Gay Characters in Comics: The Bumpy Road of Marvel Comics in the Mid-2000s

There’s no question: Marvel Comics has made great strides forward in its inclusion of LGBT characters. To give just two examples from the past couple years: the wedding of Northstar, Marvel’s first openly gay superhero, became a heavily promoted X-Men event in 2012; and by the end of Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie’s 2013 revival of Young Avengers, it was revealed that every character on the team (save possibly one) was bisexual or gay.

But to get to this point, Marvel has traveled along a fairly long and bumpy road. And we don’t need to look back as far as the 80s, to when Bruce Banner was almost raped by a pair of stereotyped homosexuals, to find examples. For while nothing as reprehensible as that one story may have emerged from Marvel in the past decade, the 2000s nonetheless had plenty of ups and downs for LGBT representation.

I should emphasize that this piece is by no means intended to be an exhaustive history of LGBT representation at Marvel in the 2000s (there’s plenty more to cover; I fully admit that my write-up does short shrift to LGBT-positive books like Runaways and X-Statix), nor is it intended to bash the company as failing in that regard. Take it as my highlight reel of this period, and as a reminder that there’s always further to go to truly live up to a commitment to diversity.

2003: Gays Go West

In spring 2003, Marvel launched a new miniseries for its adults-only MAX line, reviving its fairly obscure 1950s Western hero The Rawhide Kid. Written by Howard Stern writer Ron Zimmerman and drawn by original Rawhide Kid artist John Severin, the series had a surprising and controversial twist: the Kid would be depicted as gay.

Can you spot the subtle Freudian imagery here? You may have to look closely.

But this series was hardly a historically realistic depiction of the Old West, or of what life might have been like for a closeted gay man in that setting. Instead, Zimmerman’s take favored broad, anachronistic comedy, with the Kid depicted as a standard-issue “fabulous” gay character from a TV sitcom, the novelty being the juxtaposition of these tropes with his gunfighting prowess (and the locals’ obliviousness to his sexuality):

While some critics of the miniseries undoubtedly would have preferred a different sort of gay character, the fact that Marvel was featuring a gay man as the protagonist of his own miniseries was nonetheless a significant step forward.

Much more problematic, though, was the book’s inclusion in the adults-only MAX line: unlike most other MAX books, it lacked any sort of graphic violence, profanity, or explicit sexuality. The troubling implication - which later became more than implication, as we’ll see below - was that its focus on a gay protagonist was reason in itself to give the book the equivalent of an “R” rating.

Somewhat surprisingly, Marvel published a sequel miniseries, The Sensational Seven, in 2010. This time, they thankfully had the sense to publish the book outside the MAX line.

2003: Wolverine Outs the Punisher

Garth Ennis’ early-2000s Punisher run, befitting its author’s known dislike of superheroes, became notorious for its occasional stories where Frank Castle violently humiliates characters including Spider-Man and Wolverine; in a classic story involving the latter, the Punisher not only shoots Wolverine in the crotch with a shotgun, but immobilizes him by running him over with a steamroller.

So, in 2003’s Wolverine #186, how did writer Frank Tieri get his revenge? Not just by having Logan physically defeat the Punisher, but through a much more personal humiliation: outing him as a closeted gay man. With bodybuilding magazines.

Mercifully, this story has never been referenced again, to the best of my knowledge.

2003: The X-Men Gay Teen Suicide That Almost Was

Wow, 2003 is proving to be a surprisingly dense year for this piece, huh?

That year, Marvel launched a new New Mutants series by husband-and-wife writers Nunzio DeFilippis and Christina Weir. Loosely in keeping with the premise of the original 80s series, the book introduced a new bunch of teenage mutants as students at the Xavier School for Gifted Youngsters.

Among these students was Victor Borkowski, aka Anole, a lizardlike mutant who subsequently became one of Marvel’s few openly gay characters. While Anole has never really taken a leading role in the X-Books, he’s proven to be an enduring supporting character, even as many of the other New Mutants from this era have subsequently been killed or otherwise fallen by the wayside.

