Secret Identities, Mutant Powers, Bright Costumes and Other Aspects of Queer Lives

I have another little bit of a confession to make, everyone. I’m not the only Natalie Reed.

In addition to the model, the contestant on So You Think You Can Dance 5, the maker of handmade jewelery, the character in the Harlequin romance “His Partner’s Wife”, the MD in San Antonio, the alleged “lesbian pedophile” in London who (according to the ever so trustworthy and queer-friendly Daily Mail) allegedly disguised herself as a 17 year-old boy at a high school in order to “groom” two teenage girls as sex partners, and the young LA mom who somehow lays priority claim to the name on twitter and Facebook, we have this wonderful badass:

That’s the second Lady Blackhawk, Natalie Reed. An American-born aeronautical engineering genius who defected to Soviet Russia due to her faith in the Marxist ideals with which she was raised, her expertise advancing the Soviet air-force’s technological edge by years, she ultimately joined the Blackhawks international freedom-fighter force when she realized that Communism had become corrupt under the rule of Stalin and his successors.

I know, she’s awesome.

Apparently DC comics writer Howard Chaykin, when rebooting the Blackhawks title in the late 80s, also realized how cool “Natalie Reed” sounds as a secret identity name. Because, yeah, another confession: it’s totally a secret identity. I’m actually named Natalie *******. And I was born ****** *****. And sometimes I’m Robyn B or Natalie Wright, amongst a couple others.

As such, secret identities are something I happen to know a bit about, and I imagine that every trans person, and most queer people of every kind, happen to know about too. I remember when I was early in transition and “part-timing” (that is, presenting as male most of the time, but as female in situations where it felt safe and comfortable to do so), I would wear girl clothes underneath my boy clothes, sort of like how Clark Kent or Peter Parker would wear their Superman and Spiderman costumes beneath their civvies to allow them to do their supply closet change thing quickly. I’d wear, say, unisex jeans and a unisex jacket, with a women’s shirt (or even a short dress) worn underneath a bulky guy’s shirt or sweater or hoodie or something. Then to change, I’d just take off the outer guy layer, swap out which glasses I was wearing, put on some make-up and accessories, and presto, I was Natalie. And every time, I couldn’t help but think of Peter Parker changing into Spiderman.

The reason I bring this up is because it seems there are lots of ways that I find echoes of queer experiences in the stories, myths and motifs of superhero comics. As wild, impossible and fantastic as those stories are, in them one can’t help but see reflections of the kinds of things that real people need to live with. As mentioned, there is the tension of secret identities and living dual lives. Of the anxiety that comes from having to compartmentalize aspects of who you are, the hurt and inner fragmentation that comes from never being able to be all of you at the same time, the frustration of having to hide parts of your life from those you love, and of having to reconcile your desire to tell the truth and be complete in your identity with the risks and danger that honesty can pose, and how it can compromise the relationships with those you love… even put them at risk , and unfairly draw them into the complexities of your life, place upon them a burden that you feel you need to carry alone.

(One of the reasons I can’t tell you guys my real name, or especially my birth name, is the potential risk to my family. Seriously. We have a very uncommon name. As an example, my brother’s fiance is from a conservative Christian family, so it would make things tough for them if her family googled their future son-in-law’s family name and found an outspoken transsexual atheist blogger who e-hangs with PZ Myers) …ur…anyway,

Many comics also explore feelings of alienation and isolation that can come from dealing with something the people around you can’t truly understand. The feelings of being fundamentally different, alien, apart, other… at best “special”, at worst a “freak” or “monster”. The whole being a “mutant” thing in some comics, or otherwise a particularly unique kind of human being (the “mutation”, to make it even more explicit, often specifically showing up in adolescence). They’ll sometimes address themes of being unable to relate to the people you used to be close to. Or the loneliness of having no one around who is quite like you. The stress of being under constant threat. The loss of a previous identity, thrust into adapting to a radically new life.

Or sometimes positive things, too… such as finding others who are in similar situations, similarly alienated or outcast or alone, and forming your own bonds and surrogate families. Or the strength that can come from fighting these struggles and overcoming them. Of becoming s stronger and more whole person through being faced with these unimaginable hardships and somehow managing to survive and grow. There may end up being scars you carry around with you, but you know that you’ve stood up for something, and did not allow the “bad guys” to win (themselves a stand-in for a million different potential demons a queer person may have to face).

