Category Archives: Growing Up a Gay Comics Fan

Growing Up a Gay Comics Reader Part 5: Top 10 Hottest Male Comic Book Characters

For a special weekly series during the month of June, guest columnist Dane Hill shares his experiences as a gay comics reader and the power of being represented. Read Part 1 here, Part 2 here, Part 3 here, and Part 4 here.

To end Gay Pride Month on a fun note, I thought I would do the ultimate comic geek exercise and count down the hottest men in comics, according to my personal gay southern-grown tastes. So, without further ado, Dane’s Top 10 Hottest Comic Book Characters. Or Dane’s Comics Boyfriend Wish List:

10. Lightning Lad (Garth Ranzz) / Karate Kid (Val Armorr)

Ok, I’m cheating here. Sue me. The Legion of Super-Heroes is what got me started in this hobby. Of all the Legionnaires, Lightning Lad and Karate Kid stories gave me the most thrill. LL’s costume is probably my favorite costume of all-time. While Karate Kid was my favorite Legionnaire, period. [pauses to think] Hmm, you could just as well add Ultra Boy, Timber Wolf and Element Lad to the list. Colossal Boy was pretty cool too. Ah hell, just say half the male Legion and be done with it. Long live the Legion! (Favorite artist: Neal Adams and Mike Grell)

9. Sunspot (Roberto “Bobby” da Costa)

The New Mutants was my favorite series and what introduced me to the Marvel Universe. I got in on the ground floor when they debuted with a graphic novel. And while southern-bred Cannonball should have been more my type, I was always attracted to Sunspot, a beautifully dark-skinned and lean South American who turns into a silhouetted strong man crackling with power when energized. His look was perfection. And his hot-headed loner attitude pinged my young gaydar. (Favorite artist: Sal Buscema and Bob McLeod)

8. Hellstorm (Daimon Hellstrom, aka The Son of Satan)

The ultimate bad boy. I mean, he’s the son of the Devil for pete’s sake! Oh, and his costume is to be shirtless. Yeah, I’m shallow. But I’ve always taken notice of his appearances. (Favorite artist: the dude’s half-naked, I’m not picky)

7. Falcon (Sam Wilson)

One-time partner to Captain America, he was one of the first action figures (Mego!) I played with. I remember finding the openness of his costume completely fascinating, and constantly peeking underneath the costume all the time. To this day, I find that Mego figure more titillating than the character in the actual comic. Yeah, I’m a weirdo. (Favorite artist: Mego)

6. Angel (Warren Worthington III)

I mean, come on… he looks like an angel, for God’s sake! Rich and classically handsome features. Did I mention he has wings and LOOKS LIKE AN ANGEL?? (Favorite artist: John Byrne and Alan Kupperberg; favorite costume: red with golden halo symbol on chest, blue variant costume a close second)

5. Iceman (Robert “Bobby” Drake)

A sentimental favorite from his Spider Friends days. A jokester who’s never quite grown up. Cool and handsome, plus how slick are those ice slides of his? Not to mention, at one point when he iced down, he was shown in his skivvies! Bobby is the fun boyfriend that I would enjoy taking home to Mom to torment. (Favorite artist: also John Byrne and Alan Kupperberg)

4. Kevin Keller (Kevin Keller)

As American as apple pie, new to comics but already a fan favorite. He’s the Mr. Popular we all crushed on in high school, or wanted to hang out with after school. Smart, athletic, handsome. Oh god, just ask me to the prom already! (Favorite artist: Dan Parent)

3. Northstar (Jean-Paul Beaubier)

Comics’ first openly gay man. A second-rate character who exploded onto the A-list when he came out of the closet. Once a hot-headed and self-absorbed mess, he’s matured over the years into the no-longer-eligible bachelor we see today. Plus, what’s up with his exotic elvish features? Yum! (Favorite artist: John Byrne)

2. Superboy (young Clark Kent / Kal-El)

An orphan with a tragic history, mysterious and full of unmatchable powers. Searching to find his role on this new planet, while discovering the extent of his abilities. I’ve always enjoyed following Superboy more than Superman, if that makes sense. Mainly because of his Legion of Super-Heroes membership. Alien or not, sign me up. I’ll take me an alien boyfriend if they come looking like him! (Favorite artists: Neal Adams and Mike Grell)

1. Captain America (Steve Rogers)

THE perfect All-American man for the guy looking for someone with old-fashioned values. Well, those values don’t come any truer than someone displaced from that actual era where the term “old-fashioned” comes from. If he wasn’t the perfect boyfriend before, once the equally perfect Chris Evans was cast in the role of Cap for Hollywood, there was no other character that could begin to compete with this hunk of gentleman. Hmm, Steve and Dane Rogers-Hill… I like the sound of it!  (Favorite artists: Mike Zeck and John Byrne)

