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The Wednesday Waffle Issue 23: "Nowt so queer as folk"

Welcome to this week's Waffle! It's New Comic Book Day and for yet another week we have to regret that you can't come into the shop and browse all the great new titles that would be gracing the rack. Fortunately we live in an internet enabled world, so you can:


CLICK HERE TO SEE WHAT'S ON THE RACK


We're sure that some news happened this week, but if anything interesting happened we missed it. So, given that this is called The Wednesday Waffle I'll use this period of quiet to waffle on a bit in response to a question from a customer that led to an email conversation that was the kind of discussion that I miss having in the shop. So:


"WHY IS EVERYBODY IN COMICS GAY ALL OF A SUDDEN?"


The cover to Abbott 1973 #1
The cover to Abbott 1973 #1

I mean, the obvious answer is "they're not", and in any case does the world really need yet another straight guy pontificating about this? But that would be ignoring the spirit of the question - which was in response to the comic Abbott 1973, which was a pick of the week last week.


The central character of this excellent hard boiled supernatural thriller is Elena Abbott - an investigative journalist for the biggest black-owned newspaper in Detroit. She also happens to possess the power to vanquish evil, but reporting is her day job...


She's also bi-sexual, which was no small thing in 1973. And it was the fact that she lives with her female partner - an Asian American crime boss, no less - that instigated the question.


It is unquestionably true that there has been a change in the way comics portray sexuality. Until relatively recently there were two default positions for characters in mainstream Anglophone comics. They were White, and they were heterosexual. From the late sixties onwards there were some characters of colour, but they were pretty unusual - and sexuality wasn't ever a question. In so far as characters had romantic involvement at all those involvements were with characters of the opposite sex - Bruce Wayne and Selina Kyle (or Silver Saint-Cloud), Reed and Sue Richards, Peter Parker and Gwen Stacey, Mary-Jane Watson and Felicia Hardy (y'know for a character who is supposed to be the ultimate nerd, that Parker boy had some seriously hot girlfriends - don't ever tell me that Spider-Man isn't geeky wish-fulfilment...) and so on.


Those defaults have most definitely been re-set in recent years, and Abbot 1973 is as good an example of this as anything else. The characters are ethnically diverse and the central character is, as previously stated, bi. Not that long ago that would have been unusual. Now? Utterly unremarkable.


While it's true that it was the smaller independent publishers that led the way, there are now LGBTQIA+ characters in both the Marvel and DC universes - not just token C-listers either. It's now acknowledged in canon that Wonder Woman - one of the "big three" DC characters - is a bi-sexual woman (something which - whether he had it in mind or not - I feel sure that her co-creator William Moulton Marston would have heartily approved of), and over at Marvel, Bobby "Iceman" Drake is also now recognised as a gay man who has struggled with his sexuality. And so on, and so on, and so on.

Taken from of the early Rebirth issues of Wonder Woman. I do own the comic, but couldn't find it so I borrowed this scan off the internet and unable to credit the artist. (c) DC Comics
Taken from of the early Rebirth issues of Wonder Woman. I do own the comic, but couldn't find it so I borrowed this scan off the internet and unable to credit the artist. (c) DC Comics

So what's behind this change? Is it, as some people online will tell you, that comics have become "woke" and "full of PC crap" that is "killing comics"? Is there some "libtard conspiracy", as somebody on Twitter spent a lot of time telling me last week?


I think not. The reality is much more interesting.


The change, I think, is partly in the wider culture but also a side-effect of the sort of people who get into making comics.


The change in the wider culture is incomplete to be sure, but since my childhood in the nineteen seventies and eighties attitudes have changed a huge amount. Back then to call a boy or a man "gay" was the most provocative insult imaginable. I recall kids who were only a few years older than me boasting of going "Queer Bashing" (whether they actually did it or not, I don't know, but even if they didn't the fact that they thought claiming to have done so made them sound cool tells you everything you need to know about the culture of the time...) and if characters who were not heteronormative featured in the media at all they were either figures of fun (Mr Humphries springs to mind), freaks to be pitied or monsters.


Throughout the eighties the stigma associated with being LGBTQIA+ was unquestioned. Homophobia was certainly part of the reason why the A.I.D.S. epidemic claimed so many lives on both sides of the Atlantic, and of course here in the UK Section 28 of the Local Government Act 1988 prohibited the "promotion" of homosexuality by local councils. This law was enacted essentially to prevent children being taught about homosexuality in schools and absolutely to ensure that no child ever got the impression that it was "OK to be gay". At that time the government of the day was very clear that while consenting adults in private could do as they liked, when you got down to it homosexuality was "immoral, wrong and to be discouraged".


At that time a lot of the public agreed.


But times were changing. They have changed. Clearly that's easy for me to say, and I'm not going to pretend that homophobia isn't a thing anymore - it clearly still is. But I can illustrate the cultural direction of travel, and its speed, with an anecdote. I started my first teaching job in a school in one of the tougher areas of Doncaster in September 2001. As a form tutor one of the things I had to deal with a lot was homophobic bullying. It was common, and it was nasty. I had many conversations with parents who failed to see why it was a problem that their child had called another child a "Faggot" or a "Gay Boy".


I left that school for pastures new thirteen years later. In my last three years there I had the privilege of teaching a class of very bright kids from their first year at the school until they started studying for G.C.S.E. They were an awesome bunch, and we had a great rapport, but of course, they knew pretty much nothing of my personal life because you just don't talk about that in class. They knew I was married, because I wore a wedding ring, and one of the kids had asked about it once because it's silver coloured and not gold, and they wondered why, but that was about the extent of it.


