The Straightwashing of Hercules and How Marvel Keeps Failing LGBTQ Readers
The mythological demigod Hercules is bisexual. How you feel about that fact doesn't change the fact; the myths of antiquity have told us that Hercules loved women and men alike. Lustfulness is at the core of his character, and Hercules' appetites aren't limited by gender.
Like many ancient myths, and like much of history, Hercules' stories have been bowdlerized by those who think same-sex relationships are sinful. Audiences introduced to the character through the Disney cartoon, the Kevin Sorbo TV show, the Dwayne Johnson movie, or the Marvel comics have good reason to think the character is heterosexual, because that's all they've ever seen. But that doesn't make it true. Hercules is bisexual. To deny that fact is to participate in the erasure of same-sex relationships on the grounds of a narrow and prescriptive morality.
Erasure used to be Marvel's official line on same-sex relationships; they were mature content, inappropriate for an all-ages audience. But this was standard operating procedure throughout the entertainment industry, such was the perceived power of moral crusaders who thought two men kissing was too icky for their god. (Our culture also told us that two women kissing was OK, but only if it was for a straight man's pleasure, not their own.)
Our cultural attitudes to same-sex relationships and queer identities have progressed at a rapid clip in the past ten years. Greater acceptance of same-sex marriage, for example, was expected to take another generation, yet same-sex marriage is now widely regarded as fair, just, and normal. We're moving in the right direction.
Yet on Friday we learned that Marvel is still happy to uphold exclusionary views of same-sex relationships. In his weekly Q&A for CBR, Marvel editor-in-chief Axel Alonso was asked to shed light on Hercules' sexuality following the announcement of a new series from Dan Abnett and Luke Ross. One alternative continuity had shown Hercules in a relationship with Wolverine, while the main Marvel continuity hinted at a relationship with Northstar and made canon the homoerotic legend of Hercules and Hylas. The groundwork for establishing Hercules' bisexuality has been done by writers Greg Pak and Fred Van Lente, so it was fair to ask if Marvel would follow through. Alonso's response?
"Hercules and James Howlett's relationship in 'X-Treme X-Men' took place in a unique alternate universe, similar to how Colossus was gay in the Ultimate Universe, but is straight in the 616. Same goes for Hercules here."
Alonso refused to answer further questions on the topic.
What's baffling is that this was an easy question to answer if Alonso wanted a quiet weekend. The best answer, of course, would have been to say, "Of course he's bisexual. He's Hercules."
The second best answer (but also the second worst answer) would have been to punt the question down the road. Alonso could have said, "This isn't something we're going to explore at this point," which is true. He could have given the answer that's been passed down from editor to editor since the days of Stan Lee himself, "Wait and see," which is code for, "I have to get to lunch, are we done here?"
The punt isn't a good response, but it maintains ambiguity around the character, and allows a future writer to explore the idea.
The worst answer Alonso could have given is the one he gave. Hercules is "straight in the 616." (The three-number signifier for the Marvel Universe.)
Let's be clear here: Hercules wasn't straight before Alonso gave that answer. Even if you ignore the Northstar connection, the mythology, the alternate reality where he's snogging Wolverine, Hercules was never established as straight. We knew he loved women. We did not know that he did not love men.
Alonso could have kept the question open, but he didn't want to. He wanted it settled. He took a lustful bisexual Greek demigod that LGBTQ audiences have an attachment to going back millennia, and straightwashed him for the sake of good god-fearing readers. Note that Hercules is a character whose presence in classical art was the equivalent of a rainbow flag in a shop window; a sign that says, "Queers welcome." Alonso took the flag down, and it was gratuitous, and it was hurtful.
And then he laughed about it. I think that's a fair characterization of his decision to retweet the following mocked-up image, in response to fan outcry at his answer:
He later took that retweet down, but by that point it was too late. If you hurt your readers and then gloat about the pain you caused, they're going to remember.
Marvel is a company that enjoys a certain level of self-satisfaction because of its success, its talent, and its domination of the market, and that satisfaction sometimes manifests in a condescendingly dismissive attitude towards critics. But what Marvel forgets is that a lot of the people it categorizes as critics are people from marginal groups who only want to be heard. These are the voices that Marvel sought to answer with Miles Morales, and Kamala Khan, and A-Force, and the new Ultimates. These are the voices that drive those books.
Disenfranchised people have to be critical of those in power who uphold the status quo. So when a person in power decides to pose as insensitive to critics, they're actually turning their back on the already marginalized.
Axel Alonso has worked to improve diversity at Marvel, that's beyond question, but that doesn't buy him the right to mock minority groups who loudly disagree with his decisions. That doesn't mean he can get away with taking a minority character and reestablishing him with a majority identity.
I don't imagine Alonso foresaw the problems this would cause. I think he's especially insensitive towards LGBTQ representation, and that's reflected in Marvel's patchy output. There have been bright spots, but they're only spots, typically tied to specific writers like Marjorie Liu, Kieron Gillen, Brian Michael Bendis, or Peter David. At an editorial level, Marvel doesn't support characters like Shatterstar, Moondragon, Anole, Karolina Dean, Daken, Julie Power, Rictor, Phyla-Vell, Prodigy, Xavin, Cullen Bloodstone, Mystique, Karma, Victoria Hand, Graymalkin, or Annabel Riggs, and it doesn't support creators who want to establish characters like Storm, Gambit, Namor, or Hercules as bisexual.
This institutional insensitivity explains why the All-New All-Different launch line-up looks less diverse than both the line it replaced and the interim Secret Wars line, especially for LGBTQ characters. Queer characters from the Marvel, Ultimate, and Secret Wars universes are all absent, with a few scattered exceptions like Wiccan, Hulkling, Miss America and Iceman.
Of course, there's a question mark hanging over Iceman, as there are two of him, one young and gay, and the other older and... we don't know. I'd like to think it's impossible that Marvel would do something so dangerous as tell young fans that a queer teenager can grow up to be heterosexual, but again, Marvel doesn't have that sort of sensitivity. The X-Men comic that would resolve this question has inauspiciously been delayed for several months.
Loki seems to have lost his solo title in the Secret Wars upheaval. Angela may be bisexual, but I don't think it's been established. Some readers insist that Deadpool is bisexual, but he's only ever made jokes about it. There's a rumor that a long overdue Northstar series may be announced soon; that might have felt like a gain if we hadn't lost Loki and Hercules. Right now, Marvel's best days as a publisher of queer-friendly comics are definitely in the past.
None of which is to imply that Marvel hates LGBTQ people, or that Alonso is any kind of bigot. It would be easy to characterize my comments that way in order to dismiss them, so let me be clear: I know there are LGBTQ people at Marvel, including at an editorial level. Neither the company nor the editor-in-chief dislikes gay people.
But I don't believe the company is sensitive or receptive to the issues or the audience. Marvel is too quick to dismiss critics with derision and contempt, even when those critics are queer comic fans with a legitimate complaint, and that makes the company look hostile. Combine that hostility with a lackluster publishing slate and a track record of marginalizing LGBTQ characters, and Marvel's failures come into sharp relief. The straightwashing of Hercules just draws attention to it all.
Meanwhile, DC is courting queer fans with books like Midnighter, Catwoman, Constantine, Harley Quinn, Bombshells, and Secret Six. So if you want to know which major superhero publisher is listening to you, and if you want to know which publisher treats its LGBTQ readers with respect, the answer to that is straighter than Hercules ever was.