Honorable Mention: Spider-Man (Peter Parker)

Down-on-his-luck nerd, who just so happens to be a hot adorkable genius. Sure, the whole spider thing is a little creepy. But damn, he fills out the tights nicely. And funny as hell. Gotta love a man with a great sense of humor. Still, my phobia of spiders drops him out of the Top 10, which is par for the course for his luck anyway. (Favorite artists: Todd McFarlane and Ron Frenz)


Growing Up a Gay Comics Reader Part 4: Archie, the Unexpected Trailblazer

For a special weekly series during the month of June, guest columnist Dane Hill shares his experiences as a gay comics reader and the power of being represented. Read Part 1 here, Part 2 here, and Part 3 here.

Dane Hill (right)

There are some institutions that have come to represent the ideal way of life in our country. Cultural heritages that are recognized the world over as “All-American”:  Baseball. Apple pie. Ford. Cowboys. Hollywood. Within the comic industry, that honor belongs to Archie Comics. For 70 years, they have been the “Middle America” of comicbookdom, never wavering from their small town style of stories, seemingly stunted since the ’50s in their business model. If you wanted an old-fashioned story deemed safe for the kids, you visited the townsfolk of Riverdale, where light-hearted humor was a mere chocolate malt away.

I, on the other hand, couldn’t have cared less about Archie and the Gang growing up. As All-American as I came across, to me, Archie was simply that bland out-dated line of kiddie books meant for the older generation of a bygone era. I had read one, maybe two, issues in my entire lifetime. Riverdale was just too saccharine for my tastes. I didn’t get the appeal. Did you have to be in your 60s to appreciate that “gee golly” humor? Relevance certainly seemed to have passed it by long long ago. No, my heart belonged to the spandexed superheroes battling through the modern world, thank you very much.

Archie #608 by Dan Parent and Bill Galvan

Little did I know, however, the changes that were going on behind the scenes the past couple years. In early 2010, Archie began dating black bandmate Valerie from Josie and the Pussycats. Not much odd about that you might think. Except that it was the first time an inter-racial relationship had been depicted with Archie. Forty-three years after the Supreme Court struck down miscegenation laws, the company finally felt it safe enough to test the waters with its readers. Did the editors debate putting out such a storyline for several decades, or was it a spontaneous idea cooked up in a meeting mere months before? Whatever the case may be, it would turn out to be the first indication of bigger and more daring things to come from the industry’s most conservative publisher. Still, Archie was not on my radar yet.

Truth be told, around this time, I was also burnt out on the event books being churned out by Marvel and DC Comics one after another. Most titles came across as money grabs. For the first time in a decade or two, I felt my passion for the medium begin to ebb. Even the gay characters that were popping up here and there were not holding my interest any longer. The gay side of their storylines didn’t have any teeth. As progressive as the various publishers were becoming, they all still seemed to be playing their hands a bit safe.

Around early summer of 2010, in a random blog interview, Archie artist Dan Parent would casually confirm that they too had plans to bring an openly gay character to their line. Barely newsworthy for any other company, this on the other hand was Archie Comics making the announcement for God’s sake. The news exploded overnight. How do you reconcile 1950s doowap and poodle skirts with the idea of homosexuality? It would be like your grandfather announcing plans to marry a 20-year-old. And that 20-year-old just so happened to be another man. The brain just has a hard time going there.

Parent’s announcement and the ensuing media hoopla grabbed my attention like a bonfire in the night. I held a cynical curiosity of the train wreck that was undoubtedly coming, visions of another Rawhide Kid-caliber disaster in mind. But, you know, it was cute they were trying. Good for them.

Veronica #202 by Dan Parent

And so it came, in September 2010, Veronica #202 was released, and the world was introduced to gay Kevin Keller. I was expecting an uninspired stereotype. What I got was a slam dunk debut in every way. After reading the issue, all I could think was… how in the $%@& did Archie Comics come up with the most relatable and inspiring gay character in comics?!? My second thought was… when, if ever, would we see Kevin again?? I made a deal with the Devil that I would give up all my remaining Marvel books if Kevin’s debut would be popular enough to warrant further stories. Boy, did He deliver! (And boy, do I miss my Marvel! Or not. I totally went back on my word within a month. What! I’m only human.) Kevin’s debut set records for the company, and he quickly became their most popular new character in years.

As I said, the character was a revelation. In one single issue, I fell in love with the Archie universe. I suddenly got it – the appeal, the entire 70-year history, its newfound relevance unfolded before me like a map of Treasure Island, where X marked the spot on Kevin.

