Superman vs. the Homophobe

DC Comics has hired an anti-gay crusader to write the comic franchise’s latest installment. Sujay Kumar on the outcry.

Illustration by The Daily Beast; Photo: Corbis

For one panel in the history of comic books, Superman is really gay.

In 2003’s Supergirl #79, exposure to pink kryptonite turns the hero into a man of steel who likes men. “Did I ever tell you how smashing you look in bowties, Jimmy?” Superman gushes, his underwear bulge looming dangerously close to his pal’s face. “By the way, that's a fabulous window treatment you've put together.”

Just don’t bring this up with science-fiction author Orson Scott Card, whom DC Comics has just hired to write the first two issues of the Adventures of Superman, the franchise’s latest series, due in April. Aside from being the brilliant mind behind the novel Ender’s Game, Card is a raging homophobe.

A devout Mormon and a board member of the National Organization of Marriage, Card has been quite prolific and aggressive in his anti-gay campaign, but his views are well summed up in this passage from a 2004 essay titled “Homosexual ‘Marriage’ and Civilization”:

“The dark secret of homosexual society—the one that dares not speak its name—is how many homosexuals first entered into that world through a disturbing seduction or rape or molestation or abuse.”

Yeah, he’s really not a fan. Not surprisingly, his selection has prompted calls for a boycott DC. The equality advocacy group All Out has led the war against Card, demanding that DC “sack homophobia” and fire the author. “Americans take their superheroes seriously,” says executive director Andre Banks. “And we didn’t want Orson Scott Card as the voice of Superman.”

In response, DC Comics released a statement touting freedom of expression and saying that the personal views of a writer are not those of the company. And in its defense, DC has been pretty gay-friendly lately. Green Lantern came out last year. Batwoman is “a lesbian socialite by night and a crime-fighter by later in the night." (Through his wife, Card declined to comment for this article.)

But for a publisher to work with an author who advocates for the exile of gays is clearly a bad idea. Right?! “Nobody was repressing his right to say anything,” says openly gay (and Mormon) author Andy Mangels, “But that doesn’t mean that there shouldn’t be consequences.” Paige Braddock, author of the lesbian-friendly comic strip “Jane’s World” believes there is no way Card’s personal views won’t seep into his storytelling. And it goes on.

Others aren’t so sure, though. Popular writer Mark Miller tweeted that the petition to remove Card is as “fascistic as politicians condemning a sexual preference.”

As a gay friend asks me, is this version of Superman going to save traditional marriage and battle Ellen DeGeneres and Frank Ocean? He has a point. Plus, this isn’t the sci-fi author’s first foray into comics. He’s written Ultimate Iron Man, and Tony Stark didn’t launch a campaign to obliterate homosexuals. “Geeks and nerds take it seriously,” says Scott Johnson, a cartoonist based in Utah, “but the kerfuffle is amplified on the Internet. We have to look at the work itself.”

And the odds of there being an intrusive anti-gay voice in the comic are slim—imagine Krypton being destroyed (as illustrated here) because of gay marriage. Card’s not that much of a moron.

But what about Superman himself, the guy who fights for truth, justice, and the American way? In favor of gay rights … isn’t he? Wasn’t there a gay boy he saved from suicide? Uhhh … Even for those of us willing to comb through the annals of Superman comics, it’s all a bit murky.

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Like Batman—who writer Grant Morrison said would rather hang out “with the old guy and the kid” than sexy ladies in leather—Superman’s sexuality may appear ambiguous at times, but he’s probably not gay. Sure, there’s something there that gay fans can identify with. Aside from his propensity to wear tights and his thorough avoidance of a sexual relationship with Lois Lane, Superman leads the quintessential double life, hiding a secret that dare not speak its name. If he’s willing to flip the bird to the entertainment-obsessed journalism industry, would it kill the man to be a gay icon?

For the biggest superhero in the universe, it’s complicated. Mangels says that when Superman makes political statements, it’s coming from the writer—not the fictional character. He’s absolutely right. Twenty, or even 10 years ago, it would’ve been a huge mainstream event for Superman to make a statement in favor of the gay community. Today, it might be just a gimmick to boost comic sales.

Meanwhile, one has to answer what Card will do once he gets his hands on Superman’s most progressive buddy, Jimmy Olsen (yes, the guy he flirted with when under the influence of his rainbow-inducing pink kryptonite). Olsen, a photojournalist at The Daily Planet, has historically had one great skill: cross-dressing.

While Superman flew and flexed his muscles in the ’50s, Olsen used his feminine wiles to gussy up like a woman and slither through Metropolis’s underbelly, getting wolf-whistles from the seediest of characters. “I used rouge over my face to cover my freckles and this ‘desire me’ lipstick will make me look like a doll,” he says in one panel.

A gay or transvestite sidekick may be just what the man of steel needs to settle this scandal once and for all. But then again, this summer’s Hollywood extravaganza Man of Steel has seemingly recast Jimmy as a woman named Jenny Olsen. Maybe we’re not ready yet.