There’s a scene in the 1938 screwball comedy Bringing Up Baby where Cary Grant's character discovers that Katherine Hepburn’s character has taken his clothes in an attempt to keep him from leaving her. In desperation, he puts on the only thing he can find — a sheer, pink robe of hers — and storms around the house, looking for something else to wear.
When the owner of the house arrives and demands to know who the strange man is and why he’s wearing that robe, an exasperated Grant shouts, “Because I just went GAY, all of a sudden!” punctuating the word "gay" with a leap into the air.
I’ve been thinking of that moment this week, as the mainstream superhero publishers seem to have been metaphorically running around in metaphorical ladies nightwear, metaphorically leaping in the air and shouting: DC and Marvel have gone gay — or "gay!" — all of a sudden.
Of course, the bit in Bringing Up Baby was meant to be a joke, the very sight of the virile, handsome, zenith of masculinity Cary Grant dressed in women’s nightclothes was in and of itself so ridiculous as to be funny without elaboration (although the image has since taken on some irony, given decades of speculation about Grant’s personal life, but let's not get into that). It was also made more than 70 years ago.
DC and Marvel are shouting about going gay with a — well, with a straight face, and they’re doing so in 2012. Read between the lines of the public relations, and essentially the two biggest North American superhero comics publishers (and Hollywood IP farms) are proudly, cluelessly boasting about the fact that they’re not as out of touch with the rest of American pop culture and society as they were last month, and they’re accepting congratulations for it.
It’s a bit embarrassing, really, and not just for DC and Marvel — I mean, all of us readers-of and writers-about these publishers get to share in guilt by association.
I’m not sure which of the Big Two comes off worse in this week’s campaigning.
Marvel’s big, gay news is, of course, that mutant superhero Northstar proposed to and is set to marry his civilian boyfriend, Kyle. This plot point has been hinted at by Marvel since at least March, when the publisher started its “Save The Date!” advertising campaign for Astonishing X-Men, and the February-released solicitation for the May-shipping Issue 50 included a line about Northstar having to choose between his boyfriend and the team, and another read “Don’t miss the end of this issue – it’ll be the most talked about moment of the year!”
Pretty obvious that Northstar was going to get married, right?
Earlier in the week Marvel started hyping an announcement that would be made on The View, of all places. (Do you know what a Venn diagram of "People Who Watch The View" and "People Who Will Ever Buy An Issue of Astonishing X-Men" looks like? It’s two circles on separate sheets of paper, and about a mile and a half between each of those sheets of paper). And it turned out to be that, yes, as you’ve surely already guessed, Northstar would be the first Marvel superhero to be married to a member of the same sex. (An aside: I wonder if, in the Marvel Universe, if mutant/human marriages are considered a greater threat to "traditional marriage" then gay marriages …? Do Republican politicians in the Marvel Universe introduce Defense of Marriage Acts forbidding a homo superior from marrying a homo sapien?)
So Marvel’s big news of the week is that the publisher whose foundational, traditional identity has been that it was the edgier, more realistic and with-it alternative to DC’s staid comics line, is just now catching up to Archie Comics, traditionally the most conservative and slow-to-change of the extant publishers. (They still publish comics for kids! And sell them in grocery stores!) Archie’s Life With Archie #17, published in January, featured a wedding between Kevin Keller and his boyfriend Clay Walker (six months, by the way, is about how long it would take to plan, create and publish an issue of an ongoing comic book series, at least in the olden days of the 1990s).
The appearance on The View, corporate synergy or no (Disney owns both Marvel and the show’s network ABC), was at least pretty well timed. President Barack Obama publicly stated his support for gay marriage on May 9. That too would have (and perhaps should have) been a non-story, as Obama had publicly supported gay marriage in 1996, but changed his mind as he campaigned for the presidency the first time, were it not for the fact that he was a sitting president. Like the Marvel story, the Obama one was basically along the lines of a declaration that someone was not as backward as previously thought. It’s just too bad so many news cycles have occurred between the Obama's announcement and Marvel's; that guy has been great for helping Marvel sell comic books in the past.
DC’s big, gay news of the week wasn’t made in such a splashy fashion, so company gets some points for not jumping as high or shouting as loud about how totally not-homophobic it is, but it also seemed calculated to insert the publisher into the Marvel news, in the hopes of getting DC's name mentioned in the mainstream media at least as often.
DC's announcement seems somewhat smaller on the face of it — DC will apparently "out" one of its "major iconic" (and male) characters as gay in a New 52 storyline that begins in June — and whether it’s actually a big deal will likely depend on the identity of the character.
