The room at New York Comic Con was completely packed as Chance Whitmire, editor of fanboysoftheuniverse.com, which celebrates the LGBTQ fan community, opened the Gay Marriage in Comics panel with a quick plug for the Prism Comics booth [also LGBT-centered]. He also clarified the focus of the panel by saying, "the description for this panel [in the official convention guide] was a little bleak."
"Our panelists are all friends of the LGBT community," Whitmire said, and noted the panel would probably not be advancing reasons against depicting gay marriage in the medium. The panel would instead explore the landscape of LGBT characters in comics.
Whitmire then introduced the panelists: Paul Kupperberg, longtime editor and writer for DC Comics, now a writer for Archie Comics; Dan Parent, creator and writer of "Kevin Keller"; Joan Hilty, former DC editor and creator of the comic strip "Bitter Girl"; and Phil Jimenez, who Whitmire affectionately introduced as "a professional homosexual!...and in his spare time he does some artwork." The audience cheered and clapped for each panelist, especially Jimenez, who took the ribbing well.
Whitmire began the discussion with a question about gay marriage and its coverage by the media. Kupperberg responded first, saying, "Homophobia is on the rise again," and that media coverage mirrored that trend.
"Most of the press we've seen has carried negative vibes to it," he said. "People are reacting more out of fear to the situation rather than acceptance."
Parent agreed that "now it's one of those issues that people discuss...with 'Archie,' there's a little more controversy to it, because well, we're Archie," and brought up the One Million Moms boycott of Toys 'R' Us for "Life with Archie" #16. Kupperberg jumped in to say, "This is the only 'Archie' comic that has sold out of its print run. Thank you, Million Moms!"
Hilty mentioned that "The New York Times" spotlighted this panel out of many others NYCC and dubbed it "Supergrooms." Hilty continued, "It's a hot-button issue that's constantly evolving...now it's taking new dimensions state by state. The story becomes bigger and bigger the more [gay marriage] becomes allowed."
Jimenez pointed to money as the motivator behind the buzz, guessing that "Marvel and DC Comics are owned and managed by Disney and Warner Bros. and now they have huge marketing and money machines behind them. They thought they could make some money and make a social comment at the same time! ... I don't want to be that cynical, but I think they wanted to cash in a little bit."
Whitmire followed up with Kupperberg and Parent about the Million Moms boycott of "Life With Archie" #16, which featured the wedding of Kevin Keller. Parent laughed and replied, "The fact that it was Million Moms was entertaining, more than anything." Kupperberg applauded the corporate reaction, saying, "To their credit, Toys 'R' Us totally ignored the Million Moms. It's a brave move on their part."
Parent smiled and added, "All the children who went into Toys 'R' Us [while the issue was on sale] seem to have survived."
Jimenez looked happy, gazing out at the crowd, and said, "Speaking as a 'professional gay,' it's amazing to see this room so full of people ... this is actually really impressive."
Whitmire then asked the panelists, "In terms of storytelling, we've been led to expect marriage as the end of the story. What are the challenges as storytellers to having marriage be the beginning of the story?"
Kupperberg responded, "It's no different than every other story ... I don't treat them any differently than Archie and Veronica. It's not an issue," and after a pause, added "because it's Archie, I had to hold back a little. Very few people noticed that at the wedding itself, I didn't show the kiss. I thought that [not showing the kiss] would be inflammatory, but it wasn't."
Jimenez gently disagreed, saying, "I tend to take a different approach. I think all human beings want certain things, and their culture and background shape them. I don't equate ... I wouldn't approach them the same way ... because I just don't think that people are all the same." Jimenez further elaborated, saying, "Part of my gay identity is not just about my sexuality but knowing from a very young age that I was different. [I worked] first to hide my difference and then to celebrate it."
Hilty added her opinion "as the other professional gay on the panel," and the influence her personal experience has.
"I have run the whole gamut. I have been gay-married and I have been gay-divorced," Hilty said. "I have experienced what it is like to be part of the movement. ... It means that the new story possibilities are endless. The stories are not the ones I used to edit." In her day, "it was a coming-out story, or a courtship story, it was usually one or the other. Now with the advent of relationships that are supposed to be formal, we have villain/hero relationships, relationships dealing with kids, just tons of possibilities."
Whitmire asked, that with all the attention and the higher stakes that come with scrutiny, if the panelists felt pressure to "get it right."
"Yes!" Kupperberg shouted.
"Those of you know when with 'Birds of Prey,' a gay character got killed off and fans got very, very upset with Gail Simone, which is ironic because Gail is one the most gay-friendly creators in comics," said Hilty.
Jimenez agreed, saying "Stakes are high, particularly in mainstream superhero comics, simply because of the setup, with the alpha straight white male setting the standard. I'm more careful, some of my peers are more careful, because those [gay, female or minority] characters stand in for so much. When characters carry that burden, and they often do, you have to be more careful with them. People say, 'When are we going to see gay villains?' When there are so few of them, you can't explore options as readily."
Parent characterized Kevin Keller as "the role model for gay characters at Archie Comics" and was conscious of the character's status as a representative. "The teenage Kevin is going to start dating in 2013 ... Kevin's not going to be a bad boy, but we're going to maybe be seeing him dating someone who is a bad boy." Delighted cheers and hoots and mock-scandalized "oooo"s from the audience greeted that prospect, and Jimenez lifted a hand and asked, "Can I draw a pin-up for that?"
