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We Are Our Own Heroes
A history of queer identities in comics and a discussion with author Julian Winters
When I was young, I was obsessed with Batman. There was a special action figure of him (with the Batmobile) modeled after the 1992 film Batman Returns that I refused to share with others—it set on a shelf in its pristine glory so I could admire it. I’d watch the film on repeat and feel something when I saw Michelle Pfeiffer as Catwoman. Everyone assumed I had a crush, but no one (not even myself) quite understood the zing that went through me when she swaggered around in her catsuit. The thrill when she delivered the famous line, “Life's a bitch... now so am I,” planted the seed of sass, too.
Looking back, I wanted to be the fabulous Catwoman rather than crushing on her. Then Poison Ivy appeared on screen in Batman & Robin. She made me want to join forces with her without a second thought. Throw in Batman and Robin’s codpieces and the infamous “bat-nipple,” skintight suits that made me question many, many things at a very early age. All of it combined to make it feel like those movies were made for me.
Turns out, they were.
I discovered this awhile back when I was reading Glen Weldon’s 2016 novel The Caped Crusade: Batman and the Rise of Nerd Culture. In it, Weldon goes into detail about these films in Batman’s illustrious history from 1939 up until the early 2000s. He notes Uma Thurman (Poison Ivy) considered the role to be equal parts Mae West and a drag queen. The bat-nipples were designed to be so hard they poked out enough to hang kegs on, and the codpieces (not to mention the butts of the suits) were designed to be, well, exaggeratingly hefty.
Weldon says it best with:
“Schumacher (the director of Batman Forever and Batman & Robin)’s two audiences, however, were split not by age but sensibility: 1) gay men and 2) everyone else. In the years since the sixties television show had gone off the air, camp had come out of the closet. It called itself irony now; the era of elaborately coded messages, shibboleths, and innuendo, of embracing the tawdry and tasteless with a fervid flamboyance, of relegating oneself to the role of grotesque, sexless clown, was over. The Stonewall Riots and the AIDS crisis had abraded those filigree edges away, leaving something harder, angrier, and more unambiguously and unapologetically sexual. Thus the much-discussed ‘campiness’ of Batman Forever feels fundamentally different than that of the old television show—less quaint and more defiant. Queerer. The original Batman Forever casting call for Robin, for example, had specified an age range of fourteen to eighteen, which might have established Batman’s bond to the Boy Wonder as strictly paternal. But Schumacher intentionally and gleefully steered into the homoerotic skid. He hired the twenty-four-year-old Chris O’Donnell as Robin and tricked him out with an earring, a tight muscle shirt, and a sneer. The result: a palpable shift in the Dynamic Duo’s dynamic—from a-father-and-his-son to leather-daddy-and-his-piece-of-rough-trade.”
After reading Weldon’s book in 2016, I fell down a rabbit hole on queer coding in comic books and later movies to better understand (and heal my confused inner child). Somehow, I’d gone my entire life not realizing what’d happened. In an effort to educate myself, I discovered how, for lack of a better word, shitty LGBTQ+ audiences have been treated in this realm.
From 1954 to 1989, the Comics Code Authority (a private organization) had rules against portraying queer characters. Though publishers weren’t legally bound to follow its decisions, suppliers/stores wouldn’t risk carrying a comic without the CCA’s approval. Due to this, it wasn’t until the late 80s that a LGBTQ+ superhero was allowed to appear in mainstream U.S. comic books produced by companies such as Marvel and DC.In fact, January 1988 marked the appearance of the first openly gay hero with DC’s Extraño. However, this representation was not done well at all for the queer community.
The deliberate exclusion of representation was rooted in hate, so much so I cannot bring myself to type that, for another lack of a better word, bullshit here.
That said, it brought about queer coding. This happened because a creator wanted to explore LGBTQ+ themes but faced consequences for outwardly doing so. They were able to address themes by implementing a character with a secret identity, nontraditional relationships with characters of the same sex (side-eying you Batman and Robin), dressing in flamboyant manners, or any other list of stereotypes associated with the queer community. This led to loose interpretations with readers seeing what they wanted to see, which is a great thing.
Until it isn’t.
These queer-coded readings that date back decades aren’t flattering in the least bit. Villains were the focus on coded character themes—and this villainizes queer people. Queer coding brought about queerbaiting, which preyed on queer audiences to spend their money in hopes of seeing themselves on the page or screen (ehem… THE FETISHIZED BAT-NIPPLES!).