So what made Kevin’s debut so special? You might say the fact that the reveal wasn’t special made it special. He was that every day high school student who just so happened to be gay. The issue received universal praise in its nonchalant depiction of being gay. No angst or coming out drama. The fact that he was gay was a complete non-issue to the folks of Riverdale, its significance merely to be used as a ploy in Jughead’s ever on-going battle of wits with clueless yet love-struck Veronica of Kevin. No stereotypes. No controversy. Just a kid moving to a new town where everyone is welcomed, and oh by the way, just happened to be gay. The subtlety was a master stroke by Parent and for the publisher. The story immediately sold out and resulted in the company’s first ever second printing of an issue in its 70-year history. The character has since become one of the company’s most high-profile characters. It was also the final indication needed, you might say, that being gay in America was at last accepted.

And yet, Archie did not just stop with the character’s introduction. Oh no. Not resting on their laurels, in the year that followed, they went after the hot topics defining today’s debate on the subject, and gave it the ol’ Riverdale spin: Gays in the military. Gay marriage. Even combining together in a single issue of Life With Archie #16 a gay marriage between inter-racial military men. You could almost hear the publisher daring the conservative right to protest the company. The issue created a firestorm of attention, and subsequently sold out within days.

Kevin Keller #1 by Dan Parent

Meanwhile, after a trial mini-series, Keller proved popular enough to warrant his own regular series, which debuted this year.

With essentially no backlash, tons of media attention and critical praise, and heavy sales, it was only a matter of time before Marvel and DC stepped up their efforts in gay visibility. While they may have laid the foundation for that visibility the past number of years, Archie Comics grabbed the bull by the horns and has led the way with bold risky storylines, including a gay marriage in the midst of a national debate, a stance on DADT prior to its repeal, etc. For a company that on paper should be most concerned about what Middle America thinks of its lily white Americana image, its defiant integrity in the face of profit risk of late is perhaps the single most unexpected development in the industry the past several years. It’s a remarkable stance for any true blue American company to take, let alone one aimed towards kids.

Is it any wonder that Marvel is now proceeding with Northstar’s own marriage 9 months after Kevin’s gay marriage was announced? Is it coincidence that after seven years, Wiccan and Hulkling of Young Avengers are finally shown to kiss? Was it always planned that DC would re-introduce one of its oldest characters from the ’40s as gay, even after saying last year that no pre-existing characters would be turned gay? Even the rebooted Godzilla series from IDW Publishing introduced a new hero (enemy?) seeking revenge against the monster for destroying his gay wedding, killing his fiance. Archie’s newfound approach to storytelling has suddenly trailblazed the way for the industry.

So, what might the future hold for gays in comics? Expect to see a continual expansion of different gay characters – heroes, villains and side characters. There will be less trepidation with showing intimacy, and less hesitancy to treat them with kid gloves. Perhaps a gay sidekick to a major hero such as Batman or Captain America, or a gay disciple to a major villain such as Joker or Kingpin. Perhaps one of the plethora of gods will come out. Although Hercules’s sexual fluidity was hinted at by Marvel recently. Perhaps an all-gay super-team. Or maybe the child of a major character will be gay. I’d like to see a story exploring why homosexuality exists, such as a form of population control, or the “gay uncle” theory where families with gay members tend to be stronger and more successful.

Whatever is to come, we have definitely turned a major corner in recent years. There’s a bright gay future ahead for the industry, and I couldn’t be more proud.

Southern grown Dane Hill has worked in the dot-com industry for the past 15 years, having put his Drama degree from the University of Virginia to good use. His passions have been comic books and baseball since he was knee-high to a grasshopper.

Growing Up a Gay Comics Reader Part 3: Proliferation

For a special weekly series during the month of June, guest columnist Dane Hill shares his experiences as a gay comics reader and the power of being represented. Read Part 1 here and Part 2 here.

Dane Hill (right)

I graduated from college at the end of 1995. My biggest transition yet – true adulthood. And more importantly – personal freedom. I was practically overcome by this incredible sense of relief I’d never dreamt of before. A heavy mix of pride in achieving my degree and curiosity over a completely open future ahead. After 23 years of studies, I would finally be able to turn my attention inwards and focus on me.

Nerdily enough, one of my first thoughts after that final final exam was: “I can pick whatever books I want to read forever!” I gleefully made a list – Jules Vernes’ and H.G. Wells’ works… check! Crichton and Terry Brooks… check and check! And oh, there’s this wizard book I soon kept hearing about… Harry something-or-other… meh, I’d get to that at some point if it lasted. My curriculum was my own.

The real prize though… the golden apple… was my huge backlog of comics that continued growing weekly. An endless supply of my first passion. I’d never be without again.

Meanwhile, I’d been tip-toeing out of the closet to one person here and another person there for a few years by that point, never quite comfortable enough to come out to everyone in full-on pride mode. Telling my parents seemed an insurmountable obstacle I’d have to face eventually. Or maybe an asteroid would hit the planet and save me. Yes, facing the prospect of coming out to the parentals holds that kind of utter terror. I needed confidence. I needed support. I needed to see and read every little mention about a gay person, no matter how slight. Frankly, it became an obsession.

