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Comic relief
Making the incipient homosexuality in superhero comics more visible has prompted a backlash far more complex than the one faced by comic books in the 1950s
BY MICHAEL BRONSKI

SOMETIME AT THE END of next month, Terry Berg, a young gay man, will be horribly attacked by three men and left for dead in an alley. He will be discovered by his friend and boss, the cartoonist Kyle Rayner, who vows revenge against the queer bashers. This Matthew Shepard–like story is already making headlines, with coverage in the New York Times and discussion on Donahue. But the issue under debate isn’t violence against gay people, it’s the appearance of gay characters in comic books: Terry and Kyle are major characters in the strip Green Lantern.

Predictably, the right-wing, anti-gay Family Research Council (FRC) condemned the new comic book (as well as the entire plot line that began last April with Terry coming out to Kyle, the mild-mannered cartoonist who leads a double life as the Green Lantern and derives extraordinary powers come from his magical emerald ring). Less predictable, however, is the fact that many Green Lantern readers have chimed in with their displeasure with, and in some cases hostility to, this turn in the plot. If the backlash to the new gay themes in Green Lantern feels sort of retro, though, that’s because it is. The public pronouncements of the FRC are a complete replay of the anti-comic-book hysteria that gripped the country in 1954, when the publication of Fredric Wertham’s best-selling Seduction of the Innocent (Rinehart & Company) "exposed" the dangerous sexual subtexts of comic books and prompted Senate subcommittee hearings on juvenile delinquency. The negative reaction among Green Lantern readers, however, is an unexpected twist — one perhaps more shocking in these allegedly more-sophisticated times than the appearance of queer comic-book characters themselves.

IT’S NO SURPRISE that comic books are under scrutiny. Children’s literature has always been a — if not the — prime arena for the culture police. Books from Heidi to The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn to Everyone Poops have been considered dangerous to kids. Most manifestations of mass culture, such as movies, television, rock and roll — and comics — have long been suspect for their potential to deprave innocent children. Stir homosexuality into this already-potent mixture and you have a bubbling cauldron that would be at home in any mad scientist’s laboratory.

That said, the emergence of pivotal gay and lesbian characters in comics is nothing new. In 1993, Northstar, of Marvel Comics’ X-Men, came out; the relationship between Mystique and Destiny in the same comic had clear lesbian overtones. Lee and Li, ancillary characters in Green Lantern, are openly lesbian. In fact, Bob Schreck, the editor at DC Comics who oversees Green Lantern, had planned Terry Berg’s coming-out story nearly three years ago (and won an award from Gay and Lesbian Advocates and Defenders, or GLAAD, when it hit newsstands last year in Issue #13). Ron Marz, the writer who was working on the concept, left, but Schreck hired Judd Winick — who was a cast member on MTV’s The Real World in 1994 — and worked on both Terry’s coming-out and the queer-bashing story lines with him. It was a likely choice because Winick had been close friends with Pedro Zamora, a Real World roommate who later died of AIDS, and wrote Pedro and Me (Henry Holt, 2000), a graphic novel about their relationship.

But homosexuality in comics goes back even further than that — as does the notion that comics corrupt children. The comic book was invented in 1933, when Max Gaines and Harry Wildenberg, two sales employees at the Eastern Color printing company in Waterbury, Connecticut, discovered that a weekly comic strip could easily be printed and rebound in book form. The product sold well enough until writer Jerry Siegel and artist Joe Schuster, working in a strong tradition of Jewish liberalism, invented Superman, which they sold to DC Comics for $130 after it had been repeatedly turned down by syndicates as a comic strip. The Man of Steel immediately took off and sold 1.3 million copies per issue. It vastly outstripped the average 200,000 to 400,000 copies of other comics sales, essentially creating the comic-book business. Superhero comics proliferated: Batman arrived in 1939, the Green Lantern in 1940, and scores of others, including Captain Marvel, Doll Man, Plastic Man, the Flash, and Dr. Mid-Nite.

These superheroes were crime fighters who targeted corrupt politicians, unscrupulous bosses, racists, and — during World War II — warmongering dictators. They were, in essence, progressive New Dealers. Originally, comic books were liberal propaganda. As the comic-book industry grew, its repertoire expanded to include books dealing with crime, romance, and jungle tales. In 1946, Publisher’s Weekly reported that 540 million comic books were sold each year.

By 1947, a backlash had amassed. With estimates by the Catholic National Organization for Decent Literature that 90 percent of all US kids read comic books, many police organizations, educators, clergy, and morality watchers decided that comic books would be the ruin of America. An anti-comics fervor swept the country, calling for everything from boycotts of news dealers who sold "crime" comics to the notorious "comic-book burning" that took place on December 10, 1948, at St. Patrick’s grade school in Binghamton, New York, where students — under the guidance of parish priests, teachers, and parents — publicly burned 2000 comic books.

The fear prompting this hysteria found warrant in Fredric Wertham’s 1953 Seduction of the Innocent, which became an instant bestseller. Wertham, a liberal psychiatrist, blamed comics for everything wrong with America: juvenile delinquency, crime, race hatred, violence, the incipient rise of fascism, hatred of women, rape, and — of course — homosexuality. He was the star witness at the Senate Subcommittee to Investigate Juvenile Delinquency, convened on April 22, 1954, and fully endorsed the idea (also a source of Cold War–era paranoia) that children could be "brainwashed" by comics to become antisocial and even criminal.

In his book, Wertham quite specifically detailed comic books' homosexual content, noting that "the muscular male supertype, whose primary sex characteristics are usually well emphasized, is, in ... certain stories, the object of homoerotic sexual curiosity and stimulation." He noted that "only someone ignorant of the fundamentals of psychiatry and psychopathology of sex can fail to realize the subtle atmosphere of homoeroticism which pervades the adventures of the mature 'Batman' and his younger friend 'Robin.'" Indeed. As Wertham writes, sometimes Batman "ends up in bed injured and young Robin is shown sitting next to him. At home they lead an idyllic life. They are Bruce Wayne and 'Dick' Grayson. Bruce Wayne is described as a 'socialite,' and the official relationship is that Dick is Bruce’s ward. They live in sumptuous quarters, with beautiful flowers in large vases, and have a butler, Alfred. Batman is sometimes shown in his dressing gown. As they sit by the fire the young boy sometimes worries about his partner: 'Something’s wrong with Bruce. He hasn’t been himself these last few days.' It is like a wish dream of two homosexuals living together." It is easy to disagree with Wertham’s anti-homosexual attitudes (commonplace in the culture of his time), but in essence, he is completely right: Batman and Robin are "the wish fulfillment of two homosexuals living together."

Wertham’s insight into the comic is completely in sync with the ideas of many scholars now working in the fields of queer studies and popular culture. And it is no accident that in the 1990s, ACT UP printed and distributed T-shirts with images of Batman, Robin, Superman, Wonder Woman, and Batgirl engaging in various sexual acts to promote safe sex. As much as he would have hated these later developments, Wertham opened the closet door for superheroes.

Although Wertham’s denunciations of the homosexual "seduction" of children (he also describes Wonder Woman as a vicious, s/m-oriented, man-hating lesbian) were only a small, if vividly evocative, portion of his book, they were the most potent and caused the most furor. If homosexuality was a disease — and for Wertham it was — then it was contagious and spread through comic books. In the sexually obsessed culture of the1950s, homosexuality was breaking out everywhere. Wertham certainly found it in comics.

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Issue Date: August 22 - 29, 2002
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