Welcome to Part III of CBR's look at homosexuality in comics. For this series, CBR News spoke with nine comics industry professionals about the portrayal of GLBT (Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transsexual) characters and themes in comics, past and present. Part I and Part II introduced participants Marc Andreyko, Lillian Diaz-Przbyl, Devin Grayson, Terrance Griep, Mark Millar, Allan Heinberg, Scott Lobdell, Alan Moore and Greg Rucka.
In this segment, the participants discuss the Comics Code, the stigma of comics as a children's medium, whether homosexuality is a lifestyle choice or a genetic predisposition, and the tendency for gay, lesbian and bisexual characters to be defined by their sexuality.
Dr. Wertham's infamous "Seduction of the Innocent"
The history of homosexuality in comics is a complicated one, given there was a time when any kind of sexuality in mainstream comics was taboo, under the auspices of the Comics Code Authority. The Code was first instituted in 1954, largely in response to Dr. Fredric Wertham's reactionary book, "Seduction of the Innocent," in which the psychiatrist warned parents about the violent and sexual content of comic magazines of the day.
Facing the very real threat of governmental censorship, the Comic Magazine Association of America opted instead for self-censorship. The CMAA drafted the original Comics Code in 1954 and established the Comics Code Authority to oversee its implementation. The code set forth strict guidelines for the depiction of things like crime, violence and sex in comic books, and forbade the depiction of anything that was considered at the time to be morally reprehensible. All general-audience comics were required to adhere to the Comics Code and to bear the CCA seal, and though adult-oriented comics were not expressly forbidden, enough distributors stopped carrying non-CCA approved comics that the material was rendered grossly unprofitable. EC Comics' popular horror line folded in the wake of the CCA, and was just one of its many casualties.
The Comics Code was largely patterned after the Hays Code, the set of film industry guidelines implemented in 1930 by what later became the MPAA, and some of the decisions made by administrators of both could be described as, in a word, arbitrary. The CCA underwent two major revisions --one in 1971 and one in 1989-- before eventually fading away into obsolescence. The '71 revision was prompted by the CCA's refusal to put their seal of approval on a three-part "Spider-Man" story written by Stan Lee that depicted drug addiction. Despite the fact that Lee was solicited to write the story by the U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare for the purpose of informing children about the dangers of drug addiction, the CCA ignored the context and adhered to the letter of the Code, which forbade the inclusion of controlled substances of any kind on a comics page. In light of the critical praise Lee's "Spider-Man" story received, the revised Comics Code of 1971 permitted drug-use in Code-approved Comics, provided addiction was strictly shown in a negative light.
Interestingly enough, the inclusion of homosexual themes in comics was never strictly forbidden by the code in any of its iterations, at least not in as many words. Graphic sexual content of any kind was of course prohibited, as was "sex perversion," though what constituted the latter was left firmly at the discretion of the Comics Code Administrator.
While Scott Lobdell admits that the Comics Code did limit the kind of content that could be addressed in comics at that time, he cautions against looking at it with an eye towards revisionist history. "While I think Dr. W might have carried on a little too much and taken it to extremes, the truth is that comics in the day were A) accessible to everyone and B) were pretty freakin' freaky in the day," Lobdell remarked. "I remember picking up some old horror comics as a very young child and being horrified by images of knives through heads and the like! Really scary stuff that we wouldn't even see today on cable television. And just as we don't allow kids into movies with certain degrees of violence and nudity, so too do we not necessarily want kids exposed to it on the newsstand at ten cents a pop.
"I think the notion that comic books that are accessible to everyone meet certain publishing standards and guidelines is not a bad thing," Lobdell continued. "Again, this was all in the day before comic book stores where store owners know what they are getting and can rack it accordingly."
Before direct-market comic book specialty stores came into their own in the '90s, comics publishers primarily used newsstand distribution to get comics into the hands of their customers, with comic books lumped together without regard to their content. Once the direct market began to supplant the newsstand market as the primary distribution channel for comic books and comic-shop proprietors began clearly labeling books that contained adult content and shelving them accordingly, the availability and financial viability of non-CCA approved books increased by leaps and bounds, and the Comics Code gradually become more and more superfluous.
