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Superman/Jon Kent flies along a Pride parade as his parents, Clark Kent and Lois Lane, stand in the crowd, holding a pride flag with the Superman logo on it in a variant cover for Action Comics #1044 (2022). Image: Derek Charm/DC Comics

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DC Comics has one weird trick for creating queer superheroes who’re already household names

For one superhero universe, LGBTQ begins with Legacy

On Oct. 11, 2021, the Man of Steel came out of the closet.

“Superman comes out as bisexual; ‘not a gimmick,’ writer says,” blared the Reuters headline. “Why ‘Bisexual Superman’ Has Conservatives’ Tights In a Twist,” declared Forbes. And sure enough, the outrage was swift, sharp, and depressingly predictable. Less than a month after DC announced the character’s forthcoming revelation, police were dispatched to the homes of writer Tom Taylor and artist John Timms after threats were made to the comics company. Meanwhile, former Superman actor Dean Cain (increasingly the voice of scowling disapproval of modern DC Comics) took to cable news to accuse the company of “bandwagoning” on a trend of publicly queer superheroes.

In the midst of all this shock and furor, you might have had to squint a little to catch a fairly significant detail: The Superman in question wasn’t Clark Kent, the Last Son of Krypton, at all. That Superman, the one we had been reading about in comics and watching on movies and TV since 1938, was as resolutely heterosexual (and as monogamously attached to Lois Lane) as he had ever been.

No, our newly out-and-proud Superman was one Jon Kent, the son of Clark and Lois, introduced by writer Dan Jurgens in 2015 and (after a successful stint as Superboy) lately promoted to sharing his dad’s alter-ego when elder Kent took a trip off-planet to overthrow an alien dictator or two, as is his wont.

This, in the world of 21st-century comics, is hardly unique. Jon is an example of a legacy character: a younger protégé or inheritor of an established hero, who takes on their title and codename as their own. And while legacy heroes are hardly the province of DC alone, they’ve long played a special role in the company’s storytelling.

Using the most conservative count (I could go higher!), mainline DC continuity has blessed us with no fewer than two Supermans, three Flashes, four Wonder Womans, two Aquamans, three Batgirls, and five Robins. And let’s not start on the Green Lanterns, because buddy, we’ll be here all day.

So while Marvel, pioneer in the delicate art of the illusion of change, often feels like it takes place in a perpetual 1968, DC’s universe feels more like a multigenerational epic — One Hundred Years of Solitude with more capes and spandex. Legacy heroes, after all, do more than double up on existing IP; they allow big-time superheroes to stay young, adaptable, and relevant with passing decades right along with their changing readership. And lately they’ve served a special function in particular: A surprising number of them have turned out to be more than a little bit queer.

Left to right on the wraparound variant cover of DC Pride 2022: Batwoman, Aqualad, Superman, Queen Nubia, Jo Mullein/Green Lantern, Jesse Quick, Poison Ivy, Harley Quinn, and Dreamer.
Left to right on the wraparound variant cover of DC Pride 2022: Batwoman, Aqualad, Superman, Queen Nubia, Jo Mullein/Green Lantern, Jesse Quick, Poison Ivy, Harley Quinn, and Dreamer.
Image: Joshua Swaby/DC Comics

Consider: Back in 2016, young Jackson Hyde, then the new Aqualad and now dubbed Aquaman alongside his older namesake, was revealed to have a boyfriend in the pages of DC Universe: Rebirth Special. Two years later, writer N.K. Jemisin and artist Jamal Campbell introduced us to Jo Mullein, a fresh-faced Green Lantern stationed far from home whose bisexuality was just one of several traits that established her (in Jemisin’s words) as a “stranger in a strange land.” Nubia of the Amazons, twin sister of fellow Wonder Woman Princess Diana, was casually shown in bed with her lover Io just this past December.

And then there’s Tim Drake, Robin #3 for those keeping score at home, whose sexuality had been speculated on, joked about, and passionately debated since his 1990s heyday by queer readers like me — more than two decades before Meghan Fitzmartin and Belén Ortega brought him out of the closet as bisexual in August 2021.