But I don’t think the people writing most superhero comics initially intended for the themes to resonate so strongly with the experiences of queer folk. I think it emerges just from the capacity of certain kinds of powerful archetypal images to end up being relatable to whatever takes on the most significance in our lives, and for which we most need to find something that offers us guidance, meaning, a framework for understanding. Sort of like how tarot cards or dream interpretation work… not through actually having any kind of magic power, but just by offering a pattern of powerful images in which we see what we most need to see. Except comics aren’t random like the cards or dreams.

In the immortal words of J.R.R. Tolkien: “Allegory is for chumps, but applicability totally kicks dick.”

Um… something like that, anyway.

I’ll get back to this in a second, but yeah, comics often do go in the direction of relatively overt allegory. The Incredible Hulk is fairly clearly a classic story about the struggle between Id and the Ego and Superego, between our primal impulses, our sometimes terrifyingly uncontrollable emotions and our calmer, intellectual mind. In Spiderman we’re treated to a lot of little metaphors for adolescence and growing up. In Superman we think about universal ideals, the virtue that lies in the heart of even the most mild-mannered person, and who we wish we could be if we could toss aside our glasses and suits… as well as an interesting look at the relationship between physical power (Supes) and intellectual, political and financial power (Lex Luthor). In Batman we think about how to walk the razor edge between dealing with the darker aspects of humanity, and our inner demons (personified in its villains… The Joker and sociopathy and irrational cruelty, the Scarecrow and inner fears, Two-Face and our duality and inner conflicts, etc.), without succumbing to them. In Captain America we think about what aspects of American values truly are universal and ideal, and the conflicts that can emerge between blind adherence to government or law or nations or power and measured and thoughtful adherence to a set of principles. And perhaps most importantly to me personally, X-Men, which was my favourite when I first began reading comics as a kid, in which the themes are all about oppression, bigotry, minority rights, discrimination, and the often complex ethical considerations of activism, where and when it ceases being the right thing to do and starts becoming a vindictive replication of the same old cycles of violence (though I was always very sympathetic to Magneto’s views… perhaps I should start a Sisterhood of Evil Trannies? Any takers?)

The degree to which these allegories are kept overt, or reference specific real-life issues, can oscillate in accordance with the writer or story arc, or even just from issue to issue. But what gives them part of their power is not the occasional specificity, but that they’ll always lean away from that and back into general applicability, then lean again into a different specificity. And more so, what is strongest is how they lend themselves to us finding ourselves and our own issues and struggles reflected in them, and rather than waiting around for them to directly touch on our experiences, they remain pliable enough for us to pull the metaphors into our experiences. They make it easy for us to do the work of having them be allegorical representations of our experiences for ourselves. More parallels from the world of woo: Horoscopes. Psychic cold reads. But without the pretense of being crafted to the individual (though it can sometimes feel that way anyway, when it’s done right… like that story arc was written just for you, that this character over here seems to be going through exactly what you went through, just with superpowers and a cuter costume).

It’s interesting to me that the narratives, themes, genres… just the way comics are written… would be so geared towards perceiving our own narratives in them, in that it seems to replicate some of the conditions of the medium itself on its visual level.

Have you ever looked at a power outlet or coat hook or plastic coffee cup lid and seen a human face? This has a lot to do with the appeal of cartoons, and how we relate to them. They may or may not actually look much at all like what an actual human being looks like, but our brains are wired to perceive human faces in other things. We see ourselves everywhere. Which is a big part of how pareidolia works, and how Jesus and Elvis manage to appear in tortillas and grilled cheese sandwiches. Because of this, as a cartoon becomes more abstracted, the ability to read it as human (or otherwise personify it, even if technically non-human, i.e. Mickey Mouse) remains steady anyway. But as it becomes abstract, it’s specificity begins to wane and its universality (and applicability) expands.

A highly realist drawing, for instance, will only apply to one specific person, only legitimately be able to be claimed as a drawing “of” that one person (or maybe a small number of people who look very similar). As a drawing becomes less realist, though, and more and more iconic, symbolic or “cartoonish”, the number of different people that drawing can plausibly be said to represent expands (until you reach the smiley face, where it is plausibly a drawing of any human being at all). Along with that increase in the breadth of representation, there is also an increase in our ability to relate to it, to perceive it as a drawing or representation of ourselves.

