April 16, 2010
POWER CUBED The Skin Tight party at the Stonewall Inn in the West Village attracts the masked forces of good, or at least their devoted legion of followers.
By GEORGE GENE GUSTINES
DIM lighting. Rendezvous-friendly nooks. Muscled bartenders. Pulsating dance music. At first glance, it could be any Saturday night in any gay bar in New York.
But then you notice, off to one corner, Superman flirting with Green Lantern. And there, across the room, someone in the form-fitting outfit of Black Adam, Captain Marvel’s foe, determinedly working the floor. In fact, there seems to be an inordinate number of men here tonight who look as if they have all but jumped from the pages of a comic book. And in some way, they have.
This is Skin Tight U.S.A., the occasional costume-fetish party held at the Stonewall Inn in the West Village, which draws a regular group of men (and their admirers) who enjoy a special kind of dress-up. Some wear heroic outfits; some, wrestling gear. The crowd can range from 25 people on an average night to 250 on a spectacular one. The common thread is that the muscle-cuddling garb often leaves little to the imagination.
“I was always attracted to the superhero physique,” said Matthew Levine, 31, who helped found the party in 2005 with Andrew Owen, 44, and who was one of the few participants willing to be named. The two become friends as, respectively, the graphic designer and Webmaster for Hard Comixxx, a predecessor of Skin Tight, once held at the Eagle bar in Chelsea. Mr. Levine is a big fan of the X-Men (who have a handful of gay characters) and the Transformers (all of whom seem straight) and has been reading comics since he was 8. “As I got older,” he said, “I realized, ‘Oh, this is why I admire the Grecian ideal of manhood and musculature.’ ”
The Skin Tight party — in which the costumes range from the familiar (like Spider-Man) to ones that only a comics geek would recognize (like the 1993 version of Superboy) — is one way that gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender comic book fans are expressing themselves today. They are coming out, loud and proud, in blogs, peer groups, Web comics and more, simultaneously pronouncing their sexual identity and their devotion to comic books. But it wasn’t that long ago that the environment was less than welcoming for those who wanted to make the two seemingly disparate worlds one.
“Growing up in the ’80s, I guess I didn’t even think gay super-heroes or supporting characters were a possibility,” Dan Avery, 37, an editor of Next, a guide to gay night life in New York City, wrote in an e-mail message. “I do remember feeling like I had two secrets I had to keep: being gay and being a comic-book fan. I’m not sure which I was more afraid of people discovering.” These days, Mr. Avery is a member of a group of gay men who meet regularly to discuss the latest comics.
Someone who understands the past reluctance to come out is Andy Mangels, 43, who since 1988 has moderated the “Gays in Comics” panel at the Comic-Con International in San Diego. That same year, he wrote “Out of the Closet and Into the Comics,” an article for Amazing Heroes, a magazine that covered the comic book industry. The article included a handful of anonymous quotes from gay and lesbian creators. “They were all scared of how the industry would treat them,” Mr. Mangels said in a recent telephone interview.
Though the comic book industry has moved beyond the hysteria caused by “Seduction of the Innocent” — the 1954 book by the psychiatrist Fredric Wertham that suggested a link between reading comics and juvenile delinquency, saw Batman and Robin as a homosexual couple, and posited Wonder Woman as a fan of sadomasochism — true gay and lesbian characters have been slow to emerge.
Mr. Mangels cited issue No. 23 of The Hulk Magazine, from 1980, as the first mainstream comic to include gays or lesbians, though the depiction was hardly positive. In the story, Bruce Banner, the Hulk’s alter ego, is at a Y.M.C.A. where two gay men try to rape him. Jim Shooter, the writer, justified the scene by saying it was based on incidents that happened to a friend and himself.
Gay and lesbian characters fared better in the underground comic movement with pioneers (and gay creators) like Howard Cruse and Roberta Gregory. The representation was also generally more positive in what was known in the 1980s as “independent comics,” which was shorthand for those books not published by DC Comics or Marvel Entertainment. “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay,” the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Michael Chabon, chronicled both the paranoia about comics in the 1950s and Sam Clay’s struggle with his gay identity. “Life — my life — is rich with gay ‘characters’; how can any fiction that hopes to pass itself off as plausible neglect to be the same?” Mr. Chabon said in a 2007 interview with washingtonpost.com.
