Comic books have made a fascinating forum for the real-life strides and setbacks of LGBT rights, from antagonism to acceptance. Despite the dark days of accusations against Batman and Robin in the 1950s, in the decades since we’ve celebrated the triumphs of a transgender “Runaways”character, Alison Bechdel’s graphic memoir challenging notions of male and female sexuality and much more. As we celebrate Pride Month, we highlight 10 key moments that showcase how LGBT characters and creators have expanded the world of comics.
Batman under scrutiny
Prior decades have seen an uproar about LGBT content in comics arising long before anyone even thought to put a gay character in a comic book. Thanks to the Lavender scare and Fredric Wertham’s “Seduction of the Innocent” in the 1950s, adversaries of the medium had turned their sights on Batman and Robin. In the ongoing battle against violence and sexual themes in comics, opponents assumed that this crime-fighting duo were “homosexual lovers.” The public outcry and eventual intervention from the U.S. Senate meant that mainstream publishers had to adhere to the Comics Code Authority, a list of strict rules banning just about everything from profanity to vampires. For those carrying the seal on their comics, any mention of LGBT culture was forbidden until 1989.
Outside of the mainstream, however, comic artists had the freedom to portray life as they saw it. Underground publications like “Gay Comix” and magazines like “Mad” didn’t shy away from LGBT culture; in turn, that inspired change within Marvel and DC. A clear sign of that shift came in 1986, with Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ mini-series “Watchmen,” an alternate history deconstruction of the superhero intended for mature readers. Not only did it help to establish the comic book as a respectable way to tell a story, but it also reminded fans that gay characters had been forced out of superhero history through no fault of their own.
Northstar comes out
Meanwhile, over at Marvel, creator John Byrne was trying to introduce an openly gay superhero in the pages of “Alpha Flight,” even though his superiors opposed the idea. The clash resulted in Northstar, a Canadian mutant with the power of super speed, simply becoming interested in skiing instead of women. It wasn’t until 1992, after the Comics Code Authority softened its rules, that Northstar was able to tell the world that he was gay. But even though the character rose in popularity, the House of Ideas was hesitant to push the issue further. For the next decade, Northstar went back to being just another hero who “happened to be gay.”
Maggie loves Hopey
In the pages of indie comics, there was a different sort of portrayal of LGBT culture. Those characters never had to make any grand proclamations or call any press conferences because their sexuality was part of their everyday life. For Maggie and Hopey, the protagonists of Jaime Hernadez’s “Locas,” their status as outsiders came first, intimacy came second and labels were a distant third. Like most self-published comics in the ’80s and ’90s, “Love and Rockets” included realistic LGBT content without calling attention to it–in large part because it would be impossible to illustrate life without it.
The Authority and gay marriage
By the late ’90s, Warren Ellis was able to merge those mainstream and indie depictions to create Apollo and Midnighter, a gay couple that acted a lot like Superman and Batman. The super duo made it look easy to decouple masculinity and sexuality, with both characters dealing considerable damage to their enemies as well as common stereotypes. Eventually, the pair of pastiches would get married and adopt a child, a notable first for a book published by DC.
Scott Pilgrim vs. stereotypes
As more LGBT content found its way into comics, it became easier for creators introduce better conventions into pop culture. In 2004, Bryan Lee O’Malley subverted the gay roommate archetype with Wallace Wells in his critically acclaimed “Scott Pilgrim” series. Unlike past depictions of the gay friend, Wallace is a fully developed character, capable of sustaining his own life and relationships outside of whatever the inexperienced and embattled Scott is doing. Wells is easily the most mature and stable person in his social group and, like the rest of his friends, he’s never forced to conform to a stereotype.
Xavin joins the “Runaways”
Over time, mainstream publishers incorporated more and more realism into their stories, which in turn led to a more public exploration of these issues in LGBT culture. Creators still had to shy away from sexual content, but now they could use popular superhero comics to discuss what was previously considered “too controversial.” Brian K. Vaughan did just that in “Runaways,” when Xavin, a gender-shifting alien, had to decide on an identity before continuing a relationship with her girlfriend, Karolina. The storyline presented gender and sexuality as complex concepts, especially when examined as part of teenage life.
8. Fun Home
Alison Bechdel publishes “Fun Home”
Not to be outdone by the Big Two, indie comics virtuosos such as Alison Bechdel used the medium to delve deeper into how our lives are shaped by gender roles and our sexuality. Her graphic memoir, “Fun Home,”juxtaposes her butch traits against the effeminate habits of her father, as she tries to make sense of their strained relationship. While the book required seven years to complete, it is a sequential art masterpiece, a high point for both comics and LGBT literature.
Meet Kevin Keller
In 2010, Archie Comics caught up to the rest of the American mainstream comic book companies by debuting Kevin Keller, the first openly gay character in Riverdale. The introduction also lead to another first–the first time the publisher would issue a reprint in the history of Archie. That success meant way more Kevin and a chance for the abnormally tame comics to tell stories about discrimination, gay marriage and even (gasp) teen kissing.
Batwoman begins, again
After the outrage of the early 1950s, Kathy Kane was introduced as a love interest to make Batman and Robin seem “less gay.” Fifty years later, a retcon would reintroduce her as Kate Kane, a lesbian socialite and future Batwoman. The change did anger a few misguided fans, but due to the character’s popularity, Kane would find herself headlining her own title in the New 52. It would be the first time a lesbian superhero would have her own book, and thanks to characters including Renee Montoya and Maggie Sawyer paving the way in the DC universe, it symbolized another step forward to righting the wrongs of the past.
This piece originally ran in June 2013.