Jon Kent, the son of Superman, is bisexual. So is Nightwing, one of Batman’s many former Robins.
Nova recently admitted his love for Peter Quill, Star-Lord from a totally gay version of Guardians of the Galaxy, while Quill’s former fiancée Kate Pryde of the X-Men kissed a girl. And, phew, things are getting steamy between Harley Quinn and Poison Ivy. Really. Steamy.
If you’re following along, you’ve probably noticed mainstream comics has had quite a coming out lately. If you haven’t been following along, we’ll catch you up: The trend is nothing new — though it does seem to be accelerating.
When DC announced the news about Superman’s son on National Coming Out Day there was an outcry from a right-leaning portion of the fan base. Fox News even convened a panel to sift through the outrage. But the furor quickly died down for a simple reason: People are starting to expect the imaginary world of comic books to look like our own.
“I think that things are definitely moving in a positive direction,” said Sina Grace, a Los Angeles-based writer who’s worked for Marvel and DC. “Every publisher is finding their own way to sort of reflect the world as it is in front of us and putting it into these pop culture treats.”
LGBTQ+ representation is nothing new in comic books. Queer topics have always been a feature of independent and alternative comics — something the new documentary “No Straight Lines: The Rise of Queer Comics” tackles in loving detail (it screened at the Seattle Queer Film Festival in October). What’s new is the recent increased focus on LGBTQ+ representation by mainstream publishers Marvel and DC, who own about 80% of the comic book market, with a steady diet of mostly superheroes.
Portland author Douglas Wolk read more than 27,000 Marvel comics for his new book, “All of the Marvels: A Journey to the Ends of the Biggest Story Ever Told.” He said openly gay characters began showing up in Marvel about five decades ago. And the frequency has increased in the last five years with an emphasis on the yearly Pride celebration and more diverse characters and story lines.
“As early as the ‘70s, there are a number of same-sex couples, gay characters, and then more and more and more over time,” Wolk said. “And in the ‘80s, we’ve got our first couple of genderqueer characters showing up.”
A notable introduction came in 1982 when Arnie Roth turns up as a supporting character in Captain America. He’s Steve Rogers’ boyhood best friend and a World War II hero — and he’s been living with a man for many years.
“It’s right there,” Wolk said. “It’s just absolutely clear.”
And then there’s the coy case of Koi Boi, whose introduction was a big moment for the trans community.
“One of my favorite introductions of them is in one of my favorite comics, ‘The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl,’” Wolk said. “There’s a scene like a year into the series where they’re all changing into their costumes in an alley. And on Twitter, somebody wrote to Erica Henderson, the artist, and was like, ‘Is Koi Boi wearing a binder?’ And the response? ‘Well, we weren’t going to make a very special episode out of it or anything.’”
Marvel took a notable step in the 1990s when Northstar, a creation of Chris Claremont introduced in 1979, came out. The Alpha Flight member married his boyfriend in 2012 — the first depiction of a same-sex marriage in mainstream comics. Northstar’s appearance was a watershed moment, though the run’s not always remembered fondly because of the clumsy way his story line was introduced.
“Everything about Northstar’s long, slow coming out process is just kind of cringe-y,” Wolk said. “There was a period where I believe he turns out to be, like, literally a fairy. Try harder, try harder.”
Grace said he didn’t like Northstar at all, but ironically the character and his husband were the subject of the first story he wrote for Marvel.
“It’s sort of a last stand for them,” Grace said, “and they don’t think they’re going to come out alive, but they’ve got to do it — because if you’re not fighting for love, what are you fighting for?”
As a businessman, Ballard comic book store owner Alan LaMont remembers Northstar with some fondness.
“That sold incredibly, incredibly well at the time,” LaMont said. “That went crazy. They went into second and third printings on it because that really was kind of a first, if you will, at least by a major publisher anyway.”
That hot start didn’t hold up over time, though, said LaMont, who owns The Grumpy Old Man’s Comics, Art & Collectibles with his husband, William Leicht. The fairly long list of LGBTQ+ characters that have accumulated in the more than two decades since is mostly populated with sidekicks, protégés, minor story lines and what Wolk described as “queer coded” characters who live in a kind of limbo — like Mystique and Destiny, whose relationship is finally front and center in the X-Men universe right now thanks to Jonathan Hickman’s “Inferno” series.
“The major publishers have representation, which is a good thing,” LaMont said. “And they are trying. They are making a conscious effort to show different types of diversity in general, rather than just white, bulk super heroes.”
This is a feeling many in the LGBTQ+ community share with LaMont: It’s good to see progress. But it would be nice to see progress come more quickly.
LaMont has seen concerted efforts come and go over the years. Probably the most notable came in the middle of the last decade when a re-imagining of Marvel into a more diverse comics universe caused hateful pushback from a vocal portion of the publisher’s white male readership.
Grace, as the writer of “Iceman,” was the focus of much of the vitriol. Fleshing out the story of how Bobby Drake began figuring out both his personal life and the full extent of his powers was exciting for Grace, whose story was not unlike Bobby’s.
“A lot of nonstarter ex-girlfriends,” Grace joked.
