X-treme x-men Wolverine and Hercules
Art, Music, Books & Film

Born Normal

It is not every day a gay mutant superhero kisses a demigod. But according to Bleeding Cool, it’s happening. Marvel Comic’s X-Treme X-Men #10 portrays Hercules and  James “Logan” Howlett, a.k.a. Wolverine, embraced in a marvelously passionate kiss, thus revealing with “reckless abandon” (in the words of the one hero) a relationship that had been adumbrated in previous issues and plainly stated in the immediately preceding one: “Hercules, son of Zeus. Boyfriend of Howlett. (That’s right. Get used to it.)”

The kiss is epically staged in the panoramic shot that follows the closeup. Great sweeping diagonals frame the two heroes in a dramatic rhomboid anchored in front by Hercules’ sword and crowned by the torch Wolverine holds above his lover’s head. The image is moving, and the symbolism clear: the raised torch speaks of liberty and enlightenment, the sword, of a promise to hold and protect.

Zeus banishes the pair to Tartarus in the ultimate frame of the sequence. Boy meets boy. Boy kisses boy. Boy’s father throws the two into hell. But it’s a wonderful moment nonetheless, and it doesn’t matter if it’s a Wolverine from a parallel universe.

Logan is not the first gay hero. DC’s series Earth 2, nominated for a GLAAD Media Award, features a gay Green Lantern very much at ease with his sexuality; in one issue we see him wrapped in his lover’s arms exclaiming:  “… God, I’ve missed you,”  Batwoman is an icon by now, too, having proposed in Batwoman #17 to her girlfriend, Captain Maggie Sawyer.

And then there’s Marvel Comics’ Northstar. Canada’s trailblazer of gay superheroes, Northstar, who came out in 1992 (!),  married his partner Kyle in issue 51 of Astonishing X-Men #51. In an interview with Rolling Stone’s Matthew Perpetua, X-Men writer Marjorie Liu said she used the relationship between the two lovers to positively explore the experience of creatively living on the margins: “Here are two people, trying to live their lives – mutant and gay, black and gay – empowered in their own ways, but also fringe-dwellers. And they’re making it happen. They’re living life on their own terms.  It doesn’t matter that it’s a superhero comic.”

There were no gay superheroes, mutant or otherwise, when I was growing. Instead I had Bluto. Yes, Popeye’s nemesis. Technically he was the bad guy but he was a kind of secret hero to me as a boy. I was actually too old to be watching Popeye cartoons but it was part of the shows my father put on for us.

My dad worked in the movies. It sounds glamorous but he had a rather drone-like technical job. He was a negative cutter, which meant he basically followed other people’s instructions. But he loved the movies. He had set up a small viewing room in the house with a projector and screen, where he’d show vintage cartoons or shorts that he had acquired (he never told me how). Of course I also watched cartoons on TV and read comic books and went to the “real” movies, but there was something magical about these private showings.

Like most enthusiasts, he was a purist, too. He screened the Popeye cartoons but only the ones before Paramount downsized Famous Studio at the end of the 50s and started producing, in his view, cheap, uninspired animation. It was also before Paramount morphed Bluto into Brutus and turned the muscle-bound anti-hero into an obese fool.

My father’s reels featured a well-built Lothario. I wondered later if the man who drew the character had been gay himself, maybe even had a side job under a pseudonym illustrating beefcake magazines. But he couldn’t have foreseen that Bluto would one day have an uncanny resemblance to the bearish, bearded hyper-muscular icon of the new millennium.

I was never interested in Popeye. To begin with, he looked too much like my father, who was also short and had strong arms and had served in the Navy (Bluto was a salior too, but didn’t always wear the gear). And there was also something creepy about Popeye. He was a cheat, I knew it back then, even if his dope was just a can of greens. Bluto, on the other hand, depended on natural cunning and innate strength (and I think in retrospect a hard-core body-building routine) in his attempts to best his rival.

I couldn’t imagine myself actually being Bluto. I was a boringly good boy with impeccable grades and a Catholic upbringing who would agonize before Confession in fear he had miscounted the number of times he had fought with his brother (with my middle brother it was easy to lose count).  But I liked watching Bluto. I think I always identified with the underdog because I was one myself. Bluto never won. I didn’t either, at least not in the schoolyard. He never got the girl. I never wanted one. The result was the same for the two of us. We were alone.

