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Super representation

May. 31, 2018
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As a child who grew up with superheroes, I can’t help but feel that comic books and media based on comic books are an important part of a young person’s life.

The first comic book I fell in love with was Wonder Woman. I collected copies and was on DC’s mailing lists. My shelves were lined with anthology books, I had a complete boxset of the Wonder Woman TV series starring Lynda Carter, and I dressed as Wonder Woman for Halloween three years in a row. I was completely besotted. She was a beautiful woman from an island of beautiful women who were powerful fighters. I could never take her coworkers seriously; Superman was cartoonishly over-the-top about truth and justice and the American way, and Batman was far too dark and brooding. Wonder Woman seemed to be the only three-dimensional character among them. 

My father, the person who started my interest in comics, tried get me to read other comic books in the DC Universe, but I refused to read anything that wasn’t fronted by a woman. I quickly grew frustrated, however. Supergirl was Superman’s teenage cousin. Batgirl was a sidekick. Hawkgirl was Hawkman’s girlfriend. I couldn’t get over the fact that they seemed to be just lesser versions of their male counterparts, their identities overshadowed. Wonder Woman was the only character who was original. There was no “Wonder Man” who came before her. 

Thinking back on it, I wonder why I was so hesitant to read any comic books focused on male-identifying heroes. Most other media that I enjoyed had a male lead, but none of them represented truth and justice and good—none of them were what Wonder Woman represented. None of them were superheroes. 

We are defined by our perceptions of ourselves; therefore, when we see people who look like us, representing our race, gender, sexuality, or religion, it has an impact on how we form our identities. Perhaps that was why I was so drawn to Wonder Woman in my childhood. Wonder Woman showed me how a woman could be strong. Her femininity wasn’t a hindrance, but part of what made her strong.

For a long time, comic books were typically led by straight white males. Teams such as the Avengers, the Justice League, and the X-Men were groups of white men with one white woman who was often the subject of romantic interest and frequently the damsel in distress. Very few people of color appeared in these early comics, though if they did, they often appeared as sidekicks, background characters, or villans.

It wasn’t until 1966 that the first super superhero of color appeared in a mainstream American comic. Black Panther appeared in Fantastic Four #52, in an apparent stand-alone appearance. However, this issue was so historic and impactful that currently, you can buy a mint edition for $90,000. 

Despite the critical success of Fantastic Four #52 and Black Panther’s appearance, there wasn’t a comic book led by a person of color until 1972 with Luke Cage, Hero for Hire.  DC’s Black Lightning was developed soon after. These comics were created during the height of the blaxploitation genre, which profited off of black stereotypes. 

When Billy Graham, the first person of color to write and illustrate for a mainstream comic, joined the team for Luke Cage and Black Panther, diversity in character design began to grow. As more creators of color were hired, more characters of color were developed. 

Before 1989, any mention of “homosexuality” was forbidden by the Comics Code Authority. The Encyclopedia of Gay Histories and Cultures notes that queer subtext has been present in comics since the Golden Age of Comics, inferring romantic and sexual relationships between superheroes and their same-sex sidekicks, such as Batman and Robin or Captain America and Bucky Barnes, to say nothing of the women-only Paradise Island. However, explicitly queer characters were strictly forbidden. 

The first openly gay character in a comic appeared in 1982. Arnie Roth, Captain America’s childhood best friend, comes to him, seeking his help. He is captured by HYDRA and rescued by his superhero pal, who tells him that he loves and accepts him for who he is. As a queer person, it was so reaffirming to see Captain America, the moral heart of the Avengers, easily accept his friend. 

In 1992, the DC antihero John Constantine casually mentioned his own bisexuality by offhandedly referencing past girlfriends and boyfriends, becoming the first hero with his own comic series to come out as queer. 