Beautiful Thing

Luckily, Hollywood came to the rescue as I mentioned previously. Britain and the international studios even more so with their far superior open-mindedness. There was a treasure trove of gay films from around the world making their way to our shores. When Beautiful Thing was released in 1996 to a handful of theaters around the country, I rode the metro to Dupont Circle in DC literally every day to watch that movie. 10 times? 15? I lost count at some point, the film was that powerful for me, a welcome daily boost of inspiration. (And no, I didn’t have a job at the time.)

Gay visibility in comics, however, slipped back into something of a lull for a few years in the mid to late ’90s. At least at Marvel and DC. So thank God I had those movies and TV shows. In particular, Will & Grace premiered in 1998 and was an immediate megahit, bringing an enormous amount of visibility into households everywhere. It was the water cooler show that made talking about gays fun, rather than the always life-or-death struggle-to-be-accepted politically tinged moral debates. There was levity. We could be your friends. Your family. Even more, you wanted us to be your friends and family. There was a carefree wicked, raunchy humor to having us around. Being gay suddenly became, dare I say, cool? A couple years later, Showtime took the hook to an all-new hyper-gay level with its unapologetically in-your-face sexfest Queer As Folk, which was actually an Americanized version of a show that debuted the year before in the U.K.

Obviously, I was no longer the confused teen anymore from ten years earlier. I’d made it through those high school and college years by the skin of my teeth. I was no longer desperate, nor was I bottling up my emotions as I had previously. Now, I was simply searching. My own personal quest to feed this insatiable hunger for all things gay. Gradually, they were getting easier to come by.

The Authority by Warren Ellis and Bryan Hitch (Midnighter, front left, and Apollo, front right)

As with any cultural shift, once one industry successfully penetrates the mainstream market and people’s homes, in this case Hollywood, other industries soon follow like bears to the honey pot. That seemed to be the case for the comics industry following after. As the millennium flipped anew, Marvel and DC began exploring characters’ sexuality with renewed fervor and freedom. Readers were ready. The Code was quickly becoming an historical afterthought. Gay was in.

And DC imprint Wildstorm fired the first shot across this new societal bow with The Authority, initially by Warren Ellis and Bryan Hitch. Midnighter & Apollo were Wildstorm’s answer to Batman & Superman. With a gay twist. They may have been lovers, but they were also about as bad-ass as they came. As far from stereotypically gay as could be. They’d laugh in the face of the real Batman & Superman’s moral codes, and then kick the sh*t out of them just to make their point. Eventually, they would marry, and even adopt and raise a child together.

Marvel answered with gay characters Phat & Vivisector in Peter Milligan’s and Mike Allred’s X-Force. Soon after, the company made a major media splash with the announcement of their Rawhide Kid mini-series by Ron Zimmerman and John Severin, retro-fitting the old classic western character with a new sexual identity. While the series ended up being a huge disappointment for me, the fact that a gay character headlined his own series was a major triumph. Marvel trumpeted the character being gay as the entire selling point! Could we possibly have gotten to the point where being gay was now a marketing tool to be exploited? Remarkable!

Detective Comics starring Batwoman, by Greg Rucka and J.H. Williams III

As if in a battle of one-upsmanship between the “Big Two” publishers of super-hero comics in North America, DC then re-introduced long forgotten character Batwoman in its 2006 event series 52. For the first time, they had a gay character within their signature Batman titles. And not just a side character, but one of the actual “Bats”. They even had her take over long-running title Detective Comics, a critically acclaimed run by Greg Rucka and J.H. Williams III that continues to influence today’s Bat books.

Furthermore, we weren’t seeing just single characters any longer, as if stuck alone in their universes as the token gay representative. No, now we had couples. Relationships were being acknowledged for the first time. It was another shift in representation.

Give Marvel credit, a few years after the Rawhide Kid debacle (unintentionally (?) offensive stereotype jokes), they introduced super-couple Hulkling & Wiccan in Allan Heinberg and Jim Cheung’s Young Avengers. Perhaps less remarkable for the idea that they were introducing more gay characters than the fact that these characters were teenagers, in a book marketed as a teen team book, written with the teen set in mind. Phat & Vivisector of X-Force may have been teens (I honestly don’t know), but the audience for that book was much more adult-oriented. Until then, there seemed an unwritten rule that gay characters had to be adults. As if showing kids as gay or struggling with their sexuality would somehow turn those impressionable young readers toward the rainbow path of leather chaps and Lady Gaga. A silly notion, and Marvel came to recognize that.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t note that, since the early ’90s, creators themselves have been brave enough to come out in the industry. Back in 1991, P. Craig Russell is cited as the first mainstream artist to come out. Following him a year later was then up and coming artist Phil Jimenez, today a superstar in the industry. Eric Shanower. Heinberg. In a field that one would think artists might be hesitant (ie. for kids), these creators and more have courageously led the way in the real world, refusing to submit to those who would fear of their influencing young minds.

