Give ‘Em Elle: There’s No Such Thing as Organic [Pride Week]
Welcome to Give ‘Em Elle, a weekly column that hopes to bridge the gap between old school comics fandom and the progressive edge of comics culture. This is Pride Week, so I asked for questions about LGBTQ issues in comics. And perhaps inevitably, I got this one:
This comes up again and again, and I’m going to assume Jonathan is just bringing it up to give me something to argue with, and not because he agrees with it. The word “organically” started being tossed around in this context last year, after SlashFilm asked asked Kevin Feige about the possibility of including gay characters in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Here’s what he said:
You know, we pull the characters from the comics, for the most part, and they’ve been forging new ground for decades in the comics. They’ve been very progressive in the comics. And even more recently in a very important and progressive way. And we keep track of all of those things and are inspired by all of those things, so I’d love it to find an organic, meaningful and natural way for that to happen at some point in the not so distant future.
In discussions since then, “organically” has become a code word for, “Let’s not try to have queer characters. Maybe if we do nothing they’ll just happen.” And I think we all know that’s a load of crap. Our own Andrew Wheeler wrote an excellent piece about a year ago on exactly why that’s such a wrong-headed perspective. I also asked Magdalene Visaggio about it in a recent interview, just because I knew she’d have an excellent take on how wrong it is.
But it’s not going to stop coming up anytime soon, so here I am, writing about it again.
I want to start by talking about Batwoman. But not the gay Batwoman we know and love in 2016; the original Batwoman, raven-haired Kathy Kane. Kathy was introduced by Bob Kane and Sheldon Moldoff in Detective Comics #233 in 1956, two years after the publication of Frederic Wertham’s Seduction of the Innocent. In that book, as most comics fans know, Wertham called the lifestyle of Bruce Wayne and Dick Grayson “a wish dream of two homosexuals living together.” It seems that, at least in the eyes of some concerned readers, Batman and Robin had organically become a bit too queer.
So a DC editor made an inorganic decision: A female member of the Bat-Family, to be a safe and appropriately chaste heterosexual love interest for Bruce Wayne.
And thus, Kathy Kane as Batwoman, was born. She was almost ludicrously feminine, keeping her crime-fighting tools in a purse rather than a utility belt, and disguising them as high femme accouterments like compacts and lipstick. She was soon given a sidekick, her niece Betty Kane, aka Bat-Girl, who was a love interest for Robin and fought crime in a red dress.
There was nothing organic about how these characters came to be, or how they came to be straight women. There was a need for heterosexual love interests for Batman and Robin to fend off gay rumors, and so Batwoman and Bat-Girl were created to fill that space.
But wait, you might be saying, those are bad characters who nobody likes, and therefore they just prove that “forcing it” doesn’t work. But that’s looking at old characters with a modern bias. Kathy and Betty remained part of Batman’s world for eight years, until the 1960s “New Look” revamp. Kathy was revived in the ‘70s and stuck around here and there until the ‘80s, before she was brought back into continuity by Grant Morrison in 2013. Betty meanwhile spent some time with the Teen Titans, and was given a post-Crisis identity as Bette Kane/Flamebird.
And Batwoman and Bat-Girl were no more inorganic in their creation than any other characters. They were created to give Batman and Robin costumed love interests. Robin was created to give kids someone to identify with, and to give Batman someone to talk to. Batman was created because Superman was a hit, and DC wanted more superheroes. Fictional characters don’t just happen. They’re all made for a reason.
Twenty years after Kathy Kane was erased by Crisis on Infinite Earths (and before Morrison decreed that she did exist after all), a new version of Batwoman was envisioned as part of the yearlong 52 series. This new Katherine Kane would go by Kate, and would be a lesbian. There was nothing organic about any of these decisions. In fact, you could say the character was literally created by committee. The modern Batwoman was created by a team of talents that include Greg Rucka, J.H. Williams III, Michael Siglain, Alex Ross, and Devin Grayson.
But being created by multiple people, and specifically to be a lesbian superhero, didn’t stop Kate from being an interesting character, or from developing a strong fan following. In fact, queer fans in particular were thrilled to have such a prominent queer hero, and of course lesbian DC fans were especially excited. Even when the writing in her solo title went in a direction that made lots of readers unhappy, the reaction was more, “How could they do this to Batwoman? She deserves better,” than, “Forget it, I’m done with Batwoman!”
It should go without saying that the points I’ve made about both versions of Batwoman are equally true of any given superhero, straight or gay, or indeed any fictional character. Characters don’t grow out of the ground; they’re the result of decisions made by creators. Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster decided that Superman should be in love with a woman named Lois Lane. John Byrne decided that Northstar should be gay, but it took Scott Lobdell (and a loosening of the Comics Code) for him to actually come out. Warren Ellis decided that Midnighter and Apollo should both be gay and in love with each other. Chris Claremont decided that Kitty Pryde was in love with Rachel Summers, but he never directly said it, so it never really happened. (But if you read between the lines, maybe it did?)
When people say that queer characters should happen organically, or that they don’t want to “force it,” all they’re doing is diverting blame away from themselves for a lack of representation. Most straight creators default to straight characters because that’s what feels “normal” to them. And that heteronormativity is what we need to work against if queer characters are ever going to be more than occasional anomalies in superhero comics and elsewhere.