The Comics Code was still in place for many of the years that Lobdell has worked in comics, but the writer told CBR News that he never personally felt restricted in any way. In fact, as far as Lobdell can recall, he's never read the Comics Code in its entirety. "I never had any interest in writing a book with, say, 'fuck' in it," Lobdell said. Similarly, when he was writing such mainstream books as "Uncanny X-Men," Lobdell was never compelled to write an explicit sex scene between, say, Peter Rasputin and Kitty Pryde.
"I think there should be more younger-centric fare," Lobdell stated. "Even with, dare I say it, that quaint ole' Comics Code Authority, so parents know what their children are reading."
Mark Millar believes the increased sexual ante came naturally. " Sexuality in any form was barely explored in comics because comics have been mainly superheroes for the last two generations and superhero comics have been predominantly for children," Millar explained. "Most parents quite naturally resist the idea of any sexual themes in children's literature, but as the demographic became older and the themes became more adult, various forms of sexuality started to appear in the books. I think it evolved quite naturally."
Some of the most vocal opponents of GLBT themes in comic books are parents who are concerned about what comics are "teaching" their kids. Of course, such criticism seems, in part, a remnant of the perhaps outdated perception that comics are a chiefly children's medium. While that might have been largely true when the CCA was in full effect, it is far from accurate in the here and now.
"There is obviously still this stigma of being a children's medium, which gets occasionally dragged out," Alan Moore told CBR News. "I think that over the past 20 years now, people's perception of comics has changed radically. I don't think that the comics industry has changed radically enough, at least for my taste, but I would have to say that yes, people's conception of comics is a lot different now. There are things that can be done in comics that simply can't be done in any other medium. And I think that the public is perhaps catching up with that perception. I guess that perhaps people are prepared to make an exception for intelligent comic books because they've not seen many of them, it's a bit of a rare beast, even still."
Devin Grayson asserted that parental pressure and corporate and commercial sponsorship have historically been and continue to be two of the biggest factors contributing to homophobic censorship in the comics medium. "The ghost of Wertham is apparently very much still alive, and for sure there are small but incredibly noisy groups of homophobes who apparently need corporate protection to keep them from picking up anything that might offend their tender sensibilities," Grayson said.
Greg Rucka certainly believes that the number-one reason some parents are leery of homosexuality in comics is a fear of what their children might be learning. "To which my argument is," Rucka said, "if your fear is that your child is going to learn that there are homosexuals in the world, you're in trouble. They're going figure it out sooner or later. Again, that's like saying to me they're afraid their kid's going to figure out that there are Muslims in the world or Hindus or Jews in the world. But I think that goes to a deeper fear. I do think that there's fear of control there, and of losing control. It's not an issue with how my wife and I raise our kids, and I don't believe that predestines our son to be gay, I just don't."
Alan Heinberg agreed that what little negative response he's received about books like "Young Avengers" usually boils down to concerned parents leery of exposing their children to homosexual themes. "But I've also had some rather extraordinary letters from parents who've appreciated the way the characters' sexuality has been handled in the book," Heinberg said.
That many parents are concerned about their children's exposure to GLBT themes and situations in comics is fairly evident, but that begs the question, why? One possible reason is the supposition that exposure to homosexuality at a young age might "turn" an otherwise straight child gay. Of course, this concern speaks to the greater question of whether homosexuality is genetic, a lifestyle choice, or some combination of the two. There is at present no conclusive evidence as to whether nature or nurture plays a larger role in determining a person's sexuality, and the debate that rages in the scientific community was certainly echoed amongst this story's participants, several of whom find the term "lifestyle choice" to be downright insulting.
"Every single aspect of human behavior is a combination of genetic predisposition, environmental conditioning, and life opportunities," Devin Grayson asserted. "I can say emphatically, though, that it is not a choice. I've been very lucky in terms of not suffering any negative consequences due to my sexuality, but other people have; other people have paid dearly for the inclinations of their bodies and their hearts -- sometimes with their very lives -- and the idea that they would choose that for themselves is ludicrous, insulting, and callous."
"'Lifestyle choice' is a horrible choice of words," Terrance Griep agreed. "That's the language of the people who hate us. Whatever your own gender identity is, I'm confident that you didn't choose it. I'm absolutely certain that I was born this way. I grew up in a town and home where homosexuality was absolutely reviled. Nothing enabled me to make such a choice -- quite the opposite, in fact."