In interviews with several gay fans, the reasons given for gravitating toward comics were as varied as the heroes’ costumes: everything from escapism to “hot men in tights” to embodying the X-Men’s message, “seeking acceptance from a world that hates and fears them purely for who they are.”
There’s also a power fantasy. “I think that some young gay boys and men are more attracted to that than the average kid because they have one extra fight to fight than just being the wimpy kid in school,” said Bob Schreck, a bisexual comic book editor who worked on Green Lantern, which included a gay-bashing storyline. “The straight wimpy kid is a straight wimpy kid. The gay wimpy kid is in real trouble.”
These days, gays and lesbians have their own heroes to admire. In 1992, Northstar, a Marvel hero, came out to vast news media attention, including an editorial in The New York Times. The Canadian hero now has a boyfriend, Kyle. Today, his comrades include Wiccan and Hulkling, a super-powered gay couple in the Young Avengers. The team was created by Allan Heinberg, a writer on “Grey’s Anatomy,” who said his editor supported his desire to include gay characters.
Two of the most prominent lesbian heroes, The Question and Batwoman, are at DC Comics. The first character is secretly Renee Montoya, a former Gotham City detective. Batwoman, introduced in 1956, was reintroduced in 2006 as a lesbian to great media fanfare. Last year she became the lead character in Detective Comics. The story line, which delved into her background, including being discharged from the military for being gay, won a GLAAD Media Award in March. Last Wednesday, DC Comics announced Batwoman would receive her own series this year.
A recent addition to this super-powered pride parade is Shatterstar, who in an issue of X-Factor last year sealed his reunion with another hero, Rictor, with a kiss. Not everyone was amused. “As the guy that created, designed and wrote his first dozen appearances, Shatterstar is not gay,” Rob Liefeld posted on his message board. “Sorry. Can’t wait to someday undo this. Seems totally contrived.”
There was nothing stereotypically gay about Shatterstar when he first appeared in 1991. In fact, the heavily shoulder-padded costume and big hair would argue the opposite, but superheroes are typically shared and evolve as they change hands. In an interview at comicbookresources.com, Peter David, the writer who “outed” Shatterstar, said he was answering fans’ questions on whether he would explore past hints about the hero. Mr. David thought, “Why not?”
Creating the “right” type of gay or lesbian character can be challenging. In an e-mail interview, Phil Jimenez, who has illustrated X-Men as well as writing and drawing Wonder Woman, wrote: “This is always the unfair truth of any new character created to represent a minority: it’s nearly impossible for them to thrive as characters because they have to ‘represent’ a population whose members do not all behave the same way, see themselves in the same way, dress in the same way, share the same political beliefs.”
Mr. Jimenez, who is gay, is one of over 350 writers, artists and editors who are profiled on the Web site for Prism Comics, a nonprofit organization that supports lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender comics, creators and readers. Patty Jeres, who, along with David Stanley, is a president of the group, said, “We have gone from one booth in San Diego, that in its infancy was more like a place for the gay guys to hang out, to three booths” that are focused on talking to fans, professionals and those who want to enter the field.
Another one of those profiled at Prism Comics is the playwright Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, who also writes comics. His Spider-Man and Fantastic Four stories have more of a gay sensibility than being overtly gay. He’s had the Human Torch get excited about having tickets to “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” and Invisible Woman visit a gay bar for a girl’s night out with She-Hulk.
Will television have the first gay superhero in a leading role? Perry Moore, a producer of the “Chronicles of Narnia” film series, certainly hopes so. “My passion is infinite for more gay heroes in all genres and in all media,” said Mr. Moore, who is gay.
When he could not find the stories he wanted to read, he decided to write one himself. The result, in 2007, was “Hero,” a young-adult novel about Thom Creed, who is coping with high school, his sexual orientation and budding superpowers. Last year, the novel was optioned by Showtime and Stan Lee, the man who helped to introduce the world to Spider-Man and the Fantastic Four.
“Showtime finally didn’t commit and we’re now exploring our options,” Mr. Lee wrote in an e-mail message. “Stayed turned for further developments. Excelsior!”
“ ‘Hero’ will see its day onscreen,” Mr. Moore said. “I’m not sure how or where or who will make it possible, but like all the best heroes, you have to have faith. And when it does, it will be another step forward. And some folks will think, ‘Damn, it’s about time someone thought of doing that.’ ”