Note: This article was written prior to Dan Slott’s apology, which can be found here.
So much for anti-bullying variant cover month.
To recap: Same-sex marriage was legalized in the United States on June 26th of this year, and while the ruling has extended privileges to same-sex couples that heterosexual couples have enjoyed for centuries, the victory is largely symbolic. The United States still does not accept queer people as those that should be treated with respect and equality. 40% of homeless youth identify as LGBTQ, with either their intolerant families having kicked them out or them taking the initiative to run away from an unbearable environment. Many states still lack anti-discrimination state laws for LGBTQ individuals regarding fundamentals such as employment and housing. Queer youth have among the highest suicide attempt rates with many citing homophobic societal attitudes and rejection of queer people as a significant factor.
Problems like these are solved via discussion. The most obvious form of discussion is political dialogue, with articles touting awareness of these issues, round tables on TV news channels, and hashtag proliferation via social media. But many fail to remember that art is also part of the discussion. The art of any society reflects that society’s interests from the noble class’ daily foibles in the 16th century to the shifting in focus to laborers during the Industrial Revolution to the talk of soldiers during the World Wars. Social activism also influences the subjects, from Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin to Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaiden’s Tale.
Art has always had the task of inciting us to empathize. Although we rationally know that our favorite characters aren’t “real,” when we cheer for them, laugh with them, and cry with them, they impact us as much as any loved one does. Just like how we look for the right qualities in people we want to befriend, we look for characters that reflect ourselves. So when a black character is president in whatever form of media they belong in, it tells a black audience that they can also aim high. When a female character is tough and unyielding, it tells girls and women that they can also be tough and unyielding. When real queer people see themselves in pop culture, they know that they are not alone.
Despite all the statistics I noted before, queer people must be told that we are not alone. We can overcome.
However, many of the people who have positions in media and entertainment do not understand this necessity. Therefore, recorded statistics on fictional queer characters in media is disappointing.
Here are the statistics for queer representation in Hollywood in 2014. TV doesn’t fare much better, with GLAAD estimating that LGBT scripted characters represent only 4.4.% of scripted characters on the five broadcast networks. Mainstream superhero comics (Marvel Comics and DC Comics) don’t have fantastic numbers either, but when they take action, the queer community has been very supportive of titles such as DC’s Midnighter and Batwoman: Elegy as well as Marvel Comics promotion of Northstar’s same-sex wedding in 2012.
This brings us to the present:
Marvel Comics’ Editor-in-Chief Axel Alonso went to his weekly interview at Comic Book Resources to discuss the All-New, All-Different relaunch of the Marvel Comics line. In this interview, he uses a variation of the oft-heard “wait and see” in regards to readers pressure about diversity in these new books. This is not just a diversion tactic that Alonso and his colleagues have used dozens of times (see last week’s Axel-in-Charge and Marvel Publisher Tom Brevoort’s flippant response on Tumblr about Marvel needing more black creators). If you read your history, it is also an excuse those who run the status quo have frequently used in response to social activists (ex. American women suffragettes told not to protest during wartime).
Marvel’s Hercules has for years been implied to be bisexual. The photo on the left is an alternative universe that Alonso refers to in his interview where Hercules is in a relationship with a gay James Howlett. However, the right photo is from 2010’s Fall of an Avenger #1, where it is heavily implied that he has had male as well as female lovers. Fall of an Avenger #1 occurred in the main Marvel Universe, 616.
Despite this, Alonso decided to set the record straight on the new Hercules book by literally stating that Hercules is straight:
Hercules and James Howlett’s relationship in “X-Treme X-Men” took place in a unique alternate universe, similar to how Colossus was gay in the Ultimate Universe, but is straight in the 616. Same goes for Hercules here.
Meanwhile, 45 new titles announced back in late June were mostly made up of Caucasian, cis-male, heterosexual protagonists. Hercules is, needlessly, one more.
Regardless of his own editorial inconsistencies, Alonso acknowledges here that there is active regulation for gay characters to go into “alternative” universes. So these gay versions are not the “main” versions of the characters, who are sure to appear in more books by virtue of being part of the comics universe where the grand majority of the publications are set. They are the versions readers see occasionally. This is significant because it shows that Marvel’s editorial is not willing to make room for queer characters even when they have an easy opportunity to do so and have repeatedly promised that they will.
To expand upon the main Marvel Universe, Marvel Comics’ queer representation there is lacking. Following his marriage, Northstar has not been featured in his own book and Marvel hasn’t ventured to suggest that they have any future plans for him. Meanwhile, other gay, lesbian, and bisexual characters such as Wiccan, Hulkling, and Miss America have never had their own solo series even when they have established fanbases. As for trans and genderqueer characters? With Loki: Agent of Asgard ending, no known book will have a trans or genderqueer protagonist.
Although it can’t be said that Marvel was ever completely faithful to the mythologies they borrowed from, Ancient Greek Hercules was not heterosexual. Nothing about Marvel’s Hercules—or really, most characters in comics— makes it so he has to be heterosexual either. Marvel could have let the character at least keep his bisexuality, but instead of going a bad route of ignoring it within the story, Marvel decided to go an even worse route and tell the public that they were canonizing him as heterosexual.
