I’ve been a fan of American superhero comics since I was a child, but while comics are great at many things, diversity isn’t one of them. Think of a mainstream superhero and you’ll likely picture someone straight, white and, more often than not, male. For a long time, female characters tended to exist fairly strictly in the ‘girlfriends’ or ‘damsels in distress’ categories, while characters of colour – if they appeared at all – were either criminals or, in those comics with a more progressive outlook, noble best friends or colleagues. As for LGBT characters – well, they simply didn’t exist. Luckily, though, this is changing – and both of the major American comic publishers have used recent reboots as a chance to improve their representation of diversity in their mainstream output.
In some ways, the traditional dominance of the straight white male in the comic world is less to do with apathy on the part of modern writers, more the fact they are wrestling with a legacy of characters created in a very different era. The most popular superheroes in the canon of DC and Marvel – the two titans that bestride superhero publishing – remain those that were established decades ago. DC’s Batman and Superman are children of the 1930s, while the ‘golden age’ of Marvel, which saw Stan Lee and his collaborators create the raft of titles that still dominate the publisher’s output (including Spider-Man, the X-Men, The Incredible Hulk, and The Fantastic Four), was in the 1960s. So it has always been a problem to keep giving the paying fans the characters they love, while changing the books to reflect the world the readers live in. This is not, of course, impossible: the cast of characters that makes up the X-Men of today’s blockbuster movies is not the original line up, but a bastardisation of its 1970s reboot, when Marvel introduced a more multinational and gender-balanced line up.
As comics evolved diversity improved, but only slowly. When black characters (especially superheroes) were introduced, they were either foreign (and so acceptably ‘exotic’) or they were politicised and urbanised in a way that white characters weren’t; while you could argue that this approach made sense coming on the back of America’s civil rights movement (some of the most famous black characters were introduced in the early 1970) it also meant it was rare to see anyone but the white guys get to be just straightforward heroes.
For LGBT characters, the situation was worse: the superhero universe was almost exclusively straight. As comics entered a post-Stonewall era writers started to touch on the occasional gay theme, but these were always secondary or marginal figures (definitely non-‘super’), all too often included to illustrate the tolerance of the main (straight) hero. Nor was this an accidental policy: Marvel, for instance, was openly against having an LGBT characters until the end of the 1980s; even during the 1990s, it considered that any book focused on a solo gay character should be labelled ‘adults only’. While some writers were tackling gay themes and featuring gay characters, these tended to be niche or ‘underground’ characters published by smaller imprints, or addressed in oblique ways. For example Mike Barr’s Camelot 300, published in the early 1980s, featured Tristan and Isolde reincarnated as lesbian couple, but somehow the fact that one of them was ‘really’ a man made it seem more acceptable.
But in the late 1980s the world of comics and its coverage of diversity changed forever; perhaps ironically due to the influence of two white, straight guys. American Frank Miller’s take on Batman, The Dark Knight Returns, might not seem overly shocking to those familiar with the Tim Burton and Christopher Nolan films – partly because his work inspired them – but at the time it was seismic to those for whom Batman had become a figure of 1960s camp. Around the same time, English eccentric and creative genius Alan Moore published Watchmen, a bleak reimagining of the superhero genre, and suddenly comics weren’t just for kids: actual grownups could go into a bookshop (not a comic shop!) and buy a newfangled ‘graphic novel’ and have it considered perfectly acceptable adult reading. Despite the fact that some commentators – including this one – would argue that Moore (like Miller) has a questionable attitude towards female characters, he unarguably takes a grown up view of sexuality: Watchmen featured several gay secondary characters, and Moore was also responsible for co-creating the lead character in the Hellblazer comics, John Constantine, who is generally accepted to be bisexual.
But despite this more mature approach to comics – and an increasing recognition that they could be a form of literature in their own right – the writers were still hamstrung by history. While some superheroes had always lent themselves to reinvention, with the costume being more important than the person who filled it (there were several incarnations of Robin, for instance, not all of them male), fans would always have certain expectations – Superman would always be Superman, which meant he’d always be the straight white guy from Krypton. It wasn’t until 1992 that Marvel gave us the first openly gay mainstream superhero: the Quebecois Northstar, revealed as gay nearly 15 years after he was first introduced as a member of the team Alpha Flight (though co-creator John Byrne has stated it was always his intention for the character to be gay).
Although Alpha Flight couldn’t be considered one of Marvel’s top rung titles – it was repeatedly cancelled – it was unarguably part of the mainstream Marvel universe, and as such the revelation of Northstar’s sexuality was genuine progress. DC, meanwhile, despite tending to be better at featuring gay characters in its universe, was slow to pick up the baton in its main titles, but at least introduced two of the most interesting gay superheroes – indeed, two of its most interesting superheroes, full stop – to the canon, albeit it arguably not the mainstream one.