The theory of iconic signification and cartoons is a lot more complex and fun than just that, but I’ll leave it there for now, because what I want to do is relate that to narrative and story. I wonder if similar principles might be at work when we begin working our narratives around particular kinds of archetypes or concepts or structures. Is there a similar principle, to see our stories in a suitably structured blank slate?

As a narrative becomes less grounded in events or concepts that are relatable to specific real life issues (for instance, a young adult novel that is directly a “coming out story”) and stray instead into the abstract or mythic (a young boy “finding himself” through some kind of quest), does the sense of being able to perceive ourselves (or people we know) in the story expand the same way that an increasingly iconic or cartoonish drawing expands its breadth of representation? Does therefore drawing their stories in broad and mythic strokes allow writers to make superhero comics more applicable to the real life struggles of more individual readers than if they’d made them more direct and specific allegories, or about specific real life issues? Is there something about the medium of comics that lends itself particularly well to (or particularly appeals to artists interested in) that sort of push-pull relationship between specificity and broad applicability?

When I read superhero comics I see myself there. I see my struggles with identity, balancing different aspects of myself, fighting against alienation and loneliness, fighting against all the “bad guys” of the world who would force it into their image, and the “bad guys” who just want to destroy people or people like me, I see the effort to try to stand up for those who are vulnerable, I see trying to cope with the responsibility of being given a way to fight for others that you didn’t necessarily ask for but know it would be selfish to turn down, I see struggling and sometimes losing but always growing and moving forward, being a freak or monster or outsider, forming friendships with other freaks and outsiders and monsters, being persecuted and rejected (sometimes even by the people I’ve been fighting for), and all kinds of other things. And I find it hard to imagine that other trans and queer people don’t see pieces of their own struggles similarly reflected in comics, perhaps largely the same struggles. The parallels feel impossible to ignore.

And seeing yourself there can give one a great deal of hope and strength, and reminders of why it’s important to struggle onward. There are some comics that, while not in the superhero genre, I keep on hand for exactly that reason; reminders of my values and why I carry on, or touchstones for my experiences and feelings. Whenever I need to remind myself of the value and power of the written word, and of being willing to tell the uncomfortable truth, I read a little Transmetropolitan. When I need to cope a bit with feeling like an outsider, and re-explore the feelings associated with my adolescence and discovering my sexual and gender identity, I can poke around a bit in Black Hole. When I want to remember the beauty and comfort of the ongoing rhythms of day-to-day life, and the beauty even in the most mundane, I can enjoy a bit of American Elf.

Does knowing on some level that it’s a bit of a trick of my perceptions, not much different than tarot cards, dream interpretation, horoscopes and cold reads, detract from the sense of seeing my narrative reflected in comics, and deriving a feeling of strength and grounding from them? Should it? Does the intent of the author matter in how strikingly familiar and recognizable some of the themes of superhero comics are to the struggles faced by queer people, and does it matter if groups facing wholly different struggles see the same intense familiarity to their stories in the same comics?

It’s probably one of the strengths of superhero comics, and one of the reasons it is so often related to mythology and folk tales, that it lends itself so well to a reader seeing their own story reflected in the narrative. It allows for a very broad audience to all develop deeply personal connections to the work, rather than having to make the choice between a broadly understandable story or a story with great personal significance to a smaller niche. Of course there are other compromises that go along with adopting that structure, but having the capacity for each reader to develop a personal bond with the story and feel it is “their” story too is pretty cool.

I wonder, though… how. Yeah, superhero stories are abstracted from real life specifics which could ground them in experiences that feel definitively apart from the reader’s own, and having them be instead something nobody exactly experiences but lots of people experience in their own way, yeah, sure, I understand. But why that abstraction? Why do we in this culture find that so appealing of all the different ways we could find similarly applicability? Science-fiction, fantasy, steampunk, cyberpunk, horror, all the things… all of that offers the same possibilities, but none of them end up occupying that particular medium to nearly the same degree, a medium that above all others seems so particularly well-suited to this kind of narrative technique, to our modern myths and narrative mirrors. So why superheros specifically, given all the infinite ways to render an archetype?

