Wednesday, October 13, 2021

Superman Comes Out


In addition to Indigenous Peoples Day, Monday was National Coming Out Day, an annual LGBTQ+ awareness day to support lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and others in "coming out of the closet" to those around them and to support them living openly as themselves.  The foundational belief is that homophobia and bigotry thrives on silence and ignorance, and that by coming out and being open, it is harder for those closest to them to maintain homophobic or oppressive views.

DC Comics commemorated yesterday by announcing that corporate sponsor and world's greatest superhero, Superman, will be coming out as a bisexual man.  

Reaction has been mixed, with many praising the decision for the impact it will have on those struggling with their own identities, and the predictable voices decrying this as the end of comics and/or the world.  

Here's why it matters.

1) It means the Seduction of the Innocent era is truly finally over.

During the height of McCarthyism, psychiatrist Frederic Wertham published his critique of the comics of the era entitled Seduction of the Innocent.  Wertham believed that comics were leading to juvenile delinquency because of their portrayals of sex, violence, homo-erotic sub tones, and un-American ideals.  The Senate had also turned its eye toward comics, and used Wertham's book to forward its agenda.  This lead to the creation of the Comics Code Authority, a censorship organization that put strict restrictions on the type of content that could be included in comic book magazines.  Of course, in looking through Seduction of the Innocent, it becomes clear very early on, that a lot of Wertham's arguments were out and out fabricated.  He manipulated, overstated, compromised, and flat out fabricated evidence for his claims.  But it worked, and impacted comics for decades to follow.  We've just slowly been coming out of the effects over the past 20 years, with the major companies' abandonment of the Comics Code Authority.  

The Code, like the Hays Code and other McCarthy era governing codes, reduced comics to strictly all ages material, good and bad.  It prevented cops from being seen  as corrupt or bad guys.  It prevented the use of vampires or werewolves requiring creative adjustments sometimes even to a comic creators name.  Marv Wolfman had to fight to be credited correctly because they wanted to censor his last name.  

One of the chief objections was to "sexual perversion or any inference of the same." Because Wertham had deemed that the relationship between Batman and Robin had such overt homosexual overtones, anything remotely approaching subtext had to be stripped away.  This is why the Batman television show added Aunt Harriet.  You couldn't have a home occupied only by men.  

Comics have been struggling since to adequately represent their creators and their readership ever since.  The first comic character to come out at a major publisher (Northstar at Marvel in Alpha Flight) did not occur until 1992.  Even Archie added a homosexual member to the gang in 2010.  With a Superman coming out in the pages of a mainline, published DC comic, the impacts of Wertham are finally at an end.

2) It's additive and not reductive or retroactive.

Changes in comics, like in most serialized fiction, comes in a couple of different forms.  There are the reductive changes, removing something from a character's backstory, or perhaps removing a character altogether.  There are retroactive changes, changing some aspect of the character in such a way that this is always the way it was supposed to be.  There are proscriptive changes, changing the character going forward.  And then there are additive changes. Those changes that don't take away or change anything that has come before, but simply add to the mythos.  These type of changes are the best, the most well received.

This change to Superman is an additive change.  

Because the headline is a bit misleading.  It's not Clark Kent that is being changed.  We're not seeing the Superman that we have all known for now 80 years and 1000+ issues suddenly dumping Lois Lane and declaring his new sexuality. Rather, the Superman coming out is the current protagonist in the Superman titles, Clark and Lois' son, Jon Kent. 

What that means, practically, is that most people will never interact with this new bisexual Superman. The 80 years of history of the character still remains the same and exists for those who wish to read and view it.  There are still new comics being written with the straight Clark Kent Superman.  There will be more movies and television shows featuring Clark.  

It just means that there may also be movies and television shows with this new Superman.  There may be more content created that a different audience can also find and relate to.  That someone struggling with their own identity might find a hero they can look up to as well

3) It returns Superman to his original Social Justice Warrior roots.

A prevailing modern view is that Superman is pass√©.  He's too square, too boy scout, too goody goody.  He's seen as a government stooge, keeper of the status quo, thanks largely in part to his portrayal in Frank Miller's seminal The Dark Knight Returns.  

Superman is the man and it's just not cool to like the man.

