Writing Nowadays–What DC and Marvel Did

The media went BLIP! when Marvel Comics announced that Northstar, one of the X-Men, would marry his boyfriend in an upcoming issue. The media went BLIP! again when DC announced that Alan Scott, a Green Lantern, was being rebooted as gay.

Okay, look, let’s get one thing straight (so to speak)–this is not a big deal. This is nothing but two companies running to catch up. And isn’t that kinda cool?

Lemme explain. If you don’t read comics, you probably haven’t even heard of Northstar. He’s a speedster who can fly, and he recently joined the X-Men. He was actually revealed as a gay man in the 90s, and the whole thing made the cover of TIME magazine. You’ve likely heard of Green Lantern, but you probably didn’t know that there was a GL that predated Hal Jordan, the one who appeared in the movies. The original Green Lantern’s name was Alan Scott, and he’s the one DC chose as gay.

You may or may not have known that DC and Marvel already have a number of other gay and lesbian superheroes. Batwoman is enjoying a fair amount of popularity. Hulkling and Wiccan (worst super-hero names ever) are two teenage males in a relationship. DC’s Obsidian is another gay hero.

In other words, DC and Marvel made a big deal out of having two little-known heroes be gay, and so did the media.

But here’s the interesting thing.

DC and Marvel are the big guys in comics. They’re also the most conservative and careful. They ain’t known for their cutting-edge storytelling. Both companies lived for decades under the oppressive thumb of the Comics Code Authority, the comics version of the movie ratings board. Stores refused to carry comics that didn’t carry a CCA stamp of approval on the cover, which granted the CCA quite a lot of power in the comics world.

The CCA allowed enormous amounts of violence in comics, but not much in the way of relationships or real-life issues like drug addiction or child abuse. DC had to fight long and hard to get even a mention of herion in Green Lantern/Green Arrow in the 70s, for example. Cutting edge stories? Nah. Even after Alan Moore did THE WATCHMEN in the 80s and showed people what could be done in this art form, DC couldn’t quite follow up with more. Sure, there were a few interesting sparks along the way. The Teen Titans did a series about Apartheid. Frank Miller wrote Batman: Year One. But these were exceptions. They should have been the rule.

Eventually, DC and Marvel realized the comic stores–and the readers–didn’t care whether the Comics Code Authority had approved their work or not, and they found the stones to drown the Authority in a barrel of printer’s ink. Hooray! Except both companies found it hard to actually DO anything with their new-found freedom.

Look at how long it took them to do something like this, and how timid they were about it.

They revealed (or hyped ) Northstar and Green Lantern as gay. Well, so what? We’ve had same-sex couples smooching it up on prime time TV for a few years now. There’s a huge manga library with same-sex relationships in it. Although gay and lesbian characters are still extremely rare as lead characters, they often show up as supporting cast in Hollywood movies. DC and Marvel are way, way behind.

If they had done this twenty years ago, or even ten, I would have been impressed. If they had chosen Hal Jordan, the Green Lantern that more people are familiar with, I would have been impressed. If they had chosen a more famous character, like the Flash or Robin or the new Superboy, I would have been impressed. Maybe even called it cutting edge.

But this? It’s just running to catch up.

Here’s the cool thing, though. By the time something shows up in super-careful DC and Marvel, it means it’s socially acceptable nearly everywhere else. These two timid media companies show how far we’ve come–and how far we have left to go.

So we’ll take it as a win.

–Steven Harper Piziks


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Writing Nowadays–What DC and Marvel Did — 2 Comments

  1. I totally and utterly agree with your point. That said:

    Comics have always run to catch up (disclaimer: I worked in the field for a while). In the 60s, the attempts at “relevance” made by both the big publishers were pretty risible–but as a kid who didn’t realize that, I was thrilled when a black character lectured Green Lantern for doing plenty for the blue-skins and the yellow-skins and the green-skins, but nothin’ much for the black-skins on his own planet. The form is inherently conservative in that “the kids” (as my boss used to term our readership) very often want a very simple palate

    Comic book producers also face a problem that, as they deal with more “mature” subject matter, they’re undercutting their “starter” customers. There used to be a lot of comics to draw in littler kids (I hated the Richie Rich and Little Lulu sort of stuff and went straight for the superheroes, but I may have been weird). Now, not so much. And comic books are no longer routinely found in every magazine shop or corner store; the independent comic shops that saved the field in the 80s and 90s are now a barrier to younger kids finding and loving comics, because Mom is less likely to think of taking junior to the comic shop for that first intoxicating eyeful.

    Illustrative anecdote: when I worked in the field, a marketing study was done every five years in the field. Four years before I was hired as an editor, the study said that the median age of the comic book reader was 12. A year after I was hired, the same study reported that the median age of the comic book reader was now 13 and a half. Rejoicing! We can do more mature stories! This is great! Until we thought about what this meant: we weren’t expanding our audience to include older readers–we weren’t adding more readers at the young end. Panic! How to attract younger readers! Particularly as my company wasn’t one of the flagship Two with movies to support their characters (and vice versa). Lather, rinse, repeat.

    Mainstream comics tend to be conservative, to run behind the curve, because there’s a real fear that they’ll alienate some part of the market share and never get them back. There’s nothing laudable about this caution, it’s just a fact of life. As is the fact that, having come into the 21st century, they’re going to jump up and down about how hip and cool they are.

  2. That’s why the animated series — I am thinking particularly of the magnificent Batman animations — are key. They and the movies are now the gateway for the comics, for kids. And that is why the comic books, wherever they wander, eventually wind up conforming to the movies.