By Arturo R. García
DC Comics has added to the buzz surrounding its’ relaunch with the announcement that Teen Titans will feature a gay POC character starting with the series’ third issue.
On one hand, this is something to be happy for, and Titans artist Brett Booth has already expressed his support for gay marriage and gay rights in discussing the new character, Miguel Jose Barragan, a.k.a. Bunker. But, as Booth wrote on his blog, he’s aware that he and series writer Scott Lobdell are wading into a complicated issue.
We wanted to show an interesting character who’s [sic] homosexuality is part of him, not something that’s hidden. Sure they are gay people who you wouldn’t know are gay right off the bat, but there are others who are a more flamboyant, and we thought it would be nice to actually see them portrayed in comics. Did we go over the top, I don’t think so. I wanted you to know he might be gay as soon as you see him. Our TT is partly about diversity of ANY kind, its about all kinds of teens getting together to help each other. It is a very difficult line to walk, will he be as I’ve read in some of the comments ‘fruity’? Not that I’m aware of. Will he be more effeminate than what we’ve seen before, the ‘typical’ gay male comic character, yes. Does it scare the shit out of me that I might inadvertently piss off the group I want to reflect in a positive way, you’re damn straight (pun intended!)
Booth also described other gay superheroes as looking and acting “like regular heterosexuals … they just happen to have sex with people of their own gender, under the covers and in the dark.” He did not specify which characters he was observing, but Booth’s view of what constitutes “regular” behavior is problematic, as The Mary Sue’s Christopher Holden points out:
Booth starts out his quote by implying that out “gay people who you wouldn’t know are gay right off the bat” are “hiding” their sexuality, without acknowledging that we live in a society that assumes straight until proven gay, where the attempts of gay men and women to only bring up their sexuality when it is actually relevant to a conversation, as when talking about significant others, and not when it isn’t, as when buying a shirt (a luxury enjoyed by all straight people), is interpreted as “hiding” by those they interact with. Perhaps Booth is self-consciously as worried as he needs to be.
Booth is also not accounting for one of comics’ big limitations as a medium: everything is rendered in still frames, so, while we can see heroes like Obsidian, Batwoman, Renee Montoya, Apollo and The Midnighter, we don’t get their voices and body language. So there’s nothing marking their sexuality other than what the creative team chooses to show us. It’s far trickier to use different kind of characterization techniques – vocal inflection, gestures, etc. – in a comic than in, say, a cartoon or a live-action setting.
Bunker will not be DC’s first “out” gay hero. In 1988, the company introduced Extraño, a character who would refer to himself as “auntie” and was played for laughs more often than not. The character was even infected with HIV by an “AIDS vampire” before his series, The New Guardians, was canceled.
It will also be interesting to see how Bunker’s backstory is addressed. On his blog, Booth mentioned this description from Lobdell:
He was raised in a very small Mexican village called El Chilar. He was very loved by his family and the village as well — and they were as accepting of his homosexuality as they were to his super powers when they first manifested. To that end he grew up in an angst-free environment. He was born out of the closet and so he has a very refreshing outlook on life.
Given that description, it’s possible that Bunker’s powers – as yet unnamed, but which seem to involve Miguel being able to create protective, brick-like shells not unlike Marvel Comics’ Armor – might factor into his acceptance in the kind of community that, as several commenters at sites like Bleeding Cool have mentioned, is usually highly religious and homophobic.
That kind of intolerance was highlighted in a study released last year by Mexico’s National Council to Prevent Discrimination, which was created in 2003 to enforce a national anti-discrimination law passed by the National Congress that same year.
According to the report, which is accessible as a PDF in both English and Spanish, 52 percent of all lesbian, gay or bisexual respondents reported discrimination as the main problem for their community. Spread across the socio-economic spectrum, more than half of respondents who identified their status as “low” or “very low” – no income levels were provided – said discrimination was still their primary obstacle. The police was cited as the primary source of that discrimination, followed by members of respondents’ church or congregations, which underscores concerns that, even for a comic-book character, Miguel’s background might be too fantastical.
But on the other hand, as blogger Son of Baldwin said in an e-mail interview with Racialicious Monday, such a portrayal could also be a nice change of pace for readers.
“As a gay person of color, I actually don’t have a problem with the backstory,” he wrote. “The aspect that would seem cliche to me is if he was the typical gay teen who endured homophobia in his home and community. Besides, it would function as a nice bit of wish fulfillment for all of those gay teens out there. And it opens up a LOT of story potential for the character to encounter homophobia in his new community as a gay teen who never imagined he should feel shame about who he is.”
Titans writer Scott Lobdell was the creator who outed Marvel Comics’ Jean-Paul Baubier, aka Northstar in Alpha Flight (Vol. 1) #106, published in 1992. Writer/artist John Byrne, who created Alpha Flight, has said that he had always conceived of the character as a gay male, but was not allowed to mention it openly by both the Comics Code Authority and the company’s Editor-in-Chief, Jim Shooter.
In July 2007, Lobdell told Comic Book Resources that he linked the revelation of Northstar’s sexuality to his characterization up to that point – an arrogant speedster with a short fuse:
While I certainly don’t think all closeted gay men are angry, I’m speaking specifically about Jean Paul. He used his anger to keep people away from him, from getting close, from discovering who he was. If you disliked him for being an arrogant prick, then you were not going to be able to get close enough to learn who he really was. If you didn’t like him for who he pretended to be, then you wouldn’t be able to judge him for who he was.
However, while praising Northstar’s coming out, AfterElton said Lobdell’s story – where Jean-Paul defends his adopted daughter, who is infected with HIV, from the bereaved superhuman father of an AIDS victim – “falls into so-bad-it’s-good territory.” It also pointed out that Lobdell left Alpha Flight before the story was even published. Lobdell told CBR Northstar’s sexuality was not behind his departure, instead citing “distinctly different views” between himself and incoming editor Rob Tokar.
At this point, editorial support doesn’t seem to be an issue for Bunker. DC co-publisher Dan DiDio had told The Advocate in July that the company planned to introduce a new LGBT character; of all the changes involved in DC’s revamped continuity, the sexualities of Batwoman, Apollo and The Midnighter have been left untouched; and at least one more upcoming series, Voodoo, will feature a bisexual creole protagonist, though there’s already concerns in the blogging community about how her career as a stripper will be presented.
On his blog, Booth does at least offer one positive sign for Miguel’s development: he won’t be the comic relief. But what he does become, and if he sticks around if/when DC reorganizes its’ continuity again in the figure, are still very much up in the air.