Of Comic Books, Capitalism, And Culture War Crackpots, Or : What A Bisexual Superman Means — And What It Doesn’t, Part Three Of Three

Show of hands — who remembers that time when Superman died?

Okay, that looks like everybody. Now, how about when he was replaced by a handful of impostors after he died? Or when he rose from the dead like another favorite fictional character?

A few less hands, but still most of you. Let’s go a bit deeper : how about the time he got electrical powers and turned blue and adopted a new costume to go with his new look and abilities? Or when he broke into two separate beings, the other one red, when the whole “electric blue” thing started to run out of gas? How about when he became an evil cyborg? Or when he lost his memory? Or when he left Earth “forever”? Or when he quit being a hero to live a normal life?

The point here being, if you hadn’t guessed already, that while I agree that the supposed revelation of Jon Kent’s equally-supposed bisexuality is a publicity stunt, at least to an extent, it follows in a long line of Superman-related publicity stunts — in fact, it could be fairly argued that every significant change/development in the “life” of this franchise (I hesitate to call Superman a character anymore; he’s a billion-dollar property) has been a publicity stunt, even (hell, especially) major upheavals to the status quo such as revealing his secret identity to Lois Lane, proposing to her, marrying her, and having a kid with her. All of these events and more were hyped in advance to maximize sales of the issues they took place in, yet none of them — even the time he renounced his American citizenship to protest US foreign policy, even his frigging death — were met with anywhere near the level of vitriol that his son’s “coming out” has engendered so far.

Granted, social media wasn’t “a thing” back when many of these much-ballyhooed occurrences went down, but that’s almost immaterial to the central question here, which is : why was there little to no uproar about any of this stuff in any venue, while the revelation that Jon is (or could be) bi has everyone from the most popular conservative commentators to casual comic book “tourists” doing their best Chicken Little imitations? I think we all know the answer.

It’s not like this publicity-driven approach to “developing” the Superman franchise is confined solely to the so-called “Modern Age” of comics, either — back in the “Silver Age,” for instance, before 24/7 hype machines were part and parcel of every publisher’s arsenal, editor Mort Weisinger tasked writers such as Otto Binder with thinking up new gimmicks to sell kids Super-books every single month. Most of these revolved around “alternate reality” or “dream” yarns where Superman did things like grow a weird-shaped head, turn into a monkey, lose his powers, conquer the world, or even — get this — marry Lois Lane, but this monthly act of one-upmanship also carried over into issues that were “Not a Dream! Not a Hoax! Not an Imaginary Story!” as well, a good percentage of which featured Superman undergoing similar temporary weird transformations, the only difference being they were usually brought on by exposure to ever-more-exotic varieties of Kryptonite. Stan Lee might have been plying his trade as comics’ first carnival-barker over at Marvel, but people tend to forget that his hucksterism was something of a desperate ploy to keep up with the Joneses — the really crazy shit was happening over at DC.

Which means, of course, that Superman was — and remains to this day — far from the only hero in either company’s roster to be batted about from one ridiculous extreme to another in hopes of ginning up attention and the sales that go along with it, but it sure seems ironic (to put it as kindly as possible) that the one character development that’s driven people the craziest is one that’s actually a fairly pedestrian aspect of everyday life. I mean, what happens more often — someone “coming out,” or someone transforming into a goddamn tree? I get that comic books, like all other popular media, rely on suspension of disbelief to be effective, but come on here, people.

Prior to Jon Kent kissing a boy, the most recent major “events” in Superman’s printed-page adventures were him revealing his secret identity to the world and the series itself starting over with a new first issue. The latter happens in comics far more frequently than those who don’t read them could ever possibly fathom and really doesn’t even count as a “landmark” occasion anymore no matter how badly publishers hope and pray audiences will still fall for it, but the Superman “coming out” as Clark Kent is certainly a far bigger change to the overall mythos than a secondary Superman whose sexuality had never even been established “coming out” as bi, wouldn’t you say? Yet the army of “don’t change anything” traditionalists who have sprung out of the woodwork to publicly foam at the mouth like rabid culture war dogs about Jon’s first kiss were almost nowhere to be found when Superman stood at a podium in front of every news reporter and camera they could cram into a panel and told the world his truth. Which brings me, at long last, to my final point —