He was unprepared for the blowback, however. Though very much a periphery character, as an original member of the X-Men, Iceman was nonetheless viewed possessively by fans, and Grace became at least Public Enemy No. 3 or 4 during a very nasty period in comics history. He was advised to take screen grabs of everything. But that became impossible as insults, threats and blame poured in to every platform he was plugged into.
“It was just a bummer because it was like, I didn’t do this,” Grace said. “A bunch of straight guys three years before me, or whatever, make a decision to make Iceman gay, and then I’m getting blamed, you know? And you really can’t do anything in those situations as the individual because you’ll just get doxxed and it was awful. It was a super awful experience.”
Marvel did not respond to a request for comment, and DC declined to provide an editor or creator to talk about recent character developments.
The major publishers continue to publish stories about identity, despite regular blowback, however. As Wolk notes, Marvel hasn’t retconned any of the decisions it’s made about characters, and continues to introduce new story lines.
For all the attention on Twitter and the cable news networks, only a few titles have really grabbed the attention of the buying public, however, LaMont noted. DC’s Harley Quinn gets the most attention as she navigates her new relationship with Poison Ivy in the animated HBO Max show and the accompanying “Harley Quinn: The Animated Series: The Eat. Bang! Kill. Tour” comic book title.
“That’s not selling to lesbians by the way,” LaMont said. “I don’t have a long line of lesbians out the door saying, ‘Give me Harley Quinn!’”
LaMont sees some of what’s going on in comics as straddling. The practice of making many characters bisexual, for instance, is often viewed as a way to appease those who are looking for authentic stories and those who find the idea of Harley and Ivy making out titillating.
The joke’s on them, said customer Sophie Addington, shopping at LaMont’s delightfully cluttered store on a recent Wednesday. She says the comic is both great and written by LGBTQ+ author Tee Franklin.
“It took a queer writer to make that story actually work, rather than just being two pinup dolls kissing,” Addington said.
Another straddle for mainstream comics, LaMont feels, is the mostly teen-rated universe the characters inhabit. The limitation on explicit content inevitably leads to one-dimensional treatments.
“It brings up sort of an awkward discussion for the content of some of those books, just so they can say they’re gay,” LaMont said. “But they really don’t do anything other than maybe kiss. And they’re not going to, probably ever, because we don’t really show even a lot of the straight characters doing much more than kissing.”
Independent publishers, meanwhile, are leaning into LGBTQ+ story lines, though at a much lower sales volume. Grace argues that isn’t always a bad thing. He’s found life working with publishers like Image Comics and Boom! Studios much less stressful.
Portland-based Image will publish his one-shot “Rockstar and Softboy” next year. It’s a story about two gay best friends and an unforgettable house party. Grace is expecting zero turmoil on his social media feeds.
“In the same year I put out ‘Iceman,’ I put out this just incredibly vulnerable comic about getting sick and facing my mortality and reconciling the failures of my 20s,” Grace said of “Nothing Lasts Forever,” published in 2017 by Image. “And not a single troll went and got that book and tried to exploit my pain.”
An assortment of titles from Marvel and DC comics that feature LGBTQ+ characters
- “Superman: Son of Kal-El,” by Tom Taylor and John Timms. Jon Kent, son of Superman, takes on the mantle of his father and finds love in this ongoing title.
- “Harley Quinn: The Animated Series: The Eat. Bang! Kill. Tour,” by Tee Franklin and Max Sarin. Based on the naughty HBO Max cartoon, Harley Quinn and Poison Ivy navigate their new relationship while getting into all kinds of trouble in this current limited series.
- “Inferno,” by Jonathan Hickman and multiple artists. The entire X-Men universe carefully built over the last two years is about to come tumbling down thanks to Mystique’s love for Destiny, a once queer coded story line that’s now front and center in the Marvel universe.
- “Gamma Flight,” by Al Ewing, Crystal Frasier and Lan Medina. Spinning out of the pages of Ewing’s “Immortal Hulk” and co-written by Seattle’s Frasier, Gamma Flight includes the story of trans woman Dr. Charlene McGowan in this recently concluded series that will be available in trade paperback in January.
- “Unbeatable Squirrel Girl,” by Ryan North and Erica Henderson. This series, available in trade paperback, is awash in quirky characters and fun story lines about a girl who has the power of and can talk to, yes, squirrels. It’s as fun as it sounds.
An assortment of comic book titles from independent publishers that tackle LGBTQ+ topics:
- “Heathen,” by Natasha Alterici. Aydis is a young Viking warrior woman who’s told she can’t love who she wants in this trade paperback from Vault Comics. She’ll take her fight for freedom all the way to Odin.
- “The Woods,” by James Tynion and Michael Dialynas. It’s a normal day in class, until the school is transported to a mysterious forest on a moon far, far away from Earth in this GLAAD Award-winning book from Boom! Studios.
- “Bitch Planet,” by Kelly Sue DeConnick and Valentine De Landro: This future dystopian Image Comics story turns the era of exploitive women-in-prison genre films on its ear.
- “Killer Queens,” by David M. Booher and Claudia Balboni. This current monthly miniseries from Dark Horse Comics follows two gay reformed intergalactic assassins for hire as they flee their former boss — a monkey with a jet pack — while looking to turn a buck with a simple job.
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