One of my favorite comments about the sexuality of fictional characters came from a puppeteer during one of the periodic kerfuffles over Bert and Ernie. “They’re puppets!” he exclaimed. ”They don’t exist below the waist!”
Comic books characters do not have that luxury.
For years, the Green Lantern was just your average superguy, whooshing over the sky in a tasteful, if form-fitting, green ensemble and reciting couplets. (“In brightest day, in blackest night,/No evil shall escape my sight./Let those who worship evil's might,/Beware my power...Green Lantern's light!”)
As you do. There was nothing unusual about this.
There is something about discovering that you have superpowers that gives you the immediate urge to swath yourself in brightly colored spandex. You want a cape. You want tights. And you want them now. Especially if you are a woman. “Please,” you say, “make the spandex as revealing as humanly possible. For, I don't know, wind resistance, or something.” You also get the impulse to lean over and pose at strange angles. In fact, if you are a woman, you sometimes forget the tights entirely. “I’d like a leotard,” you say. “I’m Wondrous now, and I want to show off as much of my thighs as the world can handle.” Somehow this same urge never seems to overwhelm male superheroes. But never mind. This is not the subject at hand. We are talking about DC Comics’ decision to bring Alan Scott out of the closet.
It used to be that people just suspected that major DC Comics characters were gay. For years, comics have been Rorschach tests for our national preoccupations and panics. In 1954, Dr. Fredric Wertham published Seduction of the Innocent, finding lewd images and unspeakable proclivities everywhere he turned. The Senate held a hearing to determine whether or not the comics were contributing to juvenile delinquency.
If anything, they have gotten less troubling with time. Batman and Robin used to share a bed, and Robin was definitely underage. Lois Lane and Lana Lang, as Cracked.com reminds us, once brainwashed a baby Clark Kent into proposing marriage to both of them. The former, at least, was the sort of thing that really bothered Dr. Wertham, back in the days when Reputable Doctors spent a lot of time staring at comic books and noticing that someone had penciled in a nude women on someone’s shoulder or that, “Robin is a handsome ephebic boy, usually shown in his uniform with bare legs. He is buoyant with energy and devoted to nothing on Earth or in interplanetary space as much as to Bruce Wayne. He often stands with his legs spread.”
In 1948, the Comics Code noted that “sexual abnormalities are unacceptable” and required any romantic relationships to “emphasize the value of the home and the sanctity of marriage.”
But like most organisms who want to survive in new environments, the comics have evolved. By 1989 the Comics Code had updated its stance. It noted, “Heroes should be role models and should reflect the prevailing social attitudes.”
And prevailing social attitudes they are a-changing.
Marvel universe just had its first gay marriage, although admittedly one of the participants was Canadian.
So did Archie Comics.
And DC’s announcement had been brewing for a while.
But here is where I have to pause and wonder.
Rephrased, the announcement reads: Alan Scott, one of the 2600-odd Green Lanterns in the New 52 Reboot of DC Comics’ superheroes is now gay.
Why the fuss?
I am not saying that the Green Lantern is not super and heroic and that this is not ground-breaking news, but we all remember when that movie came out. We don’t remember seeing that movie... But we remember all those ads beseeching us to go see it, even though the whole interplanetary cop with a magical green energy ring seemed a little high-concept.
I wonder, of the two statements, “The Green Lantern is my favorite superhero and I am bothered by the changes to him,” whether the first clause isn’t more mortifying to utter aloud on the Internet for the first time.
Still, whenever a comic does something different, everyone roars. Viewed one way, it is an Unforgivable and Major change to a character that people have grown to know and love and model themselves upon. Viewed another way, it is a reflection of reality. Viewed another way, it’s an effort to sell more comics.
The central question of most of the Hey You Changed My Favorite Comic Book Character debate comes down to identification. Can you identify with someone who is different from you? “We need a black Spiderman,” people said, “so my kid can see himself in the comics.” How important is it to see yourself?
In an ideal world, who was under the suit would only matter to the extent that it matters when the character still comes out of the box with all the factory settings intact (white, male, good teeth, missing a parent or two): Is this well-written? Do I care about the guy? Just because the character resembles you doesn’t make it a good story. But just because the character differs in some respect from decades of bland template doesn’t make it a good story either.
“I grew up in the Projects of NYC. I was born here, my parents came from Cuba in the 40s. My favorite comic book character was Captain America — a blonde haired, blue eyed, white guy and I never felt anything negative about having to look like him or anything like that,” one commenter wrote during the Black Spiderman furor. But so far, this type of identification has mainly cut one way. Now, that’s changing.
The Green Lantern has been black. He has been white. He has been around the Big Issues block a few times. He has been rebooted and booted again. This is just one more. And if you can’t stand the heat, console yourself with the thought that this is only one man out of thousands in one universe out of dozens. And no matter what, it can’t be too much worse than the movie.