Sadly and clearly, homophobic bigotry is as alive and well as we figured, in our darkest moments, that it was. So even though I take what some might consider to be a dim and cynical view toward DC/Warner/AT&T’s motivations as far as having a bisexual Superman go (I just call it being a realist), let’s not forget that there are communities where damn near everyone gets their “news” from Fox, Newsmax, or the AT&T-sponsored OAN. Communities where reactionary assholes like Donald Trump or our “friend” from yesterday’s installment, Josh Mandel, are not just supported, but supported nearly unanimously. And in those communities, LGBTQIA+ kids don’t just “have it rough” — their lives could literally be in danger if their schoolmates, in some cases even their families, knew their truth. One of the few safe refuges available to kids who don’t fit in has always been “nerd” or “geek” culture — comic books, sci-fi, video games, table-top RPGs, etc. — so reaching out to those teens and young adults and letting them know they’re welcome in comics, no matter what reactionary nitwits like the “comicsgaters” say, isn’t just the right thing to do, for some folks it’s downright essential. To the extent, then, that having Superman : Son Of Kal-El feature a kiss between the star of the book and a guy he’s sweet on helps make the life of even one persecuted, closeted, or persecuted and closeted queer young person a little easier — or even just makes them feel represented — it’s the right thing to do regardless of the reasons behind it.

The DC/Warner/AT&T trifecta of capitalistic greed may only value the LGBTQIA+ community as consumers — but that doesn’t mean the comics community itself doesn’t value them as people. Let’s make sure that we (and I say “we” because this is particularly incumbent upon “cishet” folks such as myself) all do our best every day to let them know that we do.

Of Comic Books, Capitalism, And Culture War Crackpots, Or : What A Bisexual Superman Means — And What It Doesn’t, Part Two Of Three

“Bisexual Superman in a kids’ comic? They are literally trying to destroy this country!” screeched one Josh Mandel from his twitter account, underneath a picture of the Jon Kent iteration of Superman kissing his purported new love interest, Jay Nakamura, taken from the forthcoming Superman : Son Of Kal-El #5.

A quick perusal of Mandel’s timeline shows that these kinds of histrionics are basically the guy’s stock in trade, with gems including “Christopher Columbus was a great American” (uhhhh — dude, don’t know how to break it to you but he wasn’t any kind of American), “You can’t spell panDEMic without DEM — is this a coincidence?,” “The Bible and the Constitution aren’t supposed to be separate, ” or the one that probably made me laugh the loudest, a poll where he asked “Of the various types of illegals flooding across the border, will more crimes be committed by Muslim terrorists or Mexican gangbangers?” The problem though, of course, is that there’s really nothing funny about any of this crap because Mandel, as you either already know or are likely to have surmised, isn’t some drooling psychopath locked in a padded cell (though he should be) or someone’s crazy uncle safely squirreled away at the far end of the family dinner table on Thanksgiving, he’s actually a pretty big deal. : he’s the prospective front-runner for the GOP nomination in the Ohio senate race.

That being said, and leaving aside the depressing reality that Republican primaries are now right wing dick-measuring contests where the winner is almost always the craziest-sounding son of a bitch running, it’s actually what’s left unspoken in Mandel’s Superman-related bit of manufactured outrage (please remind me again which side of the political ledger is the one that’s “triggered” all the time by even the tiniest little things?) that’s even more concerning than the nonsense he blurts out. No one else appears to have asked it yet, so I will : who, exactly, does he mean by “they”?

Surely it’s not DC or its parent entities, Warner and AT&T. Odds are better than good than when the next quarterly campaign finance reports are made public, they’ll probably show that he happily accepted their money, and as a “free-market conservative,” he’s a lead-pipe cinch to do their bidding whenever telecom-friendly deregulation legislation comes rolling around . Likewise, it’s doubtful that he’s referring to Tom Taylor and John Timms, the writer and artist of the comic he’s all constipated over — he doesn’t have the first clue who they even are. No, it seems pretty clear to me that the target of Mandel’s performative wrath is bisexuals, at the very least, and more than likely the LGBTQIA+ community in general. They are the “they” who are “literally trying to destroy this country.”