Kupperberg added to the "Archie" news, saying, "I just finished writing a young adult novel about Kevin, set in his middle school years." The story is about bullying and Kevin's coming-out.
Parent spoke briefly about the creation of Kevin Keller. "We knew we were going to bring a character in ... the first thing was to get Kevin into Riverdale," he said. "Once the Kevin character clicked, we gave him a mini-series." Parent talked a bit about censorship, asking the crowd, "Remember on 'Melrose Place' and they had these two gay guys kissing from 400 feet away?" As the audience laughed, Parent said, "We don't want to do that."
Whitmire then asked, "In terms of superhero-type relationships, especially marriages, do stakes get higher when you're dealing with a married couple, rather than, instead, a couple that's been dating for seventy-five years?"
"In storytelling, marriage is so often seen as the end of the stories," Hilty said. "Superman and Lois Lane, how do you make that dramatic? [It's] money fights, infidelity, how to raise kids, how to raise someone else's kids." Kupperberg observed that, "For Superman and Wonder Woman, Superman and Lois Lane, they undid the weddings. The tension of 'Will they or won't they?' trumps the question of 'Are they going to argue about taking out the garbage?'"
Jimenez asked of creators and readers, "Are we using a heterosexual model to define ourselves? Are we using a heterosexual model of marriage? I'm curious if there will be discussions about what makes a relationship. Is marriage the endgame? What about polyamory?
"All these gay characters are married off! Alan Scott instantly had a boyfriend...he was made safe to consumers both gay and straight. My hope is that the big picture -- love, romance, marriage, and what all that means -- is explored without such conservative layers on top of it."
Kupperberg theorized that "relationships are treated somewhat juvenilely on the whole" in comics. "I've lived through all this stuff," he said. "I can't remember seeing anything in comics that mirrored anything in my life. Here I am, a 57-year old straight guy writing a 20-something gay guy."
Jimenez responded, "It does bring up the question, if you're a superhero trying to keep the moon from careening into the earth on a monthly basis, how much room do we have to explore these issues? How much can these characters who fly and shoot fire out of their eyes really tell us about our lives?"
Kupperberg said of writing "Archie," "I'm not telling stories about people who save the world. They're just trying to save their relationship, or, keep the chocolate shop open, you know? It's been a relief to write people, as close to real people, as I've ever gotten to write in comics."
Parent agreed, stating that "Archie" is very relationship-based. "There's nothing else," he said. "It feels really real ... you're really invested in these characters."
Kupperberg revealed that he once attempted to make Reggie more sinister, but "the character wouldn't let me. He maintained his dignity and his strength." Similarly, Parent noted that he had to create a new character to express homophobia. The existing characters just wouldn't be that nasty. "Jughead looks very simple from the outside," Parent said to giggles, "but he's very complex!"
Whitmire then opened the Q&A. The first questioner asked about the "L," "B", and "T" in "LGBT," and when the readers would be able to see a broader range of types in the gay community represented in comics.
"Eventually we will, but the companies are very leery of doing that," said Kupperberg. "Grant Morrison did trans characters in 'The Invisibles,' but he's an exception." Hilty agreed, mentioning she remembered being asked the exact same question during last year's convention.
Jimenez pointed out a distinction he makes between sexual orientation, and sexuality as a way of navigating through the world, identifying Grant Morrison as "a great example of a Queer writer who may not be Gay". "How are we defining terms?" Jimenez asked. "There's probably more Queer stuff [than Gay]." With the audience laughing and cheering, Jimenez declared, "Wonder Woman is one of the most Queer characters ever, but who may not be a lesbian!" With the panelists muttering about capes and spandex, Kupperberg agreed, "It's a really Queer genre!"
Hilty noted that "indie comics are going to lead the way," and named Alison Bechdel and Howard Cruse, among others, as creators who have already gone there. "With my experience with the big two, if they think there's money to be made, they'll put some queer shit out there!" said Jimenez. "Money plays a big role in their choices."
The second question was about whether there was backlash from the LGBT community about portrayals in comics. "Fear comes from both inside groups and outside groups," Hilty said. "Some gay people don't want that kind of representation." If it happens [broader representation], "it's going to happen on the small screen first." The audience responded boisterously to this, and shouts of "It already has!" and "Buffy!" as well as jokes about "Arrow" being pretty gay were heard.
The next question was about the thorny practice of turning straight or previously unlabeled characters into gay characters, like Alan Scott in "Earth 2."
"It's the same challenge you face in reinventing any existing character, so we're always going to be a little wary with that," said Hilty.
Jimenez stated he felt Green Lantern is the perfect brand to play with when it comes to changing things up. "As long as fans have their one true Hal Jordan, they can tolerate any number of alternate Green Lanterns." Hilty agreed, saying that mainstream comics fans tend to be very "rules-based."
The last question of the panel was about the "Natasha Stark" storyline in which Tony Stark was born a woman in an alternate universe and was then romantically involved with Steve Rogers/ Captain America. The questioner seemed dissatisfied with the initial answers by the panelists, but Jimenez jumped in and nailed it, saying to the fan, "What do you think? Do you think [turning Stark into a woman] is regressive?" to which the questioner and many people in the audience nodded. Jimenez said, "I see what you're saying. It could be regressive, but it could also be a stupid gimmicky event." Kupperberg nodded emphatically, shouting "Never underestimate the stupid gimmicky event, especially in comics!" and the panel closed to applause.