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By Marcie Young
MEN IN TIGHTS
A teenage boy sits on a cozy couch in the sun-drenched living room of his family’s suburban home. His father leans forward and fidgets in his seat across the room, while his brother slumps into the couch, his arms crossed in anger. His mother exhales deeply before speaking. “So, when you did you first know you were a…,” she stutters as her words trail off. She’s unable to unable to finish the thought. She doesn’t even want to say the word.
“A mutant,” the boy’s friend interjects, finishing her sentence.
The father responds to the trio of friends surrounding his son, “You have to understand, we thought Bobby was going to a school for the gifted.”
“Bobby is gifted,” a female friend says, coming to Bobby’s defense.
His father continues, “We know that. We just didn’t realize…”
But Bobby’s mother interrupts, “We still love you Bobby. It’s just…this mutant problem is a little…”
Before she can finish, the eldest of Bobby’s friends snaps, “What mutant problem?”
She looks at the man’s shaggy facial hair and intimidating eyes. “Complicated,” she finishes forcefully.
“Well, you should see what Bobby can do,” his female friend suggests.
Bobby reaches for his mother’s steaming cup of tea, places one finger on the hot ceramic and turns the boiling liquid into a solid block of caffeinated ice. Shock crosses her face and her mouth falls open in awe.
Bobby’s brother uncrosses his arms, and without a word, leaps from the couch and bounds up the stairs. Bobby frowns at his brother’s visible hostility.
“This is all my fault,” his mother laments. Her son is different — an outcast who will certainly be persecuted by society. Bobby is a mutant.
To many gay comic book fans, this scene from the 2003 blockbuster hit, “X-Men 2,” represents more than just a human mutant telling his family he can freeze things. Bobby Drake, or Iceman, is admitting to his parents that he’s different and that he’s been harboring a secret too long.
This is the day Bobby Drake came out.
In the comic book world, where the typical adult male fan is often stereotyped as a socially awkward, heterosexual geek, a thriving community of gay fans may seem a bit uncommon. A visit to the Gay League Web site, a forum dedicated to homosexuality in comics, proves otherwise. More than 1,000 mostly male fans have signed-on as members to discuss gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered issues in the industry.
Many gay fans and professionals say Marvel’s X-Men symbolize homosexuality and boast numerous gay-friendly metaphors that are woven into the colorful panels. Andy Mangels, former editor of Gay Comics and former writer for Marvel and DC Comics, says the X-Men, as mutants, are forced to mask their true identities to avoid persecution. Mangels, 39, says he knew he was gay since childhood and identified with the mutant outcasts struggling to fit in. “Growing up reading comic books, there were people just like me who were hiding something about themselves from everyone around them, even those they loved,” Mangels says. “It’s that element of ‘I’m hiding something that’s really wonderful, but it sets me apart from what everybody thinks is normal.”
However, the X-Men aren’t the only comic book superheroes gay fans identify with, Mangels says. The colorful medium also allows gay men to admire campy female heroines, appreciate healthy male relationships and gawk at taut, muscular bodies enveloped in tight Lycra costumes.
A yellow cab stops in front of the Jacob Javits Center, where the New York Comic Con — a tradeshow featuring superhero legends, comic book artists and devoted fans — is taking place. Inside the vehicle, Batman pulls thick, black gloves off his arms and searches for a twenty dollar bill. He finds the money folded over the credit cards he had hidden in a pouch tucked behind his bat-encrusted utility belt and hands it to the taxi driver.
“Thank you,” Batman mutters in a deep voice as he opens the passenger door. The rubber suit — with faux muscles lining his chest, abdominals, legs and arms — literally covers his 6-foot-5 frame from head to toe. Only his square jaw peeks out from beneath the black, rubber cowl covering his head and neck. The pale skin around his eyes has been lathered with a thick, black make-up and seems to blend with the dark mask.
The secret identity of the man in the batsuit isn’t Bruce Wayne of fictional Gotham City, but native New Yorker and local Gay League member, Ray DeForest.
DeForest has been reading comics since he was 5 years old and has always admired the ethical and iconic superheroes. During childhood vacations to the New Jersey shore DeForest would imagine Aquaman, his favorite superhero, frolicking under the salty waves and trying to save the Seven Seas from harm.
As a swimmer, DeForest identified with Aquaman but also admired the rippling muscles that covered the fictional character’s frame. Even before DeForest consciously admitted his sexuality to himself, he would look at Aquaman’s strapping body with approval. “I just thought he was hot. A blond, buff, single guy living underwater,” DeForest laughs of his adolescent attraction. “He was just hot and sexy. I thought they all were [attractive], but I really thought he was.”
Superheroes also helped DeForest, now 47, accept his own burgeoning sexuality during his teen years. “Watching male superheroes with other male superheroes having such a close-knit bond was something you hoped to have in your life,” he says of the beefy and extremely masculine men he saw in his Superman and Justice League of America comics.
