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How gay is
Superman?

How gay is
Superman?

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Read the Advocate cover story that has Warner Bros. nervous about whether the gay appeal of Superman Returns is good for the box office. As featured in the Los Angeles Times and on the Drudge Report.

What I learned from Superman

With Superman Returns headed at us faster than a speeding bullet, Advocate arts and entertainment editor and lifelong comics fan Alonso Duralde looks at superheroes and their appeal to gays and lesbians

My oldest sister was a crappy college student. Don't get me wrong; she's one of the smartest people I know. But her university years were spent doing lots and lots of, shall we say, unassigned reading. Lucky for me, she has great taste in junky pop culture, so as a child, I was exposed to some of the best the '70s had to offer. Namely, comic books.

There was the darkly funny horror series PLOP! which took Grand Guignol and punched it up with gruesome twist endings that Rod Serling and O. Henry would have chuckled over ruefully. And romance comics, featuring girls in miniskirts and white lipstick who longed for the perfect man, despite all obstacles. (Usually he was rich and she was poor or vice versa, or he was getting over the drug addiction he'd picked up in Vietnam and didn't want to tell her why he always avoided hospitals. You know how these things happen.)

Best of all were the Superman and Batman comics she bought, particularly because, in the early '70s, DC and Marvel were having price wars. One of DC's responses was to put out mammoth 100-page comics for just 50 cents. Naturally, you couldn't fill a book that big with new stuff, so DC would pad the books with stories from the vaults, vintage adventures from the '40s and '50s. Those 100-page specials, combined with hardcover Superman and Batman anthologies that featured everything from their origin stories in the '30s up to their "contemporary" '70s incarnations, made me fall in love with superheroes. When Christopher Reeve starred in 1978's Superman, it blew my little kid mind; so, naturally--so what if almost 30 years have passed--I'm really excited about Superman Returns.

But as I look back on my early affection for superheroes, my addiction to comics doesn't necessarily scan with the rest of my childhood. As with the kid in Todd Haynes's Dottie Gets Spanked, most of my cultural tastes tended to lean toward the feminine. I was addicted to reruns of I Married Joan and old Ingrid Bergman flicks on the afternoon movie. I was the only boy in my sixth-grade class to read Are You There, God? It's Me, Margaret. Nothing could make me change the channel faster than an old Rat Patrol or Daktari episode popping up in the middle of my afternoon of TV. So why was I drawn to these heroic tales of adventure and derring-do?

I have three theories:

1. Like most gay kids, superheroes have to keep their "difference" a secret.

Even before I could mentally process that (a) I was gay and (b) I needed to keep that hidden from everyone around me, I could totally relate to the idea of having something about you that sets you apart and must be concealed. There were consequences, after all--whenever a pre-women's lib Lois Lane would hector Superman about marriage, he would constantly remind her that he could never be married, since criminals would try to hurt or kidnap his wife in order to keep the Man of Steel in check. Of course, why being known as "Superman's girlfriend, Lois Lane" didn't make her a constant target of the bad guys was never discussed, but Superman's efforts to avoid intimacy, much less matrimony, with Ms. Lane probably rang true with a lot of young gay readers back in the Eisenhower era.

Chris Ohnesorge, drummer and vocalist with the San Francisco-based band the Ex-Boyfriends, discovered comics as a kid through the 1970s Wonder Woman TV show. He's tangibly devoted to the Amazon princess, with two WW tattoos on his arm and a third on the way. The character's dual nature--ravishing, heroic Wonder Woman and her mousy alter ego, Diana Prince--continues to resonate. "To me, it was the idea that you could spin around and there would be a flash of light and you'd be this amazing person. Someone that everyone loved," observes Ohnesorge, 33. "You have this secret identity; you can't be who you really are, and you only can be that in these certain moments. And even at those times, you still have to maintain all this secrecy; you can't have a real relationship. It was this idea of escaping your stifling secret life to become someone incredible who people were in awe of."

As kids with a nascent understanding of our queerness, a lot of us tamped down our own fabulousness--not to keep Lois safe or to stem the Nazi menace, but to watch our backs. Would our families still love us? Would we have friends? Would we be harassed at school? Lots of young people today are coming out of the closet, and more power to them, but growing up in the Carter-Reagan years, I was too terrified of my personal Lex Luthors to be that forthcoming.

It's interesting to note that as it becomes easier to be out as gay men and lesbians in American society, the secret identity becomes less of an issue. In current DC Comics continuity, Lois knows full well why Clark Kent keeps disappearing whenever there's trouble. Peter Parker, back in the 1960s, had to keep his Spider-Man identity a secret from poor old Aunt May, lest the shock kill her. But in 2004's big-screen Spider-Man 2, Aunt May all but lets Peter know that she knows about his wall-crawling activities. Of course, in the X-Men flicks, where "mutant" definitely acts as a metaphor for "gay," keeping their identities hidden from a cruel and misunderstanding world remains very much par for the course.

