The world of superheroes has become a lot more progressive in the past decade as old biases and taboos have been shed, and artists and writers alike have taken to delving into social issues like gender orientation. Iconic heroes like Batwoman, Northstar and Green Lantern have come out as being openly gay or bisexual, and last January, Marvel released X-Treme X-men #10 featuring an epic embrace between Hercules (who had already been identified as bisexual) and an alternate-universe Wolverine. Some of these characters have even got married, triggering a parallel to the Prop. 8 Bill that ran through the Supreme Court and an increased call for LGBT equality.
This isn’t to say comics have only recently decided to tackle topics like homosexuality. The independent comic subculture has been a fecund enclave for “subversive” since its inception and has always been unapologetic in its breadth of content. The significance of Gail Simone’s Batgirl #19, which came out last Wednesday, isn’t the fact that one of her characters (Alysia Yeoh) confesses to being transgender – it’s that this confession has taken place under the DC label.
Historically, the major licensed comic magnates like Marvel and DC were under the jurisdiction of the Comics Code Authority starting in 1954 which was developed in response to a public concern about the violence and horror portrayed in comic books. The role of the CCA ultimately became that of a de facto censor whose aim was to limit the amount of violence, sexual innuendo and other “disruptive influences” that the comic book medium afforded. In order to enforce their newly formed code of ethics, a list of requirements was drawn up that every comic was required to conform to. The restrictions placed on them ranged from everything to eliminating the words “horror” and “terror” from titles, never displaying “policemen, judges, government officials, and respected institutions … in such a way as to create disrespect for established authority” and always ensuring that “good triumphed over evil.” The CCA even went so far as to ban comics that featured vampires, werewolves and zombies.
At the get-go, comic creators immediately felt threatened. One of the more famous confrontations occurred between EC (Entertaining Comics) writer William Gaines and CCA spokesperson Judge Charles Murphy. The incident was sparked when Murphy rejected the initial story in one of Gaines’ comics, Judgement Day, because one of the main characters was black. The original writer of the story, Al Feldstein, recounted the incident later: “Murphy called later and said ‘Well, you gotta take the perspiration off.’ I had the stars glistening in the perspiration on his black skin. Bill said, ‘F*** you,’ and he hung up.”
It was almost taken for granted then that homosexuality – or any alternative sexuality – was also off-limits. This tenet was echoed by Fredric Wertham, one of the CCA’s strongest proponents, in his controversial book Seduction of the Innocent which attributed juvenile delinquency to the corruptive influence of comics and their seditious protagonists. He was all but convinced that Superman was anti-American and a fascist. Although a lot of Wertham’s research has been rejected due to inconsistencies in his approach and accusations of falsification, he was one of the first to denounce the physical disproportions of many female superheroes and the possible negative impact on body-image issues (which is still a source of contention with modern comics).
The problem that many artists have faced in recent years is the fact that until very recently, the comic labels they were signed under still adhered to the standards of the CCA which stunted their ability to open up other avenues of story-telling. Marvel was the first major comic outlet to withdraw from the CCA, choosing to abide by its own rating system. In 2010, Bong comics also withdrew, and in January 2011, DC Comics finally announced that “it would discontinue participation, adopting a rating system similar to Marvel’s.” A day later, Archie comics followed suit.
So there is something to be said for peer pressure. Although, it took them long enough.
Where does that leave us? It’s hard to say. As a subculture, comics (creators and collectors alike) consistently break convention, and their messages, whether as “shock value” or genuine social commentary, have championed the direction in which we find our cultural ethos moving toward. There is a machismo tied up in the superhero ideal – muscles, bravery and virtue – and this an element of the comic that is virtually genetic. It’s not something you can annihilate or extract, because if you take away the principles of the hero, the hero vanishes as well.
What comics teach us is that the vessel for those ideals – whether it be truth or the grayness of morality – is not limited by the gender they identify with. But there’s still a lot of work to do – overhauling half-a-century of prejudice and taboo is not an easy or quickly accomplished task. In the end panel of X-Treme X-Men #10, writer Chris Claremont seems to hint at the overarching struggle to overcome the oppression of tradition and the dangers of abandoning a firmly cemented, if outdated, status quo.