Mainstream comics have had more than their fair share of homosexual subtext almost since their inception — look no further than Wonder Woman’s all-female homeland of Paradise Island or Bruce Wayne’s overly comfortable relationship with his ward Dick Grayson. But, until relatively recently, being “out” in comics had been a somewhat iffy subject. In honor of the news that Archie comics introduced its first openly gay character last week, here’s a look back at the evolution of open homosexuality in mainstream comic books.
It’s not exactly a stretch to see the anti-mutant bigotry found in the world of the X-Men as a thinly veiled metaphor for homophobia — mutants are called “homo superior,” after all. It’s strange, then, that the first openly gay major character in the Marvel stable hails from the Canadian super-team Alpha Flight. Northstar, a mutant with the ability to fly and move at tremendous speeds, eventually joined the X-Men, gaining greater status in the Marvel pantheon. First introduced in 1979, his sexual orientation was only first hinted at in the early ‘80s (and, even than, his lack of interest in women was dubiously attributed to a consuming drive to win as a ski champion) and he didn’t come out until almost a decade later. Still, it’s not as if his orientation is exactly accepted: in over 30 years of publication, Northstar has never been depicted kissing another man.
Midnighter and Apollo
Originally appearing in the pages of Stormwatch in the ‘90s, Midnighter and Apollo — an ersatz Batman and Superman, respectively — existed in a sort of “are-they-or-aren’t-they” limbo that kept fans guessing the true nature of their relationship. The mystery was solved unequivocally in the pages of The Authority, where the super-couple came out the closet, married, and adopted a kid. Although some of the scenes centering around their relationship seem a little tone deaf by today’s standards, Midnighter and Apollo broke new ground as the first main characters of a mainstream comic to publicly portray a gay partnership.
The Pied Piper
The Pied Piper, a music-themed Flash rogue with a hypnotic flute, is one of the first openly gay supervillains to not be played for laughs — we’re looking at you, Estraño. What makes the Piper such a great character is the number of times he’s completed the hero’s arc, going from ruthless murderer to repentant evildoer to relapsed villain and now valued ally to the Flash.
Bloke, Phat, and Vivisector
When Mike Allred and Peter Milligan took over creative duties on Marvel’s X-Force in 2001, they transformed the title into a sarcastic, pop-art send-up of the super-team genre. Later renamed the X-Statix, the team boasted a roster featuring no fewer than three gay characters: a mutant with the power to alter his abilities by changing the color of his skin, an Eminem pastiche who could alter his density, size, and shape by manipulating his own subcutaneous fat, and a werewolf. Unfortunately for Marvel’s diversity quotient, when Milligan left the title, he unceremoniously killed off the entire team at once — which was not exactly the first time in this wonderfully weird series.
Unfortunately, not all portrayals of gay characters in comics are positive ones — not by a long shot. In the controversial 2003 miniseries Rawhide Kid: Slap Leather, writer Ron Zimmerman treated the reading public to a rebooted Rawhide Kid whose sexuality amounted to nothing more than a springboard for tired, stereotypical gay innuendo. The cover was branded with a parental advisory content warning, despite the fact that, unlike many other titles in Marvel’s MAX imprint, Slap Leather did not contain a single explicit sex scene. Rawhide Kid came back in a new miniseries this year, but it remains to be seen what role, if any, his sexuality will take in the current arc.
Hulkling and Wiccan
As members of the Young Avengers, Hulking and Wiccan had the honor of being the first openly gay teenage couple with their appearance. During the initial run of Young Avengers in 2005, each issue featured in its letters section a debate concerning the propriety of a gay couple in the pages of a mainstream comic book. The writing was on the wall from almost the first issue, however, and writer Allan Heinberg let the cat out the bag during an interview when he expressed surprise at how quickly readers had picked up on his “subtle” clues. The couple became official within the pages of the comic in Young Avengers Special.
There have been multiple iterations of Batwoman, but none has caused quite the stir that Kate Kane did in 2006 when she was introduced by the higher-ups in DC to diversify the cape and cowl set. Regardless of the tokenism that played a role in her introduction, Kate Kane’s Batwoman has, due in no small part to the stellar writing of Greg Rucka, become a well-rounded and intensely interesting character in her own right. This distinction is all the more ironic considering that, when Batwoman was first introduced in 1956 as Kathy Kane, Bruce Wayne’s girlfriend, she was essentially a literary beard for a character that had infamously been accused of homosexuality by the likes of Seduction of the Innocent author Frederic Wertham.
Renee Montoya was originally introduced as an (ostensibly) straight policewoman in Batman: The Animated Series, but received a new sexual orientation when she made the transition from the small screen to the paneled page. Her character was fleshed out significantly in Gotham Central, before adopting the role of the Question — a blank-faced, bare-fisted vigilante — from the late Vic Sage in the pages of 52, where she enjoyed a relationship with the aforementioned Batwoman.