2. Comic books = soap operas.

Part of the reason that DC could randomly select old Batman comics for those 100-page editions was that the stories in the old days tended to be selfcontained. Crime wave occurs, Batman and Robin solve the case, bad guy gets punched in the face and put behind bars, the end. With few exceptions, the adventures were all discrete and independent tales.

That all changed in the 1960s when Marvel revolutionized the industry with such landmark titles as The Fantastic Four, The Amazing Spider-Man, and The Incredible Hulk, among others. Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko, and other artists created a very strict continuity of the sort that had never been seen in the medium before. A weapon that was left behind in issue 2 of one title might surface as a plot point in issue 9 of another. An unfinished conversation could wind up being very important to the story two years later.

In the same way that soap fans are expected to know the names of Erica Kane's husbands or of Viki Lord's multiple personalities, Marvel readers were supposed to be ready to have an unresolved Dr. Strange plot thread come up in X-Men or a Reed Richards device from The Fantastic Four later surface at Stark Industries in an Avengers B-story.

For a gay kid who never got into soaps, apart from the occasional Search for Tomorrow episode with our housekeeper, comics were my first window into labyrinthine story lines that involved numerous characters. Marvel editors, particularly Stan Lee, would always throw in an asterisk when characters would say something that referred to an earlier comic--a little box below would say something along the lines of " *Back in F.F. #33, remember?--Smilin' Stan," and I still remember the charge I got the first time that an asterisk referred to an issue I had actually read. And this kind of obsessive upkeep was going on way before the Internet, kids.

"Oh, definitely," agrees Los Angeles attorney Mark Salzberg. "I always thought the first 25 issues of Alpha Flight were like a really good season of Falcon Crest."

Comic book movies, of course, generally don't get to have that interconnectedness because they're already got plenty of story to pack into two hours. And so, alas, nothing that happened in last summer's Batman Begins will play any part in this summer's Superman Returns. And while Spider-Man, the Hulk, and Daredevil all encounter each other in the Marvel universe, their movies were all released by separate studios, ensuring that there will be no cross-referencing.

3. Superheroes--let's face it--are totally hot.

Whether or not you subscribe to psychiatrist Frederic Wertham's assertion in his controversial 1954 Seduction of the Innocent that Batman and Robin "represent the wish dream of two homosexuals living together," they sure spent a lot of their off time doing gymnastics in tank tops and little shorts. As opposed to when they patrolled the streets of Gotham City wearing tights and capes.

I always kind of had a thing for the Flash and his bright red, formfitting outfit (that popped out of his ring and expanded to fit him), not to mention his hot redheaded nephew, Kid Flash, who later got promoted after his uncle died. And let's just say that John Wesley Shipp didn't disappoint when he played the fast-running Flash on an all too short-lived prime-time TV series.

If you were a little boy in search of idealized masculine imagery--or a little girl starved for images of strong, powerful women--comic books were often where you got your fill. And a lot of those boys grew up and were inspired to make themselves over in their heroes' image. (Thankfully, not every gay guy at the gym is out to transform himself into the bully who persecuted him during adolescence.)

Take Salzberg, 43, whose recent efforts as a triathlete are at least partially inspired by an undersea hero. "I was 10 years old when I bought my first comic book," he remembers. "Avengers #117, and the Sub-Mariner was in it, fighting Captain America in the Avengers-Defenders War. The Sub-Mariner has this complete swimmer's body--as well he should, since he's the King of Atlantis. I actually remember this panel where he's standing in the middle of Osaka, Japan, and looking at his body and thinking, Wow, that's kinda cool. He's got wide shoulders, slim waist, solid muscle...wears a Speedo. Now I'm thinking that that influenced me to create my body in that image. I was never athletic as a kid; I was completely out of shape. But then the older I got, the more interested in sports I got. In the past 10 years I started running and biking and swimming a lot, and I'm pretty sure I created my body to be just like the Sub-Mariner's." Salzberg laughs. "I like wearing a Speedo, I'll admit that."

Not for nothing does gay director Bryan Singer have an eye for how to make the Superman suit most flattering to Brandon Routh in Superman Returns. And rubber nipples weren't the only way that director Joel Schumacher made Batman and Robin look even more homoerotic than usual in the two sequels he directed. The iconography of superheroes definitely pushes a button or two with many gay men.

And with lesbians as well. Susan Hudes, a Brooklyn, N.Y.-based artist and writer who's currently writing and drawing a graphic novel, says she's more interested in comics aimed at adults. Nonetheless, she admits, "I loved Wonder Woman because she was gorgeous and powerful." And even in looking at characters she has discovered as a grown-up comics reader, Hudes, 36, notes that "Elektra Assassin is a completely sexy, strong character."

Ohnesorge recalls, "I know that by the time I was 11 or 12, whenever Wolverine was shirtless--or naked, because he went crazy and tore off all his clothes in a berserker rage--I remember those panels very well. Like I could draw them from memory. As much as I find him kind of bland, I really like Hugh Jackman as Wolverine--the leather, the muttonchops... Between Wolverine and Magnum, P.I.-era Tom Selleck, I think that's where my hairy-chested men fetish came from."

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Alonso Duralde