Alan Heinberg, too, believes sexuality is determined at a genetic level. "Its expression is another matter altogether," the writer qualified.
Lillian Diaz-Przbyl agrees that sexuality is probably genetic, but its expression cultural. "But I wouldn't exactly call that a choice either, since it seems that often the choice is between the frying pan and the fire."
Marc Andreyko doesn't believe genetics is the only factor that contributes to sexual identity, but he admits it probably is the most important one. "This is who I am, who I was born," Andreyko said. "There was no inciting incident that knocked me off the path of heterosexuality." And just as the average heterosexual person can't remember ever actively choosing to be straight, such is Andreyko's experience being gay. "It's just what is."
As such, Andreyko doesn't lend much credence to the idea that a child's sexuality is shaped by their childhood experiences. "I was exposed to heterosexuality by my parents' marriage and I'm pretty darnn gay,' the writer said.
While Andreyko strongly believes in the genetic component of sexual orientation, there is no doubt in his mind that homophobia is a learned behavior. "Most people probably wouldn't care what a person's orientation was, but from childhood we're inundated with the word 'fag' or hearing that something is 'so gay' that negative connotations are attached almost immediately."
Heterosexual Alan Moore, on the other hand, is quick to discount the genetic component. "The thing about the gay gene always sounds profoundly Nazi to me," Moore said. "I think that this search for the gay gene, it hearkens back to when KM Benkert first coined the term 'homosexuality' as a pathological term, the name of an illness. And I think that all talk of a gay gene is probably based upon the fact that, 'Oh yeah, there's a gene for a predisposition for cancer, or a gene that will probably give you hemophilia or stuff like that. 'Homosexuality is an illness, so there's probably a gene for that as well whereby we could cure it.'
"We have such a variety of tastes in every other area of our lives," Moore continued. "Nobody would expect us all to like the same music, the same paintings, the same TV shows, the same food. Why do they expect us to have such a narrow palette when it come to our sexuality? If I had to make a guess at it, I'd say that probably, if you looked at say, chimpanzees, they seem to be promiscuous, bisexual, and largely unworried by these things. That is probably something like our natural state."
While Moore will be the first to champion the many great advances that human civilization has pioneered, at the same time, the writer acknowledges that in some ways society has taken a step back. "Having to take on a social mindset, having to take on a number of restrictions and boundaries, that has probably forced a kind of identity upon most of us," Moore said. "The original meaning of 'fascism,' it's fascia, it's the bundle of bound twigs that are used to make the front of a house. And it was the symbol of the original Roman fascists because it suggested that 'in unity there is strength.'"
However, Moore was quick to point out the flaw in that idea. "But if you want those twigs to be in a particularly neat bundle, it would be better if they were all the same size and shape," Moore said. "So it very quickly goes from 'in unity there is strength' to 'in uniformity there is strength.' And I think that is the definition of early Roman fascism, it's also a definition of practically every other organizational structure, including the societies in which we live. They are seldom based upon the idea that 'in diversity there is strength,' even though that's what evolution teaches us."
Moore believes that this drive for conformity is so ingrained in the modern psyche that people go out of their way to hide the things that make them different. "Nobody really wants to be an oddball in any area of their lives," Moore said. "If people are different in terms of their sexuality, then they are suspect. If people are different in terms of their diet, they are suspect. Anything that can single you out form the herd, it is possible that it will make you a victim of the herd's displeasure. It comes from the way in which we see society, and the way in which we see ourselves, and I think that society perhaps feels threatened by any twigs that are the wrong shape or size, and that is probably the root of their unease with the concept of what they would see as an 'irregular' sexuality.
"It seems that comics perhaps like flirting with the idea of being liberal with regard to sexuality, but they're still not entirely comfortable about it. I think despite the fact that culture is obviously moving on to include gay people, just the same as everybody else is included, I think a lot of our entertainment media are lagging behind. I think that the comics industry, talking about the big mainstream comic publishers, to them it's still something which it outré, and daring."