Although comic books have introduced gay metaphors and have often provided an outlet for budding sexuality, openly gay superheroes appeared only in underground and independent comics until the 1990s. Gay Comics, which Mangles edited from 1991 to 1998, addressed homosexuality but generally didn’t reach mainstream comic fans. A slew of other superheroes hinted at homosexuality, but none openly admitted to being gay until March 1992 when Marvel “outed” Northstar, one of its Canadian characters.
In Alpha Flight No. 106, Northstar battles the angry Major Mapleleaf, whose gay son died of AIDS. Frustrated that his son’s death went unnoticed by the public, Mapleleaf sets out to destroy Northstar’s newly-adopted, HIV-positive infant daughter. As the duo tumbles from rooftops, slinging hard punches, Northstar reprimands his opponent. “Do not presume to lecture me on the hardships homosexuals must bear. No one knows them better than I,” the brawny Northstar booms as he swings a giant fist. “For while I am not inclined to discuss my sexuality with people for whom it is none of their business — I AM GAY.” |
Mangels says this particular plot, although an important first step, was a likely gimmick to get a gay superhero into mainstream comics. “The Alpha Flight story was a major stepping point in the same way that ‘Philadelphia’ was a major stepping point for film,” he says. Mangels also notes that the first mainstream gay superheroes, including Northstar, were typically written by straight men for straight men. “People who were gay and reading it were going, ‘Ugh,’” he explains. “But it’s going to mean something to [straight] comic readers, and it’s going to have an effect. From that perspective, I really have to say hurrah to [the writers]. I don’t regret those stories one iota for what they were trying to accomplish.”
Gay superheroes, although still a minority, now appear more regularly in the colorful panels of mainstream comic books. Wildstorm’s Apollo and Midnighter not only fight for justice but are married and have adopted a daughter, and DC’s Green Lantern hired a gay intern, who was brutally attacked by angry homophobes in 2002. Now, the Gay League Web site lists nearly 60 openly gay male characters in mainstream comics.
Across the crowded conventional hall, 41-year-old Tom Savini digs through a box labeled “DC 50s thru 70s,” hoping to find a comic featuring a brief appearance by Zatanna, a magical superheroine who often teams up with members of the Justice League of America. “I’m going to geek out for a second,” he says reaching into his pocket. He pulls a 3-by-5-inch index card from his wallet and glances at the comic book shopping list he prepared especially for this convention. Savini turns back to the box and within seconds produces a faded Detective Comics booklet. A 12-cent bubble floats in the upper corner, announcing the original selling price, and a teasing headline scrawled across the cover declares, “Batman’s Life Hanging by a Thread!”
“I’m not a big Batman fan,” Savini says, carefully unwrapping the clear cellophane enveloping the 1966 comic book, “but Zatanna makes an appearance.” Savini gingerly flips through the fragile pages until he spots a drawing of the female magician. He smiles, delighted he has found one of the comics on his list, and slips it back into the plastic protector. Savini is on a mission to find each comic book that features an appearance of the Legion’s many superheroes. When he gets home, he’ll add the inky booklet to the collection of 40,000 comics he’s been assembling since childhood.
Savini, another Gay League member, started reading comics when he was seven years old and quickly fell in love with DC’s Justice League of America and Marvel’s Fantastic Four, among other superhero titles. Twenty-two years before he came out, eight-year-old Savini would look at the muscular bodies of Superman and Invisible Kid and think there was something fascinating about the strong abdominals and pectorals. “It was just, ‘Mmmm. There’s something interesting there,” he says.
Later, when he was in his teens, Savini would admire the anatomy of these perfect men in tights and appreciate the sexiness of the artwork. “It was more like looking at spandex or looking at nude bodies just colored,” he says. “The [costumes] were form-fitting and [the superheroes were] drawn to be visually enticing.” But Savini wasn’t ready to admit his sexuality to himself or to his family and depended on the safe environment comic books created. The cartoon images were hardly pornographic but were still erotic, and the closeness of the characters contributed to his fantasies.
His favorite male characters, including the youthfully handsome Invisible Kid, often appeared shirtless, and Savini enjoyed gazing at their semi-nude bodies. “It both was emotionally safer and socially safer to look at something like that,” Savini says. “If you’re a teenager and not even facing the thought that you might be gay, going in and buying a Playgirl magazine [is] saying pretty strongly, ‘I’m putting some effort into looking at the naked male body.’” Depending on the colorful booklets was just another way Savini says he denied his sexuality, but at the time, it helped him deal with these new erotic feelings. “You can trick yourself or fool yourself…and perpetuate denial by saying ‘I’m just reading a comic book,’” he says. “That’s easier for the psyche to process, but it’s still denial.”
While Savini admires Invisible Kid and DeForest looks to Aquaman, some gay fans gawk at a female superhero for inspiration. To them, Wonder Woman isn’t just the Princess of Peace, but the Queen of Camp.
