Queer Love In Comics Has Come A Long Way, But These Creators Know There's Still Progress To Be Made
Queer relationships are some of the most dynamic, meaningful, and important relationships in comics, despite the fact that they weren’t even permitted on the page until recently. Until 1989, an organization called the Comics Code Authority — which dictated what was appropriate material for the comic-reading audience — banned any suggestion of queerness in comics, and it's only since then that couples like Harley Quinn and Poison Ivy, Midnighter and Apollo, or Mystique and Destiny have been allowed in comics.
There are many comic creators who are members of the LGBTQI+ community, and they’re undeniably improving the industry they work in. In mainstream and indie books, mini-series and ongoing monthlies, more and more queer characters are being featured and, naturally, these characters are falling in love with each other. So what took so long?
Once the CCA ban against queer representation was lifted, publishers began incorporating gay characters into their stories, but not always in a positive way. Queer characters were often depicted as villains and deviants, and bisexual, transgender, or non-binary characters were non-existent. In recent years, comic publishers have begun inviting more artists and writers who are actually in the LGBTQI+ community to tell these stories, and things have improved, though there's still much work to be done.
As writer Mariko Tamaki — who has written stories, such as Skim, about exploring sexuality during one’s youth — puts it, “[My identity] is me. I can’t imagine not writing from me.”
Vita Ayala, who recently contributed to Wonder Woman — a character who is canonically bisexual — agrees. “No one can create in a vacuum, and disingenuous when someone says they have,” they tell Bustle. “Being a queer non-binary person of color gives me a perspective through which I view the world, and that is reflected in my writing. I hope it makes me inclined to be aware of sensitive issues and tropes, and more likely to avoid certain pitfalls when I write.”
Writer Grace Ellis feels the same way. She points out that being gay has made her more aware of the way other people see the world, and she makes it a point to make sure those around her feel comfortable and valued. “I think it has made me a more empathetic person,” she tells Bustle. “It affords us (she and her art partner, Shae Beagle, who is non-binary) a different perspective more than anything.”
"Being a queer non-binary person of color gives me a perspective through which I view the world, and that is reflected in my writing."
Shae is very much on the same page. “Your own experiences inform the way you view the world,” they say.
In speaking with many writers and artists in the LGBTQI+ community, it became clear to me that many of them admire each other’s work and hold each other in high regard. Several of the creators in this piece mentioned the other creators I spoke to for this piece, and many echoed the same sentiments about queer comic couples they admire.
One couple that seemed universally beloved is Mal and Molly from Lumberjanes. The book was co-created by Ellis, who — after a bit of hesitation — declared this couple is one of her favorites, as well.
Ellis says it’s probably the age of the characters that earns them a sweet spot in her heart. “There aren’t very many young, gay women in comics. And I think that’s great — that that is not only allowed to happen, but that it is succeeding," she says.
Ellis and Beagle are currently working on a book called Moonstruck, which presents another lesbian couple who also happen to be werewolves surrounded by other mystical beings. It’s a delightful, adorable comic aimed at a younger audience.
"There aren’t very many young, gay women in comics. And I think that’s great — that that is not only allowed to happen, but that it is succeeding,"
Another couple that was mentioned more than a few times by the creators I interviewed was Midnighter and Apollo — two superheroes in the DC Universe that can be seen as stand-ins for Batman and Superman. Steve Orlando, a bisexual man himself, got to write these characters who meant so much to him growing up.
“Their complexity, their maturity, and their nuance, their dedication to each other despite incredible hardship, through the crucible of their horrific science fiction origins, is continuously inspiring,” he tells Bustle. Having completed his work with these characters, Orlando is currently writing Crude, the story of a gay man living in the conservative country of Russia.
Steve Orlando's work was also mentioned by Sina Grace, who has penned very personal books like Nothing Lasts Forever, in which he discusses his own struggles with dating, amongst other things. But he’s also written a book about an X-Men character called Bobby Drake (aka Iceman), which was brought up by Tamaki. Though there’s not a specific relationship that any creator pointed to with this character, his exploration of love and sexuality is just as important.
“I didn’t want Bobby Drake to be instantly in a relationship,” Grace says. “He isn’t going to have all the tools right out the gate as a man who came out in his late 20s… he’ll be trying a few things before anything sticks. That felt like a cool addition to the Marvel Universe: a gay dude who’s single, sorting it out, and comfortable with that journey.”
