. They pick what is still a hot-button issue and now it will cause a whole lot of discussion, both from gay comics fans and from traditionalists. Comics companies aren't doing it because they care about gay rights. They just want controversy, which in turn will generate sales.
The biggest example is Archie Comics and Kevin Keller. Until the introduction of a gay character, when was the last time the comics media paid any attention whatsoever to Archie? The 1950s! But Archie struck gold with Kevin, and it boosted their media profile a whole lot. Initially, the existence of Kevin wasn't attention seeking. But then they escalated it to get more publicity. Every other story about Kevin was hitting some controversial issue. They had him join the army to stir the pot about "don't ask, don't tell." They had him get gay-married. To a black guy! It's just ridiculous how Archie have managed to get away with such shameless hackery and attention-seeking. Is Kevin Keller even a character, or just a chance for Archie to show how progressive they are and make more money?
Northstar's Wedding is another example. Northstar has been gay for about 20 years, but it's only now, when gay marriage is the issue on everyone's lips, that it happens. I don't read Astonishing X-Men, so I don't know how well it's been developed, but how much of it is happening just because of Obama's proclamation? Homosexuality as a gimmick also rears it's ugly head with the recent Kate Kane Batwoman. The only thing that differentiates her from every other Batman spin-off is her sexuality. She has the exact same origin, family members killed, swears vengeance, "I shall become a bat." The same as Batman, as Nightwing, as everyone. But she's gay! DC can claim to be innovative. No. The use of "don't ask, don't tell" is also a factor here. This is a problem with most gay characters in comics: they aren't characters in their own right with interesting lives, they are GAY CHARACTERS and everything they do is GAY! The major comics companies think that's all they have to do, have a gay character, and everything is fine. This really links into the second statement.
Erik: In recent years, it seems that its the "cool" thing to have a gay character introduced since that's the "hot topic." I think that DC is a little more exploitative than Marvel when it comes to gay characters though. The last 3 big Gay characters have all had some big media blitz from DC (Batwoman, Bunker and whomever the new character is), whereas, for the most part, when gay characters are introduced in Marvel, its not a big media thing. I don't remember there being a big stink when Karolina Dean came out as a lesbian, or Anole. Sure, there was some media coverage with Wiccan and Hulkling, but Marvel didn't really try to exploit their first kiss in Avengers: The Children's Crusade.
With DC, on the other hand, that's all they seem to do. Its almost like they are saying, "look at us, we can be inclusive." Marvel's characters seem to be fully fleshed-out instead of just having gay be their defining characteristic. As much as I do love seeing gay characters in comics, since I am gay, I wish it came as a natural thing instead of forced.
Statement #5: Sexuality is extremely important to characterization in comics.
Punchy: False. In most people's lives, sexuality is a presence, but it's not the be-all and end-all. Gay rights advocates argue that it doesn't matter who someone sleeps with, and that's true. If we want equality, everyone should be treated the same, and as such I don't think sexuality is very important in a genre like superhero comics, where the main focus is on other things than what you put in your pants. Straight characters have a lot more going on than their sex-life, and it should be the same for gay characters, but it isn't. Yes, Spider-Man and Daredevil and Superman and most characters have running romantic subplots, but the characters have other things going on, like their jobs in their secret identities, or fighting crime, or being a nerd, or having a mental breakdown. This makes them well-rounded and realistic characters, just like real people. Yes, I do spend part of my day thinking about women, but I also think about a whole lot of other things.
That's not really the case for gay characters in comics. Take the case of the incredibly boring duo of Hulkling and Wiccan, can anyone think of a character detail that either of these characters has apart from their sexuality? Yes, they have their struggles with their parents, but other than that? They just make kissy faces at each other and talk about being gay. They are not even characters, they barely register as people, because their sexuality subsumes everything else.
This is the wrong road to take because it presents gay people as being different than straight people in the way they live their lives. It says that, to a gay person, everything they do has to do with their sexuality. They have no other interests and that makes them into something "other" and something more likely to cause homophobia. Making sexuality a key component to characterization in comics is bad because it makes for less well-rounded characters, and replaces them with 2-D cut-outs who are gay and only gay.
Erik: I don't really see how important a characters sexuality is to characterization. Its just another aspect to a character, as long as its not the only thing about the character. Take Batwoman, for example. When DC announced and introduced her, she was defined by being a "lipstick lesbian." Since then, writers have fleshed her out, and being gay isn't her defining characteristic. She's a three dimensional character. (Editor's note: an interesting example of the negative impact of sensationalism is Punchy's response to Batwoman - he wouldn't know whether she has eventually become a three dimensional character because he stopped reading.)