As the 2000s edged forward, and more and more characters came out (Obsidian, Julie Power, Terry Berg, Mystique & Destiny, Pied Piper, Renee Montoya, Rictor & Shatterstar, and earlier this month, the original Green Lantern Alan Scott), visibility in comics tipped the scale past a point of no return. And yet, there was still a somewhat conservative element to most of the characters and storylines. Physical interaction was few and far between, and hot button topics were all but ignored. For all their mainstreaming, these characters still revolved around the edges of the general public’s awareness, maybe dipping a toe in here and there without taking a full plunge.

That would change in 2010 with the shocking introduction of a character from perhaps the most unexpected of publishers….

Southern grown Dane Hill has worked in the dot-com industry for the past 15 years, having put his Drama degree from the University of Virginia to good use. His passions have been comic books and baseball since he was knee-high to a grasshopper.

Growing Up a Gay Comics Reader Part 2: A ‘Star is Born (or, The Maturation of an Industry)

For a special weekly series during the month of June, guest columnist Dane Hill shares his experiences as a gay comics reader and the power of being represented. Read Part 1 here.

Dane Hill (right)

As the ’90s rolled in, so too did college in Virginia. And those years quickly came to be the darkest of my life.

To this day, when I reflect on them, an echo of those days’ pain hits me from the past. Think of times when you’ve felt forced to travel some place where you had no desire to go. Now consider having to stay in that place for four years. It was maddening! Like glass in the brain. Honestly, I have no idea how I was able to stick it out and get my degree. It took five and a half years in the end, including a much-needed semester off just to regain a sliver of sanity, but I did it.

At the time though, those first couple of years in particular, I wanted to be anywhere but there. No one suspected the secret clawing to get out of me. I hid it well. But, I was a pressure cooker without any relief valve, and a breakdown was slowly building. To make matters unbelievably worse, my roommates were about as straight as they came. Hell, two of them — two very large, very southern fellas — were actually on the university football team! It didn’t help either that I’d developed an unrequited crush on one of the others.

Meanwhile, there remained little to no gay visibility, comics or otherwise, to toss me a lifeline. I was a starved squirrel looking for nuts in a barren landscape. Not that I would have found time to read any. My escape into the world of comics was curbed by necessity. Studies became the priority. Not to mention the lack of steady income. I was on my own for the first time in my life. learning to navigate the world of personal finance and responsibility. Testing my discipline each week was a tiny comic store on the outskirts of campus. I’d make the occasional jaunt over to it just to get off campus and see some old “friends”. Maybe walk back with three or four titles that piqued my interest in my weaker moments. All the while, my secret was eating away at the inside of me more and more, week by week.

Northstar by Simon Furman, Dario Carrasco, Jr.

And that’s what made Northstar’s coming out so special. During my second year of college, in a hobby that I’d grown up with and was passionate about, there finally came a release that helped cool the pot that boiled over.

Here’s a sad secret though. When that pivotal issue of Alpha Flight did finally come out… I missed it! The title had been off my radar for years by then. By the time I’d heard the media uproar about the story, the comic shop had sold out. Even if it had not though, I would never have had the guts to buy it. Imagine if one of my roommates had discovered the issue hidden away in my room, my own scandalous stash of “porn” under the bed. I honestly don’t remember when I actually got around to reading the story. Months? Years later? Remember, this was before the internet and eBay made everything so ridiculously accessible. But none of that mattered at the time. The fact was that a well-known hero was gay, and that was good enough for me. In my mind, he was instantly the best character in comics.

Now, don’t get me wrong. Northstar as a character wasn’t anything special. To this day, he’s near exclusively known as “the gay super-hero”. Not known as well as someone like that bad-ass canuck with claws. Or that tragically funny guy with webs. Or that old-fashioned patriot with a shield. No hero-framed descriptor makes you think of Northstar. (The speedster with pointy ears? No. The twin brother with attitude that runs and flies super fast, and has a semi-cool starburst costume? Lame.) No, he was a third-string character on a second-rate team. In their heyday, Alpha Flight, a team born in the late ’70s, wanted to be the next X-Men, but never quite took off in popularity the way those other mutants did. Ask AF’s fans though and you will hear plenty of fond memories of the team, but the title never quite made tent-pole status for Marvel. Try to think of any impact character from them other than Northstar. Go on, I’ll wait….[pauses to watch Glee]….Ok, I’m back. Anything? No? That’s what I thought. The single most defining event from some 130 issues of the title was that one of its characters came out of the closet.

