Once upon a time, any superhero coming out of the closet would have just changed from street clothes into tights and a cape.
But these days, with once-escapist comic books eager to reflect and of course profit from societal evolution, the industry's biggest mystery has not been whether Archie preferred Betty or Veronica, but which DC Comics character would be “outed.”
It was not the Caped Crusader, no matter what millionaire playboy Bruce Wayne and his young ward Dick Grayson may or may not have been doing down in the Batcave – proof that even the desire to be trendy can erase only so much history.
But anyone tempted to dismiss DCs' new gay Green Lantern and same-sex nuptials in Archie comics and Marvel's “astonishing X-Men” as mere kid stuff miss the point: When an industry that spent decades defending its heroes' chaste but heterosexual nature changes course this dramatically, something's going on.
Fifty-eight years ago, a psychiatrist named Frederic Wertham wrote a book titled “Seduction of the Innocent” in which he blamed comic books for all sorts of problems among America's youth: crime, violence and psycho-sexual disorders of all sorts. Batman received special scrutiny in a passage designed to explain a perceived increase in homosexuality.
“At home they lead an idyllic life,” Wertham wrote. “They are Bruce Wayne and 'Dick' Grayson . . . They live in sumptuous quarters, with beautiful flowers in large vases . . . Batman is sometimes shown in a dressing gown . . . sometimes they are shown in a couch, Bruce reclining and Dick sitting next to him, jacket off, collar open, and his hand on his friend's arm.
“It's like a wish dream of two homosexuals living together.”
I know, I know: Today's psychiatric community generally believes that sexual orientation is determined more by nature, not nurture, but that's beside the point. What matters is that Congress took Wertham seriously enough to hold hearings on comic books, and that as recently as 1972 Batman's publishers were still vehemently insisting that Bruce Wayne really does like girls.
Calling Wertham's accusations an “irresponsible slur . . . eagerly seized upon by the gay set themselves,” DC Editor E. Nelson Bridwell wrote that “other heroes have a girl friend. Not so with Bruce Wayne. When I say he's a playboy, I mean it . . . There have been plenty of girls.”
A mere 37 years later, comic book shops are receiving “save the date” cards for the wedding in the June 20th issue of the X-Men's Jean-Paul “Northstar” Beaubier to Kyle Finadu. They are not only gay, but of different races and nationalities.
You just can't get much more inclusively daring than that, can you?
Well, actually, you could. They could have just admitted Wertham was right all along.
But with another multimillion-dollar Batman movie in the works, that might have been pushing the envelope just a bit too far. So, in DC's case at least, they played it safe by trying to have it both ways.
Although most people have heard of the Green Lantern – he was featured in movie himself recently – the “gay” character is not Hal Jordan, star of the movie and comic books since the late 1950s. No, this Green Lantern is Alan Scott, the name of the original “Golden Age” Green Lantern who debuted in the 1940s. But of course that Alan Scott would be a little old to be sexually provocative one way or another, so writer James Robinson reincarnated a new, younger version in DC's “New 52” series, which is – to make a long story short – set in an alternative universe safely separate from its usual heroes.
In other words, DC didn't really “out” one of its established characters at all. It just pasted a familiar name onto a new one in hopes of generating some profitable buzz.
It isn't working, according to Tracy Scott, owner of Fort Wayne's two Books, Comics and Things stores.
“I had one person asking about the X-Men issue, and no one has asked for (Green Lantern),” Scott said. “Most people are saying, 'It makes no difference' (about the character being gay).”
So although I applaud Robinson's effort to promote “love and tolerance” (we'll set aside the social-policy and theological debate for now), this tell me the gay characters' impact is being undermined by their own publishers' timidity.
In his 1965 work on “The Great Comic Book Heroes,” humorist Jules Feifer provided the obvious solution, one DC should consider when it inevitably gets around to a transgendered hero.
“Whether Wonder Woman (who lived with a bunch of Amazons) was a lesbian's dream I do not know,” he wrote. “(But) had they given us a Wonder Woman with b ---, that would have been something for Dr. Wertham and the rest of us to wrestle with!”