June is, of course, Pride Month, and while it’s vital we remember Stonewall—or Harvey Milk and the Compton’s Cafeteria riots if you’re from my neck of the woods—how we as a culture conceptualize, express, and discuss LGBTQ issues is just as important. And since this is a column about comic books, that’s the medium we’re taking a crack at here today. Like just about every other minority group in comic books, LGBTQ people haven’t exactly had an easy go of it.
Way back in the heady days of 1979, Northstar made his debut as the first gay superhero. Northstar was always intended to be openly gay, but Marvel put the kibosh on it early on. He could hint around it, but never talk about it explicitly. It took another 13 years for him to become the first comic book character to come out of the closet, and wasn’t until 2012 that the poor dear was finally allowed to get hitched.
There have been some great non-straight/non-cisgendered characters in comic books since then—nearly all of whom were created in this millennia—and waaaaaay too many who looked at the line separating basic human decency and raging homophobia and gleefully stomped all over it (I see you skulking over there, Rawhide Kid). Actually, I’m not sure which is worse, being represented with terrible characters—at least it’s representation, right?—or being outright ignored. I’m talking about the rest of the LGBTQ pantheon: asexual, pansexual, polysexual, two-spirit, etc. Transmen are also frustratingly absent, though there are a handful of transwomen. They appear less infrequently in alt-indies and webcomics, but I’m at a loss to think of a single one in mainstream comics. If anyone can help a sister out with some orientational diversity, please do so in the comments. In the meantime, let’s chat about some great personalities of the LGBTQ persuasion. Once again, we’re talking anything even vaguely comic book related, and be prepared for minor spoilers.
P.S. Nightcrawler and Wolverine were totally doin’ it.
Ally Carter and Lisa Williams
Creators: Stjepan Šejić, Linda Lukšić Šejić
Origin: DeviantArt webcomic 2011; Sunstone #1, 2014, Image and Top Cow
Yes, that’s right, I’m starting my Pride Month comic book roundup with a series about girl-on-girl BDSM. Ally and Lisa meet on a kinky online chat forum, and decide to meet up and delve into their mutual fetish. You see, Ally is a domme and Lisa a sub, and both are virtually virgins in those roles. For those not in the know, BDSM is the exact opposite of 50 Shades of Grey. It’s a fetish rooted completely in trust and respect between participants, not power, threats, and emotional abuse. Sunstone is only partially about fetish exploration and mostly about two women discovering themselves by learning to believe in one other. It’s a story about a fledgling relationship, overcoming emotional traumas, and acceptance.
It’s never revealed if Ally and Lisa are lesbians, bisexual, or just gay for each other (is that even a real thing?) but they’re obviously sexually, emotionally, and mentally compatible enough as a couple to be something other than straight up straight. Sunstone toys with the notion of the sexual spectrum, that not only is a person’s taste in sexual acts fluid, but so to is their preference in partners. Ally dabbled in her interest in feminine partners by obscuring her college boyfriend’s male attributes and putting lipstick on him. We don’t know enough about Lisa’s backstory to guess about her movements along the spectrum, but I’d be surprised if she hadn’t been leaning towards women all along. But it’s not just their sexual self-discoveries that I enjoy. I really just want to hang out with them as people. Ally and Lisa are about as human as comic book characters can get. Šejić draws them with realistic body types, and imbues them with fumbling, messy personalities…much like the rest of us real people.
Black Canary and Nyssa
AKA: Sara Lance and Nyssa al Ghul (Dinah Lance and Nyssa Raatko, respectively, in the comics)
Creators: Robert Kanigher, Carmine Infantino; Greg Rucka, Klaus Janson
Origins: Flash Comics #86, 1947, DC; Detective Comics #783, 2003, DC
So, apparently Arrow really likes diverging from its source material. It took a huge leap forward in terms of developing Felicity Smoak into an interesting, complex character, and doubled down on that progressivism by hooking up Black Canary and Nyssa al Ghul. Not only that, but while Nyssa is by all accounts a lesbian, Sara is bisexual. She’s never come out and said “bisexual”, but she’s also never denied it. And, importantly, Oliver, her family, or Nyssa have never complained about her orientation. Yes, there’s some jealousy between her exes, but only because they both care for her. Nyssa never disdains Sara for being attracted to men, and Oliver never objectifies her for being attracted to women. Felicity doesn’t freak out at the remote possibility of Sara of hitting on her, and never once does anyone try to use her orientation to exercise their own porn-y kinks. As for Nyssa, I kept waiting for the writers to have Laurel hastily explain that while she cares about Nyssa she isn’t in love with her…and it never came. It’s as if they understand that two people can be friends without wanting to bone each other all the time. Shocking, I know.
