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Gay News : Publications : Issue 296 : SuperQueeroes - Queer Comic Book Heroes and Heroines

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SuperQueeroes - Queer Comic Book Heroes and Heroines

by Hans Hafkamp in Theatre, Art & Expo , 10 mei 2016


For the first time in Europe, Berlin’s Schwules Museum is devoting an entire exhibition to the comparatively new topic of “queer” comics: comics that include GLBT characters and tell GLBT stories. The exhibition “SuperQueeroes” focuses on “heroes & heroines,” covering not only the various X-Men, Batmen and Catwomen who experienced coming-out stories in American mainstream comic series in recent years.

The show is also and consciously about the heroic everyday-lives of GLBT people, as mirrored in the many underground comics presenting their daily struggles in a hetero-normative world.

In the exhibition, stories of everyday heroes and heroines from Europe are juxtaposed with those from the USA, while mainstream superheroes are put in opposition to underground super-heroines such as Glamazonia. In addition, there are subversive anti-heroes defying comic codes and conventions with their sexuality, as well as GLBT characters that conquered hetero-dominated bastions such as cowboy, cop and adventure strips. They all prove: gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender characters can be fully convincing in any of these genres.


Superman, Batman & Co

The general history of the superhero in comic books more or less started with the debut of Superman in 1938. In the first decades of the twentieth century comics were also known as “funnies,” a term implying humorous intent. Although this suggestion also applies to a literal interpretation of the term “comic,” the practice proves to be completely different. In 1929 the adventures of “Tarzan” and “Buck Rogers” first appeared on newspaper comic pages, heralding the advent of what would become known as the “adventure strip.” Following “Tarzan” in the 1930s were “Dick Tracy,” “Jungle Jim,” “The Phantom,” “Terry and the Pirates,” and dozens of others. All of these featured continuing stories, exotic locales and/or characters, virtually nonstop action, and little if any humor.

They served to transport readers elsewhere. However, the impact of the Superman character upon the subsequent development of the comic book would be difficult to overestimate. Here was a seemingly human being who possessed a number of superhuman powers, a costumed hero with a secret identity, an alien from a dying planet who embraced American ideals. Superman spawned a host of look-alike, act-alike costumed heroes, all owing their existence to the norms and conventions his character established.

The first appearance of Batman in 1939 marked the emergence of another kind of heroic prototype. In this instance, a man of means (he had millions), when summoned by police, donned a bizarre costume, intended both to conceal his real identity and to terrify crooks, and swung into action. Batman possessed no superhuman powers. The skills he offered in behalf of law and order were merely those of the superior athlete and the brilliant scientist. Just like Superman, Batman was also widely imitated, especially after the appearance of Robin as his adolescent sidekick in 1940. Batman and Robin established the comic-book precedent for heroic partnerships between grown men and young boys, and their success made such pairings very nearly de rigueur in the medium during the 1940s. Here, after all, was a telling point of identification for an eager juvenile readership.


Subtle Atmosphere of Homoeroticism

Some people feared these young readers might identify too much with their comic book heroes. The comic book came under attack by educators as early as 1940, when the medium was yet in its infancy. The more urgent concerns of the Second World War, however, confined comic-book criticism to the academy. But in the late 1940s the time was ripe for fresh onslaughts by people who seemed to take comic books quite a bit more seriously than did the audiences for whom they were intended. The most prominent critic of the postwar years was Fredric Wertham, a New York psychiatrist who believed that prolonged exposure to the medium created disturbed, delinquent children. In 1954 he published “Seduction of the Innocent,” a book whose title just about told it all. Wertham leveled, for example, damning Freudian critiques at characters such as Batman and Robin.

He stated that his research confirmed the view (which he attributed to others) that stories about Batman and Robin were “psychologically homosexual,” pervaded by “a subtle atmosphere of homoeroticism.” Indeed, the association of these two crime fighters was “like a wish dream of two homosexuals living together.” And only “someone ignorant of the fundamentals of psychiatry and of the psychpathology of sex” would say it wasn’t so - a ploy for preempting the layperson’s criticism of the learned critic. Another comic book character, Wonder Woman, was in Wertham’s eyes the “Lesbian counterpart of Batman,” a “frightening image” for boys and a “morbid ideal” for girls.

“Seduction of the Innocent” embodied the anti-comics crusade in the USA and resulted in the Comics Code Authority (CCA), which was formed in 1954 by the Comics Magazine Association of America as an alternative to government regulation, to allow the comic publishers to self-regulate the content of comic books. This code banned graphic depictions of violence and gore, as well as the sexual innuendo. Previous agreements in the publishing world had condemned the publication of “sexy, wanton comics”.

But the CCA was much more precise: depictions of “sex perversion,” “sexual abnormalities,” and “illicit sex relations” were specifically forbidden. Love stories were enjoined to emphasize the “sanctity of marriage” and those portraying scenes of passion were advised to avoid stimulating “lower and baser emotions.” Periodic revisions were made to the Code to reflect changing attitudes about appropriate subject matter (e.g., the ban on referring to homosexuality was revised in 1989 to allow non-stereotypical depictions of gays and lesbians), but in some form the code lasted until the early twenty-first century.


