Queers in Comics, Pt 3: Flipping the Code

Last time, we talked about the Bronze Age of Comics and the declining influence of the Comics Code Authority. I left you off in 1984 because according to comic book historians (that’s a thing) that was the end of the Bronze Age, and 1985 is the beginning of the Modern Age of Comics. The only real difference between 1984 and 1985 that I’m aware of though is that by the end of 1984, every major comic book publisher had introduced at least one gay character (kind of). I’m not saying that we’re the defining feature of the Modern Age of Comics, but I’m also not not saying that.

Eclipse continued not caring whatosoever about the Code, publishing a story called “Dance on a Razor’s Edge: A Ballet on the Death of Yukio Mishima” in Night Music #2, including an erotic dream by Mishima about Saint Sebastian (who is a Catholic saint the gay community has kind of co-opted.) The comic story also included Mishima’s seppuku, which he committed in 1970. The whole Night Music series was created by a still-closeted P. Craig Russell.

Underground comics were still light years ahead of mainstream comics — in 1986, the space opera series A Distant Soil revealed that D’mer and Reiken/Seren two of its leading characters, both men, were in a non-exclusive romantic relationship with each other which became a central part of the series. The series was written by Colleen Doran, and published — at the time — by WaRP Graphics, though it was reprinted (at least once entirely from scratch) a handful of times and is currently being re-released by Image Comics.

The first Meatmen cover — and also probably the safest for work

That same year, Last Gasp released Watch Out! Comix by Carl Vaughn Frick (sometimes just called “Vaughn” or “Vaughn Frick”), which was a satire about the gay community of San Francisco. Starblaze Graphics published the graphic novel Fortune’s Friends: Hell Week by Kay & Mike Reynolds, the lead character of which was gay. But, perhaps most importantly, 1986 was the year that Meatmen was launched by Leyland Publications — it was an anthology book of primarily erotic gay comics. It would run continuously until 2004, and during its run it is said that they featured “every gay male cartoonist of note who has worked since the 1970s.” This includes a lot of artists we’ve already talked a bit about — Tom of Finland, Howard Cruse, Joe Johnson, Donelan, Al Shapiro, Jeff Krell, Carl Vaughn Frick, and many many many many others. By the end of its run, there were 26 issues published.

Fortune’s Friends: Hell Week is where I’m getting all my pick-up lines from now on

But it wasn’t all good news — as queerness became more prevalent and more accepted in comics, the enemies of the LGBTQ+ decided to try to wield the medium as a weapon. And so Homosexuality: Legitimate, Alternate Deathstyle came to be published — a “non-fiction” book claiming to be “the facts” but in actuality a whole bunch of propaganda about how evil homosexuals were. You know, the usual. This was the first comic book published at actively speak out against the LGBTQ+ community and sadly, it wouldn’t be the last.

The series Watchmen, which has seen a great deal of success as a movie and now as a TV series, came out in 1986. It was still seeking Code approval, and so the only openly homosexual character was the minor character of Silhouette. There were implications (later confirmed by the creators) that the two minor characters Hooded Justice and Captain Metropolis were gay and in a relationship together. The character Rorschach, frequently assumed to be asexual, also referred to the character Ozymandias as “possibly homosexual.” Watchmen did its best to be as queer as possible, while still getting a CCA seal of approval.

While not strictly queer, Megaton Comics did make a bit of a splash in their comic Megaton #4. In the story, the hero Matt Scott — trying to get work as an actor after years in a coma, discovers tabloids are saying that he is dying of AIDS. These rumors, it turns out, are flying around because he had worked on a film with Rock Hudson right before his coma. This was possibly the first time AIDS was mentioned in a mass-produced comic book. In 1986. Yeah, even Ronald Reagan got to it first. So, it’s kind of a shame Megaton Comics would fold within the next year.

Ivan Velez Jr., working with the Hettrick-Martin Institute, began releasing the series Tales of the Closet in 1987, which was praised for its quality despite not being published by a LGBTQ+ youth outrach organization rather than a publishing company. It followed eight queer teens as they sort of…stumbled their way through high school, dealing with all of the things that make that period of life complicated and more complicated for an LGBTQ+ kid trying to find themselves. Unfortunately only eight issues were published and the story has never been completed (so far!) That same year, Blackthorne Publishing released Danse — which featured the first lesbian lead character in a mass-produced comic book….but it only had one issue.