And queer critics were appalled.
I no longer believe in Marvel as an LGBT-friendly publisher. My last shreds of confidence are gone. My heartfelt complements…
— Andrew Wheeler (@Wheeler) July 31, 2015
… to creators who were able to push through LGBT content at a publisher that still seems institutionally hostile to it. — Andrew Wheeler (@Wheeler) July 31, 2015
Whether you care if Herc is bi or not, you should care about Marvel’s sustained marginalization of its queer characters and fans.
— Jon E. Christianson (@HonestlyJon) July 31, 2015
I honestly don’t know how axel alonso can come off as tone deaf as he does about representation in these cbr q&a columns — James’ Food Opinions (@Leask) July 31, 2015
Reminder: the Western heroic tradition is rich with queer and gender non-conforming people. Stop. Erasing. This.
— Seestra Megan (@thewherefores) August 1, 2015
This is a page taken from All-New X-Men #40 where long-time X-Men member Iceman is confronted by young Jean Grey to admit that he is gay, more than 50 years after his debut in 1963. The original page itself had its own series of problems, as covered by Brett White here, but the move was generally considered a positive one when it came to LGBTQ representation. The page was Photoshopped by a fan to repurpose it into asserting that Hercules is heterosexual.
Alonso knew very well that a segment of their readership was hurting. Instead of opening up a discussion or making amends, he chose to dig into that wound by circulating a joke made at the expense of those people. He actively encouraged not only the mocking of these critics, but stirred the pot of an already high-tense situation, potentially opening up the situation to more aggressive attacks. As for queer Marvel fans, one can only imagine how they felt when they saw the people speaking out for them get torn down.
Make no mistake: This is bullying of queer critics. This is belittling their concerns, mocking their outrage, and taunting them about how they cannot effect change in the characters that mean so much to them.
Those LGBTQ suicide statistics mentioned earlier are often attributed to peer-to-peer bullying when not to conditions at home. Tyler Clementi’s suicide became a national story after his college roommate filmed him having sex with another man. The names Jamie Hubley, Jamey Rodemeyer, Kenneth Weishuhn, and countless more have similar stories behind them. Gay, lesbian, and bisexual youth are 4 times more likely to commit suicide than their heterosexual peers. One quarter of trans teenagers have reported making a suicide attempt. It is estimated that 1,500 LGBTQ youth commit suicide each year.
Axel Alonso is the face of Marvel Comics. Marvel is not only the most financially successful publisher in the industry, but also the home of many important and now famous superheroes. Readers, especially young readers, look to these characters for inspiration and feelings of acceptance. Alonso did not share this harmful joke with only his friends; he was telling queer people, including many young queer followers, everywhere that he does not care how they feel and even finds jokes at their expense worth publicizing to the world at large.
The retweet made by Chris D’Lando, a new-hire at Marvel’s PR department, has shown that many younger employees follow Alonso’s lead and emulate his behavior. Alonso has shown employees like D’Lando that Marvel Comics can and will endorse the bullying of its concerned queer readership. He has signaled that he is willing to contribute to a toxic pattern in our society that causes the deaths of thousands of queer people every year.
But the influence doesn’t just extend to those who work at Marvel’s offices. Just look at the freelancers Alonso hires, who not only condone his behavior, but openly defend it.
This is Dan Slott, writer of Spider-Man for eight years, jumping to Alonso’s defense against queer critics responding to the CBR interview. He later deleted this tweet, possibly due to the amount of criticism he received about it, but the internet always remembers. According to Slott’s quoting of Theodore Roosevelt, if we were to make a proper metaphor, if you’re the person who is upset about the man in the arena taking out queer characters that many people relate to instead of being the man who is doing the active harm, you do not “count.”
That seems to be the current attitude at Marvel Comics, ranging from the head of the publisher to the most consistent freelancer to new hires at the PR department. Queer people don’t count. Readers who are upset don’t count. The implication is clear: shut up and let Marvel steamroll over you whenever it wants, no matter how much loyalty or money you have given the company over the years.
Alonso, D’Lando, and Slott have deleted tweets that added to the reaction online, but still have not acknowledged nor apologized for the things they said and endorsed. Like schoolyard bullies, they are also cowards, failing to admit wrongdoing even after the inappropriate nature of their abuse toward others has been pointed out to them. If they can get away with it, they will never mention this again. They will also go on to repeat this behavior and continue to hurt others in the future.
As far as Marvel is concerned, diversity is a marketing campaign and not something they have to follow through on. We’re not going to see more queer characters at Marvel until the next time they want to make a quick buck off of us like they did with Northstar. They are not even interested in maintaining the current characters they have now and find it so trivial as to mention it only in an interview when they decide to take them away.
They are trying to push us down. We need to push them back.
A comics reader since the first Raimi-directed Spider-Man movie, Ray now works as a copywriter. When not writing or training in Krav Maga, she likes to expand her queer comics knowledge and talk with fellow nerds on Twitter @RaySonne.