Assessing the Impact of Gay Superheroes in Alternate Realities

Last week, DC announced that Green Lantern is gay. Not Hal Jordan, current upstanding member of Justice League. Not John Stewart, Guy Gardner or Kyle Rayner. The Green Lantern who's gay is Alan Scott, generally touted as the original Green Lantern. Alan Scott also currently resides on Earth 2, an alternate reality of sorts within the vast DC Universe.

It's an obvious answer to Marvel's recent announcement that Northstar (of Alpha Flight and X-Men fame) will be marrying his partner in Astonishing X-Men #51 later this month. Northstar's wedding is being touted as a big deal in the Marvel universe, despite the smaller-name status that Northstar provides to the event.

Indies may have been tackling these issues for a while now, but for the bigger publishers to do something like this is rather unprecedented. It gives a wider audience of gay comic book readers bigger names to identify with and not feel as much like an outsider looking in.

Are Marvel and DC actually paying attention to current events, seeking to make a statement about the state of affairs in the LGBT community? Or are both of these moves just attention grabs to boost sales? Probably a little bit of both.

Way back in the early 90s, DC killed Superman and it was a massive media event. Considering the timing of his death and the general lack of 24/7 news cycle back then, that was kind of a big deal. I even remember it being a question on Jeopardy! at one point, with the clue showing the cover of the pivotal issue and asking which superhero the funeral was for.

Last year, Marvel made the decision to kill off a major (semi-major?) character in Human Torch. The story was given to multiple mainstream media outlets ahead of time, which generated buzz and effectively killed the anticipation for fans of the Fantastic Four leading up to the event. The same thing happened with the new Spider-man reveal in the Ultimate Spider-man universe, with Miles Morales being of African-American and Latino descent and everyone knowing about it before it happened.

On the one hand, Marvel and DC have got the most recognizable characters in all of comics. Some characters are almost a century old and are in the bloodstream of most of the world, comic reader or not. Readers get emotionally invested in these characters and want to believe that what happens to them is going to stick. On the other hand, Marvel and DC are in the business of making money, so these events need attention.

It's not necessarily the events themselves that get scorn from readers; rather, it's the way they're unveiled. Leaking details of the events to the mainstream media makes them just that--events. This, in turn, presents comics as speculative properties, as people will get them solely for the theoretical value aspect as opposed to the story aspect.

This puts Marvel and DC in something of a tight spot.

The aforementioned invested readers like to, you know, actually read the comics and be surprised at changes concerning their favorite characters. When everyone in the mainstream media is writing about the social implications of a mixed race superhero, a gay wedding or the death of a storied character, it really devalues the event to the primary audience: the reader.

There's a message sent that Marvel and DC care more about the potential readers than the readers themselves, which is an interesting catch-22. Those within the industry have long been saying that getting new readers is key to prolonged success and making such announcements does create an influx of interest.

Change is good in comics. It shows that even the big two aren't these myopic behemoths intent on rehashing old storylines over and over (they are to an extent, but that's a whole other column). It's even better when these changes involve politically charged topics like gay marriage (albeit slightly behind the curve). The change that isn't good is the change for the sake of change that seems to happen more often than not.

Eric Powell skewered Marvel for this fact in The Goon #39, taking aim at many of the superhero conventions that have come to define what it means to "be" a superhero. He has The Goon fight colored variations of himself, admit he's gay and that he's of mixed-race descent, all in an effort to be a "textbook" superhero. In the end, The Goon realizes he is what he is and being everything else is no good.

That's sort of the mantra Marvel and DC should try and move towards. You can say there are two forms of writing: plot driven writing, where the characters are moved into place to fit the plot and character driven writing, where the characters are given room to breathe and the plot unfolds around them. It seems as if Marvel and DC are spending more time in a plot driven writing mode, where characters react instead of act.

Both Northstar and Green Lantern's announcements are a combination of both forms of writing. They're plot driven in the sense that Marvel and DC saw a big, attention grabbing issue and found characters that fit within it. They're also character driven because they didn't make Wolverine gay or anything. They used characters in settings that made "realstic" sense (Northstar is getting married in New York, where gay marriage is legal).

Last week I wrote that Marvel and DC shouldtake more risks. Having two characters come out with one of them actually marrying their partner is a step in the right direction. Marvel and DC deserve applause for taking Northstar and Alan Scott down this path.

These two characters coming out do not have nearly the same social implications of, say, Superman coming out, but on the flip side the characters chosen aren't a clear cash grab and make sense from character perspectives. They'll still sell the issues like gangbusters purely for their "controversial" content and don't really represent that big a risk for them. They do represent a somewhat bolder stance regardless and really shows that Marvel and DC are trying to stay abreast of trends in pop culture to an extent.