Which is, of course, absurd on its face. I don’t know how to break it to Mandel and his mouth-breathing ilk, but the entire country could wake up bisexual tomorrow morning and it wouldn’t “destroy” a single fucking thing. Hell, if such a thing were to happen it would probably do Mandel some good, since he might have more luck finding someone who’s willing to yank out the stick he’s so clearly got shoved up his ass. Time will tell whether or not his strategy of trolling his way into the US senate works, but if it does, that will be both a sad commentary on the overall mental health of the Ohio electorate and good news for the the nearest pharmacy to Mandel’s DC residence with a well-stocked selection of suppositories.

Still, as anyone — even a Republican — can tell you, there’s no crazier type of Republican than an Arizona Republican (Barry Goldwater, Evan Meacham, Jan Brewer, Paul Gosar — it’s a truly impressive list of thoroughly unimpressive conservative whack-jobs driven mad by the desert heat), so you can be sure they weren’t gonna let some nutcase-come-lately out of Ohio steal the spotlight afforded by the Superman news all to himself. To that end, Arizona GOP congressional candidate Josh (what’s the deal with that name?) Barnett tweeted “Why does Hollywood have to ruin everything?#superman,” never mind that Hollywood has exactly nothing to do with the present Super-situation at all, and current Arizona GOP state senator Wendy Rogers adamantly put her foot down, declaring “Superman loves Louis Lane. Period,” thus ensuring she’d be the butt of every joke in the entire country for at least the next 24-48 hours.

However, as one might expect, it’s been reactionary forces within comics fandom itself who’ve been making the most hay out of all of this, and you can almost see the dollar signs flashing in the eyes of the grifters who’ve wormed their way to the top of the “comicsgate” food chain when they gesticulate wildly and foam at the mouth to the delight of their bigoted streaming audience while trotting out their collection of Jon Kent news clippings as “proof” that their bread-and-butter narrative about the “death” of the comic book industry is finally coming to pass. Their crowd-funded books might typically be months or even years late as a matter of course, but these guys’ sense of timing when it comes to stoking up their fan base is impeccable, and while I won’t sully this site by naming the disreputable cast of characters milking their YouTube hate cult for “superchat” cash on the back of this latest culture war flare-up — you know who they are anyway — I have to say that I did find it interesting that a recent addition to this rogues’ gallery is none other than one Gabe Eltaeb, who is the colorist on the very Superman : Son Of Kal-El comic that’s got them all so upset, and who appeared the night before last (as of this writing) on a “comicsgate” livestream where he shared his enlightened opinion that, now that Jon Kent has kissed a guy, man-on-dog sex was next.

Apparently our guy Gabe’s commitment to lunatic levels of bigotry only goes so far, though — I mean, lest we forget, he was happy enough to work on the very book he was bashing and cash the paycheck he got from DC for doing so. Still, when I mentioned in our previous installment that DC/Warner/AT&T were actually no friends of the LGBTQIA+ community, I had no idea that proof of precisely that could be found this close to the source. “Superman’s Coming-Out Comic Colored By Raging Homophobe” does not a good headline make for the very company hoping to ride a wave of headlines to a big payday with all of this. It’s bad enough that a number of LGBTQIA+ creators who have worked for DC feel that the publisher hasn’t done enough — if anything — to protect them from homophobic “fan” harassment, but this? Friends, this is some seriously “next-level” bullshit right here.

Dragging it back out to a more “macro” views of the situation, though, if one has the stamina to filter out all the “sky is falling” hyperbole that tends to issue forth from the conservative “culture warriors” who’ve adopted the posture of full-time victims for fun and profit, one finds that the same “talking points” tend to repeat themselves ad nauseum with regard to bi Superman, those being : they claim the whole thing is a publicity stunt, they say it’s not true to the origins of the character, and they insist that they just want politics — all politics — out of their Superman comics.