Tales of the Closet talking about some real issues, like how lame school cafeterias are

Eclipse wasn’t making things less gay either, even going so far as to produce a three issue miniseries called Hotspur which includes a gay barbarian named Suu of Xoo — a clear parody of Conan the Barbarian, I think. I’m mostly mentioning this because I wanted to include the panel here (on the right). It makes me laugh. Was it groundbreaking or historically important? Not really. Especially not for Eclipse. Was it full of sarcasm and sass? You bet. At about the same time as that series began, First Comics published Jon Sable, Freelance #45, wherein the title characters accompanies his gay friend Gray Adler on a yacht to Cannes – it’s a complicate storyline, but it involves closeted gay actors and people dying of AIDS. The next year in Sable #1, Gray Adler convinced Sable to help a gay man dying of AIDS return to Iran before his death. They also made on the lead characters in their series Phaze a gay man named Artemus John who had a lengthy history of gay rights activism prior to the beginning of their story.

Gray Adler just casually saving Jon Sable by initiating a dance-off, as one does
Dramatic coughing is never a good thing in fiction

Meanwhile at Marvel Comics, the writing of Alpha Flight had been handed off to Bill Mantlo. Mantlo was also committed to Byrne’s idea of making Northstar gay, and so continued dropping those hints. In 1987, Northstar contracted a mysterious illness that — reportedly — was planned to be HIV (and they were going to kill off Northstar). The Code would not allow this, so the storyline was dropped and so then they ended up having Loki tell him that he was sick because of his magical biology, because instead of being a mutant….Northstar was actually an elf. That’s right, that made him a literal fairy. The hints about his sexuality were being dropped as subtly as cartoon pianos. (Within two years, they decided that Loki was lying, because that’s a thing he does, so Northstar is not an actual fairy anymore. Comic books can be so hard to keep up with.) Alpha Flight, around this time, also had a storyline about their character Sasquatch being killed and his soul being transferred to a woman’s body and….it sounds like an effort to recreate that Sir Tristan plotline, but like…more confusing, because Sasquatch still could transform into this like yeti-ish form….that was male. I don’t know. A for effort though. On the other hand though, Marvel also began dropping kind of heavy-handed hints that Mystique and Destiny were in a romantic thing together in Marvel Fanfare #40, which dropped in 1988.

And Mystique/Destiny subtext almost becomes actual text

1988 was maybe the first really big year for gays in comics. A lot happened — more than Marvel’s less than subtle hints. The big news of the year would mostly come from DC Comics, who introduced their first gay superhero Extraño (real name Gregorio de la Vega) in the issue Millienium #2. Extraño exemplified virtually every stereotype of gay men, which was an intentional effort by his creators to get the point across without using any language that would violate the Code. While it worked and Extraño’s introduction was CCA-approved, the LGBTQ+ community did not particularly love him. Neither did the Latinx community, of which he was also representative. It got worse, when his team battled a vampire called Hemo-Goblin, who infected people with HIV by scratching them. That storyline was also heavily criticized because that is not how HIV is spread and it definitely did not help the rampant stigma that made people not want to even shake hands with HIV-positive people. (I will say, I think Hemo-Goblin is a pretty clever name for a vampire supervillain though.) However, after Extraño and another of his teammates test positive for HIV after the battle, he admits he had actually contracted HIV well before their battle. How is never actually revealed, despite the fact that that particular story didn’t get Code approval anyways so they may as well have told us. (I think we’re all assuming the same thing though.) In the following issue of The New Guardians, the team attends a support group at an HIV clinic and runs into protestors outside. Honestly, it was handled pretty well minus the whole vampire part of it and the embarrassing stereotypes surrounding every part of Extraño’s character. Extraño appeared numerous times in 1988, then practically disappeared from comics altogether for quite some time.

But don’t worry! DC also introduced Maggie Sawyer in that year — a bad ass police officer who would become a staple of their superhero books (and television adaptions) in the following decades. Maggie was a very popular character, and in the March 1988 issue of Superman (vol 2) #15 — under the writing of John Byrne, whom you may recall was insistent on Northstar being gay — she became the first openly lesbian character in DC comics. That issue also introduced Maggie’s daughter, making her the first homosexual parent in a mainstream comic book. DC also redeemed themselves from that Extraño mess by having Dr. Fate defend a gay rights rally in The Spectre #11, and having the Green Arrow investigate anti-gay hate crimes in Green Arrow #5. As if that all wasn’t enough to make us forgive them, they also introduced us to minor gay characters (of course without using the word — they had to consider the Code!) in Ray Monde (in Hellblazer #3) and Tony Mantegna (in Action Comics #624). Tony, by the way, was also a deaf character which is a also much-needed bit of intersectional diversity.