My Word dictionary function is telling me the definition of "iconic" is "relating to or characteristic of somebody or something admired as an icon," with "icon" being either "somebody … widely and uncritically admired, especially somebody or something symbolizing a movement or field of activity" or, more simply, "a picture or symbol that is universally recognized to be representative of something."
DC no doubt has a pretty loose definition of the word "iconic," which it often uses to mean "all of our superheroes, even Vibe." If I were to list all of DC’s truly iconic characters, the ones most likely to be recognized in the streets of foreign countries and the ones that many other characters have been derived from, my list would end up being pretty small: Superman and all his derivatives (-girl, -boy, maybe Steel), Batman (and –girl) and Robin, Wonder Woman, The Flash, Green Lantern, Aquaman, Captain Marvel (I suppose I’ll get used to calling him "Shazam" some day …) and Plastic Man.
Of those, all have appeared in the New 52 already, although Captai—er, Shazam and Plas less so than the others.
I’d be surprised if they went with Cap, if only because his secret identity is that of a minor, but he is one of the few superheroes who never, ever had a female love interest that I can think of (unless you count Stargirl from JSA), and was actively flustered by, and afraid, of girls in many of his older stories.
Plastic Man, at least at conception, didn’t have any built-in romantic interests in the way that, say, Superman did, but since the ‘90s he’s been portrayed as something of a horn-dog Lothario whose pranks often cross the line into sexual harassment, so it may actually help rather than hurt the character if they removed his interest in the weaker, super-strong sex.
I suppose the Earth 2 series is a good place to look for candidates, as it has Flashes and Green Lanterns and Hawks and so forth, although they’re not the "real" ones, but the Golden Age versions who have since become the secondary versions, and they’re also now alternate-Earth versions of themselves. So DC could say they’re making Green Lantern gay, but it would be an alternate-dimension sub-Green Lantern, I guess, which is a way to have cake and not eat it either.
In looking for clues, I thought that perhaps DC’s June solicitations would offer some, but none of the names I see in them appearing for the first time (at least the first time as far as I can remember) seems to fit the "major iconic" bill. These include the likes of Dr. Mist, Lobo, Bat Lash, Mister Bones and Beast Boy.
The biggest name on that list is probably Beast Boy, and his close friendship with Cyborg in the Titans comics certainly made him one of those characters that fans would speculate/write slash fiction about, but rebooting him as gay seems a little hollow, given how thoroughly he's being reinvented. They could do it easily, having already rebooted his 47-year-long history, changed his origin, changed his costume and changed the color of his skin.
But then, that’s the problem with "outing" any of DC’s characters after the "new 52" reboot: The publisher has changed everything else about almost all of its characters, and could undo any such change in sexual orientation along with any other changes it chose to un-do in the eventual "Crisis" event that will inevitably un-do the New 52 continuity, either de-rebooting it or re-rebooting it.
In fact, the only thing DC could do on this front that would actually be a big deal given the New 52 reboot of less than a year ago would be to have the two characters whose histories haven’t been rebooted come out as gay: Batman Bruce Wayne and Green Lantern Hal Jordan.
And then have the two of them get married.
Ah, but now I’m playing along with DC’s agenda here, talking about its plans and hyping them up. And that’s why I find the whole thing so embarrassing. It’s difficult not to feel complicit, or to actually be complicit in these things.
While I do understand the desire of some readers to have heroes like them to look up to (or, more likely these days, for readers like younger versions of themselves to have heroes to look up to), and I do understand the need for the publishers to provide those heroes. And while I understand the shortcut of outing a pre-existing hero rather than creating a brand-new gay one (or a legacy gay hero) because otherwise the hero will be viewed as inferior (simply because neither publisher seems able to generate a character as strong as the other, older ones in its stable), I still feel like the only honest response to these stunts and the crowing about them is a simple, “So what? You should have done that years ago.”
If DC and Marvel really want to provide realistic, relatable gay characters they can be proud of, if they really want the admiration of readers and media for making comics that reflect the real world in the year 2012, the best thing they can do would be to make good use of Northstar and the newly gay iconic DC hero, telling awesome, compelling stories with great writing and great art that aren’t dependent on the sexual orientation of the heroes.
In other words, to make Northstar a star with an identity separate from "Marvel's gay superhero," and for DC to do the same with a New 52 Beast Boy or Bat Lash or whoever, and for them to be stars who just happen to be gay.
I’ll keep my fingers crossed but, in the mean time, welcome to the 21st century Big Two, you constant sources of embarrassment you. Well, entertainment as well as embarrassment, but this week? More of the latter, less of the former.