The “publicity stunt’ argument isn’t one I’m prepared to refute, simply because I actually happen to agree that’s what this is — but the fact that the “Make Comics Great Again” types are pointing it out is actually damning to them, and therefore deserves a bit more analysis and extrapolation, so I’ll save that for our third and final installment. The other two non-points they make, however — that this new development isn’t true to the origins of the character and that Superman should be apolitical — directly tie together, so we may as well tackle them both right now.

First off, there’s nothing inherently political about being bi. Or gay. Or transgender. Or straight. Or anything. As mentioned last time around in reference to the genocidal bloodbath for any and all non-Trumpers that the QAnon crowd salivates over, it’s obviously the case that the vast majority of LGBTQIA+ Americans are progressive politically, but not all of them are by any stretch — therefore, the idea that the very existence of a bisexual character is a political statement in and of itself simply doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. For all we know, Jon Kent could be a card-carrying member of the Smallville, Kansas Republican Party. His sexual orientation doesn’t preclude him from holding any set of political beliefs he chooses, and who we are we kidding? If the creators of this comic did make him a Republican, the same people shitting their Depends right now would be toasting Taylor and Timms with champagne for their “bravery” and “courage.” You, me, and the very people making the claim know damn well they don’t want “apolitical” comics — what they want are comics that don’t in any way run counter to their right-wing views.

Unfortunately for them, when it comes to Superman, that train left the station a long time ago. As the panels included with this post show, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster — the working class Jewish kids from Cleveland who created the character in the first place — gave him a very definite point of view, and had him battle on behalf of very politically-charged causes. In fact, the original Superman that these ostensible “traditionalists” want to see brought back would actually have them even more up in arms than his bisexual son does given that he was billed as a “champion of the oppressed” who fought such reality-based villains as slum landlords, prison wardens who treated their charges inhumanely, strike-breaking scabs, Wall Street bloodsuckers, Pinkerton mercenaries, trigger-happy cops, and other eminently relatable threats to the proletariat. The last son of Krypton, as originally conceived, was a “New Deal” Democrat all the way, as any fair and honest reading of the Siegel and Shuster stories proves. Hell, in Action Comics #1 he saved the life of a death row inmate and beat the crap out of a violent misogynist, so Superman was an “SJW’ from the word go.

Okay, sure, he wasn’t bisexual — but he couldn’t fly, didn’t have heat vision, and wasn’t vulnerable to Kryptonite, either. Those changes, among many others, came later — the biggest one being when he was changed into a flag-waving patriot after DC’s predecessor, National Periodical Publications, swindled ownership of the character out from underneath his creators just as they were shipping off to serve in WWII — and something tells me that the “we want our old Superman back” crowd wouldn’t be terribly eager to see any of them undone. But in the final analysis it’s rather immaterial, anyway — their “classic” Superman hasn’t gone anywhere, and they damn well know it. He’s still starring in two books (or more) of his own every month, is still married to Lois Lane, is still locked in a decades-long stalemate with Lex Luthor, all of it. You want old-school Superman? The Superman? Then just buy those other comics and not Superman : Son Of Kal-El. “Problem” solved.

A variation on the “originalist” argument that I’ve seen in tweets and facebook posts and the like here and there that’s also just as easily made mincemeat of is the one that acknowledges that it’s not Superman himself they’re changing by making him bi, but that they’re changing Jon Kent by making him bi, and they should simply leave him hetero. At first, that seems at least a bit more tethered to reality, but of course it isn’t : Jon Kent was created in 2015 and, up until now, had never expressed any kind of sexual or affectational orientation in any direction. He’s been a thoroughly chaste character, as was entirely appropriate for a kid his age — but, curiously for comics, he has been allowed to age, and now he’s at an age where, as the bumper sticker says, shit happens.

If that’s shit you can’t handle, okay, but honestly — that says more about you than it does about the character or the comic book. Jon Kent is growing the fuck up — isn’t it well past time for certain readers, politicians, and culture war grifters to do the same?