Any thoughts?



  1. says

    While I think the kinds of themes that inadvertently appeal to a queer audience used to be accidental, I don’t think that’s the case anymore, in part because there are more queer creators now (many of whom are listed at Prism Comics, and in part because queer themes are coming more to the fore as a deliberate bid to expand a shrinking audience. Also, there are many more queer characters in superhero comics who are NOT coded queer, but are openly queer. Marvel’s wiki even includes a category for queer characters for anyone looking to find them. Some of my own favorite queer stories in superhero comics:

    “Half a Life” in Gotham Central, in which detective Renee Montoya is outed by Two-Face.
    “Elegy” in Detective Comics, in which Batwoman finds her calling as a superhero after being expelled from the military for being gay.
    All of Secret Six, in which anti-heroine Scandal Savage attempts to build a family of her own with her two lovers, even going to hell and back for them.

    Though for queer narratives, I usually look at stuff like The Hernandez Brothers’ Love and Rockets, Erica Moen’s Dar: A Super Girly Comic Diary, Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home, Megan Rose Gedris’s I Was Kidnapped by Lesbian Pirates from Outer Space, and Trudy Cooper’s Oglaf (which is SO not safe for work). Not really superhero narratives, though.

        • says

          How do you figure werewolves? I’ve seen some pretty awesome feminist-oriented werewolf things, with using it as a metaphor for adolescence, female sexuality, menstruation, etc. but how would you work the themes to make it applicable to transition? Not saying it can’t be done, I’m just honestly curious.

          • says

            I was thinking more of the idea of the wolf as the true identity that doesn’t have to conform to constraining social expectations. Of course, stories with the idea that the wolf is the right side tend to go rather dark.

  2. Emburii says

    It can also get very messy when people see only their oppressions and completely miss who else the situation can apply to. ‘X-Men: First Class’ was horribly horribly racist in several of its choices, arguably because the (white, gay) director only paid attention to his personal struggles as a gay man and didn’t even think to check his white privilege. His adaptation of a comic book that was started in huge part as a commentary on racism ended up killing off and villainizing respectively its only two characters of color.

    It’s an apt parallel you draw, though, even down to previous (and superhero civilian) IDs having to stay secret so as not to threaten the people around them.

    • says

      I thought that was subversive rather than racist. Magneto is a German Jew, he has better understanding than anyone of what happens when a society decides some part of itself is worthless. Equally a black woman in the 1960s would have had many unpleasant experiences with racism. It actually makes sense that they would assume a war between mutants and regular humans was inevitable. Equally the non-standard appearances of Azazel and Mystique mean they know what it is to be hated for what you are.

      By contrast the founding members of the X Men are all white with concealable powers (expect for Beast right at the end). They’re used to being treated decently so they naturally assume that will continue.

      This dynamic, combined with the fact that the first think the US and Soviet government did upon discovering mutants was to try and wipe them out, led me to think of the theme of First Class was “Magneto is right – humans are intolerant bastards, on the whole”. His approach to dealing with this fact may be bad, but the essential principle that you can’t rely on the kindness of people to secure your rights is a good one.

      • Emburii says

        I’m not arguing with that part of the story at all, or with the way the white characters reacted given the time frame. I was, however, upset with the meta-aspects and the writing; they could have had Darwin (the mutant who is supposed to be able to adapt to anything), for instance, survive the attack. They could have had Angel second-guess at some point second-guess how she was attacking people she’d been laughing and joking with at some point, even if she ultimately decided she still wanted to be on Shaw’s side. But those characters were treated as disposable ‘throwaways’, their particular extra aspects of the struggle ignored so that Mr. Singer could let the white people angst over their sexuality metaphors without having to let messy racism and different kinds of privilege get in the way.

  3. Anders says

    And I was born ****** *****.

    Is that with a silent *?

    So what are you going to do at your brother’s wedding? Bind your boobs and present as man or go as your real self? As always, if you don’t want to answer I’m fine with that. I’m just curious as to what goes into these decisions, but it’s not like it’s my business.

    Do you follow Linkara over at That Guy With The Glasses? I can recommend him – he does reviews of what happens when comic books go wrong.

