When the new Superman came out as bisexual, the news managed to offend a wide spectrum of people. On the one hand, conservative US lawmakers like Wendy Rogers have taken to reminding the world that “Superman loves Louis Lane. Period.” (It’s Lois, actually). On the other hand, there is also a section that feels this is mere tokenism with DC, the comic book giant that publishes popular series like Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman, trying to keep up with the times in 2021.
The latter argument is not entirely wrong. Most decisions on positive representation in popular culture, if we extend its definition to include comic books, are token moves. But in this particular case, it is important to acknowledge the shift and how we reached here.
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Queer superheroes have always been around
Superman is not the first queer character in the comic book world, and definitely will not be the last. The first openly gay character in the popular comic book universe (a.k.a Marvel and DC) was Northstar, introduced in 1979 and who eventually became part of the X-Men series. While there were oblique references to his sexuality, it was made explicit only in 1992. Since then, several others have come out as queer – Iceman in X-Men, DC Comics’ Harley Quinn and Poison Ivy, Batwoman Kate Kane, Tim Drake’s Robin and Loki.
However, Superman is part of the spectrum, if not the sole character to define the very category of ‘superhero’. He occupies the apex position in the DC holy trinity along with Batman and Wonder Woman.
Despite the fame and money that the Marvel Cinematics Universe (MCU) raked in over the years with Iron Man and Captain America movies, it is Superman that remains synonymous with ‘superhero’.
Thus, Jon Kent, son of Clark Kent and Lois Lane, kissing the online journalist Jay Nakamura (a person of colour, at that) in ‘Issue #5: Son of Kal-El’, is actually an important moment in comic book history.
Masculinity and Superman: Toxic?
Eight decades worth of legacy follows the character of Superman. He was first introduced on 18 April 1938 in Action Comics #1. The cover of the issue showed the ‘Man of Steel’ smashing a car, presumably while fighting villains, quite typical for the Kryptonian. Since then, the bulked-up Superman clad in the colours of the US flag — red and blue — became the embodiment of masculinity of the toxic sort.
Hypermasculinity was first defined by social scientists Donald L. Mosher and Mark Sirkin in 1984 as the exaggeration of beliefs and behaviours that are considered inherently masculine, such as emotional self-control. In Sex Roles: A Journal of Research, the idea is shown as condensed into “toughness as emotional self-control, violence as manly, danger as exciting and calloused attitudes toward women and sex”. The archetypal American superhero Superman has all this and more.
In a column for CNN, author Noah Berlatsky argues that the character of Superman was in fact based on “anxieties about homosexuality and masculinity”.
“Superman’s idealized masculinity is unstable and paranoid, and therefore has to be constantly reinforced,” he writes. He was the ideal man who was above even romantic interests, which could be seen as a feminising trait. Much of the comics revolved around how Superman ignored Lois Lane’s affections while at the same time pursuing her as Clark Kent, the very human alter ego. This further reinforced the distinction between the figures of the superhero and the common man.
The Boys, an Amazon Prime series, makes the toxicity inherent in superheroes extremely stark with the character of Homelander, an egomaniacal, hypermasculine, narcissistic violent superhero who is obviously based on Superman. It also subverted the superhero myth of the saintly figure and offered a brutal representation of what a modern-day hero could look like — corporate controlled, social-media crazy and airbrushed by PR. It also responded to the #MeToo movement by revising “the whole storyline” built around sexual assault by a superhero character ‘The Deep’ in the show.
This anxiety around homosexuality also manifested itself in the founding of the Comics Code Authority, a body that forbade the mention of homosexuality from 1954 to 1989. This censorship body came into existence after German-American psychiatrist Fredric Wertham, in his book Seduction of the Innocent, argued that Batman and Robin had a sexual relationship and, therefore, the comics were inappropriate for children.
Even in the Indian context, recall how superheroes Shaktiman, Nagaraj, Tiranga (Indian Captain America) follow a similar tradition, albeit they project an inherently Indian masculinity. For instance, there are present the almost-forceful reminders that Shaktiman is a devout religious man.
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Queer-coded and fanfiction
Besides being bisexual, Jonathan Kent’s Superman has combatted wildfires, prevented a high school shooting and protested refugee deportation. In a nutshell, he is as 2021 as someone can be.
But more than derogatory ‘wokeness’, this switch is more about relevance. Writer of the series Tom Taylor told The New York Times, “The idea of replacing Clark Kent with another straight white saviour felt like a missed opportunity.” He added, “(A) new Superman had to have new fights — real world problems — that he could stand up to as one of the most powerful people in the world.”
While made canon only recently, queerness has always been a part of the comic book world for years now, with queer coding. DC’s queer writer, Esper Quinn, defines queer coding as “imbuing a fictional work with queer themes or characters without ever explicitly acknowledging the queerness”. Batman and Robin, in fact, are perhaps the most prominent examples of this queer coding, if one chooses to read their relationship that way.
Not all of it was flattering, however, often manifesting itself in terms of villainous gay or trans characters. The point is, it was present. And this is the queer subtext in canonical comics. Even a cursory glance at fan fictions and fan comics shows how popular queer pairings among superheroes have been for years.
So, those crying about how ‘now’ comic book writers are ‘eroding’ the essence of these men is simply untrue. For years, readers have chosen to read certain characters as queer even if they haven’t been explicitly identified as such in comics.
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A niche change, but a change nonetheless
The 85-year comic book legacy of Superman makes Jon Kent’s Issue #5 an important one, especially because it was done in the comics.
Currently, superhero movies are more mainstream than the comics, which have a niche audience. They are also more contemporary and therefore, making these choices in the movie industry is not hard.
We have seen this with the MCU. A Black Captain America that delivers a monologue on race and has important conversations about the symbol; a lesbian Captain Marvel; and a gender-fluid Loki.
Views are personal.
(Edited by Humra Laeeq)