From Sublimated to Openly Gay

Whether the homoerotic undertones in the relation between, for example, Batman and Robin were intended by the creators is something which will always remain a question, but it’s highly unlikely. However, some have argued that the world of superheroes is innately queer. Justin Hall, one of the curators of the Berlin exhibition and editor of “No Straight Lines: Four Decades of Queer Comics” (2012) agreed somewhat with this view in an interview with “The Advocate”: “Well, there is certainly some obvious sublimated sexuality in imagining muscular, perfectly bodied heroes in skintight outfits flying around grappling with each other, especially since traditionally most of them were male.

And as the show points out, there are obvious examples of queer readings of Batman and Robin hanging out in their Batcave together, Wonder Woman living on Paradise Island, populated solely by incredibly attractive and athletic immortal Amazons, and the X-Men, whose powers manifest at puberty and who must deal with a world who hates and misunderstands them. [...] That being said, the American comics industry wasn’t the quickest to embrace openly queer superheroes. They’ve come a long way recently, and I’m thrilled to see some of the queer superhero subtext manifested in real, out characters.”

Although Marvel Comics, one of the major publishers in the field, abandoned the Comics Code Authority only in 2001, the company made headlines in 1992 by revealing that Northstar, a Canadian superhero associated with Alpha Flight and the X-Men, was gay. Twenty years later, the character was back in the news when he was set to wed his longtime partner Kyle in “Astonishing X-Men #51,” published in 2012. Northstar isn’t the only superhero who reemerged as a gay man. Also in 2012 Alan Scott, the first Green Lantern, was reintroduced as a gay man in DC Comics’ “Earth Two,” issue two. When DC Comics relaunched its fictional world from scratch in 2011, some aspects of the DC mythos temporarily fell by the wayside, such as the notion of parallel worlds featuring different versions of the company’s iconic heroes. “Earth Two,” a new series by writer James Robinson and artist Nicola Scott, reintroduced this concept by putting a new spin on the original versions of characters like the Green Lantern, the Flash and Superman that diverged notably from the past several decades of DC lore.

In the second issue of the comic Robinson and Scott proved how different this world is by revealing that their version of Alan Scott, the first Green Lantern introduced back in 1940, is an openly gay man. As Robinson explained in an interview in 2012: “He doesn’t come out in issue two; he is already a gay man. Alan Scott is super-heroic, he’s super gallant, he’ll die for the earth, he’ll die for its people, he’s everything you want in a hero. I imagine he’s such a Type A character that when he realized he was gay, he was like, ‘Okay, I’m gay, now I’m just gonna go on with my life.’ He’s so accepting of it himself and he’s such a compelling person that the world knows Alan Scott’s gay. He’s such a leader, he’s such a good man, that the Justice League don’t care. And that’s a healthy depiction of a team and how it should be.”


Erotic Material

It has taken the mainstream comic book world a long time to embrace gay characters, and gay men and lesbians didn’t want to wait for this to happen, so they created their own comics. The first queer comics, manifestations of underground art and revolution in ink, were first and foremost about sex. Touko Laaksonen (1920-1991) can be considered the first gay cartoonist, as he was producing his underground erotic comics as early as the mid-1940s, and selling them through a mail-order business in Europe. In 1957 he began creating illustrations for Bob Mizer’s magazine “Physique Pictorial,” for which he gained the pen name Tom of Finland.

He can still be regarded as one of the most influential creators of gay erotica in the world. His wordless adventures of the sexually insatiable leatherman Kake have inspired generations of cartoonists. Alongside the flowering of erotic material came the birth of the modern gay-rights movement in the late 1960s. The movement was borne along by a wave of gay newspapers and magazines, the longest running being “The Advocate,” begun in 1967. These new gay newspapers needed comics, and so gay gag strips such as Joe Johnson’s “Miss Thing” and Sean’s “Gayer Than Strange” began to appear. In the ensuing decades the gay hero has blossomed in a variety of forms.

Many creators of queer comics accepted the risk of professional suicide when they originally published their work. Within the context of the exhibition “SuperQueeroes” these authors (some of them well known, such as Tom of Finland, Alison Bechdel, Ralf König, Wolfgang Müller, Gengoroh Tagameh, Nazario or Howard Cruse, others less familiar, like Megan Rose Gedris, Erika Moen and Kylie Summer Wu) are portrayed as “heroes” in their own right, and as GLBT pioneers.

A special section of the exhibition is dedicated to the topic of AIDS, showing how superhero characters battle against HIV: from the 1980s “Condoman” to “Stigma Fighters” from 2015. Condoman was created in 1987 and very quickly became an iconic figure in Australia for sexual health and the prevention of HIV/AIDS. Some years ago he was relaunched to teach Australian teens about the dangers of sexually transmitted diseases, and he brought his slippery new friend Lubelicious with him to do so.

“SuperQueeroes” is curated by an international team of experts who bring very distinctive and individual perspectives to the superhero topic.


The exhibition is on display until June 26, 2016:
Schwules Museum *, Lützowstraße 73, 10785 Berlin, Germany
www.schwulesmuseum.de

 








 
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