Sure sexuality can be a big part of any character, gay or straight, but it doesn't need to be the only thing. I also don't think it should be used to showcase another character. I remember back when Marvel was publishing New X-Men: Academy X (before Christopher Yost and Craig Kyle took over), and the original plan was to have Hellion say something to Anole (who at the time was just a background character) and Anole would then kill himself. Sure, it could have been a good story and groundbreaking, but the whole idea was just to give Hellion characterization. I don't approve of that. Sexuality is a big thing, but it shouldn't be the only thing about a character.
Statement #6: Gay characters in comics will have a positive impact for gay people in real life.
Punchy: I don't really know. As a straight person, I can't really answer this question. I suppose a gay person looking at a strong, confident hero who also happens to be gay could inspire them to be a good person themselves, but I don't really see why a character sharing one particular trait with you would inspire you more than any other. Being a good person has nothing to do with your sexual persuasion.
A gay person should be able to learn just as much from Superman as from Apollo because the lessons superhero comics teach us transcend this kind of thing. I'm British, but I don't have to be an American to be inspired by the good messages transmitted by the likes of Captain America and Superman, and I don't automatically prefer characters who are British like Union Jack or Psylocke. I don't find it hard to be inspired by characters of a different race, such as Luke Cage or Miles Morales. We, as humans, should be able to empathize with people who are completely different from us, so I don't see why the existence of gay characters will automatically change the way gay people feel about themselves. If you need another gay person to tell you that crime is bad and that truth and justice are good, there's something seriously wrong with you.
I think it's interesting how many straight characters have been adopted by gay fans. I'm thinking here of Dick Grayson as Nightwing, if you google him with safe-search off... wowsers, there's a lot of yaoi out there of him kissing Wally West. The same applies to Tim Drake and Superboy, Kyle Rayner, or Iceman. Garth Ennis poked fun of this in The Boys with the character of Swing-Wing, a straight superhero cynically marketed by the fictional evil corporation to appeal to gay people. I wonder how much the knowledge of this fan-element plays into what Marvel and DC do?
A character doesn't have to be gay to have a positive impact for gay fans is basically what I'm saying. Of course, another aspect of this is the way gay characters can change the opinions of straight people and stop homophobia. If done right, a gay superhero could demonstrate to homophobes that their beliefs are wrong, but the problem is, it's almost never done right. As I said before, most gay comics characters are GAY and nothing else, which reinforces the fear that homophobes have that gay people are trying to shove their lifestyle in the faces of heterosexuals. If gay characters were more well-rounded, there would be less of this. Until you can say more about a gay character than what they do beneath the sheets, they remain tokens, and therefore more likely to have a negative impact for gays than a positive one.
Another worrying factor here is the fear comics companies have of portraying gay people in a negative light. They believe that, if they present a gay character as being bad in any way, it will cause more homophobia. This leads to ther aforementioned problem of gay characters being bland as hell. Marvel are so scared of offending anyone that the likes of Hulkling and Wiccan are sanded down to nothing. If there is to be equality, the world of comics needs to depict gay people as real people, and that means there being some villainous, evil homosexuals, or bitchy, mean gay characters. These bland PC characters only make things worse. Until the world of comics can produce a fully-realized gay character with motives and desires and beliefs and interests apart from their sexuality, the impact will be negligible. There needs to be more focus on the character, and less on the gay.
Erik: As long as gay characters are not stereo types and written well, it could have a positive impact on both gay and straight people. Having positive role models is important for kids struggling with their sexuality. I know from experience that if, when I was growing up, I had characters like Wiccan and Hulking in my comics, I would have had an easier time accepting who I was.
I think exposing people to not just gay characters, but characters with any type of difference is a good thing. Do I expect having gay characters in comics to suddenly wipe away homophobia and hatred? No, but, as they say, people are more willing to come around to the side of equality if they know someone who's gay. Sure, gay characters aren't real, but who's to say someone who reads comics with a gay character couldn't connect with the character and change their views. I believe any positive role model, whether gay or straight, black or white, male or female, can only be a good thing.
Final Score: 5 of 6
Well, there you have it! For our first column, our participants agreed on five out of six statements. I guess we have a pretty clear consensus. Now it's your turn! Please leave your thoughts in the comments or on the forum, and join us again next week for another edition of VS.!
Written or Contributed by: Jude Terror