There were always winks and nods. All that time Batman spends with Robin. Wonder Woman cloistered with the girls. Superman always suiting up in a closet-like phone booth.
But lately, subtext has become text: DC comics has revealed that Alan Scott, the secret identity of the Green Lantern, is gay. Marvel Comics is about to celebrate the wedding between gay superhero Northstar (Real Name: Jean-Paul Beaubier), a member of the X-Men team, and his long-time boyfriend Kyle Jinadu. (Even the Archie series, about common-man-heroes, has a gay character.)(Incidentally, both Beaubier and Jinadu are not only gay, they are also Canadians). So what's behind the rise of the gay superhero? Is it a sign of liberal social progress? Or, as conservative Christian groups like One Million Moms has it, a betrayal of family values? Or merely a cynical marketing move by corporate publishers to stay provocative?
A better question might be this: When will the rest of the caped crusaders come out of the closet?
Stories of masked avengers with special powers are rivalled only by the buddy film or the Japanese tradition of Yaoi (Boys' Love) manga for homoerotic undercurrents. It's not just Northstar or Green Lantern – all superheroes are gay.
Wonder Woman is a good start. She was created in 1941 by the psychologist William Moulton Marston, a cultural radical who celebrated same-sex relationships in a period when they were still illegal.
Noah Berlatsky, a Chicago writer working on a book about the comics notes that in early issues, "Marston has girls tying each other up and paddling each other and gushing over their love of Wonder Woman … The implications there are absolutely intentional. In his novel The Private Life of Julius Caesar he talks about how girl-girl love is the perfect love."
One of Wonder Woman's favourite catchphrases: "Suffering Sappho!"
Male superheroes like Batman and Superman also display pervasive homoerotic subtexts, as well as anxiety about sexual identity, says Berlatsky, as can seen in recurring themes of "male bifurcated selves, secret identities, and intense male-male relationships in which love/hate is worked out through paranoid violence which looks a lot like homosexual panic."
Paradoxically Berlatsky sees these sexual subtexts as an outgrowth of the hyper-masculinity of these characters. The superheroes have a gender identity so extreme and brittle that it always threatens to "deconstruct itself."
These aren't new or "post-modern" ideas, however. In his 1949 book Love and Death, pioneering cultural critic Gershon Legman, who served as an assistant for sex researcher Alfred Kinsey, was already arguing that there was a homosexual component to superhero sidekicks like Robin (who, he argued, had a "Samurai subservience") as well as the physical appearance of masked avengers ("the fainting adulation of thick necks, ham fists, and well-filled jock-straps; the draggy capes and costumes, the shamanistic talismans and superstitions that turn a sissified clerk into a one-man flying lynch-mob").
The sexual subtext of superheroes is not unique to this brand of pop entertainment but has parallels to such older subcultures as body-building, science fiction, children's adventure stories, and pulpy "mystery man" novels. All of these pop subcultures tend to laud the hyper-masculine or hyper-feminine and are generally gender-segregated. many are aimed at prepubescent boys and girls.
But the genre isn't just tapping "undeveloped" sexual identity, it also reflects a specific sensitivity to the concerns of gay life.
The psychologist Fredric Wertham contended in his 1954 book The Seduction of the Innocent, that Batman and Robin represented "a wish dream of two homosexuals living together."
"Sometimes," he observed, "Batman ends up in bed injured and young Robin is shown sitting next to him. At home they lead an idyllic life. They are Bruce Wayne and 'Dick' Grayson. Bruce is described as a 'socialite' and the official relationship is that Dick is Bruce's ward. They live in sumptuous quarters, with beautiful flowers in large vases, and have a butler, Alfred. Batman is sometimes shown in a dressing gown."
In the intolerant period when many of these characters were hitting the cultural mainstream, there was even pressure on comic book writers to deflect the homoerotic nuances of the stories: They started to give Batman more of a family life in the 1950s to fend off criticism. Burt Ward, who played Robin in the Batman TV show from 1966-1968 went to great pains to establish his heterosexuality by describing his many escapades with female groupies.
If society at large regarded homosexuality as a "problem," though, gay readers of that era found community in the comics. The heroes sparked sexual feelings, and gave them an outlet to share those feelings with others. In a 1966 academic paper, psychologist Hilda Mosse wrote that "adolescent patients of mine with homosexual problems have told me … they and many other boys collected and traded these comic books with [a] sexual purpose in mind."
These days, there's another dimension of gayness in the comics that's finally being recognized. Sina Shamsavari, who publishes extensively on gay culture from the University of London, acknowledges the homoerotic appeal of superheroes ("beautiful bodies in skintight clothes") but also how they speak to the difficulties of gay life.
"It has to do with the notion of a double identity and being set aside from humanity by possessing – and in the case of mutants, for instance, being born with – strange and unusual, 'unnatural,' powers. Superheroes are sometimes, perhaps often, at least on some level, outsiders. The X-Men are an archetypal example, hated and feared by the ones they seek to protect, but really this could apply to Batman, Superman, Spider-Man or Wonder Woman as well."
Well, until now. Northstar and Jinadu, congratulations.