Teddy Altman and Billy Kaplan - the Young Avengers' Hulkling and Wiccan - shared their first on-panel kiss in Young Avengers: The Children's Crusade #9 this week. It's a big moment for fans of the characters; an awwwww-inducing, infinitely rebloggable image seven years in the making.

Outside of the context of these characters and this relationship, this kiss is not a major milestone. It's not Marvel's first kiss between two men, nor even its first kiss between two male superheroes. Marvel showed a kiss between minor character Bloke and his unnamed boyfriend in X-Force #118 way back in 2001 (though Bloke was killed in the same issue). Rictor and Shatterstar had their first kiss in 2009 in X-Factor #45. Daken kissed Bullseye (in Hawkeye drag) in 2010, though that kiss was not exactly reciprocated. Northstar kissed his boyfriend Kyle Jinadu in Alpha Flight #0.1 last year. In the context of that short history of kisses, Teddy kissing Billy is only a 'first' for Teddy and Billy. So why are we talking about this kiss like it's news?

Because this kiss is not just a kiss.Usually when a kiss between two characters is as highly anticipated and as rapturously received by fans as the Young Avengers kiss has been, it's because the kiss is the moment two characters acknowledge their mutual attraction and get together. If you look at examples in TV shows like Cheers, Lost and Veronica Mars, epic fan-pleasing kisses are always a way to resolve long-simmering tension between two characters.

This kiss isn't like that. Drawn by Jim Cheung and Mark Morales, this is a kiss between two characters who have been in a committed relationship since before their first "on-screen" appearance. This is a kiss between two characters who have long-ago acknowledged their attraction and already established their devotion. And that's why this kiss is remarkable; because it took seven years to show a kiss between two characters who must kiss each other every day. It's a remarkable kiss because of all the times we haven't seen it.

There are a few reasons why this kiss was so long in the making. A big one is that there have only been about three years' worth of Young Avengers comics in these past seven years, and a lot of those comics were tied up in Civil War, Secret Invasion and Dark Reign. There hasn't been time to explore the characters in full.

Young Avengers co-creator Allan Heinberg gave another reason for the delay; moments like this must exist in service to the story. He told Gay Times in February 2011 (reprinted at Bleeding Cool); "The only reason that Wiccan and Hulkling haven't kissed on panel yet is because there hasn't been a moment where the story demands that they kiss."

In the same interview, Heinberg states that Marvel has "no editorial agenda" on LGBT issues; there was no mandate to prevent a kiss. I'm sure that's true, but only six years have passed since Marvel stopped putting "mature readers" labels on books with gay lead characters, so we know that Marvel has not always been so accepting. I was once on a panel with Heinberg where he admitted that he did not initially tell editorial that Hulkling and Wiccan were gay for fear of what they might say.

A lot has changed between Young Avengers #1 and Children's Crusade #9, but it's feasible to surmise that the third reason this kiss was so long in the making was prejudice - whether it was editors having it or editors fearing it. Both Marvel and its competitors have shown reticence in embracing gay characters in the past. Put another way, it's a miracle it only took these characters seven years to kiss when it took Northstar, Marvel's pioneering gay superhero, more than 30 years to get a little lip action. Northstar has been killed more times than he's been kissed. Yet in a further sign of how far we've come, it looks like Northstar and Kyle may be in a race down the aisle to score Marvel's first gay wedding before Teddy and Billy get their nuptials in order.

The last decade has been extraordinary for the rate at which public attitudes to gay relationships have shifted. It's there in the real world, where polls show a majority of Americans support same-sex marriage while a Conservative-led government is advancing the case for marriage equality in Britain. But it's also there in fiction, where the makers of the sitcom Modern Family danced around showing a kiss between their gay characters as recently as 2010 while the makers of Happy Endings treated such a kiss as completely normal in 2012. The recent attempt by misnamed homophobic hate group the American Family Association under its equally misnamed One Million Moms banner to boycott the issue of Life With Archie that showed the wedding of Kevin Keller backfired completely when the issue became one of Archie Comics' all-time best-sellers, just as the same hate group's boycott of JCPenney for hiring Ellen DeGeneres as a spokesperson failed when support for the company led to shopping flashmobs at JCPenney stores.

Against that background we can look at the kiss in Young Avengers and Marvel's apparently indulgent attitude to this level of representation as further great signs of substantial progress in a very short time.

In 2000, in DC/WildStorm's Jenny Sparks: The Secret History of the Authority mini, Mark Millar wrote and John McCrea drew the first kiss between Midnighter and Apollo, comics' first gay super-couple. At some point before the book hit the shelves, someone at DC pulled the kiss. I know this because I own the original, unaltered art. After a public outcry (that I may have done a little to foment), the characters were permitted to share a first kiss the following year at their wedding. All of this tells us that there was a time not long ago when it was OK for a comic to show one man punching through another man's skull with his fist, but not to show the same man planting a kiss on another man's lips.

For a long time in mainstream superhero comics gay characters have been de-sexualized, gay characters have been marginalized, and gay romances have been rendered invisible. For that reason, we are still at the point where we feel compelled to celebrate every time two gay characters share a kiss. Those moments are still so rare as to be worth recording. For that reason, the kiss between Teddy Altman and Billy Kaplan is newsworthy. Because every gay kiss is a milestone until one day it isn't.

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