    • Emily says

      Atop The Fourth Wall? Yeah. I watch a lot of stuff. Linkara, Nostagia Critic, Spoony Experiment, and even Cinema Snob.

    • says

      Go as me and just hope I don’t get clocked.

      I don’t care what the circumstances are, I will NEVER present as male.

      But there’s one good side: the fact that my brother has an interest in my not being outed at the wedding is going to help provide some motivation for noone to misgender me.

      • Emily says

        I don’t care what the circumstances are, I will NEVER present as male.

        I certainly understand that sentiment.

      • Anders says

        So that hermaphromorph power I gave Iris – the Rainbow Avenger would be used exactly zero times? Ah, well…

          • Anders says

            I didn’t realize the aversion would be that strong, considering you’d still have your body… interesting. I guess once you’ve known freedom you never want to go back to the prison you grew up in.

            This above all: to thine own self be true,
            And it must follow, as the night the day,
            Thou canst not then be false to any man.

  4. Sebor says

    I know next to nothing about comic books, but I loved the X-men animated series.
    I find myself more interested in the heroes of tragedy than in modern day superheroes. I’ll take Antigone or even Fingolfin over Captain America or Superman anyday, even though in the end, all they ever do is die, but they do so proving a point. And to be fair, there are a lot more interesting superheroes out there, I just never got a chance to appreciate them.
    There seems to be some continuity between those two categories, the superhero stories reject the fatalism of tragedy and replace it with a neverending supply of enemies, but ultimately both are bound to their respective fates, so a similar kind of dilemma can be explored.
    Superheroes are in some sense more working class than the heores of tragedy, replacing the accident of noble birth with true superhuman merit. I’m not sure whether this is an American thing or somehow related to modernism though.

    • Sebor says

      Oh, I completely forgot to recommend my favourite webcomic Dresden Codak.
      It has everything, stories about transhumanism, cyborg girls battling giant robots, and jokes about science, philosophy and Dungeons and Dragons.

  5. Branwen says

    The seeing of queer themes in comics seems like something of a narrative pareidolia — like seeing faces in faucets and such, you see your narrative in something that (most likely) didn’t intend to depict them, which is probably one of the most common things humans do. But yeah, I totally get it, even though all of my knowledge of comic book lore comes from wikipedia and cracked (my teenage years were spent locked in my room with my computer looking for more and more arcane knoqledge of depravity and nerdiness… hende the fact that I’ve grown biologically attached to my computer. Kinda makes it hard to get a new one though.)
    Let me know where the first Sisterhood of Evil Trannies meetup is. I know quite a few people who’d like to join!

  6. embertine says

    I absolutely agree, particularly about the X Men. I think they speak to any marginalised or oppressed group in different ways. Professor X vs. Magneto could be Malcolm X vs. MLK, etc. I loved the comics and the animated series, found the movies more problematic but still like them. As a bi woman I particularly liked this scene:

    Nightcrawler: Then why not stay in disguise all the time? You know, look like everyone else.

    Mystique: Because we shouldn’t have to.

    You’re *%?@#$! right I shouldn’t have to.

  7. busterggi says

    “I’m actually named Natalie *******. And I was born ****** *****. And sometimes I’m Robyn B or Natalie Wright, amongst a couple others.”

    I’d say you are suffering from multiple personality disorder but youre’ obviously enjoying it instead.

    ” We have a very uncommon name.”


    Being a boring straight old man ( not that all straight old men are boring but I am ) I can’t identify with your difficulties & I won’t pretend to but I do think that as an atheist I have a slight idea, especially when I sneeze in public.

    BTW you’re a hell of a good writer.

    • Anders says

      Her real last name is Gambolputty de von Ausfern -schplenden -schlitter -crasscrenbon -fried -digger -dangle -dungle -burstein -von -knacker -thrasher -apple -banger -horowitz -ticolensic -grander -knotty -spelltinkle -grandlich -grumblemeyer -spelterwasser -kürstlich -himbleeisen -bahnwagen -gutenabend -bitte -eine -nürnburger -bratwustle -gerspurten -mit -zweimache -luber -hundsfut -gumberaber -shönendanker -kalbsfleisch -mittler -raucher von Hautkopft of Ulm.

