Marvel Comics caused a stir recently with a high-profile same-sex wedding in Astonishing X-Men. But gay and lesbian superheroes have been around forever. Here's a brief overview from Martin Eden, who recently published Spandex, a graphic novel about the first all-LGBT superhero team.
All art is by Martin Eden, from Spandex.
I'm no 'professional expert' on gay characters in comics, but I've been reading Marvel and DC for almost 30 years, so I've seen a lot in my time!
Generally, gay characters in comics were mostly limited to subtle mentions and undertones – nothing really spoken out loud. For instance, in Claremont's X-Men run in the 80s and 90s, Mystique and Destiny were apparently in a lesbian relationship – although this was never overtly mentioned or explored, and Mystique's sexuality seems quite 'loose' (and she now mostly seems to go for men).
I think the first famous gay character in comics was Northstar from Alpha Flight. I loved John Byrne's run on this title, but completely missed all the subtle hints that others picked up on.
Apparently, Northstar's secret was going to be revealed in Alpha Flight issue 50. He got very ill, and he was going to reveal that he had AIDS. At the last moment, the Marvel powers-that-be changed the source of his illness. He was actually a 'fairy' who was becoming ill because he was so far from his proper realm… Oh dear. (I'd heard this ages ago, but check Wikipedia if you don't believe me!)
Northstar did eventually come out as a gay man in Alpha Flight 106, which became a huge collectors' issue, despite the poor story and art – and there was very little actual mention of Northstar being gay!
In the past few years, several new LGTB characters have emerged. Rictor and Shatterstar have become boyfriends in X-Factor; young heroes Hulking and Wiccan have a lovely relationship in the Young Avengers; Karma has come out (and finally become vaguely interesting); and over at DC, Batwoman is a lesbian (albeit a very spooky, gothic one, with several dalliances with the more butch members of the Gotham Police Dept).
It's kind-of nice to see these kinds of characters in comics, and their relationships are shown quite realistically, but there's only so much that can be shown. The problem is, comics are still supposed to be accessible to children (even though the large majority of the audience is now in their 20s, 30s and older), so it's difficult to explore sexuality and people's sex lives in comics! So even though huge steps have been made recently, there's not a great deal that can be done with them!
And I also wonder if the writers are worried about delving into the subject of LGTB relationships. Most of the writers of these characters are heterosexual, so maybe they are concerned that they might write something that could be deemed offensive or unrealistic. Personally, when I write Spandex, I don't have an agenda. It's just a story about a group of people and it doesn't really matter that they are gay – but the topic of sexuality does trigger a lot of the storylines.
Having said that, in Spandex, I do want to show my characters love-lives and sex-lives. I think it was a reaction to seeing the sex scenes in Bendis' Powers comic. I got really tired of seeing the emphasis being almost entirely on the female form, which is why I wanted to show some (non-gratuitous) sex between male characters in my comic. My characters go to gay saunas, and there's a very natural gay sex scene in issue 3.
If you want a really in-depth look at gay relationships in comics, you have to look at mature-readers comics. There are plenty of racy gay comics out there (see the adult supplement of Previews!), but they are not to everyone's taste – let's just say that a lot of the characters are super-endowed… Vertigo have presented some excellent LGTB characters over the years – with Hazel and Foxglove in Sandman, Kathy and Lenny in Shade the Changing Man, and Lord Fanny in The Invisibles.
Another comic worthy of mention is Love & Rockets, which features all kinds of relationships in an amazingly realistic manner. Gilbert and Jaime Hernandez write stories about their own distinct cast of characters in real-time, so the reader has grown with them and watched their relationships develop. It's a stunning achievement and highly recommended.
And of course, if you want a fun comic which isn't afraid to explore sexuality, don't forget Spandex!
Spandex: Fast and Hard is available now from Titan Books.