Several minor characters in DC featured as openly queer, though there wasn’t another queer leading character until 2006, when a new series of solo Batwoman comics came out, featuring a Jewish lesbian in the main role. In 2011, Poison Ivy and Harley Quinn began a relationship. Catwoman was also revealed to be bisexual. 

Still, it seemed like the only characters DC was allowing queerness were dark horses, following along with a long trend of queer-coding villains. It seemed that they would never “out” one of their heavy hitters. Batman and Superman lived outside of a world where queer people existed, and it seemed that it was something that we would just have to accept. But in 2016, Wonder Woman, part of the DC Universe’s own golden trio, declared that she had dated women as well as men. Wonder Woman was bisexual. My childhood hero was queer, like me. 

As I grew older, I was hungry for more positive queer representation. It was more difficult than one might imagine, and I often circled through the same books and TV shows. I had sort of fallen out of reading comics, as the culture surrounding them sometimes made me uncomfortable. Being a female-presenting teenager in a comic book store was like being a worm on a hook. I vaguely followed certain comics online, but I was no longer as interested as I had been when I was a child. But when I learned of the existence of the Young Avengers comic, I felt the same way I had when I was a kid, reading about Wonder Woman. 

I usually scoffed at comics that blatantly pandered to a teen audience, but Young Avengers felt different. In the very first issue, there is an out and proud queer couple; Wiccan, the son of X-Men favorite Scarlet Witch, and his boyfriend, Hulkling, a shapeshifting alien with super strength. They were part of the team’s founding members, its leaders. Their relationship wasn’t the butt of any jokes, they weren’t conflicted about their sexualities, and their teammates were supportive. Later, the team added America Chavez, a lesbian Latina, and Prodigy, a black bisexual man, Noh-Varr, a pansexual alien, and Kid Loki, who could change genders at will. They were diverse in gender, sexuality, and races, resembling a modern group of teens.

Marvel’s first openly queer hero was Northstar of Canadian superhero team Alpha Flight. After a long struggle with conservative editor-in-chief Jim Shooter, the writers were finally given permission to have Northstar state, "I am gay” in Alpha Flight #106, published in 1992. Despite Alpha Flight’s unpopularity, Alpha Flight #106 sold out within a week.

Following Northstar’s coming-out, several characters followed. Because of conservative protests, comics featuring emphasized queer characters carried an “Adults Only” label from 1992 to 2006. Still, queer characters were extant in the Marvel Universe, and they weren’t going away. Mystique was openly bisexual. Spider-Woman came out as a lesbian to her team in 2014. In 2015, Iceman, one of the five original X-Men, came out as gay. 

Since the cultural zeitgeist of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), more people have become interested in comic books and superheroes. In the ten years of the MCU’s history, there has been only one film starring a person of color and no films starring a woman. Of the 19 films, all have been directed by men, and only two have been directed by people of color. 

The Avengers have a diversity problem, and they know it. In March of 1979, Avengers Vol. 1 #181 came out, an issue in which the government requires that the Avengers use affirmative action. When Falcon joins the team, he is scrutinized by many of the Avengers. Iron Man is annoyed at the government’s “imposition,” saying that all of the Avengers should be considered minorities because of their superhero status, which is laughable, since Iron Man is a rich white man wearing a suit of armor. A few issues later, Falcon quits the team because he feels tokenized. 

Over the years, comics have tackled ideas of race, gender, and sexuality. While comics haven’t always been on the right side of history, they’ve evolved. Currently, Captain America and Spider-Man are black men; Thor, Hawkeye, and the Hulk are women; Ms. Marvel is a young Muslim, Pakistani-American woman; America, one of the top-selling comics right now, is fronted by a Latinx lesbian.

Being able to see yourself in superheroes is empowering, especially for children. Wonder Woman and the Young Avengers made me feel represented and heroic. Being able to put on a cape and fight crime made me feel strong. Identity and morality are the exact place where comic books and superheroes intersect, and that’s why representation in comics is hugely important, especially to young people who are still forming their ideas of who they are and who they should be.