  8. Dalillama says

    I suspect that superheroes took hold of our national mythology rather than those other options largely because of the Comics Code. Comics are brightly colored and visual, appealing to kids, which is a good way to embed themselves into society, as those kids will feel nostalgia and keep reading as they grow up. They also won’t object to their kids reading the same as much. With the Comics Code, it became untenable to publish much of anything except superhero stories, and now they’ve got cultural momentum. Also, I’d love to join the Sisterhood of Evil Trannies, but I’ve got two strikes against me on that one ;).

      • Anna says

        I’m totally in as an evil trannie. I see myself as a mad scientist type. Lab coat and heels is a totally sexy look.

        • Sas says

          I want in, too. Can I have the mutant power to absorb and re-release energy? That’s the power I always wanted (well, after shapeshifting, obvs).

  9. Anders says

    I’m not a trannie, but I volunteer to be an insider contact like commissioner Gordon or Jimmy Olsen.

  10. Chirico says

    Personally I’m not really big on superhero comics, or American comics in general; you talk of “geek cred” being lost, I haven’t read Watchmen or even seen the movie. And honestly, I’m not in a big hurry to.
    There’s a level of abstraction to superheroes that a lot of people can’t get past, in that you sort of just have to accept the innate silliness of people in flashy tights spouting uncanny monologues about their motivations or backstory in generally uncomfortable looking poses. By no means do I think that all superhero comics are like that, that may be an unfair stereotype: but because it’s the prevailing stereotype it’s where most people stop, unable to accept and abstract the medium in order to appreciate its qualities.

    • Dalillama says

      No, it’s totally fair for the most part. Superhero comics are starting to grow out of that, but the Comics Code heavily infantilized the American comics industry for several decades. Publishers weren’t allowed to show blood, mention drugs in any way whatsoever (Except alcohol and tobacco, of course), requirements that authority figures be showed with respect, no vampires, zombies, ghouls or werewolves allowed, etc. I pretty much stopped having any significance in the late 80s, but the CCA didn’t actually go away until 2011.

  11. daenyx says

    I’ve never been much of one for superheros. I think the main reason is that even as a kid, the misogyny that pervades most of the major narratives really upset me.

    Culturally, though, they make sense to me. They present a combination of aspects that, taken together, make the superhero mythos more of… I guess, a believable leap for people. Superheros typically..

    – present as normal humans at least some of the time
    – were, or at least thought they were normal humans at some point in their histories
    – have that archetypal clarity that you alluded to

    Their narratives very, very frequently handle that tension between their human identities and their superhero identities, along with the self-questioning of what it means to be human. They echo the existential crises of people, particularly young ones, and present a context that is often superficially similar enough to a young person’s day-to-day (being rejected at school, feeling like they can’t tell family members the important parts of life, etc) that the reader can very very easily make the jump of casting their OWN less-than-satisfactory situation into the superhero narrative.

    It’s a form of escapism that’s closer to home than elves and goblins and dragons and aliens, more accessible and more directly applicable to a reader’s life.

    I really prefer the elves and goblins and such, though, myself. >.>

  12. Lucy says

    I don’t know most of the comics, but definitely picked up on the X-men being a group of outsiders who *could* hide who they are, but dammit why should they? (we)

    It’s not particularly queer-related, but I think cyberpunk has some of the same generality of story that lots of people can relate to. A common theme is that personal reality is much more mutable than in our current world, but there are still lots of very human and universal issues when it comes to meshing our reality with other peoples’.

    Oh, and count me in for the Sisterhood…but I might need to take a refresher course on Evil, as my certificate ran out a couple of years ago 😉

  13. Mym says

    Another applicant for the Sisterhood here!

    I used to have almost the most generic possible name* – it could only have been worse were my last name ‘Smith’. It’s so amazing to be able to be recognized by name (and just my first name!) that it more than makes up for how easily people might be able to track me now.

    *For the US, which is where I saw the census data.

  14. Ed S. says

    Back in the day…actually, it was the day before that…I read the original Blackhawk comics. Anyway, Natalie Reed is an awesome name, and if the Sisterhood gets a secret lair, castle, etc., I would volunteer as the loyal, slightly befuddled sidekick.

