Tue. May 30th, 2023
Marvel's Northstar (right) with husband Kyle at their superhero-attended wedding.
Enlarge / Marvel’s Northstar (right) with husband Kyle at their superhero-attended wedding.

The major comics publishers have a long history of whipping up gimmicky storylines in bids for attention, coverage, and a corresponding boost in sales (“Superman, is he really dead?”). Marrying a popular couple is a good one; see the 1987 wedding between Peter Parker (better known as Spider-Man) and Mary Jane. On the DC side, nearly a decade later, there was Superman (alive and well!) and Lois Lane who dropped the enduring yet bizarre love triangle with alter ego Clark Kent and eventually tied the knot. Of course, these things are never destined to last – witness the somewhat desperate retreat on Marvel’s part to erase Spider-Man’s marriage.

Alpha flight #106

Alpha flight #106

To crank up some of that juicy publicity again in 1992, Marvel skipped the wedding route, gave the tired, massive character crossover events a break, and instead decided to eliminate one of its characters as gay. The spotlight fell on mutant hero Northstar, a member of the Canadian team Alpha Flight, and an on-and-off-weather X-Men teammate. This didn’t exactly come as a shock to anyone following the character – cunning nudges and winks abounded for a while (including a strangely aborted AIDS storyline), but a comic book hero held a press conference (the action takes place in Alpha Flight #106 ) to announce his sexuality generated a lot of real-world press, as you can imagine, Marvel had hoped.

This storyline appeared a year before Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, the United States’ policy on gay men and women serving in the military, was a particularly relevant piece of real law when it comes to talking about someone who is not hetero. risking their lives to save people, whether fictional or not. At the time, there was no Will & Grace putting gay characters into the mainstream and Ellen DeGeneres hadn’t made television history by coming out (in character) in an airport. Comics like Frank Miller’s Batman: Year One or Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman slowly breaking down the popular perception of comic books as purely a children’s medium, but the idea of ​​a gay hero was still one that generated a lot of ink and controversy. (That’s right, ink – this was 1992.)

The early 1990s was also the height of ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power) making headlines of its own. ACT UP activists had attempted to hijack the CBS Evening News set the previous year. Alpha Flight #106’s storyline revolved around a baby dying of AIDS, and it felt pertinent that a superhero would hold a press conference to discuss his sexuality.

It probably wasn’t a coincidence that the character Marvel chose to come out with was a mutant. Much attention has been paid to the parallels between the fight for gay civil rights in the real world and the fictional depictions of mutants fighting for equality and coming out of their own closet. Themes of mistrust and fear of the other are well known: the neighbor who looks like you but is somehow different on the inside, people who feel like outsiders in a society that is not always welcoming at best and worst case responds with undisguised hatred and violence . Media event or not, Marvel spoke directly to that connection, and it was a somewhat risky move on his part; the public may not have been ready for it.

To Marvel’s credit, it stayed there. Northstar was not destined to be the solo gay mutant, though less was made of minor players such as the New Mutants’ Karma being revealed as a lesbian. Instead of being a storyline, it was just part of the normal structure of the fictional world.

Shan Coy Manh AKA Karma from the original New Mutants in a scene that casually references her sexuality.

Shan Coy Manh AKA Karma from the original New Mutants in a scene that casually references her sexuality.

Fast-forward twenty years, and Marvel decides to pull two tricks from the old playbook. In May 2012, it announced that Northstar was marrying his boyfriend Kyle. They live in upstate New York, where same-sex marriage is legal in both the real and comic worlds, so why not? The story was broken on “The View” and received a predictable amount of press. However, it was not the same. Instead of taking a controversial stance ahead of the wave of public opinion and riding the waves of its own making, Marvel found itself catching up with the headlines of the day instead. Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell has been withdrawn. The media is full of openly gay characters. Support for same-sex marriage in the United States has passed the 50% mark. The president, gearing up for a tough election battle, felt the political calculus was safe enough to give his support for same-sex marriage.

Nevertheless, the headline grab was underway, and DC, not content to watch Marvel from the sidelines, announced its own gay hero on June 1, and this time it wasn’t a minor player from a second-tier team like Alpha Flight, but rather, Green Lantern himself (albeit from his alternate EARTH 2 universe). Green Lantern is still a household name. People who can’t tell you who Northstar is for a million dollars would gladly take that money if the question was about that guy with the green power ring. That said, this is still second-tier Green Lantern, alternate universe Green Lantern, and it feels a bit like a careful play, as if DC doesn’t want to gamble with the identity of the “real”.

Green Lantern (left) from DC's EARTH 2 shares a kiss with his lover.

Green Lantern (left) from DC’s EARTH 2 shares a kiss with his lover.

Cynics might wonder: Are DC and Marvel really proponents of civil rights and equality, or is this purely a grab for headlines and comics sales? Perhaps society has come to the point where the answer can be both. Same-sex marriage is still a politically hot topic and a controversial topic at the voting booth, but it’s so mainstream that you can reliably count on it as part of your marketing strategy. Witness JC Penny celebrating the strength of gay families in the face of a looming boycott. If giant corporations that can turn a movie into a billion dollars in less than three weeks are in the mix, everything is calculated, yes, but it’s almost a sign that you’ve made it if you’re even a line on the spreadsheet .

It would be remiss not to point out that indie comics have been tackling ideas like this for decades and have long been more comfortable tackling issues like sexuality. This isn’t really a commentary on sexuality in the comedy medium itself, but more about the big dogs playing it safe.

It’s also important to note that no matter how calculated or cynical these ploys may be, there are gay comic book readers out there who have never seen themselves reflected in the main heroes of Marvel or DC. Even if it’s a bit shielded, a major character like Green Lantern coming out is a chance to get a glimpse in that mirror, something ordinary readers may have subconsciously taken for granted since they first got a mainstream comic book.

Is it a sign that mainstream comic books have really come of age? Maybe. We’re still talking about superpowered men and women flying around in spandex. There will always be a childish heart there, no matter how much guts and sexuality you try to pile on it. It is more likely that a natural progression is taking place again, where what was controversial is mainstreamed and simply reflected just a little bit ahead of its time. That’s something the best fantasy writing achieves. As celebrated science fiction writer William Gibson once observed, “The future is already here—it’s just not evenly distributed.”

By akfire1

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