Other notable couples who were mentioned are Harley Quinn and Poison Ivy, as well as Kate Kane (Batwoman) and Renee Montoya (a Gotham City cop.) Harley and Ivy are a couple defined by subtext, and they onlye became official in late 2016 by the pen of Marguerite Bennett, who also writes Batwoman. Both Ellis and Ayala bring up the fact that creators have been subtly hinting at relationships like Harley and Ivy’s for years, even before the CCA ban was lifted, which is what makes their “official” status worthy of celebrating.
"That felt like a cool addition to the Marvel Universe: a gay dude who’s single, sorting it out, and comfortable with that journey."
There are many other notable characters in the medium that bare exploring in addition to these, such as America Chavez and Mother Panic. But these characters being present isn’t always enough.
In fact, two issues kept re-emerging during my interviews for this article: Creators said there's a need for more queer love stories, but there's also a need for different kinds of queer love stories.
“I think we are at a point right now where the characters and couples that we have are being expected to represent all LGBTQ+ people and couples, and that is not in any way viable – in fact I think it is impossible,” Ayala tells Bustle. “There is a need for more representation — more queer couples, made up of as many varieties of LGBTQ+ people as there are in reality."
“We definitely more queer characters of color,” they add. “I think that there is plenty of room for us, and I think that as a whole (vocal minority aside) people who read comics want to see the stories.”
"There is a need for more representation — more queer couples, made up of as many varieties of LGBTQ+ people as there are in reality."
Orlando — who has also written a book called Virgil about a gay, male couple in Jamaica — agrees, stressing what he calls “diversity of diversity.” He says that intersectionality is essential to creating meaningful queer couples and characters.
Ellis says that she’s studied queer stories in various mediums, and she realized long ago that what is out there are, “mostly coming out stories, and they’re mostly really sad.” She points out how many of these LGBTQI+ characters end up dying or are attacked by the end. “I knew when I started writing that that was never what I wanted to do," she tells Bustle.
Which is why she and Beagle created a world in Moonstruck where sexual preference and identity are not points of contention. (In addition to the main character, Julie, who is in a same-sex relationship, readers of this book will meet Chet — a non-binary centaur.) But identity still plays a role. People discriminate against werewolves, for example. This team did not eliminate the vitriol that people in the community experience, they just shifted it so that this queer relationship could exist uninhibited.
“I want this book to be a place [that] queer readers can count on... where they don’t have to worry about that,” Ellis says.
Tamaki shares a similar sentiment. “I think there's always a part of me that wants to avoid talking about homophobia because I want queer relationships to have a space of their own,” she says.
“Showing queer people publicly dating with no parade feels like a great next step,” Grace says. He also makes a point that these stories need to exist more in the mainstream. “I don’t wanna be relegated to zines and webcomics.”
"I think there's always a part of me that wants to avoid talking about homophobia because I want queer relationships to have a space of their own."
Zines, webcomics, and indie publishers are actually a great place to find honest, real stories, as Beagle points out. “I’m constantly reaching out for more books that have these characters,” they say, adding that they’ve also been able to find similar stories on Kickstarter.
Once again showing off a united front, these creators all agree that things have gotten better for their community in recent years, but there’s still a lot of ground to cover.
Grace says, “Some days I feel like we’ve evolved and have reached that third act of Mean Girls where everyone is living in harmony… like, we can all be different, we don’t have to be jerks about the things that set us apart from one another.” But he also says there’s still a lot of competition and gatekeeping. Even so, he’s keeping a positive outlook: “At the end of the day, I will say there are folks upstairs asking way better questions about how to serve audiences responsibly, so I focus on that.”
Ellis has a similar point of view: “The shift is happening — it’s happening much more slowly than I would like it to.” She says that she used to feel like DC and Marvel — often referred to as “The Big Two” because of their reach and influence — were “like the Titanic. You can’t turn it on a dime.” But now she’s starting to realize that these publishers have the ability to make radical change if they wanted to.
“Some days I feel like we’ve evolved and have reached that third act of Mean Girls where everyone is living in harmony… like, we can all be different, we don’t have to be jerks about the things that set us apart from one another.”
“Within those companies, there are a lot of people who care a lot about representation," she says. “I think there are a lot of smart people working very hard on it. I think it’s just that there are so many established people in comics who just don’t care, and there’s no incentive for them to care at the moment.”
She suspects that potential profit loss is to blame for their hesitation. There is a very loud minority of comic readers — mostly straight, white men who think this medium belongs to them — who oppose any attempt at inclusion.
But as many of these creators pointed out, there are more and more queer love stories appearing in comics as time goes on. The industry is without a doubt more inclusive than it was even five years ago. That’s why the characters and relationships we do have definitely deserve to be be celebrated and encouraged, making way for even better stories to come.