The writers never stoop to exploiting their orientations for shock value. Bisexuals are often portrayed as sexually voracious, but Sara is never turned into a sexpot. Nyssa is equally horrified at having to marry Oliver Queen because her choice is being taken from her as she is that he’s a dude. Nyssa being a lesbian and Sara being bi are parts of who they are, not the sum total. That’s a pretty big deal on network television, even in 2015. (The CW has also done a bang up job with openly gay Capt. David Singh on The Flash.) And to top it all off, Nyssa and Sara are just so damn cute together. So far it doesn’t look like Nyssa will be reunited with the newly minted White Canary on Legends of Tomorrow, but here’s hoping the best girl couple on television can find their way back to each other. You really need to start watching Arrow. I cannot emphasize that enough.
Creators: Kieron Gillen, Jamie McKelvie
Origin: The Wicked + The Divine, 2014, Image
I’m going to try hard to keep this from turning into a massive praise fest about The Wicked + The Divine—OMG IT’S AMAZING HIGHLY RECOMMEND MUST READ—but it ain’t gonna be easy. It’s such a great series. Reincarnated gods, a murder mystery, gorgeous artwork, witty script…I could gush for ages. Laura is probably my favorite character in the series, but Cassandra is a close second. Like the next entry in this list, Cassandra is complicated and emotionally messy. She has a bone to pick with the gods and won’t rest until she’s heard, but she’s just as passionate about making sure everyone gets what they actually deserve rather than what is foisted upon them. She takes no shit from anyone, god or human. What sealed it for me was how she took Lucifer’s apology. Earlier in the series, Luci makes a crass comment about Cassandra’s trans-ness. Eventually she apologizes (see above), and while Cassandra accepts Luci’s remorse, she does not forgive the sin. Cassandra is under no obligation to move on from the slight, but it behooves Luci to offer it nonetheless. In one conversation, Gillen and McKelvie keep Cassandra from being a victim who is acted upon by the aggressor and instead put her in a position of power over the offense and offender.
Cassandra being trans isn’t the main aspect of her character. Her experiences as a transwoman, particularly her intersectionality as being trans, a woman, and Asian, influence the way she interacts with the world, the way others interact with her, and the way she interprets those interactions. However, she isn’t a mouthpiece for Gillen and McKelvie to proselytize at their readers about not being bigoted assholes. Gillen and McKelvie have always been strong proponents of diversity. They write comics that reflect the real world, which means a multiracial, multigender, and multiorientation cast. We’ll see this again in this month’s regularly scheduled Pull List when I cover their run on Young Avengers. In the case of Wic+Div, well, let’s just say if you want to see a bunch of straight white dudes straight-white-dudeing around you’ll be sorely disappointed.
Creators: Alan Moore, Stephen R. Bissette, John Totleben
Origin: The Saga of the Swamp Thing #25, 1984, DC
A lot of people had a lot of issues with NBC’s now officially dead and unresurrectable Constantine, me included. For one, the plot sucked. For two, Zed was just awful. For three, Chas was even worse. But the most unnecessary detraction was the studio mandate that Constantine had to be straight. Matt Ryan apparently did not get the memo, because his John Constantine flirted with everyone all the time, even when the writers seemed hellbent on pairing him off into a white knight/damsel in distress relationship with Zed. If you’re going to do Constantine right, that means pushing the boundaries of network television, up to and including his bisexuality. That is a crucial part of his character, and stripping that out was akin to casting dark-haired, brooding, Keanu Reeves as the wise-cracking Sting lookalike. (Don’t get me wrong, I love me some Keanu Constantine, but he was so un-Constantine-like that it was almost funny.)
Ming Doyle and Riley Rossmo’s brand new Constantine: The Hellblazer #1 wastes no time in establishing our beloved Liverpudlian areshole as a bisexual, chain-smoking, con-pulling, occult detective. In a single issue he flirts with a handsome bartender of Paul Bunyan proportions, a stick-thin female demon, and a schlubby male sex club attendee while underneath said female demon. Because that’s the great thing about Constantine—he has an active and varied sex life. He’s had plenty of girlfriends and boyfriends over the years, human, demon, and superhero alike. (Really, he’s closer to being omnisexual like Jack Harkness than strictly bi.) Fortunately, his sex drive and his sexuality aren’t conflated. People often accuse bisexuals of being “greedy” or that they have to “choose a team.” Being bi isn’t the reason he’s sexually voracious, but being in a minority group constantly slut-shamed by just about everyone goes a long way to explain why he’s so carefree about other people’s proclivities, so long as they don’t hurt others in the process.
AKA: Lucas Trent
Creators: Warren Ellis, Bryan Hitch
Origin: Stormwatch vol. 2 no. 4, 1998, Wildstorm/DC
I’d never read any Midnighter before the release of issue #1 this month. The little I knew of him—that he was in a relationship with Apollo—was from other LGBTQ roundups, but other than that…*shrugs*. After Steve Orlando and Aco’s issue #1, I know that Midnighter is a bioengineered superhuman with a violent streak and who can predict all future outcomes of any situation. He likes killing his enemies, and is damn good at it. He and Apollo are kaput, and now he’s whiling away his time on Grindr, when he’s not shooting people in the face, that is. In other words, HE IS AWESOME. I’m genuinely upset no one told me how much fun he is.