As a case in point, Moore invoked Marvel's 2003 re-envisioning of the Western character Rawhide Kid by writer Ron Zimmerman. There was one marked difference between Zimmerman's Rawhide Kid and the one some readers had been familiar with since the '50s: this one was gay. Moore did not speak to the content of "Rawhide Kid," but he was critical of the marketing campaign. "It seemed a bit showy," Moore began. "'Look at us, we're doing a gay western.' I'm not sure whether it was actually advancing people's concept of the gay lifestyle, or whether it was just a little bit of kind of pseudo-liberal grandstanding. I don't know how much that stuff helps, because that is still singling out the gay character as some kind of freak, rather than just letting them the character stand or fall on their own merits, irrespective of their sexuality, which is probably a better way to go.
"No one would say that the majority of superhero characters should be constantly dealing with the fact that they're white, or the fact that they're heterosexual, or the fact that they're men," Moore continued. "But because the white heterosexual man is the norm, I suppose a lot of the white heterosexual men who are publishing these comics kind of think that everybody else is in terrible conflict, because they're not white heterosexual men. They don't seem to be able to imagine gay people being on the same planet as everybody else. That they are on some special gay planet, and they're not a part of mainstream society, which is clearly rubbish."
Even today, gay characters tend to be in large part defined by their sexuality, rather than that just being one aspect of their character. "Sexuality is an important part of life, but it doesn't define personality or work schedules or even morality," Devin Grayson said. "I think too often gay comic characters are created and portrayed by people with no real connection to the culture."
Grayson is no more suggesting that a writer need be gay to write about gay characters than a writer need be male to write about men. However, "I think in the case of gay characters, we're talking about a reality and social framework that is maybe not familiar to straight people," Grayson explained. "I move through the world of men, I have a lot of access to and familiarity with and association to it. But I would be the first to admit that I have no idea how it feels to be happily married and want a child, as common a reality as that seems to be. I've spent years telling editors that I didn't think I was the right person to write such-and-such female character, because I didn't understand or couldn't connect to her. You have to understand where your internal sympathies lie.
"The biggest issue, though, is that sexuality --really of any kind, in mainstream superhero comics-- is still played for shock value," Grayson continued. "And as long as that's the case, it's going to be an uphill battle to realistically portray subtle, multifaceted relationships."
Alan Heinberg admits that at times the rhetoric can be laid on a little thick. "We want it both ways, don't we?" Heinberg said. "We want more gay characters in comics, but we don't want them defined by their sexuality." Heinberg is of the same mind as Grayson, that the strength of a character's portrayal will always hinge on the skill of the writer. "And the good news is there are more wonderful writers writing characters-who-happen-to-be-gay than ever before."
Terrance Griep believes that more often than not, all comic characters are mired in stereotypes, regardless of their sexuality. "And, for the sake of telling a story in 22 pages or less, that's not intrinsically vile," Griep said. Further, Griep is of the opinion that homosexuality in mainstream comics is largely a marketing gimmick and nothing more. "Characters are only 'allowed' be gay if there's some reason for it," Griep said. "Kyle Rayner's bashed sidekick comes to mind."
Griep is referring to Terry Berg, Kyle Rayner's one-time art assistant at "Feast Magazine," whose displays of openly gay affection earned him a savage beating from some homophobic gang members. "If publishers believe that a gay-for-diversity's-sake lead character will sell and attract them some mainstream media attention, I know for a fact that they'd publish that character instantly," stated Griep.
Mark Andreyko was quick to point out that gay characters are far from the only minority group in comics that remain mired in stereotypes. "It has gotten better in recent years, but gays aren't the only ones dealing with that," Andreyko said. "I mean, why are so many black characters still saddled with 'black' in the names. Could you imagine if Captain America was named 'Captain White America'? And female characters still have it rough, too. It is getting better as more diversity comes to the creative side. The more minority creators, the more textured the portrayals of minority characters."
Lillian Diaz-Przbyl agreed that minorities of all shapes and sizes are mired in stereotypes across the board, and that the phenomenon is not limited to comics. "To be fair, most minority characters in most media in the US are still defined by their differences rather than being fully fleshed-out characters," Diaz-Przbyl said. "The nature of arguing on the Internet makes it seem like it's worse in this industry, and maybe it is, but there is a much more systemic problem as well."
CBR's look at homosexuality in comics concludes tomorrow with part IV, in which the participants weigh in on "the gay retcon," put forth a few of their favorite GLBT comic book portrayals and discuss the state of the union of homosexuality in comics.