Welcome to your very first weekly dosage of Gay-Man! If your doctor prescribed this for you, please keep reading because your doctor is a professional who’s looking out for your health. If your doctor did not prescribe this for you, keep reading anyway. How large of a writing sin is it to tell the reader to keep reading? Who watches the Watchmen? Anyway, this column is all about comic books, social issues, identity, representation, and representations of social issues and identities in comic books. But first, before we get into some uncanny mix of fanboy excitement and master’s theses, allow me to introduce myself and why comic books mean so much to me.
Before I was Gay-Man, I was a gay boy. I’m one of those homosexuals who pretty much knew they were gay as early as they were conscious enough to know anything. My first memories of being attracted to other males are from when I was in the first grade; even when I tried to deny what I was to myself, I knew that there was something different about me from all the other boys in my classes. Keep in mind that at my elementary school, everyone knew what “gay” meant—but that didn’t mean they accepted it. From the time I was eight or so onward, I heard the word “gay” used as an insult more than just about any other word (except maybe the obligatory “dumb” and “stupid”).
Oftentimes, other boys flung the word “gay” at me derisively. Of course I denied it, but there was something worse than the pain of being made fun of: the pain of knowing they were right about me, and that I could never be open lest I become a social pariah. (I finally came out at age thirteen and experienced all the isolation I expected when I was younger, but that’s a topic for a later column.) Things were only made worse by the fact that some of the boys who called me gay as an insult were also the first boys I found myself physically attracted to. Confronted with negative reactions to my proposed gayness by the very same people who made me realize I was gay, my younger self felt extremely alone emotionally.
At the same time that I was struggling with my burgeoning sexuality, my brother got me into comic books. He has enjoyed reading them as a kid and he passed his love of them on to me. My brother especially loved the X-Men, particularly the X-Men of the early ‘90s as illustrated by Jim Lee. The X-Men became my favorite superheroes as well, and for many a reason. Like my brother, I loved the sheer badass natures of the characters. I thought the Phoenix had the coolest powers, and that Storm’s ‘80s leather and mohawk look was one of the fiercest designs I’d ever seen. I loved the Beast with his mixture of an animalistic body and a genius intellect. I loved Gambit and Iceman for their powers and designs—and, though I suppressed it from time to time, they were some of my earliest fictional crushes.
There was more to my love of the X-Men than their powers, personalities, and fierce looks, though. There was the message of the series: that these characters were born fundamentally different (as mutants) from the rest of mankind, but that they could still be heroes who were every bit as worthwhile as everyone else. That message of equality, a racial/gender/sexual acceptance metaphor as thin as Violet Chachki’s waist, struck me as a child who knew deep down that his differences were okay, even if the people around him couldn’t see that. The X-Men were like me. They were different, but more than okay. They were cool, they were heroes, and looking back on my life, they influenced me more than my young self ever realized.
With that said, I still wished they were more like me. When I first started reading comics, the only openly gay X-Man (and one of the only openly gay superheroes period) was Northstar, and he didn’t do much of anything. He seldom showed up, and, though I didn’t dislike the character, I was disappointed that there weren’t more gay men under the spotlight in comics. When it came to racial and gender diversity, the comic books of my childhood fared better, though not by much.
Around age thirteen or fourteen, as I was dealing with the world as an openly gay person for the first time, I stopped reading comic books. I became too preoccupied with the increased stress and daily fears of my life, and left a lot of my childhood hobbies behind. For most days of the rest of grade school, I shuffled through my school hallways quickly in the hopes that I could avoid hearing the word “faggot.” Many days, I failed. I internalized the words around me and, even though I knew there was nothing morally wrong with me, part of me began to feel subhuman. Like a mutant, with the power removed from the word. Granted, my middle and high school days did not consist solely of shame. I tried my best to walk to with pride and keep my confidence up, but some days I wished I could have the powers of the Invisible Woman. To move from point A to point B with no chance of hearing the word “faggot” was sadly a daydream.
My life continued stressfully from that point on, although of course there were ups to accompany the downs. Throughout college, I began to build my confidence back up after having felt reduced to my sexual orientation all throughout high school. My emotional growth increased more as graduation neared, and in the time since getting my degree I’ve grown in many other ways. I’ve grown artistically, and achieved a lot that I’m proud of in my writing career. I met my life partner and felt healthy, supportive romantic love for the first time in my life. I’ve revisited parts of myself and my past that I had left behind–or tried to–and grown from them.
Among other things, I came back to comic books. Earlier this year, I decided that I wanted to give comics another try. In an effort to give the medium a fair chance, I purchased subscriptions to a few titles and started from there. Almost as soon as those first comics arrived, I was obsessed. I read far more comics far more often now than I ever did as a kid. And now that I’m older and have changed, I’m happy to report that comic books have changed as well, and for the better.
When I started looking at what titles Marvel was currently publishing, I was struck by the large increase in titles centering around female and black characters. While the state of the industry isn’t perfect, the difference between comic books ten years ago and comic books today is like night and day. There is now a black Captain America and a black Spider-Man. The current Ms. Marvel is Muslim. The recent All-New, All-Different Avengers team only had two white men in its line-up. Hellcat, Squirrel Girl, Thor (now starring a woman, Jane Foster), Spider-Woman, Spider-Gwen, Moon Girl, Ms. Marvel, Gamora, Captain Marvel, and Gwenpool (among others!) are all female characters currently headlining their own titles.
And, finally, it seems that LGBT characters are making headway in mainstream comics as well. There are Wiccan and Hulking, a gay couple who have featured prominently in various titles including Young Avengers and New Avengers. Midnighter recently had an ongoing series, and now stars in a mini-series alongside his boyfriend Apollo. Koi Boi, a transgender fish-themed hero, is regularly featured in The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl. Hell, even Archie Comics has introduced a homosexual character, Kevin Keller.
While there still aren’t enough prominent LGBT heroes in mainstream comics for my personal tastes, I’ve been pleasantly shocked at how many more of them there are now compared to when I was a little gay boy. I sometimes think about the increase of LGBT characters featured in comic books (and across all forms of media) in the last decade and think of how much of a difference these characters could have made if I saw them when I first grappled with being gay. And, even though I had to come of age without a lot of gay characters in fiction, I still benefit greatly from their presence now. Even though I’m an adult and my confidence has come a long way, it still feels empowering to see the superpowered Wiccan and Hulking take down supervillains and openly display romantic affection for each other afterwards.
So, there you have it. Comic books are important to me because of the impact they made on my life growing up, and I continue to follow them today. In this column, I plan to discuss social issues and diversity as covered in comic books (largely contemporary ones, although also flashing back to issues from yesteryears). I plan to talk about the importance of representation and nuanced portrayals of members of minority groups in media. And, I plan to talk a lot about great stories that everyone should be reading, regardless of if they read comics or not.
Webslinging away ‘til next time,
Eric Cline is a gay poet, 2016 Best of the Net nominee, and the founding editor-in-chief of Calamus Journal. His debut chapbook, “his strange boy eve”, was published by Yellow Chair Press in September 2016. He tweets @ericclinepoet.