ED. NOTE: In the wake of President Obama’s recent endorsement of same-sex marriage, some readers have asked whether mainstream comics will ”evolve” in their depictions of gay couples (to invoke Obama's word). Today, three comics figures vitally engaged in this topic offer their insights.
MARVEL COMICS today has just confirmed the wedding that was as publicly rumored in geek circles as Mark Zuckerberg’s nuptials were secret:
Northstar, Marvel’s first gay superhero, will marry his beloved Kyle in next month’s “Astonishing X-Men #51,” the publisher announced. Among fans, the mutant Canadian crimefighter’s trip to the altar had been anticipated for weeks.
The announcement of Northstar’s June wedding was formally made late Tuesday morning on ABC’s chat show “The View”; Disney is the parent company of both ABC and Marvel.
“At Marvel, we try to make our stories reflective of the world around us, in all its complexity,” Marvel’s Tom Brevoort, the project’s editor, tells Comic Riffs. “And given that so many of our heroes have made Manhattan their home, the things that affect New York City affect our characters.
“So it was only natural that when New York legalized gay marriage last year,” Brevoort continues, “our thoughts would turn towards what impact this might have on Northstar [aka Jean-Paul Beaubier] and his ongoing relationship with ... Kyle. The story grew organically from there — and the zeitgeist at this moment gives it even greater relevance.”
“Astonishing X-Men #51,” to be released June 20, is from the creative team of Marjorie Liu and Mike Perkins.
Marvel’s news lands just days after DC publisher Dan DiDio said at London’s Kapow comic convention that a major DC character will soon become “one of our most prominent gay characters,” according to industry site Bleeding Cool. (A decade ago, DC notably featured the same-sex marriage of Apollo and the Midnighter.)
These announcements from the two major publishers come, of course, in the wake of the White House’s support of same-sex marriage, as election-year politics bring the issue all the more to the fore. But they also arrive as some other mainstream comics are featuring gay marriages and couplings.
Comic Riffs spoke with three industry figures about how and why they have featured gay romance:
TOM BATIUK, an Akron native and Kent State graduate and Medina resident, is an Ohio man through and through. So it struck particularly close to home last year when he read about a parents’ group in the southern part of his state protesting a high school’s “tolerant attitude” toward gays.
“I still go out to my old high school,” Batiuk — who was a classroom teacher before launching his syndicated comic strip “Funky Winkerbean” 40 years ago — tells Comic Riffs. “For the generation that’s there right now, this [tolerance] is less of an issue.”
Batiuk knew then that somehow, this picketing would make its way into his school-set strip, which has dealt with such non-traditional “funny page” issues as teen suicide and pregnancy, alcoholism and capital punishment. In 2008, Batiuk was a Pulitzer Prize finalist for “Lisa’s Story,” the arc in which one of “Funky’s” main characters battled breast cancer.
“I think I’ve created a space for myself” to deal with serious issues, Batiuk tells Comic Riffs. “It’s not such a big deal for myself as some other strips. It’s been incremental ... that I can grab my readers’ hand and [say]: ‘Let’s come over here.”
On the comics pages all this month, Batiuk’s response to the parents’ protest has played out among “Funky’s” characters at Westview High. Two male students sought to attend the prom together, sparking what the cartoonist characterizes as a generational showdown. King Features says the story arc concludes this week.
“The story seems straightforward,” Batiuk says of the current narrative. ”I’m not trying to proselytize here. I had a viewpoint and I knew which side I came down on. It’s less an issue of [being gay] and more an issue of tolerance and intolerance. And that idea has been in ‘Funky’ from the very beginning.”
Newspaper editors can be cautious and even skittish about more serious content appearing on the comics pages. “Doonesbury” and ”For Better or for Worse” are two of the few mainstream syndicated strips to have even featured gay characters. Batiuk, however, believes he and King Features properly prepared editors for what was coming.
“The syndicate did a lot of work preparing the ground for it, getting it in front of editors so they can see it in one shot and not be blindsided by it. They’re able to see where it’s going, and when readers get upset, [editors] can mollify the situation.
“I’ve kind of learned an operating method that’s useful,” continues Batiuk, who said he had heard of no cancellations as a result of his “gay prom” arc; the strip is carried by about 400 newspapers.
King Features also got the current “Funky” storyline in front of rights groups. GLAAD, for one, called this “a heartwarming story of allies taking a stand for LGBT youth, and the kind that we need to see more of,” according to the syndicate.
“I think strips can shape the questions,” Batiuk tells Comic Riffs. “But the answers have to be provided by the readers.”
JON GOLDWATER was riding his New York commuter train several years ago, just two weeks into his new job as co-CEO of Archie Comics, when a fellow passenger offered a comment that shook him right down to his spine.
“I had an Archie folder on my lap,” Goldwater recounts to Comic Riffs, “when a woman sitting near me turned and said: ‘They still MAKE those?!’
“It. Freaked. Me. Out ... ,” Goldwater continues. “I almost got sick to my stomach.”
But the new executive also took home a takeaway: “If we didn’t change Riverdale, we would risk becoming irrelevant.”
