Panelists Joan Hilty and Phil Jimenez at New York Comic Con
By Elizabeth Keenan
2012 was the year of gay couples marrying in comics, with Archie’s Kevin Keller marrying his boyfriend Clay and Marvel’s Northstar finally marrying his boyfriend Kyle. But as much as these weddings point to acceptance of gay characters, they also raise questions about the narrow roles that those characters still face. The New York Comic Con panel "Gay Marriage In Comics - Revolutionary Or A Step Backwards?" sought to address these issues.
Moderator Chance Whitmore of Fanboys of the Universe and a volunteer for Prism Comics first asked his panel, “Why now?” After all, gay characters Apollo and Midnighter married over ten years ago, but that event didn’t receive the type of media attention that Kevin Keller or Kyle and Northstar did.
Paul Kupperberg and Dan Parent
“Unfortunately, I think that part of the reason is that homophobia is on the rise,” said Paul Kupperberg, writer of Life with Archie, where Kevin Keller married his boyfriend Clay. “Most of the press, even if it isn’t negative, has had negative vibes to it.”
“Gay marriage wasn’t a topic on the nightly news ten years ago,” added Kevin Keller writer Dan Parent.
Parent pointed out that because Kevin Keller is in the Archie universe, the issue generates more controversy with groups like One Million Moms.
“We should thank them, because it sold out,” he said.
Panelist Joan Hilty, former editor at DC, noted that, of all the programming at New York Comic Con, the New York Times had shortlisted the panel under the title “Supergrooms.”
“It’s not just a hot-button issue,” she said. “It’s a hot-button issue that keeps evolving. Now it’s taking new dimensions, in terms of what benefits are offered state by state.”
Artist Phil Jimenez pointed out that corporate marketing machines have given these storylines a chance for success.
“They can make a social comment and make money while they do it,” he said. “The people behind the scenes are interested in the social commentary, but the people behind them are interested in making money.”
The controversy definitely sells, but dealing with backlash can be difficult.
“There’s always going to be backlash,” Parent said. “The fact that it was One Million Moms was sort of entertaining. We knew them from [their protest against] Ellen.”
“I’m not saying it’s a brave move, because there’s not really a million moms,” Kupperberg said. “But the fact that Toys R Us didn’t respond to them is to their credit.”
Kupperberg said that the story of Kevin and Clay isn’t much different from the stories he’s written for Archie and Betty or Archie and Veronica.
“Because it’s Archie, I do keep the physical contact limited,” he said. “I didn’t show the kiss [at the wedding]. But other than that, I treat it no differently.”
Jimenez disagreed about the characters being no different from Archie and Betty.
“Part of being a professional gay, as it were, is it has a lot to do with the way we navigate the world,” he said. “Part of my gay identity is not about my sexuality, but it’s about knowing from a very young age that I was different. I learned first to hide that difference and then to celebrate it. My approach to a gay minority character would be different than my approach to Archie because I would want to honor and respect that.”
The advent of marriage equality in comics opens the door for new storylines, Hilty said.
“Before, we were able to do coming out or courtship stories,” she said. “Now, with the advent of relationships that are formal, there’s going to be stories like, I’m a hero, you’re a villain, how’s that going to work? Or we have a kid, how’s that going to work? Or we move to another planet where gay marriage is not allowed, how’s that going to work?”
Both Hilty and Jimenez pointed out that the stakes are much higher for gay characters. Hilty cited the backlash when Gail Simone killed off a popular gay character in Birds of Prey. Jimenez noted that gay characters have much more weight placed on them as characters.
“Sometimes the stakes are high in superhero comics simply because of the setup of alpha, straight white males,” he said. “There’s a greater propensity for new characters to represent the entire group, whether it’s a new Muslim character or a new gay character. They have to represent a swath of people they might not otherwise have much in common with.”
This leads to more pressure for the characters to be more “pristine,” Jimenez noted.
Hilty asked Kupperberg and Parent whether they ever felt constrained by keeping Kevin Keller so upstanding: “Do you ever wish you could do a gay Jughead or gay Reggie or gay Moose?”
“One thing we hear about is that he’s so perfect,” Parent said. “We know that’s not the story of most gay kids. . . . Teenage Kevin is going to get a boyfriend in 2013. He’s not going to become a bad boy, but he’s maybe dating someone who is a bad boy. So there’s things we can’t do with Kevin, but we can do with other characters.”
Kupperberg pointed out that most of the characters in the Archie universe are ultimately good.
“It’s Archie, and it’s going to be straightforward and clean,” he said.
It was a challenge to get Kevin Keller into the Archie universe, Parent said. Readers had to like him, and he had to sell. Now that the character is established, Parent can move on to storylines where Kevin has steady dating.
“We told them that when teenage boys date, they do hold hands, they do kiss,” he said. “We don’t want to be like that episode of Melrose Place where they show gay guys kissing from 400 feet away.”
Another challenge of gay marriage lies in the classic “Sam and Diane” problem, Hilty said, because marriage is often seen as the end of a story, and not the beginning.
“Look at how hard it’s been to tell stories about Clark Kent and Lois Lane as a married couple,” she said. “How do you do that? What goes into marriage? Money fights, infidelity, how to raise kids, how to raise someone else’s kids.”
Jimenez pointed out that gay marriage storylines offer the potential to expand these issues.
“We don’t have to use a straight model if we don’t want to,” Jimenez said. “One aspect of gay marriage is the question of are we using a heterosexual model to define ourselves. Are we using ideas of romance and relationships that are 200 years old to create these relationships? As we explore gay relationships in comics, I’m interested to see if there will be discussions, and I don’t think there will be for a while, about is marriage the end game?”
Jimenez noted the pairing off of gay couples tended to make them “safe.”
“I don’t know what gay consumers want, if they want to see these characters coupled off or if they want to see someone who is more of a Tony Stark than a Kevin Keller,” he said. “I think there’s probably demand, but I don’t know if there’s enough demand to explore it.”