A few years back I was reading comics at home one night - the cool kid that I was - and after a few glasses of wine decided I should send an email to one of my favourite comic book writers, a guy named Peter David.
It was the first time I’d ever written a fan letter, and after a bit of rambling about how much I loved his work on X-Factor (an X-Men spinoff and my favourite comic book of the time) I cut to the chase. As a gay man, I told him, I would love it if he would out one of his characters as gay.
There was one in particular, Rictor, whose homosexuality had been hinted at for years, and I said it would mean the world to me and lots of other homos if he finally, on panel, hooked up with a guy.
Thinking my plea both eloquent and impassioned, I hit send on the email and waited for a response.
Re-reading the sent email in the sober light of the morning I realised a reply would be unlikely. For some reason (wine), I forgot I’d also included a whole paragraph about how much I hated a particular storyline. If Peter even got to the sappy bit he probably wasn’t predisposed to be so generous.
I kept reading the comic, of course, and about a year later something amazing happened. In the final-page twist of X-Factor #45, an “old friend” of Rictor, named Shatterstar, shows up out of nowhere and the two greet each other with a very passionate, very gay kiss. As it turns out, it was the first same-sex male kiss to ever appear in a mainstream Marvel comic.
It might seem a little silly, but the kiss meant something to me: that superhero comics, a world where I spend so much of my time, could be a safe place.
It’s getting better. The past decade has seen the “big two” comic book publishers Marvel and DC introduce new LGBTIQ superheroes and out a few existing ones. While a lot of the more interesting queer content sits outside the capes-and-tights genre, there’s still a line-up of great queer superheroes in mainstream comic books.
While there’s a bit of dispute about exactly who gets the honour, Canadian mutant Jean-Paul Beaubier was certainly the first significant superhero to come out, and the first from Marvel Comics. It’s a bit of a dubious title though—the 1992 story in which he comes out reads like a terrible (though well-meaning) after-school special, involving Northstar finding a HIV-positive baby in an alley. Since then he’s struggled to shed his status as a token gay superhero, but for many fans his 2012 marriage to a guy named Kyle, a wedding that attracted mainstream, real-world media attention, was an important moment in superhero comics.
A gay male couple for the marriage equality age, magic-wielding Wiccan (Billy Kaplan) and shape-shifting Hulkling (Teddy Altman) were introduced in Alan Heinberg’s excellent 2005 series Young Avengers, about a teen superhero team. While it’s impressive that the two young men were the series’ big romantic pairing, their “destined to be together” kind of love didn’t make it the most interesting relationship—though it has spawned more Tumblr fan art than you can imagine. Writer Kieron Gillen’s crack at the characters in his 2012 Young Avengers re-launch was a lot more fun, letting them be exactly what they should be: uncertain, angst-ridden teenagers.
In the pages of Greg Rucka and Ed Brubaker’s fantastic 2002 DC series Gotham Central, a police procedural set in Batman’s home city, Detective Renee Montoya got one of the most interesting coming out stories in superhero comic history. Having been the object of Two-Face’s romantic obsession for years, the villain finally outs her at work as part of an attempt to ruin her life. The series goes on to explore the personal and professional fallout for Montoya, offering a level of complexity to a coming out story rarely matched in comics before or since.
The power couple of Apollo and Midnighter started out a little tongue-in-cheek, by answering the question every gay comic book fan has asked: what if Superman and Batman hooked up? Of course, comics being comics, the question actually answered by Stormwatch, the series that debuted the characters, was: what if Superman and Batman hooked up and were really, really violent? Whether that makes the fantasy more or less sexy is up to the reader, but a low point for the couple came during sequel series The Authority by Mark Millar, in a horrific rape-revenge plot reflecting the worst excesses of “gritty” superhero comics.
You could argue that shapeshifting, femme-fatale Mystique’s bisexuality makes her another negative example of the “bisexual villain” trope in popular culture, but given she’s one of comics’ most interesting superhero characters I think she pulls it off. Brutally intelligent and morally opaque, Raven Darkholme has a prominent X-Men villain, and occasional ally, for decades. Her co-creator Chris Claremont has said Mystique was always meant to have been in a romantic, same-sex relationship with her long-time partner Destiny, but Marvel Comics’ then-edict on same-sex romance meant this had to be revealed in hindsight, years after Destiny’s character had been killed off.
Arguably one of the first truly queer characters in superhero comics, Loki’s gender and sexuality have become more and more fluid over the years—he’s now canonically bisexual, and appears as both a man and a woman. Loki too sidesteps the “bisexual villain” trope, perhaps by virtue of the fact that, like Mystique, it’s hard to really call him a villain anymore, though his motives are often morally ambiguous. He even served on the Young Avengers for a while (alongside gay teen power couple Wiccan and Hulkling) spending a lot of his time flirting with both male and female super-teammates.
The most obscure character on this list, Tong is a minor player in a short-lived superhero comic called FF, but her coming out is both beautiful and understated. One of four “Moloid” children (a subterranean race) at the Future Foundation (a school for child geniuses), the quartet’s presumed-male gender is challenged by Tong, who shows up to meet her brothers one day wearing a pink dress. She says: “I have a girl inside of me. I tried to be a boy like you, but there is no boy in here. And I do not wish to be what I am not any longer.” The moment of uncertainty that follows is broken when Tong’s brothers embrace her and tell her they love her.
In 2009, writer Greg Rucka and artist JH Williams III debuted a new Batwoman series to universal critical acclaim. The intelligent, sensitive and gorgeously illustrated comic stars Kate Kane—tough, compassionate and swashbuckling, Kane is a wealthy heiress inspired to follow in Batman’s footsteps by becoming another caped crusader. The series digs into Kane’s past at the United States Military Academy, where she was expelled for refusing to lie by denying allegations of a relationship with another female student. Batwoman even gets a brief, tumultuous relationship with Renee Montoya, although the coupling of DC Comics’ two power lesbians doesn’t eventually work out.
This one’s cheating a bit—Marvel Boy’s status as a queer character is debatable, but aside from being one of the hottest male superheroes in recent memory, the alien Noh-Varr (his real name) certainly has a queer sensibility. He’s also another Young Avengers alum—Marvel Boy’s teammate and sometime girlfriend Kate Bishop jokes at one point that she’s the only "straightie" on the team. What makes Marvel Boy queer isn’t just his sexuality (he implies his race doesn’t have sexual identities, only sexual acts) it’s how the comic treats him, visually: in a medium dominated by the male gaze, he’s not only sexy, he’s sexualised.
Decades-old hints that Iceman (Bobby Drake) was a closeted gay man came to the surface just last year, the result of a convoluted storyline in which teenage Iceman from the ‘60s-era X-Men travels to the future and spends time with his present-day, adult self (because comics). Teen Iceman is outed by his psychic teammate Jean Grey (again, comics), but in the present, adult Iceman has always identified as straight. This is superhero comics at their best: an absurd, fantastic scenario about time-travelling mutants that manages to get to the heart of some fascinating, emotive questions about coming out and self-identification.