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Tomorrow we’ll put this baby to bed with part three of this series, but until then, if you actually enjoy reading this kind of stuff, please consider supporting me on Patreon, where I do this three times per week. https://www.patreon.com/fourcolorapocalypse

Of Comic Books, Capitalism, And Culture War Crackpots, Or : What A Bisexual Superman Means — And What It Doesn’t, Part One Of Three

I’m loathe to start things off on a “housekeeping” note, but in this case I think it’s in order : when I re-tooled my approach to this site about a month back with an eye toward broadening out its scope beyond small press and self-published comics, I figured I might occasionally look in on what the “Big Two” were up to — but I honestly never imagined that, just a few weeks on from writing a multi-part series on Captain America By Ta-Nehisi Coates Vol. 1, I’d be embarking on yet another long-form essay/rant on the funnybook mainstream. And if you’d told the me of a month or so back that my second foray into critically less-familiar waters would be to talk about a comic that I had almost no intention of reading and certainly no intention of buying, I’d have asked for your dealer’s number because for 50-year-olds like yours truly, decent connections are damn tough to come by. Nevertheless, here we are, circumstances having swayed my hand, so there’s nothing else for it but to exclaim the customary “Once more into the breach!” and take it from there —

Superman might wear colorful tights and his underwear on the outside, but up until yesterday, the idea that he might be gay — or fall anywhere within the LGBTQIA+ spectrum — was pretty much a non-starter, culturally. Both Marvel and DC have featured secondary (or less) LGBTQIA+ characters in their publications for some years now, sure, but an “A-lister” like Superman? Any level of even perceived “gayness” seemed out of the question. Hell, if any top-ranking superhero in comics was ever going to be “outed” by editorial, Batman seems a far more likely choice given he displays any number of characteristics commensurate with the psychological profile of a non-hetero BDSM “top” who’s got some serious anger issues — after all, what other sort of person puts on leather fetish gear and heads into the rough part of town to beat the shit out of guys he barely even knows (or doesn’t even know at all) every night of the week without fail? If a billionaire were looking for justice (and that’s a mighty big “if”), there are literally a billion other — and smarter — ways to go about getting it. There’s just gotta be something else compelling Bruce Wayne to live the way he does — but alas, it doesn’t look like DC is ready to go there yet.

Still, they floated a little trial balloon of sorts earlier this year when one of his former sidekicks, Tim Drake, came out as bisexual — and not only did the sky not fall in, the “reveal” apparently put just enough wind in DC’s sales (whoops, sails — how cynical of me!) for them to aim their sights a bit higher. And so they have. But not as high as it may appear at first.

“BISEXUAL SUPERMAN!!!” the rage-click headlines scream — but are they true? The jury seems to be out on that, so let’s parse things a bit : yes, in next month’s Superman : Son Of Kal-El #5, Superman kisses a dude. But the very title of the book itself should clue even somebody mercifully separated from the comics world by considerable distance in to the fact that this isn’t the Superman, but rather a Superman —specifically, Clark Kent and Lois Lane’s “YA”-aged son, Jonathan. And while the writer of this particular mini-series, one Tom Taylor, is certainly saying all the right things in the barrage of attendant press pieces since the news broke just over 24 hours ago as of this writing, in point of fact I have yet to see him anywhere refer to young Mr. Kent as gay, bi, or anything of the sort. We know he has an ostensible love interest in the form of super-powered “hacktivist” Jay Nakamura — who, somewhat creepily perhaps, is a massive Lois Lane fan-boy — but beyond that, what we know is what we see in the artwork by John Timms shown above. Taylor’s most telling quote, to my mind, is that it would have been a “missed opportunity” to make this specific second-string Superman “another straight white male savior,” but that — like this kiss heard ’round the social media world — is a far more inferential statement than it is a definitive one. Okay, Jon kisses a guy. But you know who else has done that? Plenty of straight dudes.