  15. Sas says

    I can’t really add any insight into why superhero stories in particular are so resonant with queer experiences … but I did want to share this science fiction video that was released this week, that I found stomach-churningly easy to relate to my feelings as a trans woman even though I’m sure that’s not what they were aiming at.

  16. mikee says

    What a thought provoking post. The bigotry and persecution towards the X- men always struck a cord with me. I used to think teleportation and telepathy would be awesome powers to have, but I would settle for the ability to manipulate people’s sexuality. My first stop would be every church in the city to teach them all a little empathy.

  17. Anders says

    I asked William Stoddard, the guy who wrote GURPS Supers about why supers dominate the comic book medium so much. Here’s his take on it:

    I have a speculation; I wouldn’t call it a theory. It seems to me that on one hand, comics are at a premium for genres where unnaturalistic or even physically unrealistic entities and events are central; effectively you have an infinite special effects budget. On the other, especially in the early days of crude draftsmanship and low-res printing (the famous four-color printing process!), comics were hampered in telling stories with realistic characters and subtle character interactions. On both counts, the supers genre was a natural fit to comics.

    So of course were a couple of other genres: the funny animal genre and the horror genre. The horror genre got suppressed in the US by the moral panic of the early 1950s that led to the Comics Code. The funny animal genre was actually alive and well until the early 1960s, when Marvel opened up the high school and even college audience; teenage boys who were happy to read Spider-man wouldn’t be caught dead with Donald Duck—even though the classic funny animal cartoons of WWII had been aimed as much at adults as at children.

    As I say, this is a speculation. Does it make any sense to you?


    • says

      Hmmm… but that’s just taking the two genres that took precedence and then just saying they took precedence as though they were the only ones that could have. But other genres could have fit just as easily into those same constraints, and indeed DID fit in certain circumstances: war comics (like Easy Company), space opera (like Flash Gordon), westerns, pirates, fantasy (like Conan The Barbarian), etc. All of that COULD have taken center stage, even with things like four-colour printing and the comics code in the way, so it doesn’t quite answer the question of why Supers. At least not adequately enough for me. Unless I’m just misunderstanding him?

      • Dalillama says

        Most of those fell victim to the Comics Code. War comics horror, and pirates were all pretty much right out, and a fair number of classic Western themes were also out. particularly since so many Westerns feature outlaws, sex workers, and corrupt/ineffectual local law enforcement all of which were against the Comics Code. I can’t say why Fantasy and Space Opera didn’t take off as much in the comics, they were doing pretty well in the pulps at the time AFAIK. Still, fantasy and sci-fi/space opera didn’t’ really make it into mainstream popular culture in any medium until pretty recently for whatever reason.

        • Anders says

          Fantasy was probably out because fantasy women tend to be very well endowed and severely underdressed. I think that female fantasy warriors are so used to pain because they wax all the time. Nary a body hair in sight… 🙂

          But then, DDD cups seem to be a prerequisite for female super heroes as well. That and the ability to bend your spine in impossible ways.

      • Neil says

        Here in Britain, comics came to be dominated largely by naughty schoolkid fare (Dennis the Menace, etc.) Might be interesting comparing the two countries’ industries and where they diverged…

  18. says

    Reading this post actually reminded me of how, in my comic-reading days, I liked the Fantastic Four specifically because I thought secret identities were a lame trope.

    The case of mutants in the Marvel Universe is an interesting one when it comes to paralleling sexual orientation and gender identity, especially given the distinction between those mutants who are able to “pass” in everyday life and those who are not for some reason or another. And Angel with a binder for his wings!

  19. donnamccrimmon says

    Considering the first superheroes were created in the 30’s and early 40’s, well before sympathy for gays and their problems was even a possibility, it is all but impossible that the idea of secret identities was intended to relate to the queer experience of keeping part of yourself secret from the world. In actuality the first superheroes borrowed (or lifted wholesale) from early pulp serials like Zorro and The Shadow, so the idea of secret identities predates superheroes.

    But that is not to say that finding parallels between the queer experience and superhero comics (or any type of media) is in any way wrong. An audience brings something to the table, their own experiences and biases and expectations, and that shapes how they interpret what they read/watch/listen to. Once an artist has released their work it no longer belongs solely to them.