Of course, it’s natural to not immediately understand the ultimate impact of some random event that changes the way we look at the world. Usually not until you reflect back on it years later in its historical context. Northstar was certainly not like The Beatles exploding onto the cultural scene. Or Apple’s iPod changing how we buy music. But he was very much a turning point for gay visibility in comics. He’s the “Grandfather of Super-Hero Gays”, if you will. (I’m sure he’d just adore that moniker.) Not impacting the entre industry or fanbase as a whole by any means. Just a very under-represented segment of that fanbase that desperately needed an arm thrown across their shoulder to reassure them that they are ok too.

The majority of fans seemed to take the reveal in stride, which in itself was incredibly encouraging. Which made Marvel’s backpeddling all the more baffling. For that matter, popular opinion from those who had read the issue seemed to be that, while Northstar’s coming out was long overdue for a mainstream super-hero character, the story itself was poorly written and didactic. When I did finally got the chance to read it, for me, the issue read like Shakespeare. I was so overwhelmingly taken by the simple fact that a Marvel hero, one I’d grown up with, had actually said he was gay. This disconnect between the “straight” readers and me just highlighted how deprived I’d been for some kind of visibility. One man’s junk is another man’s treasure. What I had in my hands was a diamond, and I eagerly awaited further revelations into Northstar’s life.

So, as each new Alpha Flight issue came and went (and I made damned sure to buy those issues!), and no more of Northstar’s sexuality was mentioned, hope ebbed with each passing month until all I felt was resentment at Marvel’s treatment of the character. It was something of a betrayal. The final insult was the Northstar mini-series that came out after the Alpha Flight series ended. Exactly what purpose did Marvel think it served when it completely disregarded his sexuality? Would you create a new-born mutant mini-series, but ignore the fact that he has powers? Cowards. Maybe Marvel felt that the character was too high profile, and tried to shove him back in the closet.

Incredible Hulk by Peter David, Dale Keown

And yet, just a year or so later, from that point going forward I’ll call “After Northstar Announced Love” (um, I’ll work on that), writer Peter David came out with a gay character of his own in his book The Incredible Hulk. Coincidence? Who knows? Perhaps David was influenced by Northstar’s revelation when he made hero Hector gay. Maybe when Northstar’s hullabaloo came and went, he thought to himself, “Well, that wasn’t so bad. World didn’t end. Marvel got a lotta press. Let me just slip in another little side-character into my book who’s also interested in some mano-on-mano, and see where it leads…” And thus, Gay Hector was born. I didn’t know, that was me pure speculating on my part. David may have had the character’s sexuality planned long before Northstar jumped out of the closet and yelled yoohoo. It’s entirely possible that David was blindsided when beaten to the punch by that egomanical Canadian speed freak (hmm, maybe that’s his descriptor).

At any rate, thanks to Hector, I made sure to pick up every issue of the Hulk series, just in hopes of catching him in a panel or two. Yet, knowing there’d never be much when I opened the pages. But, you know what, when you’re starving, any little nugget looks like a feast. Hector’s role was such a small one though that I honestly don’t recall much beyond loving new artist Gary Frank’s pencils, and the Pantheon being a gaggle of demi-gods helping Hulk out or being his entourage or something. The highlight I can recall was a quick meeting between the recently out Northstar and Hector, shooting the breeze. And yes, as everyone suspects, all gays know each other and hang out together. So of course Hector would be hanging with Northstar at some point. (Excuse me while my eyes roll out of my head.) Still, it was a fun little moment that also served to highlight just how very few characters in this massive universe were actually gay at the time. Two. Out of how many hundreds or thousands of chatacters. Two. A third-stringer, and a….tenth-stringer? (Hello hello hello hello…. Anyone else else else else…. Echo echo echo echo….) Still, Hector was another tiny lifeline that gave me a taste of renewed hope every month, so I commend Marvel for that effort.

Hector and Northstar (bottom right panel), from Incredible Hulk #418 by Peter David and Gary Frank

Around that same time, a new wave of mainstream and cult-fave independent titles came to market. I personally refer to this period of time as my Silver Age of Independents, what with the introduction of Bone, Cavewoman, Wandering Star, Penthouse Comix (ironic, no?), and the stunning Strangers in Paradise by Terry Moore. Beautiful art and richly written characters, the two female leads Katchoo and Francine appeared to be in an obvious relationship together. The book was so well produced, that I didn’t mind overlooking the detail that Francine didn’t consider herself gay. The story spoke for itself, and became part of the fabric of this newly evolving gay era of comics.

