Superheroes have long been a staple of comic books. While the first comic books were reprints of humor and adventure comic strips from newspapers, by 1938 the tone became even more fanciful. That’s when Detective Comics (who would later become DC Comics) published Action #1, featuring a costumed hero with amazing strength. This, of course, was Superman. Other writers and artists turned to superhero stories, creating such characters as Batman, Captain Marvel, and the Green Hornet. Superhero comics still continue to endure in their popularity today, as the top selling comic book of 2014 was issue number one of the rebooted Amazing Spider-Man, whose characters originated in 1963.
These superhero comics have little in common with the first lesbian and gay comics that were created in the 1970s. The first documented lesbian and gay comic in the United States was published in 1972 by San Francisco, California artist Trina Robbins. Called “Sandy Comes Out,” it told the story of a young woman discovering her sexuality when she moved to San Francisco. Other lesbian and gay artists and writers continued to follow this trend of independently publishing comics with lesbian and gay characters, some as lighthearted as “Sandy Comes Out,” others more erotic in nature. Gay-themed comics broke out of the underground in 1980 with the publication of Gay Comix, published and edited by Denis Kitchen and Howard Cruse, respectively.
The Gay Comics Collection (MS 1851) in Manuscripts and Archives contains over a hundred lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender-themed titles. A small number of the titles were received in 2005 and date from 1976 to 1996; these very much echo the description of the above gay and lesbian comics. This year (2015), additional comics for this collection were purchased from Prism Comics by Gwyneth Crowley, the Librarian for LGBT Studies. While some of these comics date back as far as 1985 (Kitchen’s Gay Comix and Donna Barr’s The Desert Peach for instance), the majority of them date from 2000 to 2014. The shift in tone and topic area in the recently acquired comics is striking. For one thing, it is more accurate to refer to them as queer comics. Several of these comics feature transgender characters and gender shifting themes as well as characters that are not attracted to only one gender. Another thing to notice is the higher amount of comics that are not self-published—one title is none other than Kevin Keller from Archie Comics, whose 2012 publication debuted one of the first mainstream comics centered on a gay protagonist (Kevin Keller the character first appeared in Veronica #202 in 2010). A more subtle shift that is apparent is the significant number (more than 25 percent) of science fiction and fantasy comics. Some involve aliens (Bakersfield, Earth), others involve zombies (Avant-Garde, Junkyard Angels) and a few focus on robots and transfer of minds between inorganic bodies (Anatta, Disconnect, Love Machines, O Human Star). However, the most common sci-fi/fantasy feature of these titles is superheroes.
What I found interesting while working with these comics is how they approach the concept of a superhero. Pride High for instance utilizes a similar plot line to the X-Men comics, in which teenagers with superhero powers attend a special school. However, there is a twist: a group of these teens are LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer) identified and face bullying and harassment from other students. Similarly, Friend of Dorothy features a gay boy who must save the world of Oz. While it is also a straightforward superhero comic, part of the transformation of the protagonist is being barred from seeing his boyfriend by the protagonist’s parents, being signed up for a conversion therapy camp, and his attempt at suicide.
Also present are comics that actively parody the genre and the tropes present in classic superhero comics. These superheroes have the powers and costumes like their traditional counterparts, but how they behave and how they use said powers are not exactly the same as Batman saving Gotham, or even Scott-John, the protagonist of Friend of Dorothy, saving Oz.
One such hero is Glamazonia, the main character of the Glamazonia, the Uncanny Super-Tranny, which has faced controversy and censorship at times as some members of the trans* community find it offensive. Glamazonia has such powers as super vision, super hearing, and flight. She in theory tries to save the day, such as when a scientist is threatened by visitors from the future, but she also has no problem attempting to murder President John F. Kennedy when he cheats on her with multiple women and a rival drag queen. Issue number 3 of Reignbow and Dee-va features a gay man superhero, his lady sidekick, and his boyfriend battling a vampire queen who is attempting to make the men straight. Of course, the fighting includes their blows being powered by pop culture references from action movies and songs, a time out in a rainbow colored bouncy castle, and defeating werewolves with a very special face powder.
More serious themes are present in The Power Within. Written with the “It Gets Better” project in mind, it follows an eighth grade boy named Shannon. Shannon is constantly bullied by his peers for being gay. It doesn’t help that his father and the school principal blame Shannon for his mistreatment by believing he calls too much attention to himself. To help tolerate this, Shannon imagines himself becoming a superhero when bullied and being able to fight off his attackers. Perhaps that’s why so many of these comics use superheroes—they save the day and make a difference and it doesn’t matter how different they are. If anything, they are celebrated for their differences. It’s a way it can get better.
The Gay Comics Collection, including the new addition, is open to researchers. You can look at the finding aid here. If you would like more information on using collections in Manuscripts and Archives, you can visit our website here.
Benton, Mike. Superhero Comics of the Golden Age. Dallas: Taylor Publishing, 1992.
Goulart, Ron. Ron Goulart’s Great History of Comic Books. Chicago: Contemporary Books, 1986.
Virtue, Graeme. “Marvel and DC Comics Dominate Sales Helped Along by Big-Screen Boost.” The Guardian, January 14, 2015. http://www.theguardian.com/books/2015/jan/14/marvel-dc- spiderman-guardians-of-the-galazy
Wells, Charlie. “‘No Straight Lines’—Gay Comics History.” SFGate, August 20, 2012. http://www.sfgate.com/lgbt/article/No-Straight-Lines-gay-comics-history-3801379.php