Billy’s mother was a little anxious when he came home for a visit with a handsome young man in tow, declaring he had something important to tell her. Still, she remained relatively calm as he made his big announcement. He was in love with…an older woman?
Wait. That’s not what he was supposed to say. Even Billy had to be surprised by the words, as the original plan was for him to tell his mother he was gay and in love with his “friend”. Unfortunately, Billy’s mom was Winnie Winkle, comic strip heroine (1920 - 1996), and Winnie’s boss, Tribune Syndicated, wasn’t about to have a strip with a gay character. Succumbing to threats by papers to drop the strip, Tribune insisted on a last minute change in the story; since Billy had already told his mother he had big news, the writer came up with the older woman story and the “friend” became just a friend.
That was 25 years ago.Today, LGBT characters are more frequently featured in comic strips, comic books, and graphic novels.The most well-known gay character in a comic strip today is Mark Slackmeyer of Doonesbury, but the strip introduced its first gay character, Andy Lippincott, in 1976. Other well-known strips, including “For Better or for Worse”, “Boondocks”, “Candorville” and “Beetle Bailey”, have discussed gay issues—gay teens, gay marriage, and gays in the military. Still, gay characters are hardly prevalent in comic strips.
Enter the internet, where LGBT comics and characters have found a home. Recognizing the reluctance of most syndicated strips to introduce gay characters, gay cartoonists created their own strips. However in years past, the outlets for publication were limited, primarily to gay newspapers and magazines. Now, numerous strips exist in an online format only, although a few are featured in both print and online. Among the most successful, with 272 bi-monthly strips to its credit, is “Kyle’s Bed and Breakfast” by Greg Fox. The strip combines drama, comedy and a little bit of sexuality in its tale of Kyle Graham, a 30-ish gay man trying to keep his friends and lover while running a B&B.
Other LGBT comics can be found under the Prism Comic banner, which features the strips “Saint Carrie of the Divine Pageant: A Tit, a Tat and an Opposite-Marriage Rat”, “My Best Friend is Gay”, and “Love, Death, and UFOS”, among others. The artwork varies greatly in the strips, including artful and noire (“Emancipation”), manga-influenced (“Pink Ties”), and simple line drawings (“Unabashedly Billie”). Prism’s site also features a forum section and profiles of gay strip writers.
Links to other comic strips can be found at the website for “Closet Oddity”. Unfortunately, like “Closet Oddity”, most of the strips listed are no longer being produced. The majority still have their sites up though, with complete archives. Perhaps the most widely-circulated gay strip is “Dykes to Watch Out For”, which has been in publication since 1987; cartoonist Alison Bechdel has published several books of the strip and was once offered the opportunity to be syndicated in mainstream papers, but declined. Also popular is “The Mostly Unfabulous Social Life of Ethan Green”, which was made into a feature film in 2006, starring a bunch of people you don’t know and Meredith Baxter.
Like their straight counterparts, these LGBT strips offer a wide range of world-views. Consequently, stereotypes are more easily dispelled. Were these strips to gain more attention in traditional media, they could help convince that there is no such thing as a “typical” gay or lesbian. The things these characters worry and laugh about are the same things everyone worries and laughs about.
The range of human experience is equally diverse in the world of comic books, but the full range of LGBT characters isn’t fully explored. Until 1989, the Comics Code Authority banned references to homosexuality in comic books, making exceptions for those representations that were unflattering and stereotypical in nature. Thus, gay characters in comic books are a relatively new phenomena; this also explains why it is unlikely that any older comic book characters will suddenly come out. Their sexual identities have been long-established. (One noted exception would be Rawhide Kid, whose 2003 limited series “Slap Leather” reconceptualized him as a flaming queen. The Kid’s new look made him look like a Ken doll in Ralph Lauren western wear.)
