The Queer Legacy at DC Comics

One idea that you will hear thrown around by politicians this election season is legacy: we must fix the problems in our society so that our children can have a future that will be brighter than ours. However, in comics legacy takes on a different tone.

In the early decades of DC comics, writers would often include (what we now call) legacy heroes as a way to capitalize on a successful brand. If readers like Superman, why not make a dog have his powers too? If they like Batman, let’s give him a sidekick who uses all the same gadgets! and so on….to an often ridiculous degree.

Beppo the Super-Ape and Streaky the Super-Cat...no, seriously

The trend continued until, a few decades later, DC comics seemed to only be filled with carbon-copy heroes. It was for this reason that, as a child, I was drawn to Marvel Comics whose unique cast of characters capitalized on the fact that whatever circumstances granted the heroes their abilities—scientific genius, medical accident, or genetic abnormality—were unduplicatable. As a child, that world seemed ripe with possibility.

However, as I’ve grown into an adult, I began to see the potential within DC’s model: by taking the focus off of HOW heroes get their powers, it allows writers to highlight WHO the person is (and gives more chances to create queer characters).

The majority of DC’s more recognizable heroes fall into one of three categories:

-Alien species or unique cultural group

Kryptonians, Amazons, & Atlanteans

-Item or Force empowered groups

Green Lantern Corps, Flash Family, & the Marvel Family

-Non-powered, skill-based tech users

Green Arrow Family, Bat-Family, & the Blue Beetles

What this means is that each group is replicatable: any Atlantean could become an aqua-hero; any person with tremendous willpower could be selected to be a Green Lantern; any person (with the proper training) could don a utility belt and protect Gotham.

It follows that when the audience is familiar with the skill set and tools of a Batman protégé, the writers need to make each one distinct through personalities. That’s why Batgirl overflows with intelligence and tech savvy, Red Hood struggles with angry and abandonment, and Nightwing tries so hard to become his own hero outside of Batman’s shadow.

And before too long, we get queer characters like Batwoman, Alan Scott, and Aqualad.

While some may decry this practice as nothing more than tokenism or argue that these characters can't stand on their own without help from their predecessors, I see it as a unique opportunity.

For one, these characters have an almost guaranteed fan base: someone who is already a fan of Hawkman should like Hawkgirl. In fact, they may find her more interesting because of the new personality elements she brings to an established character. A side-effect of this name recognition is that when a character is announced as queer, the media hones in on it, alerting queer audiences that a new member has been added to the fold.

Also, because these characters have the possibility of being one-note (how many speedsters do we actually need?) authors need to find inroads to new types of stories. And in our day and age, what better gateway to unexplored territory than having a character be queer?

For, as we are well aware, being queer—even in our present day—isn’t just a simple attraction or identification: it’s the splash in the pond that ripples outward to our friends, families, coworkers, and society at large. It can be a domino effect that has the potential for dozens of stories.

Because being queer—especially in the machismo-filled world of superheroes—is still subversive in the truest sense: it undermines established ideas and orders (especially for the non-queer audience).

If a character like Batwoman (Kate Kane) has to deal with co-workers or family who react negatively, the reader is taught about the hurdles that queer people face in our day-to-day lives. If she wants to marry her lover or adopt a child or—God forbid—have an active sex drive, the reader has to grope with concepts that he may be used to ignoring. And if Bruce better-not-fuck-with-me Wayne accepts Kane as part of his legacy, it is a political act.

And here’s where the magic happens: the majority audience (straight, cisgender, male) for these heroes might never have picked up a book with a queer character in it if it didn’t have a “bat” or an “aqua” or a “super” or a “lantern” attached to it. This audience—who so respects their established hallmarks of the patriarchy, their manly men, their defenders of society—will learn to accept people who are different by watching the heroes they adore. If Superman doesn’t have a problem with it… and so on.

This is how we change a generation. And this is why I’m glad Marvel has taken up the legacy model in the last two decades (without it, we may never have seen characters like Wiccan, Hulkling, or Miss America Chavez). We still have a long way to go before we receive appropriate representation in comics, but—by creating characters that fans love—these companies are helping to not only give queer fans a voice but maybe, just maybe, change some hearts and minds along the way.

Who’s your favorite queer legacy hero? Comment below!

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