A while back, Marvel announced that in Astonishing X-men #50, the character Northstar would propose to his boyfriend Kyle, and they would wed in issue #51.
I'm not an avid X-men reader, but a quick look around the web revealed that plot points on Northstar's sexual orientation and his relationship with Kyle extend back a good many years. Even so, I can't help but feeling that Marvel chose to make this a story focus as a way to drum up publicity in the current political climate. It's not that I don't applaud them for taking a stance on the issue, and can even concede that times like these are arguably when we most need companies to take a stand on important social issues. But the cynic in me sees this as a ploy to drum up readership and public exposure.
I feel similarly about DC's decision to re-introduce Alan Scott (the original Green Lantern) into the "New 52" universe as a homosexual in Earth 2 #2. This one bothers me more, mainly because there has never been any history of Alan being gay, and I tend to get defensive of original creators' intent. Wolfwood turned that argument back against me by reminding me how much I like the new lesbian Kate Kane iteration of Batwoman. Since her creators' intent was to use her as a love interest for Bruce to dispel rumors that the Caped Crusader might be homosexual, I was initially at a loss. My eventual rebuttal, however, was that the re-invention of a character so blatantly hollow was acceptable as long as it led to good storytelling. Alan Scott was a full-fledged character already, not just some other cape's "beard", and it remains to be seen how well DC will incorporate this orientation change into the great whole.
And therein, I think, lies the crux of the matter: Is it good storytelling? In Marvel's case, the biggest head-scratcher for several of us was that they are in the middle of their "Avengers VS X-Men" event. It seemed odd to me that during such an event, the focus of one of their main "X" titles would suddenly shift to this marriage. I liken it to anytime a television show decides to do an "after-school special" episode or a "current events" episode in the middle of another major arc. As for Alan Scott, I'm worried we might have a "Dumbledore is gay" situation on our hands; i.e. a developmental non-sequitur that contributes nothing to either the character's motivations or the overall tale. I could be completely wrong, and would gladly have it be so, but the cynicism is strong with this one.
All of this helps build up to what I really want to share, which is the following image:
I don't know if I've ever talked about it on the site, but I'm a HUGE Punisher fan, especially when people manage to pull him out of the main continuum and do things like Garth Ennis and Jason Aaron have with the MAX line. My problem with the image above isn't that I think it's ok to expose kids to one and not the other, but rather that I don't think kids should be exposed to either outside of the right context, and without a parent there to talk it through if need be.
The fact of the matter is, the MAX line (and other potentially violent comics) are rated just like movies and games; they have warnings on them, and good comic shop owners won't sell to underage readers. In addition, the Punisher is a historically violent character, more so than most in the Marvel universe, and it is an integral part of who Frank Castle is and how he interacts with those around him. So any worthwhile comic parent would be aware if their child was coming home with such merchandise.
While I'm certainly not suggesting that an image of two men holding hands needs a disclaimer on the front, I will argue fiercely that parents have a right to how and when their children are exposed to different sexual orientations so that they can help their kids understand the nature of such things. So I would completely understand how a parent might come across the image on the left inside of an X-Men comic - which have historically used the "mutant" condition dealt with social issues like prejudice and intolerance, but not specifically homosexuality - and be concerned about how their child might have been affected.
At this point I'd like to come back around to my original statements about making sure that a character's homosexuality is a genuine trait and not just a gimmick, because these companies do have a responsibility to their readership and the public. Baminatrix chided me for being too cynical about the motivations behind these developments, suggesting that I should be proud of a medium I love being used to take a stand against intolerance. I agree wholeheartedly about being proud, but that's precisely why I can't let Marvel or DC skate by if this is just a publicity stunt. Readers who have a history of prejudice might genuinely be affected by well-penned storytelling involving non-hetero characters; parents might find an event like Northstar's wedding to be a welcome way to discuss sexual orientation with their children.
My father and I have had in-depth conversations about the morality of vigilante justice, including the extreme methods used by Frank Castle. Superhuman registration, anti-mutant sentiment, the ethics of letting the Joker live, Superman's non-involvement in human wars; all of these things require us to ask questions that go far beyond the pages on which they are printed. For years comics have helped guide young people in their understanding of "right" from "wrong," but that can only be effective if the stories being told are told well, with genuine thought put into characters' motivations, beliefs, actions, and the consequences that follow. If anything, I'm scrutinizing these recent developments so closely precisely because of the potential they represent, for good or ill, in helping our youth understand the issues facing our society. That's a great power comics have that I will not suffer to be used lightly, because with great power...