Monday, November 25, 2013

1988: The Gayest Year in Comic Book History

1988 was a decidedly queer year.  Sonny Bono was elected mayor of Palm Springs, Celine Dion won Eurovision, Who Framed Roger Rabbit was in theaters, La Roux was born, and the first annual National Coming Out Day and World AIDS Day happened.

And mullets were all the rage.
Business in the front. Party in the back.
From Flickr user Editor B (CC BY 2.0)

Okay, some of these things are queerer than others (they can't all be mullets), but the one thing that is decidedly queer about 1988 was the comic books.  In fact, it is the queerest year in comics prior to about 2010 or so.

And here's why:

1.  Millenium #2.  This was one of DC's first post-Crisis crossover events. It also marked the first appearance of Extrano, the outrageously flamboyant gay, Latino, later HIV+ magician. Extrano is mostly mentioned these days for being an example of the perils of tokenism and stereotyping. Nevertheless, he is likely the first openly gay and proud male superhero and one of the first gay Latino characters in comics, so he deserves at least some credit.

2.  The Spectre #11.  The inclusion here is a little more incidental but probably more significant than Millenium. Dr. Fate (Side note: one of my favorite DC characters) has to act fast to save a building from falling on a group of gay rights protestors.  From what I can tell, this is the first acknowledgment by mainstream comics that there was such a thing as a gay rights movement.  Considering that the AIDS epidemic was well underway by 1988, it was getting hard to ignore.

3. Hellblazer #3.  Hellblazer follows the adventures of bisexual anti-hero John Constantine and has featured some of the best depictions of LGBT people in all of comics.  Here in issue 3, we are introduced to Ray Monde, a short-lived friend and associate of Constantine.  In some ways, Monde embodies just as many stereotypes as Extrano, but he has infinitely more depth of character, and it is clear that writer Jamie Delano actually cared about him...and “camp as Christmas” is a really good line.

4. Superman #15.  Creator John Byrne redeemed himself here for some not-so-nice things earlier in his career by finally getting Captain Maggie Sawyer of the Metropolis Special Crimes Unit to come out as a lesbian.  Maggie was the first openly LGBT parent in comics and has been one of the longest-running and most prominent queer characters.  She's even still making headlines today after getting engaged to Kate Kane, the current Batwoman.

5.  Green Arrow #5.  It should be no surprise that Green Arrow was one of the first examples of a mainstream superhero taking on the now familiar trope of gay bashing.  He has always been a progressive, leftist icon in the world of comics, which allows his creators to tackle issues that most editors wouldn't let other heroes anywhere near.  Ed Hannigan's stunning artwork and full page spreads depicting a bashed couple are what make this a truly unforgettable story.
6. Marvel Fanfare #40.  Features Mystique and Destiny (whose real name is Irene Adler for you Sherlockians out there).  This is the most subtle entry on the list but represents a relationship with a fairly substantial fan-base.  There were hints at Mystique and Destiny’s feelings for one another for years before finally being sort of confirmed in 1990. This issue shows us the most physical intimacy we ever get to see between the two of them before Destiny’s death a few years later.
7. Phaze #2.  An obscure title from Eclipse Comics.  Phaze is about as crazy as anything Eclipse ever published, featuring time travel, nuevopunks, artful violence, and I think David Bowie. One of the main characters from the first couple of issues is an older gay activist who looks suspiciously like Quentin Crisp and is addicted to Chron, a drug that lets people travel in time.  If you can find a copy of this comic, I highly recommend it.

8. Action Comics #624.  A member of the second generation of the Secret Six team, Tony Mantegna, is revealed at the end of the issue to be gay.  The writers decided that didn’t make him awesome enough, though, so Tony also got to be one of the very few deaf characters in comics.  In fact, the explosion that claimed his hearing also killed his partner, Tom.


9. Tie between AARGH! and Strip AIDS U.S.A. Both are anthologies of short comics by some of the leading writers and artists of their time.  AARGH! or Artists Against Rampant Government Homophobia was published by Alan Moore to raise money to fight Clause 28 in the UK that banned the “promotion” of homosexuality.  Strip AIDS U.S.A was put together by Trina Robbins, Bill Sienkiewicz, and Robert Triptow to raise money for the Shanti Project.  They are both a little hit-and-miss as far as which comics made it in, but they remain the two most dramatic shows of support for the queer community from comics creators.

10. And finally, we have the most important reason why 1988 was by far the gayest thing to happen in comic books (except for that one time when Wolverine met Freddie Mercury): Andy Mangels’ two-part essay “Gays in Comics,” published in Amazing Heroes Magazine.  If you need a primer of what was happening with LGBT portrayals in the comics industry during the ‘80s, this is the definitive work.  Andy combines interviews of gay and straight creators with his own apparently encyclopedic knowledge of comics to give us an incredibly inclusive overview of the field.  This is a must-read for anyone interested in either comic book or gay history and is available for free on Andy’s website (Part I, Part II).


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