By Elizabeth Keenan
What comic character would you bring to the anti-prom, New York’s LGBT prom alternative?
For comic writer Ivan Velez, Jr., the answer is Colossus, that well built wall of muscle. Prism Comics’ Zan Christiansen would bring Captain America—“a nice, wholesome boy my family could be proud of.” Marvel editor Daniel Ketchum would pair with Cypher of the New Mutants. And manga writer Rica Takashima would take Bubbles from the PowerPuff Girls.
Moderator Chris Shoemaker’s opening question set the tone for the New York Comic Con panel on LGBT characters in comics. The question is a joke—kind of. But it points to a greater presence of LGBT characters in comics (hello, Ultimate Universe Colossus) and to the growing number of LGBT comics readers (the panel itself had a standing-room overflow).
Last year, the tragic death of Tyler Clementi inspired the “It Gets Better Project,” a collection of video testimonials focusing on reaching LGBT teens, who are at much higher risk for suicide than straight teens. The “It Gets Better—with Comics!” panel ranged from serious topics such as representation of queer identity in comics, reaching at-risk teens, and the difficulty of striking a line between LGBT advocacy and reaching a traditional comics audience, but it also offered hope for helping LGBT youth through comics.
Panelists first tackled the issue of LGBT representation in comics, a potential minefield of issues. For example, is a flamboyant character representative of gay culture, or a stereotype?
Christiansen noted that comics’ progress on LGBT issues has leaped ahead in the past ten years. Each year, he does a “who’s queer in comics,” and the results have shown much greater numbers, even if LGBT characters tend to hew closely to the stoic superhero stereotypes.
“It’s getting to the point now where you have enough diversity where you can have someone say, ‘There’s no really flamboyant characters,’” he said. “And the Teen Titans are supposedly going to have a flamboyantly gay character introduced. They’re not so worried they’re going to have to please everybody.”
Velez pointed out that independent comics tend to run ahead of mainstream comics in terms of representation of sexuality, but also race and gender.
“I think it’s problematic that they are generic and stereotypic,” Velez said. “They don’t really have relationships. The independents are way ahead. But mainstream comics have the same issue with gender, with class, with race, because the creators tend to be a certain class, with a certain point of view.”
That class and point of view would be the stereotypical comics audience: straight, white males. Ketchum jumped in as the “gay, Asian editor at Marvel” to point out that, whatever faults they have, mainstream comics have also made progress in representation of queer characters.
“I grew up as a Marvel kid,” he said. “Even though you might not see a ton of gay characters being super gay, you will see those narratives” in places like the X-Men, which was long seen as a metaphor for LGBT issues, such as difference and coming out. But now, Ketchum points out, “There are gay X-Men characters.”
In Japan, Takashima said through an interpreter, the situation when she started writing manga seventeen years ago was grim: No comics for lesbians, only porn for men. The scenarios weren’t realistic or true to women’s emotions, but convenient. Now, the fanbase is much bigger for LGBT relationships in manga.
“Specifically, in my work, I want to get realistic gay relationships in comic books,” Takashima said. “And, specifically in my work, to reach high school kids.”
Beyond the presence of LGBT characters in comics, the panelists discussed the issues of misrepresentation that often occur when non-LGBT writers tackle issues from an outsider’s perspective. Velez cited earlier storylines, such as when the Hulk’s friend Jim Wilson died of AIDS, as ones that problematically address issues outside the perceived straight, white male audience for comics.
“Introduce a young, black character, give him AIDS and have him die,” Velez said. “If you read that, you come off with the idea that there’s no hope. Even the Hulk can’t save you. Sometimes it just backfires.”
Ketchum pointed out that he has spoken up when the subject matter has not fit the characters.
“As a gay Asian editor at Marvel, working with predominantly straight white guys, I’m aware of that,” he said. “I might say, ‘Can we put the brakes on this and talk about this for a second?’ There have been stories where I’ve had the question in the back of my mind, if you were a gay editor, would you do this differently? I happen to work with a lot of people who are really respectful. I can say, ‘Let’s look at this.’ There was a story where we tore it down. We didn’t redo it from scratch, but we redid a lot of it. That people are paying attention is a big step.”
The panel turned from those making comics to those reading them, especially at-risk youth. All the panelists agreed that comics with an LGBT theme offer an important way for teens to find hope.
“God bless manga for bringing teens into libraries,” Velez said. Velez added that libraries often must restock, because the books often “disappear” from the shelves.
“What happens is that people steal them,” Velez said. “They’re in the closet, and they don’t want the embarrassment of checking them out, so they steal them and go home.”
Takashima said she planned to make her book available online for kids who don’t have access, and also those who are afraid to purchase gay-themed books on their own. And Velez stressed the importance of making LGBT-themed comics available to at-risk youth.
“I know that kids have not killed themselves because they read this book,” he said. “By seeing your face in the book, it’ll stop you.”
Christiansen agreed, with a personal note of thanks to Velez.
“I read your book in high school,” he said. “That not only inspired me to be a happy gay teen, but to be here and publishing comics. I thought, ‘I can do both, wow, this is excellent.’”