While political pressure steadily mounts on the issue of gay marriage – President Obama was in Hollywood Wednesday night for two LGBT fundraisers – comic books, that canary in the mine of popular culture, are pushing the envelope on depictions of gay life further this summer.
Marvel Comics offers the first gay super-hero marriage proposal in its June issue of the “Astonishing X-Men.” A character known as Northstar, aka Jean-Paul Beaubier, a Canadian with silver-streaked black hair, piercing blue eyes, and the ability to fly and move at superhuman speeds, asks his long-time boyfriend Kyle Jinadu to tie the knot. DC comics also did a June reboot of the Green Lantern character, introducing a gay version from an alternate universe.
Comics put a toe in this water earlier this year when Archie comics featured Kevin Keller – merely a US soldier with no super powers – marrying his African-American boyfriend in an issue that sold out by March.
“We were trying to be current,” says Paul Kupperberg, the writer who created the Archie issue. “This is what our society looks like, and Riverdale [Archie’s fictional hometown] is an inclusive place.” [Editor's Note: The original version misstated Mr. Kupperberg's role in the Archie issue.]
Comic books have long been a mirror for society, points out comic book historian Julian Chambliss, who just presented a paper on teaching with comics at a conference on that topic at Juniata College in Huntington, Pa.
“Superheroes in particular are iconic symbols that mirror values, beliefs, and anxieties tightly linked to national circumstances,” he says via e-mail. These characters “can embody identity and patriotism (Superman), reflect disquiet about community stability (Batman), or explore struggles over gender roles (Wonder Woman).”
Superhero comic books have a history of creating characters and featuring stories that balance established values while acknowledging changing reader expectations, points out Chambliss.
In 1966, he notes, Marvel introduced the first black character, a decade after civil rights protest began but one year after landmark antidiscrimination legislation passed Congress. In 1971, just two months after President Richard Nixon declared the first “War on Drugs,” DC shed light on the dangers of drug abuse by having an established teen sidekick become a drug addict.
“In both cases,” he says, “non-comic readers met these changes with a mix of curiosity and protest, but most comic fans embraced the actions.”
This latest foray into changing social mores is being met with a similar mix of acceptance and apprehension.
"I’m totally open to it, we’ve got all kinds on this earth, why not in comic books?" says Arthur Magdaleno, custodian at Dixie Canyon Elementary school in Sherman Oaks, Calif., who has two children, ages 26 and 27. "We raised them to have an open mind about relationships and this seems the moment to stand by that training."
Krista McCauley, a 29-year-old nurse, sitting at a Sherman Oaks cafe with her 2-year old daughter, expresses reservations.
"I'm not against the gay lifestyle, but … I don't think it's appropriate to be dangling something in front of kids that they might think the adult world is telling them, ‘this is something you could or should be aspiring to ... Like fight crime and be gay.’ I think it sends a confused message."
Dan Gainor, vice president for business and culture at the conservative Culture and Media Institute, is flatly opposed, saying via e-mail, “comics join movies, TV, music, and news media as part of the barrage of pro-gay propaganda that targets our nation every day.” The goal of the media industry, he says, “is to overwhelm American morality and bully opponents into complete acceptance of the gay subculture.”
However, the economics of a faltering comic book industry are perhaps an equally significant factor, says Brad Ricca, author of the upcoming book on comic book superheroes, “Super boys.”
Mr. Ricca, who teaches classes on popular culture and superheroes at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio, says via e-mail that while the new population of gay superheroes in comics is being accepted by many readers, it is proving to be divisive among the usual political suspects on both sides.
But, he says, this divisiveness is exactly what the comics companies are going for, “because this outcry results in media coverage. Parents have always been leery of comics, mostly because of their crazy physical violence and vigilante justice. Not to mention the fear of 10-year-olds attaching blankets to their backs and trying to jump off the roof, which, very sadly, has happened.”
But, adds Ricca, if parents are against something, it usually means kids will flock to it, “which is what the companies are hoping for.”
Staff writer Daniel B. Wood contributed to this report.