Bluto, still from "Cookin with Gags" (1954)

Bluto, still from “Cookin with Gags” (1954)

But these are all post-hoc explanations. The truth is, he must have appealed to me on a more inarticulate, primal level, in that same vague but unmistakeable way that I liked hanging around my Uncle Ricky, who rode a motorcycle and looked like Matt Dillon. I had a boyhood crush on a big bad cartoon character.

Wolverine and Hercules’ kiss has yet to appear on the radar screen of a Million Moms, the arch-conservative boycott movement that has taken on companies such as Ford and J.C. Penny, whose ads in their view espouse “homosexual lifestyle choices” by positively portraying LGBT individuals or relationships.  They were really pissed off about a sexy Armani Jeans ad that featured same-sex couples caressing each other.  They also took aim at gay comic book heroes on the occasion of Northstar’s wedding.

It is easy to dismiss an organization that gets riled up by a cookie. You might remember that the Moms took issue with an image of an Oreo filled with six rainbow-colored layers of creme filling that Kraft put up on its Facebook page to mark its support for Gay Pride. Million Moms asked its members to sign a petition demanding that Kraft retract the ad and threatening to boycott the company’s product if their demand wasn’t met. For consistency’s sake, the Moms should have been asked to also swear off Velveeta, Shake-a-Bake, Stove-Top, Cheez-Whiz and Jello (and that just for a start), but this apparently escaped the attention of the organizers of the protest. (Just for the record, Kraft responded: “As a company, Kraft Foods has a proud history of celebrating diversity and inclusiveness. We feel the Oreo ad is a fun reflection of our values.”)

But the organization is not as harmless as it might seem. It is an arm of the American Family Association, a fundamentalist Christian organization with a multi-million dollar budget and considerable inroads into the media (with a network of hundreds of radio stations), an organization that the Southern Poverty Law Center has characterized a hate group on the basis of their rabid anti-gay propaganda. Its Director of Issue Analysis has advocated criminalizing gay sex and obliging gay people to undergo ex-gay therapy. And the Moms have had some limited success, pressuring companies such as Hanesbrand to withdraw ads from TV shows they deem objectionable.

The Moms say they want to keep sexual orientation out of the comics. As if sexuality weren’t very much in them already. Spiderman has his Mary Jane, Cyclops his Emma Frost. And then there’s Pepper Potts, Kitty Pride, Vicky Vale and, of course, Lois Lane. And those are just the anapaests.

The fundamentalist opponents of LGBT rights have gotten one thing right though.  The positive portrayal of gay men and lesbians in the comics and on screen and in ads does send a message. The stories of gay mutant heroes and their demigod or mortal lovers say it’s okay to be attracted to persons of your own sex.

The Moms say that “homosexual topics” in the comics are “too complicated” for kids to understand. But it’s not so complicated after all. The message is simple: yes, gay men and lesbians can fall in love and have relationships, and be brave and do good. Northstar once took time out to write about his life. He called his autobiography “Born Normal.” That’s the message he and Wolverine and the Green Lantern and Batwoman, all so comfortable in their sexuality, are sending.

Yes, a 10-year old is impressionable but I happen to think that the message of tolerance is one of the good impressions that can be made. But if I remember myself well at that age, I wasn’t the wholly malleable, passive consumer of ready-made content that fundamentalists would make me out to be,  a slab of putty waiting to be imprinted with the ink of popular mythology, taking on the likeness of whatever image I’m exposed to. If it were that simple, the thousands of images of straight superheroes, adventurers, detectives, swashbucklers, and other adventurers I encountered while growing up would have somehow changed me, no?

Kids are story-tellers in their own right, at least the kids that I’ve met and remember myself to be. If they don’t find the material they’re looking for, they’ll take sufficient liberties with a borrowed text to fashion their own interpretation of the tale. I did that with Bluto, though my story was an impoverished one, stripped of detail and limited in plot.  It would have been nice to have had a hero like Green Lantern or Wolverine. I’m not sure I would have understood all the implications of their stories. But I would have understood enough. And it would have been one less way to be alone.

Discussion

7 responses to ‘Born Normal

  1. I used to have the biggest crush on Superboy from the Teen Titans comics. I hear that since I stopped reading, there has been a gay titan. I can’t even imagine how supported I would have felt if he was around when I was still reading!

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