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Batmobiles and Bulges: The Golden Age of the GAY Superhero

This should come as no shock, but that staple of American adolescent literature—the comic book superhero—has been gay from its inception. In June 1938, National Allied Publications, which would evolve into the modern publishing powerhouse, DC Comics, pulled a submission from its editorial slush pile to use for Action Comics #1. The backup story’s alien hero—clad in the colorful tights and cape that evoked circus daredevil performers—became the archetype of the superheroes to follow. From the start, this hero—Superman—had an appeal that extended from his phone booth all the way to the “closet” door, where early 20th Century gay fans, living on the “down low,” could connect with the fictional character’s day-to-day living under a secret identity.

The Man of Steel’s cultural roots ran deep, planted in such earlier genres as the era’s pulp novels (including the ripply-muscled, studly Doc Savage , and the be-caped—and secretive—exploits of The Shadow, and other “mystery men”), as well as science fiction/space opera, and boys’ adventure stories. These literary subcultures, along with the contemporary bodybuilding craze—Charles Atlas, anyone?—were a throwback to the Ancient Greek worship of the male form and masculine ideal.

When the Man of Steel was joined on the caped crimefighting scene in Detective Comics #27 (May 1939)—by a character originally referred to as “The Bat-Man”—the homoerotic subtext, close same sex relationships, Jekyll-and-Hyde-like split-personalities, and secret personae had enormous built-in appeal for the closeted gay men of pre-Second World War America. The idea of having a double identity and being somehow apart from the rest of humanity—through superpowers, mutations, or other “unnatural” traits—had an outsider simpatico that was hard to resist (not to mention enormous muscles, perfect hair, and a nurturing quality tempered by an often rough-trade sensibility in many pulp and comic heroes).

“Batman is sometimes shown in a dressing gown. As they sit by the fireplace, the young boy sometimes worries about his partner… It is like a wish dream of two homosexuals living together.”

But the Dark Knight—who placed second in 2011 on IGN’s Top 100 Comic Book Heroes of All Time list, after Superman—was called “out” early. In 1949, Gershon Legman, a former Kinsey Institute researcher, wrote Love and Death, in which he argued that American culture permits graphic displays of violence, while repressing expressions of the erotic. He was the first writer to “out” the homoerotic subtext of the superhero genre, noting that comic books contain “an undercurrent of homosexuality and sado-masochism,” and described the “explicit Samurai subservience of the inevitable little-boy helpers.” Can anyone say, Robin the Boy Wonder?

By 1954, psychologist Fredric Wertham figured he no longer had to dance around the 800-pound gorilla, writing in the anti-gay (and anti-comic book) “The Seduction of the Innocent,” that “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 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 a dressing gown. As they sit by the fireplace, the young boy sometimes worries about his partner… [I]t is like a wish dream of two homosexuals living together.”

“Batman is sometimes shown in a dressing gown. As they sit by the fireplace, the young boy sometimes worries about his partner… [I]t is like a wish dream of two homosexuals living together.”

Legman and Wertham’s interpretation had an effect on the Caped Crusader’s sex life. DC Comics writers offset accusations of “homoeroticism” by hooking Batman up with female love interests, not to mention Batgirl and Batwoman. But the transplanting of the Dynamic Duo to ABC television in 1966 for the launch of the “Batman” program painted the be-tighted team in a new shade of campiness, that wasn’t lost on the series’ stars.

(In his 1995 autobiography, “Boy Wonder: My Life in Tights,” actor Burt Ward, who played Robin during the run of “Batman,” conceded the probability of more than a crimefighting partnership between the Dynamic Duo. “A mature man, unmarried and rarely seen in the company of women, takes a naive teenage boy under his wing,” Ward wrote. “They share many secrets, and spend long hours alone in remote areas. Holy homophobia!”) The gay undertones to the Caped Crusaders’ relationship are parodied in Robert Smigel’s animated shorts “The Ambiguously Gay Duo,” which have been seen on NBC’s Saturday Night Live and elsewhere since 1996.

The arrival of Wonder Woman brought a decidedly female—if not exactly feminine—superhero to the Same SeX-Men in 1941. The Amazon warrior princess—and cultural precursor to the obviously gay Xena—was the brainchild of psychologist William Moulton Marston, a cultural free-spirit (or radical) who lived in a ménage-a-trois, polygamous “union” with his wife and their female companion. (Both women heavily influenced the persona of the Wonder Woman character. At Marston’s death in 1947, the women continued their relationship for another 40 years.) One of the comic’s central ideas was that women could be strong and independent, and free themselves from their dependency on men. And Wonder Woman spoke with a decidedly Isle of Lesbos accent, including one of her favorite catchphrases, “Suffering Sappho!”

In 1979, Marvel Comics introduced Northstar (Secret Identity: Jean-Paul Beaubier, making him both gay AND Canadian). By 1983, the hero had joined the fictional Alpha Flight, and it was the intent of comic creator John Byrne for Northstar to be presented as out and proud. But the publishing company’s policies against openly homosexual characters meant that it would be 1992 before Northstar would say, “I am gay.” Ten years later, the writers were comfortable enough to expose the hero’s crush—unrequited as it was—on fellow X-Men teammate Iceman. Fellow mutant Anole, a young openly-gay mutant, views Northstar as a role model. Last month, Marvel announced that the superhero and his long-time boyfriend, Kyle Jinadu, would tie the knot (the nuptials took place in the June 27 issue of Astonishing X-Men #51).

In the 1990s, DC’s groundbreaking title “Starman” featured a gay central superhero character.

On June 1, DC Comics—the home of power-“top”-rated brands Superman and Batman—also “came out,” when character Alan Scott, the secret identity of superhero Green Lantern, was revealed as gay. The character—a formerly married father of two, who first appeared in print in 1940—was rebooted as part of the publisher’s “New 52” storyline. Writers made Scott gay because the new story called for making the character young again—and eliminating his fictional “past history,” which included having a gay son, superhero Obsidian. What all this means, of course, is that that the Golden Age of Comic Book Heroes has been—almost from the first seismic rumblings of the planet Krypton—a League of Extraordinarily Gay Gentlemen.