Ooh, did you hear the news? Those innovators at Marvel and DC are going to bring gay characters into their universes!
DC and Marvel have finally discovered The Gay, and are finally going to create one or two prominent characters in their universes that are gay. Yes, we're finally going to get some prominent gay characters in the Marvel and DC Universes– though the word "some" is a bit of hyperbole since only one or two characters will be GLBTQ in each universe. And by making one or two characters homosexual, what will that do for the publishers? Will it drive greater sales, or create a pseudo-controversy, or gain them points with the gay community, or get their comics banned in the South, or what?
It's hard to know what motivates this new attention to GLBTQ characters in the universes of the Big Two publishers. It would be nice if we could believe that this attention grows out of a sincere attention to creating complex, multi-dimensional characters. But it's hard to escape the feeling that this whole controversy isn't character driven. It feels very strongly like it is driven by sales.
As usual, the independent comics industry is leading the way on creating truly interesting and innovative comics that explore the world of LGBTQ characters. Recently I read the first collection of Spandex, a British comic by Martin Eden that posits the world's first gay super-hero team. I went into that book expecting to find a slew of jokes based on the public stereotypes of gayness – maybe characters would worship the gym, for instance, or dress flamboyantly (though if flamboyant dress was an indicator of gayness, two-thirds of all super-heroes would be members of the GLBTQ community).
But Eden does something surprising with his book: he shocks the reader, using his characters' complex sexuality as just one element of what makes them interesting and multifaceted human beings. The orientation of his characters feels much more real than you often find in most comics– sexuality is a fluid and multifarious thing for these men and women, as it is for all of us. Eden simultaneously embraces and rejects stereotypes, and uses character's emotional lives as just one extremely crucial aspect of what makes these heroes so interesting. That multifaceted approach by Eden allows each of the teammates – and the reader – to make assumptions about the characters that are then subverted and shaken up, held up to the light and quickly dismissed by dint of outstanding storytelling.
What makes Spandex a great comic isn't the fact that it has gay characters; what makes it great is that those characters have complexity and fluidity, a certain type of three-dimensionality that invites readers into their world and allows us to be surprised by what happens.
I hope that's what will happen with Northstar's wedding and the approaching revelation of a member of the New 52 being gay. Maybe these stories will be part of a wave of comics that treat sexual identity as just one element in characters' diverse personalities. Maybe this will be the vanguard of an embrace of men and women who encompass multitudes, rather than embracing and exploring stereotypes.
But even if that happens, it will be awfully late. Why is this news at all, and why should this be something that people both inside and outside the comics commentariat feels they must discuss? How is this worthy of being covered on The View, except as a giant promotional effort by the Big Two comics publishers? Real people are gay; therefore some characters created in fictional universes must be gay. Anything else would be completely unrealistic. Where is the controversy?
Maybe I will be wrong about this all being a giant promotional effort. When Greg Rucka's Batwoman was introduced, there was a brief spell of controversy about her lesbianism, but that attention quickly waned in favor of intense attention in the comics media to J.H. Williams III's astonishingly innovative art in her storoes. And since Williams left the art chore son the strip in favor of Amy Reeder, the comic has lost much of the attention it had been receiving – not because Kate Kane is a lesbian, but because the comic has simply become less interesting for readers.s
And our own Sara McDonald has nothing but good things to say about Astonishing X-Men #50, which shows that Marvel is at least being sincere in this effort to make a C-list Marvel character have his dignity, behave in character and actually grow a bit as a person.
But we have to guard against the overly simple. We have to guard against lazy writing that creates one-dimensional characters: creating heroes who are this and not that, like choices on a menu (do you want brown rice or white rice? Do you want this character to be straight or gay?) Like Kate Kane, and like Bunker in Scott Lobdell's Teen Titans, characters these days have to feel like more than the combination of a few attributes. They need to be specific men and women who can't be defined by a simple character sketch. As Greg Rucka writes in his outstanding io9 essay about why he writes great female characters:
No character – no well-created character, at least – is defined by only one trait, by one aspect. Sherlock Holmes is not simply brilliant. He's also a malfunctioning human being who, perhaps ironically, possesses a strong moral compass and such a compulsion to pursue justice that it eclipses any fealty to the law. He's also a junkie.
Because we all know people who are gay, and people who are black and people who are Russian and people who are assholes and people who are bad drivers and people who are every other thing that makes them unique. We are all multitudes, embracing all the many, many of sides of our personality. We may be black, we may be a geek, we may like My Little Pony, we may not like coffee. No single aspect of our personalities or lives defines us. But that's what DC and Marvel are doing with this sort of character manipulation – creating characters that are defined by just one characteristic of their personality.
It's a depressing and backwards way of thinking of characters, a sadly antiquated way of thinking that I wish had disappeared in the 1980s when we all quickly forgot that the white-suited Captain Marvel was a black woman and instead treated her as a specific character. Hell, I thought we did away with one-dimensional characterization after DC decided to make their characters actually have three dimensions. This sort of characterization feels on some level as retro on some level as the Legion of Super-Heroes taking on a member called Matter-Eater Lad because they need a character to… umm, eat matter.
These announcements feel weird. They feel like they're a reaction to the whole completely insane Conservative backlash in the US that seems to be dead set on diminishing any progress that our country has made over the last few decades on reproductive rights, on women's rights, and on gay rights. As one part of our country embraces our diversity and delights in the great complexity of the world around us, others are driven by fear or shame or anger or a completely narcissistic belief that they alone know what is in the moral heart of our country. That group of people figh
ts any change, no matter how benign. North Carolina went so far as to deny opposite-sex couples the right to visit each other in their hospital rooms because they were so scared and opposed to The Gay.
At the same time, a large segment of our society is supportive of rights that have been well-established for decades, and for rights like marriage that seem to not threaten the civil liberties of others. Marriage among same-sex couples is legally sanctioned in a half-dozen states, including my own; however, many states oppose it vehemently. It's crazy. In Canada, same-sex marriage is a protected civil right; in the US it's a reason for Conservatives to march in the streets.
In such a divisive world, we only have to declare that some super-heroes are gay in order to generate controversy. Do you honestly think anybody would buy a comic featuring the wedding of a member of a third-rate team like fucking Alpha Flight if it weren't for the fact that Northstar is gay? Their comic has flopped every time it's been reintroduced over the last ten or fifteen years. Nobody really cares about those characters beyond a small cult of fans. But because Northstar is gay, and getting married to his boyfriend, Marvel can use that character to make a statement about the issue of same sex marriage. Marvel has a great chance to show how progressive they are while at the same time selling a shitload of comics.
Comics have always been ahead of the curve when it comes to embracing change and diversity and complexity and the feelings of being an outsider in the world – but this sudden embrace of The Gay without a level of authentic complexity feels strangely awkward and out of touch with the reality of the world in 2012.
I don't know how many different articles and blog posts I've seen on the web speculating on which new DC character will turn out to be gay, but all of this has turned out to be great publicity for DC Comics. All of this attention to this manufactured controversy has turned heads in both the mainstream media and the comics media, has gotten people talking and reading the New 52 titles and diving back into the whole convoluted DCU. This controversy may even result in DC picking up a few thousand extra readers who will buy the comic featuring the new, gay Green Lantern (he's my speculation for the character – and look, I couldn't resist the hype either).
But is this the right way to gain readers? Can we please get complex characters like the ones in Spandex or Batwoman rather than simple, one-dimensional political and marketing chips?