Before 'Catwoman': The Problematic Record of Comic Books' LGBTQ Representation

Selina Kyle may not have been comics' first hero to come out of the closet, but she may be the most high-profile.
Jae Lee/DC Entertainment

Thursday’s confirmation that DC Entertainment’s Catwoman was bisexual could be seen as both a positive step towards greater diversity in superhero comics and a reminder that, in all respects but especially representation of LGBTQ characters, superhero comics have a long way to go.

Writer Genevieve Valentine’s low-key observation that Selina Kyle’s sexuality “wasn’t a revelation so much as a confirmation” is, if nothing else, a less sensational way of dealing with the issue than Alpha Flight No. 102, the ridiculous 1992 issue in which Marvel Entertainment introduced homosexuality into the Marvel Universe with the superhero Northstar — who, at that point, had been around and closeted for more than a decade — came out midway through a fight with a homophobic supervillain by declaring “For while I am not inclined to discuss my sexuality with people for whom it is none of their businessI am gay!”

As strange as it may seem, that scene in itself was a major leap forward for the publisher; one of the reasons Northstar had remained in the closet for his existence up to that point was, apocryphally, that former editor-in-chief Jim Shooter had decreed that there were no gay heroes in the Marvel Universe, with the only other instance of on-panel homosexuality in Marvel history having been an attempted rape of Bruce Banner in a 1980s newsstand magazine. (Appallingly, an earlier attempt to deal with Northstar’s sexuality by revealing that he had AIDS was nixed at the last moment, with the illness explained away with the staggering excuse that he was actually a fairy and had contracted a special fairy disease. I am, amazingly, not making this up.)

Northstar’s coming out was heralded by some as the first gay superhero from a mainstream publisher, but he was actually the second; DC had beaten them to the punch in 1988 with Extrano, a Peruvian hero that debuted in the Millennium event series before going on to star in a short-lived series called The New Guardians where, in the course of a year, he went on to get AIDS from a vampire, only to be magically cured by his transformation into a more masculine hero. Again, I am not making this up. (Many fans consider Extrano to be an embarrassing piece of comics history, pointing to the name — which, of course, translates as “Strange” — as proof. I have a certain fondness for the character, not least of all because he was essentially a parody of Marvel’s Doctor Strange, and because I also like the accidental pun of another translation of his name being “queer,” in the alternate meaning of the word.)

Since those tentative, stumbling days, both Marvel and DC have improved their records when it comes to LGBTQ heroes — at least, slightly. The 1998 debut of Apollo and the Midnighter, two gay heroes in a committed, non-sensationalized relationship in DC’s Stormwatch series was a milestone, with the characters later becoming central to the successful series The Authority (The two characters got married in what is, despite claims to the contrary, superhero comics’ first gay wedding in 2002.) Elsewhere at DC, Gotham Central won awards for storylines surrounding the sexuality of Renee Montoya, who went on to star in the 52 series which introduced Batwoman, an openly-gay hero who would headline both Detective Comics and her own series in subsequent years.

Similarly, Brian K. Vaughan’s critically-acclaimed Runaways series for Marvel featured a committed relationship between Karolina Dean and her shapeshifting girlfriend, and the recent Young Avengers series ended with a scene acknowledging that there was only one member of the team who wasn’t openly queer — and, as another member told her, jokingly, “I’ve seen the way you look at me.” Northstar has gotten married, before essentially being shuffled out of the spotlight thanks to events in the wider Marvel Universe, while DC’s Batwoman famously was denied the same chance, although the publisher later clarified this was less to do with any latent homophobia and more to do with a desire to stay away from happy endings in general (Sure enough, its straight heroes have suffered equally anti-matrimonial fates).

Catwoman being named as canonically bisexual, however, does point out how few LGBTQ heroes are given their own comic book series by either company: Of the current DC line-up, only Catwoman and Batwoman are queer solo leads, with Earth 2: World’s End, Earth 2 and Teen Titans featuring other queer leads in ensemble casts with Green Lantern and Bunker. (The Harley Quinn title has suggested that the character is bisexual, but it’s never been stated outright; it should also be noted that Batwoman ends in March.) At Marvel, there’s Loki: Agent of Asgard, X-Men (thanks to the character Psylocke) and Wolverines, with some other queer characters in Amazing X-Men and Uncanny X-Men. (Again, other solo leads such as Storm have been hinted at being bisexual, but it’s never been confirmed.) With both publishers pushing out upwards of 40 individual series a month, that number seems depressingly low.

Given the positive response to the Catwoman reveal — and the success that both Marvel and DC have found with titles such as Ms. Marvel, Batgirl and Spider-Gwen, all of which feature (and appeal to) a different demographic than the traditional superhero norm — it should be hoped that both companies can find courage to do more with queer heroics, and start telling stories appealing to that audience with more than simply metaphor and innuendo.

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