It was really gratifying to dive into the history of queer representation in comics during Pride month. This is a collection of recent Outlet Comics posts I made on Twitter, edited to make sense in a blog format.
We’ve Existed in the Margins (also CAKE)
Comics as an industry has spent a long time under-representing, not just through passive omission, but also through purposeful mandate, their lgbtq+ readers. In order to express their stories, queer writers have long turned to underground and alternative press, either through mirco publishers or self-publishing and distribution. With special care to give big time publishers and distributors absolutely zero credit for what I’m about to say, this situation has created a rich and robust tapestry of creators producing some of the most gorgeous and soul-filled works I have ever seen. I had the opportunity to go to CAKE, an alternative comics expo here in Chicago and check out so of the brilliant works by queer creators, a few of whom I’ve featured on Outlet Comics’ social media accounts.
Thanks to the small-press nature of CAKE and the event being deliberately inclusive, many of the the queer stories I saw at CAKE were very openly queer. However, when creators have wanted to display lqbtq+ themes or characters in mainstream comics, they have often relied on queer-coding and subtext. These narrative tools frequently depend on the reader already knowing what queues to look for or the simple hope that it will resonate with someone having a similar experience enough for it to click. Additionally, as a queer reader you might find coding or subtext in something the creator never intended. When creators are facing not just underrepresentation in media, but outright oppression in social class and politics, these sly nods to queerness can be powerful and subversive and give folx inspiration to persist.
The Tide is Shifting (Slowly)
While it’s crucial to recognize the importance of subtext and queer coding in the history of lgbtq+ representation in comics, we are now at a point in our history where the tide is turning and relying solely on subtext and coding for representation in most situations isn’t just not enough, it’s irresponsible. And while we should definitely be celebrating the queer character we have, it is also possible to also be fierce in our stance that it is no longer enough as we are a long way from having the amount and diversity of representation necessary to allow for the freedom in story telling these characters deserve. Not all queer people are the same and when you have what amounts to a handful of queer folx in all of mainstream comic media, that handful is unfairly expected to be representative of everyone within the entire lgbtq+ community. That’s just not possible, or fair.
When Iceman can out, it didn’t resonate with everyone, because that’s not everyone’s coming out experience. When we finally get a big-time trans hero at Marvel or DC, they won’t resonate with everyone because not all trans folx have the same experience. It’s important for queer people to see themselves represented in comics. We need more queer characters so that their stories can unfold the way they are meant to, without the added weight of needing to represent more than their fair share of the community.
Our Queer Complex-ion
With so few queer character in comics, it is also important to look at how these characters are represented. Subtext and queer-coding have been misused to demonize queerness (even if not always on purpose) by way of queer-coding villains. Think of the flamboyant nature of The Joker and his need for Batman to complete him, often using it to justify his crimes. Or the feminine aesthetic of Xerxes from 300, equating femininity in men with immorality and wretchedness. I’m not saying that all queer characters should be heroes. Queer characters, like all characters, should be complex and there are some truly bad-ass queer villains out there. But deliberate care should be taken so that queer-coding and representation are not used in a manner which highlights an otherness that is then directly associated with representations of evilness.
Another misuse of lgbtq+ representation is the “Bury Your Gays” trope, a common theme in popular media where queer characters often have their stories end in tragedy. With a history and reality already so deeply steeped in hardship and oppression, it’s even more important to tell queer stories that are positive, hopeful, and progressive. Comics are a powerful medium and the stories told using them not only allow us to see ourselves, but can also help us grow and heal through our own hard times. I saw an example of this in response to the massacre at Pulse nightclub in Orlando in 2016 when IDW Publishing released Love Is Love, a 144-page collection of lgbtq+ stories with all proceeds going to Equality Florida. So again for the people in the back, while tragedy is a part of queer history, queerness in comics is not defined by or limited by it. We have so many more stories to tell.