So if Superman (Bisexual Version) was, indeed, bandwagoning, it was a bandwagon long overdue.

DC Pride 2022 leaves a queer legacy

Case in point, this year’s DC Pride special, the company’s second annual showcase of an increasingly sizable stable of LGBTQ characters. Of the 12 stories housed in this year’s installment, half centered on out-of-the-closet legacy iterations of established characters.

And if there’s a running theme that winds through each of these stories, it’s about the weight of legacy and reputation on the ability of these newer heroes to embrace their own sexuality… and whether sexual identities and superhero identities can coexist in the public eye.

Jon Kent/Superman hovers above a Pride parade float, waving the the crowd. He’s wearing his Superman costume, with a cape lined with the colors of many Pride flags, in DC Pride 2022. Image: Devin Grayson, Nick Robles/DC Comics

Take, for example, the lead-off story about Jon Kent Superman by writer Devin Grayson and artist Nick Robles. Ostensibly a charming buddy-comedy team-up in which Jon takes his dour and decidedly unworldly friend Damian Wayne (a legacy character himself, being the latest in a line of periodically queer-themed Robins) to his first Pride celebration. The story is charming enough on its face, with some moments of genuinely wry comedy. But the heart of it is Jon’s own wrestling with the weight of the Superman name and mythos it imposes on him.

Informed by his boyfriend Jay Nakamura that he’s expected to wear his Superman togs to the parade, Jon become suddenly reticent to saddle the S-shield with his own bisexuality: “Symbols tell stories at the speed of sight,” he reflects in narrative captions, “But people don’t always agree on what symbols mean. And the meaning of a symbol can change depending on who’s viewing it.”

In the end, it’s Damian who assures him that identifying the symbol of Superman with Jon’s self-acceptance is perfectly in line with what Superman Sr. always represented: “Your dad would love it. It’d be you being you — which is exactly what he told you he wanted.”

Legacy, the moral goes, is about making symbols adapt to new generations as much as making new generations adapt to powerful symbols.

And Grayson’s story isn’t alone in selling us this particular message. A few pages later, erstwhile ’90s Green Arrow Connor Hawke makes a rare 21st-century appearance in a story by Ro Stein and Ted Brandt (here, like Jon, Connor is teaming up with Damian Wayne, a coincidental decision that hilariously makes Damian come off as everyone’s clueless straight best friend).

And it doesn’t take long before Connor, too, is mulling over the weight his queerness imposes on Green Arrow history: By page two, he’s thinking of his superheroic (and rather emphatically straight) father and writing, “I keep thinking about reaching out to Ollie, to get his perspective.”

And on it goes: Younger Aquaman Jackson Hyde confesses the difficulty of coming to terms with his big-time Atlantean heritage when so much of his childhood was wrapped up in pressure to look more human (read: straight) than he really is. The Ray, successor of his father, the Golden Age hero of the same name, wonders how to build a new found family while under the weight of his biological family and upbringing.

It all feels inspiring, seeing these young characters unashamedly expressing their sexualities and genders, until the cynicism sinks in: Where are the queer grown-ups, anyway? This, after all, is a bisexual Superman — but not that Superman, not the one emblazoned on coffee mugs that your parents could comfortably sip from. It’s a queer Aquaman and Wonder Woman, but not the ones Jason Momoa or Gal Gadot would have to answer for.

In that sense, a queer legacy character is a surefire way to get the headlines without actually risking the long-term acceptability of any major IP. Isn’t DC just trying to have its Pride-frosted cake and eat it, too?

Can a bi Superman sell bicycles?