    Par example, there is a particular TV show that resonated with me deeply because one of the characters went through a struggle similar to what I was at the time. Even though their issues were front and center in that character’s arc, I have to feel that I saw something deeper there than what the writers intended because of my own experiences.

    So for you to say you see a connection between secret identities and queer life, that’s not wrong. If it matters to you it matters to you. You can make it something bigger than what the creator intended, if only to you.

    • says

      Um… I don’t think there was EVER a time when sympathy of queer lives was not a possibility.

      I think this idea of ahistoricity, as though there was simply no such thing as LGBT lives or an LGBT community, before Stonewall or whatever, does not really do us any favours. We’ve been around forever, we’ve had straight/cis allies forever, and certainly sympathy has ALWAYS been possible (whether or not it was common place).

      • donnamccrimmon says

        Derp. Bad phrasing on my part. Let my try to make my thoughts clearer.

        “Considering the first superheroes were created in the 30′s and early 40′s, well before mainstream, open discussion of or sympathy for gays and their problems was even a possibility…”

        Yeah, I know GLBT didn’t just spring up ex nihilo during the 60’s or 70’s or whenever (and that the oppression/defamation/etc. of GLBT has not been a consistent thread through all cultures through all of history), but (speaking very generally) when superheroes first appeared (and even when the Silver Age brought them back into the spotlight) it wasn’t a common topic in mainstream media. Exceptions exist, of course, history isn’t as neat and tidy as textbooks make it.

        But my point was/is that in the 30’s and 40’s homosexuality wasn’t accepted in “polite society” and fictional depictions of it would not be expected to find many sympathetic ears (remember that one of the big points in Seduction of the Innocent was that Batman and Robin had an implied affair; how much more apoplectic would Wertham et al have been had it been an overt relationship?).

        So when I say it wasn’t possible at the time (that GLBT didn’t exist, or didn’t deserve equality yet, or anything like that), I mean ‘society at large would not have gone for it.’ We could also say there had always been the possibility for the Enlightenment, except that the reach and influence of religion (and other factors) made it so unlikely as to be impossible. It’s just that things played out such that the seed took root when it did, rather than earlier.

        (I realize I could have been clearer in my first post, but when discussing… uh, virtually anything, I find myself becoming very loquacious and very precise in my wording. I realize it bothers people sometimes, so I do try to cut back and just make sweeping generalizations.)

  20. Dunc says

    Why do we in this culture find that so appealing of all the different ways we could find similarly applicability? Science-fiction, fantasy, steampunk, cyberpunk, horror, all the things… all of that offers the same possibilities, but none of them end up occupying that particular medium to nearly the same degree, a medium that above all others seems so particularly well-suited to this kind of narrative technique, to our modern myths and narrative mirrors. So why superheros specifically, given all the infinite ways to render an archetype?

    I think it may be because, despite all the more recent developments in the genre, superheroes are still basically simple ubermenschen who appeal to teenagers. Also, remember that superheroes are basically a US thing – here in the UK, we have 2000AD, which is often a lot darker and more complex than typical superhero fare (although not as dark as was originally intended). The superhero paradigm is a perfect metaphor for American exceptionalism. Where you have Superman, we have Judge Dredd (and not the movie version). Superman is the virtuous protector of freedom and justice, whereas Dredd has absolutely no concern for either – all he cares about is the precise letter of the law. He’s basically a petty bureaucrat, but with a gun and the power to execute people on the spot. Sure, he’s generally up against some really bad guys, but it’s perfectly clear that you don’t want to be around him even as an innocent bystander – because he’s not convinced that anybody’s innocent.


  1. […] An absence of characters like oneself doesn’t always lead to the absence of finding yourself somewhere anyway, though. One of the ongoing themes of this blog has been how trans people cope with our marginalization, erasure and ridicule in a culture that barely even acknowledges we’re here, and usually only as a punchline, object of ridicule or disgust or fetishization, or “fascinating” specimen to be studied or pathologized or slotted into theories, on the occasions that they do ever bother to get around to us. How we manage to find what we need from what’s available. Like taking hateful representations and turning them into sources of pride, or at least touchstones for understanding ourselves. Or taking things that were never really meant to be about us at all and seeing ourselves there anyway. […]

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