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*SPOILERS* I will usually include a section at the end that may contain spoilers. If you don't want to know, don't read that part.

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Sunday, June 24, 2012

Out of the Blue: Comics and Social Commentary

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...


Bryant Burnette said...

I've been given the dreaded character limit warning, so I'll have to bust my comments up into two sections.

Section the first:

I both agree and disagree with what you're saying here. Mostly it's agreement, but what fun is that? Let's talk about where I disagree.

The idea that any depiction of homosexuality is something parents ought to be able to filter for their children is simply misguided. For one thing, it's impossible. And it SHOULD be impossible. My thought on the subject is that if you accept the fact that for most -- though perhaps not all (because surely there are out there SOME people who DO simply choose to be gay) -- gay people, being homosexual is a biological fact, then asking them to sorta hide out of sight around the corner while the kiddies are walking by seems like an awfully cruel thing to ask of them. "Sure, we accept you ... but only if I never have to worry about my kids seeing you while I'm not around."

Now, I know you, so I know that that isn't what you're actually saying. But following the logical train of thought, I think it's where the argument ends up.

So, where MY train of thought ends up, I guess, is with me saying that sometimes it's fine for kids to see one dude sticking his lips on another dude's lips, or one dude holding another dude's hand. After all, kids are often exposed to images of men and women engaging in extremely mild sexual activity of that type. If it's okay for straight parents to be offended by something like the Northstar wedding, then wouldn't it be just as okay for gay parents to be offended by their kids seeing a man and a woman getting married? That may seem ridiculous ... but is it, actually?

My personal feelings on that matter are that as long as what we are talking about is mild sexual content -- of the holding hands variety, or mild closed-mouth kisses, or hugs, or whatever -- then it's all good in terms of what gets depicted in media aimed at children. I wouldn't want to see one dude sucking another dude's tongue in the next Pixar movie ... but then again, I wouldn't want to see a man and a woman French kissing in a Pixar movie, either; that's the wrong place for that type of thing.

Now, next question: are we actually making the assumption that ANY comics are for kids these days? If so, I'm not sure it's a good assumption. God knows that if I had kids, I wouldn't let them read the vast majority of the comics I am currently buying. So, really, how many children are actually being exposed to Northstar and/or the new Alan Scott? My guess is that it's not many, and if their parents are letting them read most of the current output by Marvel and/or DC, then those parents have already failed.

Bryant Burnette said...

Section the second:

Let's move along to one of the areas where we are in agreement.

For one, I think you're right about taking DC to task a bit for changing Alan Scott's sexual preference. Now, let me first note that I know nothing about the character; nothing whatsoever. So I'm proceeding based on the assumption that his sexuality was affirmedly heterosexual at some point in the past. If this is not the case -- if, for example, he was always depicted in a bias-neutral manner -- then I would say it would be fair game for DC to suddenly decide he's gay. If, however, they have taken a traditionally straight character and turned him into a gay character, then they have done a bad thing. Because you're right; the intention of the original creators really SHOULD be honored, even if they came from prejudicial times.

Gay people deserve their own heroes, and they also deserve for those heroes to be heroes straight people can look up to AS heroes. And I'm not sure that taking a straight character and turning him gay is the way to properly acknowledge that cultural need. Wouldn't it be much cooler if DC had simply debuted some new gay hero who is a complete and utter badass first, and a gay man second? I think if I were a gay man, I would prefer that there be a high-profile gay superhero who began his cultural life out, as opposed to in.

That said, I suppose there is also something to be said for the idea that in making Alan Scott gay, it's an acknowledgment that homosexuality is nothing new; it's been there all along, and was recognizable for some despite being hidden to most. It DOES seem like that's an important fact to deal with, too; I'm not knowledgeable enough about the Alan Scott character to know whether he was the right choice to be the bearer of that cultural weight, but then again, I probably ought to hesitate before I dismiss the possibility outright.

One more thing before I end my screed: you are probably right in your assumption that the "X-Men" mutant sagas have never been explicitly a metaphor for the gay rights movement. However, the metaphor certainly fits in our current cultural climate, and I think it's a good thing for the comics to tackle them in that way. Is Marvel doing that correctly? Knowing Marvel, probably not.

Ultimately, my feeling on the subject is that the time for stories like these has come. I don't get the feeling that they are yet being handled correctly, but tentative and unsuccessful baby steps are probably better than no steps at all.