Mutant and Proud: LGBT characters and diversity in comics

by Michael Clancy

Marriage equality and gay rights have been a political and social hot-topic for quite some time now, however, in recent weeks there has been a surge in media coverage following Obama’s public declaration of support for the legalisation of same-sex marriage at the beginning of May. This week same-sex marriage has again made headlines, this time through a slightly different medium to what you might expect: comic books.

Earlier this week Marvel announced that X-Man Northstar would marry his boyfriend, Kyle, in Astonishing X-Men #51 this June. While the cynical mind might consider this a quick editorial decision following Obama’s vocal support for marriage equality, in order to grab headlines and boost comic sales (which it will inevitably do), Marvel have been teasing an X-wedding since early March, with their ‘Save the Date’ teaser posters.

DC have also announced plans to improve the sexual diversity of their titles. Last September, DC relaunched their titles and characters with a new continuity under the banner of ‘The New 52′. While the relaunch drew criticism for the noticeable lack of female creators on the titles, and the over-sexualisation of female characters in Catwoman and Red Hood and the Outlaws; it was also praised for featuring Batwoman, DC’s most prominent lesbian character, in her first ongoing series. The relaunch also featured a bisexual character as the main character in the title Voodoo. Building on this move towards diversity amongst their characters, DC editor Dan DiDio announced last weekend that DC are planning to reintroduce an iconic and established character as gay, with this character going on to become their most prominent LGBT character.

The move by Marvel and DC to take the issue of diversity and gay superheroes more seriously is unsurprising given that the superhero genre is filled with secret identities, persecution, and social issues. The X-Men comics especially have long been considered an allegory for homosexuality, with those deemed mutants having to ‘come out’ to their peers and endure prejudice and persecution. The X-Men have been champions of diversity and tolerance, therefore it’s the perfect title to feature the first superhero same-sex marriage.

Despite these current milestones, comics have had a long and varied history of including such social commentary in the stories they portray. Marvel and DC historically avoided depicting gay characters, with creators being discouraged from dealing with gay relationships or themes. During the 1980′s, Marvel were rumoured to have a ‘No Gays in the Marvel Universe’ policy. Also, during the 1990′s, comics that featured gay characters or depicted themes relating to sexuality were forced to carry an ‘Adults Only’ label.

Northstar was the first openly gay superhero depicted in a Marvel comic. He was introduced in Uncanny X-Men in 1979 by writer Chris Claremont and artist John Byrne, as a member of Canadian superhero team Alpha Flight. Both creators have said that they intended Northstar to be gay from his first appearance. It wasn’t until 1992, however, that the character finally ‘came out’ in Alpha Flight #106. Storylines involving Northstar largely avoided his sexuality until the 2000′s, during which time he became a mentor to Anole, another gay mutant and member of the Young X-Men. Marvel drew further criticism for never showing Northstar kiss another man during his 30-year history. It wasn’t until 2011 that Northstar was finally shown kissing longterm boyfriend, Kyle. Northstar’s history is not without its embarrassing moments either, as the character was at one stage declared to be part fairy…

Since the early 2000′s the inclusion of LGBT characters in Marvel comics has increased, with many of these becoming prominent characters rather than being relegated to supporting roles. The Young Avengers title, introduced in 2005, featured two gay teens as prominent characters. Wiccan and Hulking’s sexuality was hinted at from issue 1, but not openly stated till issue 12. The superhero couple also made headlines earlier this year, as their first ‘on-panel’ kiss was featured in issue 9 of Young Avengers mini-series The Children’s Crusade. While Marvel were criticised for taking seven years to feature an affectionate display between the two characters, it was more than likely due to the lack of a Young Avengers ongoing title over that period.

The late 2000′s featured a huge increase in the depiction of LGBT characters in the Marvel universe. As well as Northstar, Hulking, and Wiccan, LGBT characters were also introduced in the titles X-Factor, The Runaways, and Young X-Men

DC have received slightly more praise than Marvel for their representation of LGBT characters in their titles. While appearing much later than Northstar, Apollo of The Authority was the first openly gay superhero featured in an ongoing title.

In recent years, Batwoman has become the most prominent LGBT character in an ongoing title. The character was originally introduced during the 1950′s to combat allegations of Batman’s supposed homosexuality. The character eventually disappeared until the late 2000′s, when Kate Kane adopted the alter-ego of Batwoman. Kate Kane is an ex-soldier, expelled from the army as a result of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. DC have garnered much praise for the depiction of her character, and the fact that she is featured in her own ongoing title.

In the last twenty years, LGBT characters have moved from occupying supporting roles, to being the main characters in their own titles, becoming less of a novelty. A character’s sexuality should only be a facet of their whole rather than the main focus. Events such as the X-wedding of Northstar and Kyle in June help to further this positive depiction of sexual diversity. However, as comics writer Scott Lobdell, the writer who ‘outed’ Northstar, puts it: ‘ Twenty years ago he came out and it was in all the newspapers. Twenty years later and it makes headlines that he’s getting married. Let’s hope that in 20 more years, gay comic book characters don’t make the news at all because they are as common as capes and cowls’.

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