The Gay Generation Gap in Comics

When I was an adolescent who was first starting to come to grips with my sexuality, I needed answers. And, barring source material, I did what every person does in a similar situation: I made sense of the world around me based on what little I did know.

Without going in to myriad boring (and personal) details, the conservative, Pentecostal home that I grew up in did NOT speak of such things as sexuality. So, when I found myself in that liminal place, I decided that this homosexuality thing was a recently new invention.

Sure, (I thought) the Bible mentioned it in that Sodom and Gomorrah story, but God killed all of those guys in fiery doom. No more left! And (again, this is based on my meager world view and from what I had overheard as a child), when people rediscovered homosexuality in the 70s and 80s, God punished them by creating the AIDS virus.

This is what I was raised to believe.

Of course, even remembering thoughts such as this fill me with sorrow, disgust, and outrage; I was a child for whom the world was shut off. I was denied knowledge of who I was even then becoming. How would my life have been different if I had but known something—anything—about my gay history and community?

Yet, as I thought about the history of LGBT representation among the Big Two (Marvel & DC), I was reminded of the boy I used to be, and I was confronted with a dilemma in comics which I’m going to call the Gay Generation Gap. In a nutshell, the emergence of gay characters coincides largely with the recent push for gay visibility of modern decades, and most of these characters are young adults or teenagers. There are very few queer characters that appear to be older than 30.

When I sat down to make a list of all of the queer characters that I could think of, I calculated the guesstimated age of the character in question by looking at how many iterations of younger heroes came after them. For example: Batman (adult), Nightwing—introduced as a child, but now an adult (young adult), Damian (child/teen). Or for you Marvel fans: Captain America (adult), Bucky (young adult), Miss America Chavez (teen).

After compiling my lists, what I found was that the first prominent character to come out was Northstar in 1992. Using him as a benchmark, there were few queer characters who appeared to be around the same age (Alan Scott, Constantine, Apollo & Midnighter, Moondragon & Phylla Vell, etc), a moderate amount of young adult queers (Batwoman, Renee Montoya, Tasmanian Devil, Shatterstar & Rictor, Daken, Karma, etc), and a disproportionately large amount of queer teens (Wiccan & Hulkling, Anole, Cullen Bloodstone, Karolina Dean, Prodigy, Bling, Miss America, Benjamin Deeds, Bunker, etc).

So why have an upward trend where there is an exponential increase in queer teens? It really does seem obvious: it’s much harder to take an older, established character and suddenly change his/her sexual orientation than it is to simply create a new character who is queer from the get-go. Just ask Grant Morrison with his attempt at making Beast a gay role model during his run on New X-Men. Or read about the outrage that creator Rob Liefeld expressed when Peter David revealed that Shatterstar and Rictor were queer. Better not mess with what the fan boys and girls think they know (even if it seems obvious…here’s looking at you Iceman)! So, to avoid drama, creators would prefer a blank canvas. Understandable.

Therefore, the freshest soil to sow those creative seeds into isn’t in the established adult-hero market; rather, it is in the surplus of team books that feature young or green (or in the case of Hulkling, young and green) characters that can have new histories written for them. So instead of getting the first queer adult member of the Avengers or the Justice League, we’re given members of the Runaways, Young Avengers, and Teen Titans. Don’t get me wrong, this level of visibility in mainstream comics is huge—better than anything imaginable a decade ago—but it creates a generation gap.

It effectively isolates a generation of young queer readers from the full spectrum of the queer community and from access to a rich history.

Now, I know what you may be thinking: That’s a bit drastic. These kids can just do research on their own and find out all the information they could ever want. We’re in the information age! And while that is absolutely true to a certain extent, let’s return to the little boy that I used to be.

In a world where there was a lack of queer representation, I assumed that gay people didn’t exist. I was truly a queer child in the original sense of the word—peculiar, different, abnormal—because I was all alone. At that time, I would have done almost anything to see a character just like me in the comic books that I cherished so much. Instead, I saw grotesque caricatures (Extrano), un-relatable combinations (M. Mallah and the Brain), or chaste, romance-less, background characters (Northstar). Nothing to speak of pride. Nothing to inspire. Only more reasons why being gay was queer (in the pejorative sense).

The young readers of the day have their pick of young, gay role models, many of whom take center stage; however, as an adult gay man, who do I have to look up to now? My heart smiled when Northstar and Kyle married in 2012, but I have to wonder how many other couples will follow? How long will it be before some unthinking author damages or kills this sole example of legally committed gay union? How long will it be before we have a gay or lesbian adult power-couple like Reed & Sue Richards? As DC comics made quite clear with their prohibition on the marriage of Batwoman to her girlfriend Maggie, the big companies now see marriage as a way of tying down possible future story lines (although Reed & Sue have been married since 1965…explain that logic).

Later on in my life, when my husband and I have children, will there be a gay couple in comics to look up to? Can we show our child how normal his or her family is by bringing out a comic book that has famous gay parents? Since the Wildstorm comics imprint was folded into DC, the gay family of Midnighter, Apollo, and their adopted, baby Jenny Quantum, has been written out of existence. Is this the message that I will have to show my future child? And what of the current young readers? Will the characters they’ve come to identify with so closely age with them or stay young in order to be profitable? Will the comic worlds of Marvel and DC continue the trend of injecting more and more young gay characters into a universe without showing established queer characters leading normal lives (and kicking as much butt as their straight counterparts)?

Although it’s taken a while to get here, the point is this: having young, queer characters is wonderful for young readers, but can become a detriment as they age. What adult wants to idolize a teenager? The worlds within comic books have been striving to mirror the diversity and complexity of our own world for decades now in an attempt to stay relevant; so why not truly represent the beauty of our varied populace? The fans are there; the time is right; so, DC? Marvel? Let’s grow up.

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