2015 Midnighter is casual, off the cuff, and DTF. The entire issue revolves, more or less, around two dates with a guy he meets on Grindr: the first date we are introduced to his abilities, and the second his backstory, romantic and otherwise. There’s no gay angst, no coming out, no explanation or requests for acceptance. Midnighter’s gay. That’s it. As much as I love the coming out and gay angst stories (see the final entry in this article for those tropes cranked up to eleven), I am really tired of those being the only stories. They tell the same story with the same kinds of characters over and over again, and more often than not are really about the straight people coming to terms with their gay associates rather than the actual gay person. It’s refreshing to get a superhero who is who he is without questions, confessions, or guilt.
Creators: Matt Fraction, Christian Ward
Origin: ODY-C #1, 2014, Image
Yeah, yeah, yeah, I know I just talked about ODY-C last month, but I couldn’t do an LGBTQ write-up and not talk about a comic book almost exclusively starring lesbians, intersex, genderfluid, bi-gender, and non-binary characters. Zeus, in a fit of fear at being overthrown by his-her (Zeus’ preferred pronouns) own children, killed every male in the universe. Lesbianism became the default orientation until the Titan Promethene created her own race of intersex beings called Sebex to aid in reproduction. Zeus and Hera simultaneously express as male and female but are decidedly genderqueer. Protagonist Odyssia has a Sebex lover who wants desperately to give her a child, but Odyssia already has her own wife and family back on Ithicaa.
For those of you non-straight people who are also outside the LGBT box, ODY-C is some of the best representation you’ll find in comic books. And since it’s helmed by Matt Fraction and Christian Ward, you never have to worry about bigotry or misogyny. Not only are the characters great models of representation for women, they’re great for queer people as well. I know we have the Sex Criminals and The Wicked + The Divine movies to look forward to, but I’d give just about anything to see on the big screen Odyssia slaughtering a three-breasted cyclops and father-mother Zeus making snarky comments to his-her bearded spouse Hera.
AKA: Renee Montoya
Creators: Sean Catherine Derek, Laren Bright, Mitch Brian
Origin: Batman #475, 1992, DC
Like most Renee Montoya fans my age, I fell in love with her through Batman: The Animated Series. Now there was a television show with some great feminist characters. My beloved Renee was AWOL through most of the New 52 (she only just returned in March 2015). On one hand, I’m glad she was left out of the relaunch, because boy howdy did the New 52 largely suck. On the other, four years is a long time to go without one of my favorite characters. And no, Gotham didn’t ease the pain. Her absence also means she’s been at least temporarily stripped of her superhero mantle, The Question. A (white?) male version of The Question is wandering through DC as part of the Trinity of Sin, but I don’t think his identity has been revealed yet. Not that it matters anyway; if it’s not Renee, I don’t care.
I think the reason I like her so much is that she’s allowed to be flawed. Renee hasn’t had an easy go of it. She was forcibly outed at work then kidnapped by an obsessed Two-Face who thought he could “convert” her into falling in love with him. Her Dominican Republic immigrant parents disowned her because of her sexual orientation. She was shot and nearly killed, and as her professional life got more and more stressful and chaotic, she fell headfirst into alcoholism, eventually costing her her job. Eventually she turns her life around, but her redemption arc is personal, not something foisted upon her. In a world of god-like superheroes and planet-destroying villains, Renee is wonderfully, simply human.
Tamiya and Tohdou
Creator: Yoshinaga Fumi
Origin: Ichigenme… The First Class is Civil Law, 1998, 801 Media (North American publishers)
There was a time in my mid-twenties when I was big into yaoi. I had a collection to rival Japantown stores. Today my paycheck tends to be spent on Western comics rather than manga, and most of yaoi library has made its way to the homes of other BL lovers, but a few (read: two dozen or so) remain. Of those, my most prized series are those by Yoshinaga Fumi. Fumi is a phenomenal mangaka, both as a writer and artist. Her style is your typical yaoi manga—too large hands, awkward body angles, soapy romances—but there is surprising emotional depth. The Moon and Sandals is arguably a better story (it won her an Eisner nomination), Gerard & Jacques is steamier, and Antique Bakery had a wider cultural impact, but it’s Ichigenme that I always come back to.
The story of Tamiya and Tohdou is really the story of Tamiya discovering his homosexuality. And that’s where Yoshinaga deviates from traditional yaoi fare. When her male characters struggle with their growing attraction to another man, she tends to steer away from the whole “I’m only gay for him” thing. Instead, Tamiya goes through a personal crisis as he realizes he isn’t the man he thought he was, and neither is Tohdou. Tohdou is openly gay, but never pressures Tamiya (well, ok, so there are some consent issues, but compared to the forceful nature of most BL non-con, what happens between Tamiya and Tohdou is relatively tame). He learns to love Tohdou because he learns to love himself. Their relationship is sweetly romantic, heartfelt, and adult, and it makes me happy just thinking about it.
Alex Brown is an archivist, research librarian, writer, geeknerdloserweirdo, and all-around pop culture obsessive who watches entirely too much TV. Keep up with her every move on Twitter and Instagram, or get lost in the rabbit warren of ships and fandoms on her Tumblr.