Which isn’t me saying that DC is going to back away from the idea of a bi Superman — but it sure looks like they’re not exactly committed to it at this point, either. I’m reminded of Stan Lee’s rejection of Jack Kirby’s first character and costume designs for the Black Panther (who Kirby, in a characteristically bold move, modeled on the great Patrice Lumumba), which showed T’Challa’s full face, and even of Kirby’s second proposal which put a half-mask on him, in favor of a fully masked design that left Smilin’ Stan the option of revealing the character to be white at a later date. Again in this case, the publisher is hedging its bets — and the smart money bet for any readers out there is on DC having multiple story outlines ready to go as far as this whole relationship is concerned. Will they go for the gusto and let these two fall in love and find happiness together? Will they have Jon slowly back out of it? Will Jay tragically die just as things are getting good? Anything is possible — hell, they might even have Jon wake up the following issue and realize it was all just a dream.

Okay, talking of bets and all, my own marker (I do have house credit here, after all) isn’t on that latter option, but you never know. The point is, anything and everything is infinitely malleable in the forever-roiling cauldron of corporate comics continuity, so if you’re one of those folks who’s really excited about the idea of a bisexual Jon Kent, I would urge you not to get your hopes up too terribly high for the long run, no matter how positive things might appear in the near term. At the end of the day, we all know that sales are going to dictate whether or not this is a big(-ish) moment in comic book history, or a blip on the radar screen. For my own part, I definitely think it’s cool that a lot of readers — LGBTQIA+ or otherwise — are stoked about this simply because, while I’m admittedly a cishet old curmudgeonly white dude, I’m not so curmudgeonly that I don’t understand and appreciate why media representation matters to communities that have either gone unseen or, worse yet, been portrayed in mainly negative (or even nefarious) terms in the past. A hell of a lot of people were tweeting sentiments of the “I finally feel seen” variety yesterday, and I’m happy that they’re all happy. Sooooo — could there be a shittier place to insert a “but” than here ? Probably not. But

The follow-up question that never gets asked in these discussions on representation is “what are you seen as?,” and in this case it seems to me that the uncomfortable answer to that, any way you slice it, is “a license to print money.” I’m not saying this is the attitude of this particular comic’s creators toward the LGBTQIA+ community (although it might be worth pointing out that said creators are apparently all straight, which one could argue is somewhat tone-deaf on its face), and it may not even be the attitude of DC editorial, but their corporate paymasters? You’d have to be naive to believe they see them as anything else. If the higher-ups at DC’s parent company, Warners — or their parent company, AT&T — thought there wasn’t cold, hard cash to be made here, they’d have put the kibosh on this happy bit of inclusivity already. Predatory multi-national media conglomerates are not “friends” or “allies” of gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender people — and I can say that with full confidence because they’re not “friends” or “allies” of most straight people, either. How quickly everyone seems to have forgotten, for instance, that it was revealed just last week that AT&T is responsible for nearly 100% of the funding for noxious far-right “news” outlet OAN, a neo-fascist platform that is loaded to the gills with “stolen election” conspiracy BS and QAnon lunacy — and in case you weren’t aware, the over-riding core belief of the QAnon crowd is that sooner or later a genocidal event called “The Storm” is coming that will see anyone and everyone opposed to Donald Trump rounded up, sent to Gitmo, brutally tortured, and summarily executed without trial. Think that “enemies list” might include some LGBTQIA+ folks? Like, I dunno, maybe a good 80-90% of them?

The political and “culture war” aspects of this “Superman Is (Maybe) Bi” phenomenon are something I’ll delve into more fully in tomorrow’s segment of this series, but for now I think it behooves everyone to remember that AT&T pays for this QAnon shit to be pumped out into the body politic via OAN, and QAnon wants to see the overwhelming majority of LGBTQIA+ Americans tortured and killed. Want to support Jon Kent’s coming out by purchasing the comic featuring his first same-sex kiss? Okay, feel free — but keep in mind where that money is going as it makes its way up the corporate food chain. All is not lost, though, I promise — in fact, I’ll have far cheerier things to say in our next installment. Sort of. It’s complicated.