Diana, the 6-foot-tall Amazon princess, embodies everything that many gay men look for in a female superhero. Phil Jimenez, a DC creator who wrote and drew Wonder Woman from 2000 until 2003, says her commitment to love and peace combined with her beauty and strength makes her an iconic camp figure. The flamboyant star-spangled panties and corset, golden crown and indestructible silver bracelets only add to her appeal.
Of course, most gay fans are looking to the image Lynda Carter immortalized in the 1970s television series “Wonder Woman” rather than the character in the pulpy comic books, says Jimenez, an openly gay creator. “Most of my gay friends who dig Wonder Woman dig her…because of their memories from the TV show,” he says. “There’s a certain fun and fabulousness [about her]. I hate using that word, but it’s really true, and I think gay men are really into that.”
Although the television show launched more than 30 years after Diana’s debut in All Star Comics No. 8, Jimenez says the beautiful, wise, physically strong and independent superheroine portrayed by Carter is strikingly similar to the original Wonder Woman created by William Moulton Marston in the early 1940s. “It was so on target, and you just don’t get that in comic adaptations anymore,” Jimenez says of the program. “They so nailed her and the spirit of the character in every sense.”
Candis Cayne, a transgendered performer in New York City, didn’t read comics growing up but has been perfecting the Wonder Woman spin since she was three years old. The glamorous Amazon, or “glamazon,” Cayne saw on TV immediately became her favorite childhood superhero. Now, Cayne stands just shy of 5-feet-11-inches but towers well over 6-feet in heels. “As an adult, I identify with her because, ya know, I’m kind of Wonder Womany,” she says. “I am larger-than-life and glamazon myself.”
On Saturday nights at the Viceroy bar in Chelsea, Cayne ends her hour-long cabaret act to the “Wonder Woman” theme song. As the music blares throughout the narrow bar, Cayne mimics the spin Carter made famous in 1976. Gay men clap jubilantly and sing along. “In your satin tights, fighting for your rights and the old red, white and bluuuueeee,” they shout as Cayne runs out of the bar and into the middle of Eighth Avenue, where she continues to revolve with her arms straight out.
“People actually ask for it,” she laughs. “It’s really just me running down the street, but there’s something about me doing it…that people really [love].”
A thick circle of comic fans surround DeForest on the convention hall floor, drawn to the intricate Batman costume. Most admirers request to take a photo or touch the rubber cape. Others just gawk. “God. He looks just like Batman,” one man says to wife. His eyes linger on the black rubber chest, and he lowers his voice, “Damn. It even has batnipples!”
The batsuit, fashioned after George Clooney’s superhero uniform in the movie “Batman & Robin,” took DeForest a full year and about $2,500 to create. With help from a friend who worked on the 1997 flick, DeForest built the suit to mimic every muscle, every curve and every indent on the original rubber and Lycra outfit — right down to the nipples that protrude from the caped crusader’s chest. His partner made a Robin costume from the same film for an equivalent cost. When the couple dressed-up as Batman and Robin for Halloween in 2005, they made nearly $10,000 winning costume contests all over Manhattan. DeForest and his partner also plan on throwing a superhero-themed wedding when they get married.
Although their rendition of Batman and Robin is full of homosexual tones, the comic world has debated the sexual orientation of the original characters since Fredric Wertham launched his attack on comic books in the 1950s. In his book, Seduction of the Innocent, Wertham accused Batman and Robin of being lovers and instigated a U.S. Congressional investigation into the connection between juvenile delinquency and comics. Then, in the 1960s, Batman and Robin were revived in a campy TV series. Their suspiciously close relationship combined with flamboyant costumes launched a frenzy of speculation about their sexualities. Savini, however, doubts the comic version of Batman even thinks about sex. “I can’t believe I’m thinking about this,” he says with a smile. “[Batman] is more like a monk. It just wouldn’t happen that he would have sex with anyone…If he is gay, he’s extremely repressed.”
Still, DeForest predicted that gay men would respond in awe to his statuesque form enveloped in black rubber and Lycra. “I expected gay guys to go, ‘Wow, wow, wow,” he says. Some men smile and check out the rippling abdominals and section below the bat-encrusted belt buckle, but it’s the female fans that surprised DeForest the most.
“Women are pigs,” he chuckles. “They grab my ass. They grab my [crotch].” During Halloween weekend, one woman howled in laughter as she reached under the batcape and dug her fingers into the rubber covering DeForest’s bottom. “She said, ‘That will make you smile,’” he recalls. “And I was like, ‘Uh, no, but it will make me sick.’”
DeForest roams the convention hall floor, which is crammed to capacity with thousands of fans. Some people shout out to him, “Hi, Batman!” Others whisper as he weaves through the crowd. As DeForest poses for a photo with a chubby kid wearing a bright yellow Batman tee-shirt, a short man with a protruding gut whispers to his friend, “The whole nipple thing is so gay.”
If he only knew.