A Her-story Lesson (or “Fuck the CCA”)
Tokenism is another pitfall with queer representation and going into researching it I though it would be a quick issue to write about. Considering tokenism is unfortunately common in all types of media, comics are no exception, right? Well it certainly does exist, but comics seem to be a different kind of media monster on this subject specifically. Looking at the history of comics there’s a period of time when queer characters existed purely in subtext. This is then followed by increasing, but small, bursts of canonically queer characters. These would often be existing characters and their coming out would be confirming years of subtext, thus creating a higher ratio of complex queer characters than you might expect to see when compared to representation of similar minorities such as women or POC.
The biggest contributing factor looks to be this: While many minorities were narratively excluded from comics based on the decisions of (mostly cishet white male) creators, lgbtq+ characters were specifically excluded based on rules set down by the Comics Code Authority. When the CCA finally lifted on this, there was a shorter period of time between creators being able to fall back on doing the bare minimum in terms of representation and the (still too slow) influx of diversity we are seeing in mainstream comics now because we are demanding it. If you’re interesting in knowing more about craptastic CCA and how they held back progress check this out. It’s blood-boiling, but also fascinating.
A Not-So-Straight Line Forward
With the CCA ban on queerness out of the way, the slow march forward toward queer representation has seen some fairly odd, but interesting, sidesteps. For instance, mainstream comics are pretty uniquely suited to exploring the idea of alternate realities. In both Marvel and DC there exists a rich multiverse to explore. In terms of lgbtq+ representation, theses realities provided some opportunities creators might have not had otherwise. In some cases alternate reality representation may seem like a cop-out because it’s not happening in the “real” universe, but in many cases we get to see takes on characters these companies would likely have never green lit in main continuity. Without alternate realities we would have never seen a gay Colossus, the love of Mary Jane and Mariko, or the literal power couple of Wolverine and Hercules you never knew you needed. It’s certainly not enough, but it’s a quantifiable step in the right direction and it has been an avenue for showing companies that these characters have traction when they otherwise might not have listened.
With all that in mind, let’s take this back to the point that we have so many more stories to tell. Believe it or not, when you look at the amount of diversity within the lgbtq+ community, that’s a bit of an understatement. It’s not just lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer representation I’m talking about. It’s asexual, pansexual, gender fluid, genderqueer, agender, and much more. Within each segment of the community there’s even more variety depending on where someone is in their life. They could be in the closet or questioning or transitioning or polyamorous or raising a kid or having a life experience that has nothing to do with their gender, sexuality, or relationship status like buying a car or caring for a loved-one. Then there’s the intersection of other minority groups. Lgbtq+ characters can be women, POC, Muslim, Jewish, an immigrant, poor, autistic, an addict. They could use ASL to communicate, use a wheelchair to get around, suffer from a body dysmorphic disease, depression, or social anxiety. And here’s the kicker, representation for all other minority groups is important to the lgbtq+ community even if those character and stories are not specifically lgbtq+. The rising tide of representation lifts all the minority boats. The more we stick together and support each other on this, the easier we can say, “Hey, what about them?” And the more we do that, the sooner we will get to a point where anyone can enter a comic shop and find a story about someone like them.
The last point I want to make about lgbtq+ representation in comics is that it’s just as important to demand this kind of representation in the comic book community itself, especially when it comes to the companies with the most influence. We need to push for stronger minority representation in all aspects of comic making, from writers and editors, to marketing and C-level employees. Remember when we said that representation in comics needs to be intersectional? We need that here as well. An integral part of this is looking at how inclusive the policies of these companies are because the devil (on a dark horse apparently) is in the details. We’re referent here specifically to Dark Horse Comics recently being put on blast for some incredibly exclusionary practices when it came to trans folx (which they have since started cleaning up their act about.) Dark Horse wasn’t putting a “No Trans Allowed” sign on their front window, but their abysmal neglect of trans folx in their insurance policy and the upholding of it in the face of direct criticism did a better job at discriminating than any sign ever would. We can’t exist in subtext, we don’t have an alternate reality to escape to, and there is no Authority mandating our exclusion. These companies have a choice. So again for the people in the back, on all fronts, we need to demand better of the companies creating comics.