The funny thing is that Superman was the original Social Justice Warrior.  Superman was created by two second generation, children of immigrants in the 1930s, coming off the end of the depression.  As such, they created a super-human character to address the social ills they saw around them. They created the ultimate immigrant, brought to the United States as an infant, who would then become the strongest hero around, to speak for the poor and down trodden.  In the 1940 first issue of Superman #1, Superman casually dropped in on a wife beater and taught him the error of his ways.  Other stories in the first issues of Superman found him fighting crooked labor unions, drunk drivers, and gamblers. Superman didn't just fight robots and super-villians, he fought the ills of the world.

This new Superman is a seventeen year old kid still trying to find his way in the world and live up to his father's legacy.  He's a second generation immigrant, like the original creators of the Superman character.  He's seeking to define who Superman will be, what Superman will represent to a new generation.  Current writer, Tom Taylor, notes this Superman being the son of Clark Kent and Lois Lane is important.  He brings both the best of the two of them, melding Clarks' mid-American values with Lois' hard-nosed reporting.  "The question for Jon (and for our creative team) is, what should a new Superman fight for today? Can a seventeen-year-old Superman battle giant robots while ignoring the climate crisis? Of course not. Can someone with super sight and super hearing ignore injustices beyond his borders? Can he ignore the plight of asylum seekers?"

This new Superman has already protested with refugees and stood up to police brutality.  It will not be hard to imagine him standing with those at Pride rallies.  This would be the Superman who would be protecting those at Stonewall, not cracking down on them.

4) Representation always matters.  Period.

The most basic reason why this is important is that representation matters.  Representation always matters.  The writer of this new Superman has put it "everyone needs heroes and everyone deserves to see themselves in their heroes."

Marvel Comics went through this ten years ago when they created their new Spider-Man, Miles Morales, a half-black, half-Latino teen hero.  There was the same praise and same condemnation.  A small and annoyingly vocal minority were convinced Marvel was getting rid of the Peter Parker they knew and loved.   But that didn't happen.  Instead, thousands of new fans discovered a Spider-Man that looked like them.  To the point where Miles Morales would go on to headline perhaps Sony's greatest Spider-Man film, Into the Spider-Verse.

Miles' creator, Brian Bendis would talk about his creation process and would say that if you were looking at Queens or Forrest Hills New York today and were creating a new teen hero that would fit into that world, you wouldn't create scrawny white Peter Parker.  That's just not what that world looks like any more.  Miles more accurately reflected the world outside your window that Marvel always strived for.  

The same can be said of this new Superman.  If you were looking today to create Superman, whole cloth, as if he were a completely new character, he would not be the corn-fed straight white male figure that was created in the 1930s. Especially with the immigrant experience remained a part of his story.  There would be something changed about his story which would again make him the protector of the down trodden and oppressed.  The most powerful hero who identified with the minority and protected them.

Since this new Superman was to be the biological child of Lois and Clark, an existing character in the DC universe, changes to his gender, his race, or ethnicity were not available.  His sexual identity could be stated, as it had never previously been defined.  (The character is very new and has only been seen "dating" one other character  in the far distant future of the 30th century, a time period which may have also affected his views on sexuality).

Within the LGBTQ+ community, it is also important that this new Superman is representing the bisexual community, the portion of that community whose existence and legitimacy is most often questioned and outright denied.  Bi-erasure or bi-invisibility are pervasive problems, effecting mental and physical health of bisexuals.  Bisexuals have the poorest health in relation to their sexuality, having increased risks of anxiety, depression, and other mood disorders, as well as increased risks of heart disease and cancer.  They can feel unaccepted by both heterosexual and homosexual groups, with their sexuality challenged as either too homosexual, or not homosexual enough.  As if there was some litmus test to be passed.

The Superman family has long been an inclusive one.  There is the female Superman in Supergirl (and Superwoman).  There is the kid Superman in Superboy.  There is the black Superman in Calvin Ellis and Val Zod.  The native American Super Chief.  The Chinese New Superman.  

It's now just a little bit more inclusive and a little bit more representative. 

One step forward in the never ending battle for truth and justice.

And if just one person feels validated.  One person stops cutting or hurting themselves.  One person can stand up to their bullies; can face the world around them. One person feels like they can continue living because they have been seen, it’s worth it.

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