A Walmart product page for a “16” Dynacraft Batman v Superman Boys’ Bike,” a blue child-sized bicycle branded with Batman and Superman motifs. Image: Walmart

Devin Grayson has some experience when it comes to implicitly and explicitly queer DC characters. After writing a long string of mostly Batman-related DC titles beginning in the late ’90s, she was briefly announced as the writer of an ongoing series for Batwoman Kathy Kane (another queer legacy character, of a sort), and has said that her own headcanon for Nightwing includes the character’s bisexuality. Looking back, she tells me, there’s been a clear shift in the way the company is willing to out its top IP that has come only in the past few years:

“My understanding [in the late ’90s] was that any character with an action figure couldn’t be outed,” Grayson says. “Characters that were unknown to most of the general public — like Starman, say, or Maggie Sawyer, or Green-Lantern-no-not-the-active-one-with-a-series-but-the-older-one-nobody-outside-of-comics-fandom-knows-by-name — could be gay, but Superman had to be able to sell movie tickets and toothpaste in the Midwest.”

“You can see a clear shift between so-called ‘gay vague’ marketing and queer normalization in mainstream advertising around 2015,” Grayson continues. “Once you understand superheroes as licensed IP, it should be no surprise to find comics following that same general timeline.”

So is it a cheat for the sake of toothpaste for DC to make the younger Superman queer while his dad remains resolutely straight? Well, maybe. But as far as Grayson is concerned, it’s less a matter of IP preservation than a portrait of real demographics:

“Looking at things like Gallup polls and GLAAD’s Accelerating Acceptance index, you often see higher levels of LGBTQ self-identification and acceptance in younger people than in their elders. So in that sense, it’s just a reflection of reality,” Grayson says.

“Additionally, there’s the issue of creating a new character versus changing an existing one. There have been so many comics, movies, and TV series focused on the Clark and Lois ship that I think changing either of their sexualities now would be a hard sell. Personally, though I believe having someone who is actively Superman be LGBTQ is important, I don’t think that person has to be Clark. But there are multiverses and fanfic and ways to get around that if you disagree.”

The children are our future

At dinner with his grandson and his grandson’s newest friend (soon to be boyfriend), Pa Kent asks Jay Nakamura “What’s your story?” Jay tells him it’s a little complicated, with a smile. “Our son is from another planet that doesn’t exist anymore,” Pa replies. “Try us,” in Superman: Son of Kal-El #4 (2021).
Jay, Jon, and Jon’s grandparents, the Kents.
Image: Tom Taylor, Daniele Di Nicuolo/DC Comics

On the other hand, for Tom Taylor, who wrote the story bringing Jon out of the closet, youth is less a driving factor than the changing priorities of the characters’ publisher. Though Taylor had long wanted to write a story with an out-queer hero, it was DC who approached him with the suggestion to bring Superman out of the closet even as Taylor himself had been toying with the notion:

“I’d been working in comics for about 12 years, and I’d had queer characters erased or denied,” Taylor recalls, “so I was a little bit trepidatious. But Jamie Rich, my editor at the time, said to me, ‘Tom, there’s been this idea floating around at DC. How would you feel…?’”

To Taylor’s mind, it’s a reflection not only of a changing readership, but a changing editorial culture over the past few years at the comic company. “We’ve just hit a point in time, particularly at DC, where editors — and everyone above editorial — is so committed to saying, Yes, we want this representation on the page, we want these voices.”

If that seems like a small gesture, perhaps it shouldn’t. The change in culture both Taylor and Grayson note comes at a time when, to put it delicately, the broader culture of politics and acceptance is being pushed backward with terrifying speed. At the time of this writing, 28 states have introduced anti-LGBTQ bills in 2022, and 8 have already signed them into law. Trans bodies have been persecuted and criminalized in courts of law, and queer books pulled off of library shelves.

To be a young, queer comic reader in America today is to look for heroes in a country that seems insistent on denying heroism any chance to triumph. A gay, or bi, or ace, or trans superhero might be a small and cautious gesture, but every gesture takes on outsized meaning when speaking out is itself a source of fear. And if those characters happen to be, themselves, young and uncertain, maybe that just means they, like their readers, will have to make a new future in spite of the old guard ahead of them.

Superman is out of the closet and there’s no way to put him back in. Call it his legacy.

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