Strangers In Paradise by Terry Moore

My college years were also a time of immense transitions and shake-ups within the industry. A handful of the most popular artists of the day split from Marvel and formed their own company Image Comics. Another upstart company called Valiant Comics took fandom by storm. Between Image and Valiant, the “Big Two” were put on notice that they had better up their game if they wanted to keep their market share. Soon though, as if the pendulum had swung the other way, distributors fell and comic shops nationwide closed their doors. The entire market had come crashing down seemingly overnight. Valiant was gone within a few years, and Marvel had declared bankruptcy. The industry was in shambles, along with my life.

By that time though, the notion of comics being strictly for kids had become archaic, ever since Watchmen and Batman: The Dark Knight Returns turned the industry on its head and toward a darker path in the mid-80s. The medium progressively grew up over those years. Stories became grittier, more real than fantasy, and thematic license expanded to the point that soon nothing seemed off-limits, punctuated by the mid-90s by writers like Garth Ennis with his hyper-violent signature style that made him a household name with fans on books like Hellblazer, Hitman, and his magnum opus Preacher. By comparison, the reveal of a gay character seemed positively tame.

Simultaneously during this time, the Comics Code Authority was showing its age, cracks forming in its foundation. How do you regulate an industry whose most popular products are increasingly breaking all the rules, rules that you are meant to enforce? When a market aims for adults, the rules for kids become irrelevant. Advertisers cared less and less for the Code’s seal on a book’s cover, and by the early 2000s, Marvel announced that they would no longer submit any of their titles to the CCA. By 2011, the Code became defunct, for years having been less a true review arbitrator and more a simple licenser of its trademark seal to anyone who still wanted to slap it on their cover, family-friendly Archie Comics being the final hold-out.

On the bright side, thankfully, my craving for visibility was making real progress in the 90s from another industry – Hollywood! Movies like The Birdcage (which I HATED at the time with its over-the-top effeminate caricatures of gay life, but audiences made it an unexpected blockbuster) and In & Out (which I LOVED and became a modest hit, but then gay audiences found it unappealing with it’s tamed utter lack of passion between the supposedly gay leads…I couldn’t win!). TV also stepped forward in big way with Ellen DeGeneres coming out of the closet both in real life and on her show as the first gay TV lead. That episode was a ratings juggernaut, once again proving that mainstream audiences were ready for gays. Then came ratings smash hit Will & Grace (aka Jack & Karen), which changed everything. If there had been any doubt left in Hollywood’s mind that “gay” wouldn’t play, then that notion went out the window with this widely popular show. Despite the collapse of the comics industry, gays unabashedly found their way into my living room and everyone else’s.

History will look back on the 90s as the turning point for gay rights on a cultural impact level. Mainstream audiences were given glimpses into that culture through different mediums, gays came out of the closet more and more, and understanding slowly grew with each new movie, person, TV show, or comic that introduced yet another example of gay life.

But I’m getting ahead of myself! In terms of gay visibility in comics, the 90s mostly felt like snack after snack after snack. When would the real meat hit our tables?? Well, along came the 2000s, and gay representation would finally explode in ways undreamt of less than a decade earlier…

Southern grown Dane Hill has worked in the dot-com industry for the past 15 years, having put his Drama degree from the University of Virginia to good use. His passions have been comic books and baseball since he was knee-high to a grasshopper.

Growing Up a Gay Comics Fan Part 1

For a special weekly series during the month of June, guest columnist Dane Hill shares his experiences as a gay comics reader and the power of being represented.

Dane Hill (right)

When I was approached to write this weekly column for Gay Pride Month (that would be June), my initial reaction was to feel honored to be considered. Visibility on the subject is perhaps our most potent tool for understanding. Every positive example, whether it be through mass media entertainment or via humble blogs such as this, helps to humanize the issue just a little more for those who don’t quite understand it. More importantly, each hopefully provides a small amount of encouragement to the young kids who might be struggling with their identity. So, here I am, sharing my thoughts and sensibilities as a lifelong comic book fan… with a gay spin.

I grew up during the ’80s. In the South. Not the deep South of small town life that Hollywood makes to look so damned quaint. Or conversely, that the nightly news trumps up to look so god awful backwards and poor. No, mine was your typical suburban family lifestyle, albeit surrounded with a hint of cotton and a breath of marshland (Georgia), and then later came a slant toward the political (Northern Virginia outside of DC). I imagine my surroundings had been much the same as any other white middle class community found around the country, though perhaps with a greater focus of church on Sundays. I was a kid coming of age during the time of Star Wars, Atari and cassette tapes.

DC Special: Blue Ribbon Digest #8 – The Legion of Super-Heroes by Jim Shooter, et al.