While the comic book company Archie Comics wasn’t nearly ready to include actual queer characters, they did include a PSA in The New Archies #5 advising that the best weapon against AIDS is education, and reminded readers that AIDS could impact people from “all ages, in all walks of life.”

By this point, the presence of queer characters in comic books was undeniable, unavoidable and unstoppable. Andy Mangels wrote a two piece article called “Out of the Closet and Into the Comics” which appeared in Amazing Heroes #143 and #144 in 1988. (The title was also a play on “out of the bars and into the streets” — a rallying cry of the gay rights movement.) That same summer, he moderated the first Gays in Comics panel at San Diego Comic Con. The Gays in Comics panel has occurred every year since, though the name was eventually changed to “Out in Comics.” Yes, it even occurred last year as an online panel during the COVID-19 pandemic! Andy Mangels has moderated all but four of the panels in its history.

So, underground comics by 1988 are producing so much LGBTQ+ content that like…if I tried to give it all to you, this article would basically turn into just a really long list. (In fact, I’m sure I’ve already skipped over several.) So I’m just going to hit some highlights, but believe me there is plenty more. One key book was Strip AIDS USA which was an anthology published by Last Gasp with a lot of work by some of the biggest names in comics at the time — Garry Trudeau, Frank Miller, Will Eisner, for some examples — which was sold to raise money for the Shanti Project. Black Kiss was a twelve-issue series about a transgender prostitute named Dagmar and her lover Beverly breaking into the Vatican’s pornography vault, which (obviously) quickly became mired in controversy. Meanwhile Donna Barr began publishing The Desert Peach — a comic book series detailing the World War II adventures of Erwin “The Desert Fox” Rommel’s fictional gay brother Manfred Rommel. There were 32 issues published, and the series also spawned a novel and a musical. A collaborative effort by queer artists from the UK, the US, and Canada resulted in AARGH! (Artists Against Rampant Government Homophobia), which was released in the UK that year, in order to raise money to fight against the anti-gay legislation Clause 28.

The next year the comic strip The Mostly Unfabulous Social Life of Ethan Green by Eric Orner began to be published, which would run for 15 years. It was syndicated to a number of gay newspapers and magazines, and later a movie was made based on it. The graphic novel Homo Patrol was released, tackling issues surrounding AIDS and homophobia. Leyland continued adding to its library by releasing Castro Comics — a flip book featuring “Between the Sheets!” by Bruce Billings and “Under the Covers” by Kurt Erichsen. John Blackburn began self-publishing his gay erotic comic series Coley. Meanwhile, Eclipse Comics adapted two of Clive Barkers horror stories, “Human Remains” and “In the Hills, the Cities”, into comics for the first two issues of their new horror anthology series Tapping the Vein.

Robert Triptow put together Gay Comics, a history of well, everything you’ve read about here so far — the history of gays in comics. It featured a lot of reprinted comics. Shortly afterwards, Jericho Wilson and Mark Phillips founded the first gay amateur press association (or APA) which they called Northstar after, you know, Northstar. The first such organization, and while I don’t know what inspired that name I have a sneaking suspicion it might have been a certain superhero we’ve already discussed. A matter of months later, Andy Mangels and Roger Klorese founded the second gay APA which they called The APA That Dare Not Speak Its Name (after the infamous Oscar Wilde speech). The two APAs appear to have joined forces now, at least on Facebook.

With all of this attention, it was only a matter of time until the CCA had to respond. And they did, towards the end of 1989, by completely dropping all of their rules against LGBTQ+ content. Instead, they replaced them with a rule that required all social group — including homosexuals — to be portrayed in a positive light, and that derogatory references to sexual orientation could only be used for dramatic purposes. A complete 180 but a very welcome one! And things in the world of comics would change almost immediately.

Rebis is just not gonna fit in any box or any binary

Things changed in mainstream comics almost immediately. DC’s Doom Patrol combined their heroes Negative Man and Negative Woman, making them a non-binary intersex character called Rebis and the creators of Wonder Woman finally confirmed what we’d all known to be true (and that even Dr. Frederic Wertham had said), that there were lesbians among the Amazons of Paradise Island. Nobody was surprised but it’s good to know all the same.

With the only real institutional barriers against LGBTQ+ content lifted, creators were about to tap into a whole well of untold stories — and they were going to wholeheartedly embrace that…..which we will discuss next time!

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