However, queer coding can be viewed as a survival tactic that writers utilized to tell the stories they wanted to tell, albeit their portrayals didn’t lead where they ought to be led. Our queer communities have grown with the changing culture that has deemed coding no longer sufficient. Audiences and creators deserve better than the antiquated mindset that comics have faced. Valid representation must be explicit, and now in 2023 there are a vast array of comics (though not nearly enough) that center queer characters and their lived experiences. More details on them can be found using the Queer Comics Database, a great resource if you’re searching for queer comics to read.
As I gathered my wits after falling down this rabbit hole given the current batshit politics targeting our queer community, I began to think how queer superheroes are extremely important. For so long, our community has been villainized, literally, on page and screen…and now courtrooms and despicable news networks. To showcase these characters being heroes and existing, to have them be here and their identities factor into how they perceive saving the world—that can make a difference to a questioning child much like myself. Nothing this important should be shrouded in confusion. It’s imperative we show youth, teens, and everyone else who needs reminding that they are strong too.
We are our own heroes.
That’s why I wanted to discuss queer representation with none other than Julian Winters, best-selling young adult author and self-proclaimed comic book nerd. We sat down for a virtual chat—with many laughs!—on this topic as well as offering insight to those wanting to support and read queer comics:
Julian Winters is the author of Running with Lions, How to Be Remy Cameron, The Summer of Everything, Right Where I Left You, As You Walk on By, and the forthcoming Prince of the Palisades. Stay up-to-date with his Twitter and Instagram.
Fight Back Against Hate:
The ACLU is tracking 430 anti-LGBTQ+ bills in the U.S. Click here to see details for each state. Their interactive map shows the different bills targeting LGBTQ+ rights and take action. While not all of these bills will become law, they all cause harm for LGBTQ+ people.
Tell the Senate to pass the Equality Act to expand existing federal laws to protect people from discrimination based on their sexual orientation and gender identity.
On February 25, 2021, the House of Representatives passed the Equality Act with an overwhelming, bipartisan majority and it needs to move through the Senate… and our community needs your help. A study done in 2019 revealed MOST AMERICANS don’t know that LGBTQ+ individuals lack federal protection. The time to act is NOW - let your Senator know that you want them to support the Equality Act by using this email form from the National Center for Transgender Equality.
Fighting hate means to show love as well as take action. The turbulent conditions queer youth are facing right now can take its toll. They deserve a welcoming world, and you can help give that to them by supporting The Trevor Project, a nonprofit who provides information and support to LGBTQ+ young people 24/7/365. This nonprofit is close to my heart, and I’m donating all proceeds from my writing class on April 5th to their cause.
What Makes Me Feel Here This Month:
The Yearning is a weekly newsletter that provides reviews, roundups, and thoughtful critique of queer movies and television. The authors, Ali and Meg, offer fabulous and meaningful insight. Check out the review for the quintessential queer film of the 90s But I’m a Cheerleader and see (read?) for yourself.
The new queer film In from the Side focuses on a gay British rugby team. It centers around a player on the A team and another on the B team. I’ve been eagerly awaiting this film’s release (uh, hello GAY RUGBY PLAYERS). To be honest, I hated this movie at first… but after digesting all 2 hours and 14 minutes of it… there’s a thread of community weaved throughout it with a focus on friendship and connection that supersedes the initial ick I felt. These characters are trapped in a box they put themselves in, searching for a meaningful connection through many (many) mishaps in life. Though the main character stumbles, he redeems himself in the end.
The graphic novel series Wynd by James Tynion IV and Michael Dialynas is such a lovely fantasy epic about a boy who must embrace the magic within himself if he wants to save his friends (and the boy of his dreams) from the shocking dangers that await.
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About Matthew Hubbard:
I’m an author represented by Katie Shea Boutillier with Donald Maass Literary Agency. My debut novel Last Boyfriends will publish Summer 2024 from Delacorte Press / Penguin Random House (you can add it now on Goodreads here). It’s a coming-of-age novel pitched as Heartstopper meets The First Wives Club in which three queer teenage boys in small-town Alabama set out to get revenge on their ex-boyfriends and end up fighting their school's anti-LGBTQ+ initiatives.
I started the WE’RE HERE newsletter as a guide for queer and ally individuals highlighting book news, inspirational interviews, and awareness that we’re here to make difference.
Stay tuned for more details!
I have been forced to live with this interpretation of Batman and Robin, and now you do too.
The term “gay” was never used and they later killed him off with an HIV infection.