However, my great passion was comic books (and baseball, but let’s stay on topic). My love for the medium began with The Legion of Super-Heroes, thanks to those nifty little digest compilations published by DC Comics and found in convenience stores. A Superboy-led team consisting of Lightning Lad with his purple and white bolted uni, Cosmic Boy and Ultra Boy, Timber Wolf (the original Wolverine), and my favorite, Karate Kid, in his orange belted gi. On and on they appeared on the pages, all handsome and muscled under their skin-tight costumes. To this day, I hold a special place in my heart for those 30th century heroes. My Legion love soon graduated to an obsession for The New Mutants and Power Pack, not to mention the standard fare of Uncanny X-Men, Alpha Flight, The Avengers and The Amazing Spider-Man, all published by Marvel Comics. DC Comics heroes took a bit of a back seat, though they remained part of the staple. As you can see, I gravitated toward kid and teen groups who were coming of age alongside me, granted, while they were playing super-hero. Maybe subconsciously, I longed for that kind of life-and-death companionship, where nothing could break their bonds. Still, none were gay. And sadly, it never occurred to me that any of them could actually be gay. It just wasn’t an option.

I, of course, was harboring this growing secret inside me while I escaped into my fantasy worlds. I wasn’t lonely per se, as I did have a handful of friends and family. It was just incredibly isolating. There was little to no visibility of gay people out there for me to better understand what was going on with me. I desperately wanted to see examples of gay people in the world. I just never looked toward my comics for that fulfillment. Perhaps, because I knew that Marvel and DC could never write such a character into their stories. Think of the shitstorm, for lack of a better word, it would have created at the time. Comics were still “for kids”. Vertigo and MAX lines had yet to be created “for adults”. The closest they would come are the side jokes made about Batman & Robin, and the lustful insinuations made by fanboys of Wonder Woman and her Paradise Island of all women. The “Big Two” comic book publishers were absolutely and utterly devoid of gay content. And I could find no fault in that as a young struggling teen. It was the world we lived in. Later, rumors would surface that there was actually a “no homosexuals” policy at Marvel. However, then-Marvel Editor-in-Chief Jim Shooter denies such a policy ever existed. Regardless, there was the Comics Code Authority to contend with during that era, which would have shot down the stories immediately. What they failed to understand overall though was that I wasn’t some susceptible kid needing protection from so-called sexually deviant subject matter. I was a scared boy, growing progressively more lost, who simply needed the reassurances of a friend. Comics happened to be my most trusted “friend” at that age, and they let me down with their silence.

ElfQuest by Wendy and Richard Pini

There was an alternate independent world of comics, but for me that consisted of mutant turtles, realms of magictrollords, fish police and a peculiar barbaric aardvark. Then again, there were those elves being reprinted, ironically enough, through Marvel at the time. A small black-and-white title called Elfquest, whose main two characters Cutter and Skywise held a lifemate bond together, even sharing their secret soul names with each other that normally would only be shared with their “wives”. Yet still… not truly gay.

And then came a single revolutionary moment…

In 1992, a character well-known within the Marvel universe came out, shockingly and defiantly. Alpha Flight hero Northstar admitted he was gay, and it was a game changer. Perhaps even more important, when I went back to re-read his early adventures that I grew up with, there they were… the clues and tell-tale signs that writer/artist John Byrne had written into the character from the beginning! Right in front of my face the entire time! This wasn’t just a retro-conversion of a character. This was a character who harbored this same secret all along like myself! We were out there in the world after all. It was at that moment that I questioned: Were there others?

Alpha Flight #106 by Scott Lobdell, Mark Pacella

Peter Parker? No, he had Mary Jane. Daredevil? Maybe! Bruce Wayne? Despite all the jokes, I could suddenly see truth behind him! Alex or Jack from Power Pack, or Sam Guthrie from New Mutants? The possibilities suddenly became endless. These were no longer code-named heroes, but “real” characters living secretly underneath the pages. I read my comics with an entirely different perspective. My world shifted a step to the left, and I knew it was getting better.

Of course, Northstar’s sexuality vanished again for the better part of a decade, as if his declaration had earned him a spot on the inactive roster at Marvel. It was obvious that his sexuality still made the Powers That Be at the company jittery. I liked to imagine that there had been a small conspiracy inside Marvel, and maybe there had been, to get that issue (Alpha Flight issue #106) quickly out the door and to the printers before those nervous big-wig suits caught wind of it. Get it out to the world once and for all, for better or worse, the creative team’s own internal defiance like the character himself, the Comics Code Authority be damned. I feared someone may have lost their job by standing up with integrity. Whatever the consequences or reasons for shoving Northstar back into the closet, it was too late. Comics changed forever that day. Particularly for a certain segment of readers. A character was out. Like a genie from his bottle. And there was no going back. Gay kids got their example, and a whole new world opened for them.

Southern grown Dane Hill has worked in the dot-com industry for the past 15 years, having put his Drama degree from the University of Virginia to good use. His passions have been comic books and baseball since he was knee-high to a grasshopper.