As part of the book’s second story arc, DeFilippis and Weir intended to tackle homophobia and teen suicide with a storyline that would see Anole coming out, only to commit suicide when he is faced with rejection by both his parents and two of his best friends at the school, and forcing those friends, Julian and Josh, to reexamine their friendship and where they stand at the school.

The story, full details of which are described at Comic Book Legends Revealed, was rejected by Marvel at the last minute, resulting in hasty and drastic rewrites. It’s clear, in reading, that the rewrites were mandated for less than progressive reasons; then-new Marvel Comics head Joe Quesada wanted the book to be “less controversial,” and his editors’ suggestions to make the story more “all-ages”-friendly included not showing a lesbian kiss that was crucial to the story (it ended up being depicted in silhouette), and even not having Northstar mention his sexuality.

Nonetheless, it’s tough to dispute that this turned out as a case of Marvel doing the right thing, albeit for the wrong reasons. Had DeFilippis and Weir’s original story been published, we wouldn’t have gotten a compelling, openly gay supporting character in a franchise with very few LGBT characters; despite their obvious good intentions, we’d have just gotten a Very Special Episode where a gay character’s death is merely a means to develop straight characters.

2005: Young Avengers

In early 2005, gay writer Allan Heinberg and artist Jim Cheung launched Young Avengers, a new teen superhero team that reinvented and cleverly subverted the trope of teen sidekicks, one that had been largely absent from the Marvel Universe. Among those characters were Wiccan and Hulkling; not only were they connected to prominent Marvel characters, ensuring their place in the universe for years to come, but they were also a gay couple. The pair immediately resonated with gay Marvel fans, becoming a staple of cosplayers for years to come.

In keeping with the tagline on the cover and Heinberg/Cheung’s exploration of the teens’ various identities, none of the characters were who they initially seemed to be: Iron Lad was actually a teenaged version of the classic Avengers villain Kang; Patriot was the grandson of the black Captain America, introduced in an early-2000s miniseries; Asgardian (later Wiccan) was the long-lost son of Avengers mainstay the Scarlet Witch; and Hulkling was the son of deceased superhero Captain Marvel and a shape-shifting Skrull princess.

The series also gave us a fantastic scene probably never before seen in a superhero comic, in which Wiccan’s attempts to “come out” to his parents about his superhero career are misinterpreted as a more conventional sort of coming out:

Young Avengers broke new ground in its depiction of gay teen characters by a Big Two publisher. It inspired a generation of fans who would probably never have expected to see a gay couple prominently featured in a book with Avengers in its title.

Nothing can erase this achievement, and Heinberg, Cheung, and their editors deserve immense credit for seeing it through. And yet, Wiccan and Hulkling’s relationship was marred for many years by a curiously, and inconsistently, anodyne handling of their sexuality.

On the one hand, their status as a couple (suspected by many readers since the first issue, to Heinberg’s surprise) was confirmed an issue before the coming-out scene above, with... an anal sex joke:

On the other hand, while Wiccan and Hulkling were often affectionate, they never so much as shared an on-panel kiss until Avengers: The Children’s Crusade #9, published a whopping seven years after their first appearance.

It’s unclear if this was a matter of Heinberg and Cheung being unreasonably afraid to push the envelope, or of Quesada-era Marvel being gun-shy about its depiction of teen characters. Still, it’s ironic that it took a straight writer, Kieron Gillen, to create a Young Avengers series with enough same-sex kissing to make up for seven years of chasteness.

2005: Wolverine Kills Northstar

In a very different early 2005 storyline by Mark Millar, a mind-controlled Wolverine rampages through the X-Mansion, ultimately being stopped by the rest of the team... but not before killing Northstar.

Yes, Wolverine wasn’t doing this of his own free will, and yes, Northstar was almost immediately brought back from the dead (first as another mind-controlled villain, later as a hero). But there’s such an obvious and ugly symbolism in having Marvel’s best-known gay character killed by perhaps its most popular character, period, that one wonders why Millar’s editors thought this was a good idea.