There were, of course, rebels who ignored the CCA ban, printing comic books about LGBT people for LGBT people. Gay Comics, first published in 1980 as Gay Comix, was available for most of the ‘80s and ‘90s. Each issue featured several different stories by different artists and writers. I discovered a copy of the April 1996 issue at my local comic book store. Even though it contained no sexual scenes and only mild sexual language, it was marked as being for “Mature Readers”. I found it in the adults-only section of the store, which, in this case, was a cardboard box on the floor.
The evolution of gay characters in popular comics, the ones not in a box on the floor, has been slow. As comics today tend to focus on the superhero and anti-hero genre, few comics of a comical nature, such as “Archie”, are published in comic book form anymore. Consequently, the majority of gay characters in comic books are either heroes or villains. Among established characters, the most famous homosexual is Batwoman. Mind you, this is not the same Batgirl from the TV show nor is it Alicia Silverstone. The current Batwoman, Kate Kane, is a Jewish lesbian heiress. Of course, fans just care that she can kick ass.
The first lead character in comics to be conceived as gay was Northstar. However, due to the CCA ban and Marvel Comics firm stance against including homosexual characters, Northstar had to wait 13 years before he could come out, in 1992. In the interim, he did what many closeted men do—hinted and implied. Among the most popular gay characters today are teen couple Hulking and Wiccan of the Young Avengers series.
The website QueerSupe features a list of LGBT characters in comic books past and present. The list contains over 300 names, categorized by color as to whether the character is lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgendered. However, some of the selections stretch definitions. For instance, included in the category “transgendered” are characters who shapeshift between genders, those with both genders, and those who are genderless.
The list of LGBT characters also includes straight individuals whose gender was changed through magic, portal to an alternate reality, curse, or one of those other problems comic folks deal with. Most surprisingly is the appearance of Tim Gunn of Project Runway fame on the list. Gunn appeared in the comic Models Inc. as himself, before donning Iron Man’s suit.
The site also lists recommended reading of comics books and graphic novels that either have LGBT characters or are about life in the LGBT community, even when that community is being plagued by demons or villains that only LGBT superheroes can conquer.
One of the leaders in the movement to create gay comic books and graphic novels is Joe Phillips. After a successful career with DC Comics and working on some of the most popular characters, Phillips went independent and began publishing his own artwork and novels, among them The House of Morecock, which was made into an animated feature, and Boys Will Be Boys. Phillips’ work is often erotic, but he also continues his crime-fighting stories in such series as Body Doubles. (Joe Phillips)
The most well-known gay characterizations come from Japanese manga. This genre incorporates a diverse range of themes, and homosexual manga seems a natural inclusion in the form’s evolution. Most noted are the comics featuring young gay men in relationships. Originally, gay relationships between women became popular, which resulted in the style of drawing young gay men as androgynous and lacking strong male characteristics, making the pairings more palatable for some straight readers.
The power all these gay characterizations have is enormous, whether they are in strips, books, or graphic novels. Numerous studies have validated the influence of the media on children and in shaping the general public’s opinion and this influence extends to comics. Children and young adults, the primary readers of comics, learn to identify LGBT characters as a normal part of the landscape, whether they be good or bad, comical or brooding. Those who are struggling with their own sexuality will have further validation that they aren’t alone.
With more creative and talented cartoonists venturing into the gay market or featuring LGBT characters, it won’t be long until gay strips and comic books are placed along side the strips in your paper and taken out of the Adults Only box. LGBT characters today have the freedom to make the choices that are right for them. In my vision, Winnie Winkle’s son Billy is divorced now. His kids understand that they have one mom and two dads, as Billy’s patient “friend” has taken his rightful place by Billy’s side. With comics, you get to create your own happy ending sometimes.
Kudos to ABC’s One Life to Live for its tasteful but hooooot love scene between gay lovers Oliver (Scott Evans) and Kyle (Brett Claywell). The scene had all the elements: sensuality, candles, a little wine, and a post-intercourse scene of the two laying in bed in afterglow bliss.