Led by Goldwater, the creative minds at Archie Comics decided to ”update” their characters, which hark back to a midcentury time of malt shops and letterman sweaters — when the jalopy chassis and presumed chastity went hand in hand.
Then, in 2010, Goldwater struck headlines and popularity gold when Archie Comics — in Veronica #202 — introduced Kevin Keller, Riverdale’s ”first openly gay character.”
Keller’s transfer to Riverdale High provided a sales boost, Archie Comics says, that culminated with his marriage; in March, the company announced that “Life With Archie #16: The Marriage of Kevin Keller!” had sold out (Archie Comics would not provide exact sales figures). Goldwater hailed Keller as “the most important new character in Archie history.” And last year, Dan Parent received a GLAAD media award nomination for Keller’s creation.
“We disrupted the safe universe that people were used to be being intact for 70 years ... ,” Goldwater tells Comic Riffs. “But we had to make a conscious decision to change Riverdale. The cons [included that] we were going to upset some people who would say: ‘How dare you inflict your values on me.’ But the pros so outweighed the cons in how we moved our company forward and reposition Riverdale.
“That kind of made it a no-brainer.”
Since Keller’s marriage, Goldwater notes, Archie Comics has received no subscriptioni cancellations and “not one person has called” to complain.
Goldwater says he’s also mindful of the current political climate. “We work in a bubble [here] while feeding off the climate. We are not immune to what’s going on in the world and the rhetoric and the attacks that political parties are throwing at each other. ...
“Readers deserve that we reflect some of what's going on in society, and part of that is the political process. At Archie, we have a very strong point of view.”
A point of view that is laced with a fierce passion.
“It really gets me angry when people inflict their values on other people,” Goldwater says. “You’ve got to take a stand.”
And Goldwater, like Batiuk, believes being relevant to the next generation is a creative imperative.
“We have to speak for the youth and to where the cultural shift in this country is going,” he tells us. “They’re the ones who are going to pick up the flag and wave it.”.
UNLIKE “FUNKY WINKERBEAN,” Paige Braddock’s online comic “Jane’s World” relies upon gay as well as straight characters as a consistent source of its observation and humor — which means the strip faces a specific set of challenges when trying to break into the mainstream.
“Over the years, I've definitely had some interesting conversations with newspaper editors and syndicate editors,” Braddock tells Comic Riffs of the strip, which debuted in 1998. “I had one editor tell me that ‘Jane's World’ wasn't gender-specific enough to be in papers. When I asked for clarification, he said that the comic didn't deal with traditional female issues, like dieting, children, etc.”
This for a strip that bills itself as “the lesbian heir to hard-luck Charlie Brown.” The link to the great “Peanuts” strip isn’t just casual — the Bay Area-based cartoonist is also the creative director at Charles Schulz’s studio in Santa Rosa.
“I'd say there are a whole bunch of us humans who do things that aren't traditionally specific to our gender roles ... ,” Braddock continues. "But really, what he was saying and what other syndicate editors told me, is that the comic strip would have to appeal to the broadest common denominator in order to be considered for print syndication. Online syndication is one thing, print is another.”
Because “Jane’s World” is primarily an online comic, Braddock says she doesn’t hear from many detractors over subject matter. “I only hear from readers who are actually looking for gay-related content, or at the very least aren't turned off by the gay content in ‘Jane's World,’ which most of the time is pretty PG-rated. Most of the feedback is positive.
“And I've had quite a few straight readers e-mail to thank me for giving them a glimpse into what it is to live as a gay person,” she continues. “These folks usually have a sibling or other family member who is gay. For them, ‘JW’ is a safe entry point. I would say half my readers are not gay.”
Among mainstream syndicated comics, Garry Trudeau’s “Doonesbury” has featured gay characters, and Lynn Johnston was a Pulitzer finalist for a “For Better or For Worse” storyline that addressed a youth’s homosexuality. But Braddock doesn’t believe those stories change the game and market for her.
“I'm proud of Lynn and Garry for doing these kinds of stories. I think when you are a well-established cartoonist then the ‘powers that be’ will tolerate a potentially politically charged topic in your work once in a while,” Braddock says. “But as a general rule, a new strip couldn't pull that off.”
The cartoonist also doesn’t think that comics creators in other formats who write about gay themes — such as Alison Bechdel and Howard Cruse, to name two — have had any real impact on the business of mainstream newspaper comics.
“Both Alison and Howard are highly regarded as groundbreakers in the comic-book world,” Braddock says. “And both of their long-form stories have reached broad audiences who don't really even read comics. Comic books in general are more like books. They tolerate a lot more variety than your basic daily newspaper comic page.
“It's an entirely different model for comic distribution and consumption than the newspaper environment.”
All of these challenges leave “Jane” at a creative crossroads.
“I'm considering what the ‘next’ direction is for distribution,” Braddock tells Comic Riffs. “And I'm not sure I've settled on the answer yet, but I'm pretty sure doing a comic daily online will never be a way to create a viable income stream for cartoonists. And as the amount of newsprint available to cartoonists continues to shrink, I'm not sure that's the best option for the future either.
“I'll let you know when I figure it out.”