Even more bizarrely, this wasn’t the only time Northstar died in early 2005. Within a month of the Wolverine issue, versions of the character were killed off as well in the out-of-continuity X-Men: The End and X-Men: Age of Apocalypse miniseries.

2006: Quesada Reveals Marvel’s Gay Policies

In February 2006, Marvel’s Editor-in-Chief Joe Quesada offhandedly mentioned, in an interview about an upcoming event centered around Marvel’s Western heroes, that the gay Rawhide Kid would not be featured, explaining that “if we were to go with the gay Kid we would have had to label the books MAX and that's not what we wanted for this event. So, for the commercial betterment of this mini Western event, we felt it was best to keep it out of the MAX world for now.”

Needless to say, it was surprising for Quesada to so baldly state this: that any book centered around a gay protagonist would get a MAX rating, even if (as in the case of the Rawhide Kid) miniseries, its actual content was tamer than most of Marvel’s non-MAX superhero books.

Of course, the controversy escalated from here; a complete timeline has been compiled by Andy Mangels at Prism Comics. At a convention six months later, Quesada further confirmed that any solo series or miniseries with an LGBT protagonist would get a MAX rating, regardless of content; however, he apologized for the policy, blaming it on negative publicity over the 2003 Rawhide Kid miniseries.

Just a few weeks after this, in another interview, Quesada officially killed and buried the gay/MAX policy, saying that the controversy had “given us the opportunity to spark some internal discussions and revisit this issue, especially in light of the fact that we have characters like Freedom Ring, who is the current star of Marvel Team Up without much fanfare mind you, and that we’ve had more gay and lesbian characters appearing in Marvel comics than ever before. In many ways, the old policy over the last few years has just sort of faded away, so let me just say that there is no longer any policy."

So who was this “Freedom Ring,” you may ask?

2006: The Sad Saga of Freedom Ring

In 2006, a new gay hero made his debut in Marvel Team-Up, a series conceived as a showcase for indie wunderkind writer Robert Kirkman of Invincible and The Walking Dead.

In his origin story, ordinary guy Curtis Doyle stumbles across a ring forged from shards of the Cosmic Cube, giving him the ability to manipulate reality itself within a limited radius. He soon adopts the name “Freedom Ring” (from one of his friends' reference to a “free dumb ring”) fashions himself a costume and sets out to fight supervillainy, in the expected fashion.

Kirkman intentionally placed little emphasis on Doyle’s sexuality, which is only really conveyed to the reader when he accepts a date from a cute waiter.

In keeping with Quesada’s hailing him as a flagship gay character for Marvel, Freedom Ring went on to become a prominent and immensely popular member of the Avengers, eventually getting his own ongoing series in 2010. A teenage (but still openly gay) version of the character is a key supporting character on the current Ultimate Spider-Man cartoon, and he’s widely speculated to be getting his own film from Marvel Studios in 2017.

Oh, sorry, I misspoke. Actually, Freedom Ring was killed in an oddly Freudian manner by an evil alternate-reality version of Iron Man a few issues later, and has barely been mentioned since.

Kirkman later expressed regret for the gruesome fate of Freedom Ring, admitting that he perhaps attempted to subvert one trope too many for a single story:

“Freedom Ring was always planned as an inexperienced hero who would get beaten up constantly and probably die. I wanted to comment on the fact that most superheroes get their powers and are okay at it... and that's not how life works. During working on the book, I was also noticing that most gay characters... are all about being gay. Straight characters are well-rounded characters who like chicks. So I wanted to do a well-rounded character who just happened to like dudes. Then I decided to combine the two ideas. In hindsight, yeah, killing a gay character is no good when there are so few of them... but I really had only the best of intentions in mind.”

As an odd postscript to the Freedom Ring debacle: a few weeks after the character’s death, a Marvel spokesperson denied that Marvel had ever had a MAX policy for books about LGBT characters, blaming the whole thing on quotes “taken out of context… On the record, Marvel never had warning labels on comic books with gay characters, and we never will."