Just before Christmas in my final year with them one of the admin team interrupted a lesson to bring me a parcel that had been delivered to me at work. Obviously the kids wanted to know what it was so I told them it was a Christmas present for my wife. There was a long (and frankly unusual - they were a lively bunch) silence. Thirty one pairs of thirteen year old eyes focussed on me before somebody finally articulated what they were all thinking.


"Wife?!"


Because I'm a bloody idiot I still hadn't got it. I reminded them that they already knew I was married.


"Yes, but to a woman?!"


Yep. Turned out that the general view of a large part of the lower school students was that I was gay. It is perhaps a little bit depressing that this opinion was based on some old stereotypes. I was a man who enjoyed reading, and not only didn't like football, but couldn't talk about it and had no clue who played for what team and, as a colleague put it when I told them this story "well, you are a bit flamboyantly camp sometimes". So, y'know, probably gay. On the other hand, a significant proportion of lower school - a few hundred kids at the time - believed that I was gay and not one of them cared. At all.


Not one kid ever made a sarky comment. Not one kid tried to use it as an insulting response when I was telling them off (and believe me, I had a great many creative insults thrown at me...) it was, quite simply, a non-issue. Thirteen years took the general attitude amongst the student population from one of prevailing homophobia to one of simply not caring about sexual orientation.


So yes. The culture has shifted. Clearly anecdotal evidence is nothing more than a suggestion, and in any event that's only one piece of evidence, but it does illustrate how things are shifting. There is no way now that portrayals of same sex relationships in literature that could be found in schools would trigger a law prohibiting it (although Section 28 wasn't actually struck from UK law until 2003, so it's fair to say that the change was disappointingly slow). And because the culture in our society has changed the way the various media which reflect that culture has changed also.


And comics do seem to be leading the charge here. Just take a look at some of the titles that have been picks of the week over the last few years. We have Heathen the lesbian Viking quest epic we never knew we needed, Heavy Vinyl, the "cute girl gets a job at the local cool record store and falls in love with another cute girl" story Moonstruck, the lesbian werewolf barista story you weren't expecting, Fence, the massively homoerotic story of the fencing team at a boy's boarding school, The Avant-Guards, which is similar, but college girls playing basketball and of course the venerable and wonderful Strangers in Paradise, which has been running in various forms since the nineties and features the first same sex relationship I ever read in comics.


There are many more examples, of course. And that's before we mention characters like Shay and Ying from Unstoppable Wasp, whose relationship remains not just the most positive same sex relationship I can remember in comics, but also the most positive teen relationship I can remember in comics. There's the wonderful relationships we've seen between Harley Quinn and Poison Ivy, Hulkling and Wiccan, Kate "Batwoman" Kane and Renee "The Question" Montoya.


And on, and on, and on. So why are comics so much more ready to embrace LGBTQIA+ characters, themes and stories than other media? It's impossible to be precise, but I think it ultimately comes down to what media studies types would call "inherent bias".


Essentially comics attract minorities. There are any number of reasons for this, which I won't go into here because it would take too long so for now just accept the premise. Over the last couple of decades a number of writers and artists who would identify as LGBTQIA+ have risen to some prominence in comics, and they're creating the comics they wish they'd been able to read when they were growing up as fans,


I've said it before, but in this context it really does bear saying again. I'm a cis-gendered, heterosexual middle aged white guy. Throughout my life all of the media I consumed was full of folks who looked like me. I can imagine what it must be like to never see people like me on my TV, or in my movies or in my comics - but I can never know. My imagination is good enough, however, to enable me to understand why, if I'd grown up struggling to understand my sexuality and had never seen characters I could identify with, I'd want to write those characters when I got the chance.


It also seems perfectly reasonable to me that as the culture shifts from stigmatising, through "tolerating" towards something beginning to approach real equality that creators who are not LGBTQIA+ would also recognise the need for representation, and indeed begin to consider the storytelling opportunities inclusion of LGBTQIA+ characters affords.


We're seeing the same thing in TV and movies too, but on-screen entertainment is much more expensive to make and it takes longer to get anything done, which makes both mediums incredibly resistant to change. Comics are more reactive and more democratic - particularly on the smaller independent scene. So yes. There are more LGBTQIA+ characters visible in comics than there used to be. The fact that in the past there have been so few probably makes it seem like there actually are, but so does the fact that so many of the creators who are writing and drawing comics which feature positive portrayals of LGBTQIA+ characters are just so good.


Heathen didn't become a pick of the week because I was trying to be "woke". It became a pick of the week because I enjoyed the story and thought the art was beautiful. I don't enjoy Abbott because the character is bi. I enjoy it because I like hard boiled investigative reporter stories. I didn't love Heavy Vinyl because it featured a seventeen year old girl trying to figure out her feelings for the cute chick in the record store, I loved it because I recognised the shyness I felt when I was seventeen and was too nervous to talk to the cute chick in the record store. And so on.


Which brings me to my final point. One of the things that a certain section of "fans" on the internet (we all know the kind of people I'm talking about) likes to say is along the lines of "All this forced diversity sucks! Why not just try making good comics?" To which I say "That's exactly what they're doing".


If by "good comics" we mean engrossing stories with relatable characters addressing strong themes, I would argue strongly that every title mentioned here fits the bill. Yes, they all also feature characters who are not like cis-gendered heterosexual white men like me - but I honestly struggle with the idea that anyone would consider that to be a bad thing.