What does a queer Superman mean for comics?
A queer comics writer on Jonathan Kent, and how representation in comics has changed over the years.
Among the countless people who celebrated National Coming Out Day earlier this week, one of them was none other than Superman himself. DC comics announced on Monday that in an upcoming November issue, Superman: Son of Kal-El #5, Jonathan Kent, the son of Clark Kent and Lois Lane, will come out as bisexual. Jon will share a kiss with his male hacker friend Jay Nakamura in the comic, written by Tom Taylor with art by John Timms. The announcement might be seen as part of a larger shift in comics over the last several years, as the Marvel and DC universes have begun to diversity their roster — from the popular Miles Morales, an Afro-Latino teen from Brooklyn, becoming Spiderman, to Tim Drake, otherwise known as Robin, recently coming out.
Steve Orlando certainly thinks so — though he has some caveats. Orlando is a queer comics writer who has written for heavy hitters like Batman and Wonder Woman, and also worked on Midnighter, a comic whose titular character in 2015 became the first gay male superhero to ever lead a book at Marvel or DC. Mic spoke to Orlando about what the Superman news means and how queerness has historically been treated in comics.
Mic: What was your reaction to the news about Superman coming out?
Steve Orlando: I can't say I was surprised, just because we had already seen Tim Drake coming out as bi finally. In the moment, I'm excited about it. The question is — now that we have these characters, are we going to do the follow-through to develop them further? Are we going to really explore their stories now that they've come out, and is this going to be a lasting part of the lore? I was excited about it yesterday. I'm excited about it today. The real question is where are we a year from now? Where are we five years from now?
The news follows an expansion of identities for many other heroes in the past few years. Internally in the industry, have you witnessed a natural, conscious shift, or has it been something that has been hard-fought?
I know that other people have had different experiences, and that's important to say. But in my specific case, I really had a lot of freedom with not just working on Midnighter or building out his world with other queer characters, but also building out the vast majority of my DC books with queer characters.
I did create numerous new LGBTQ+ characters while I was at DC over the five years I was there, and in almost every book that I worked on in some fashion. I'll be honest — again, I know that other folks have different stories, but mine has largely been one of support.
“Now that we have these characters, are we going to do the follow through to develop them further?”
How drastic is that freedom compared to the history of what comics have defined as who or what a hero is?
Well, how drastic it is really just depends on how far back you wanna push the line. If you look at the queer-coded stories of the 40s and you compare them to now, it's obviously quite drastic. Even in the 80s, when you had the character Gregorio De La Vega, commonly known as Extrano, who was the first out character in the Big Two — Northstar in Marvel was created before him, but was out after him. There's a lot that is challenging, to use a euphemism, about that character, starting with the fact that his codename was already, if not a slur, a pejorative used against queer folks in South America. And that's notwithstanding his overall affect and his personality traits, or the fact that in the 90s he was killed by an AIDS vampire. The allegories are not subtle.
If you look at the 80s and then go into the 90s and 2000s to now, it's not as drastic, but it is incremental and sometimes painfully so. At some point, of course, we had creators with bad intentions — sometimes even now, but broadly, not now. We had characters and creators that were bad faith, that were created to demonize the queer community and villainize us. And all these things by the way, it goes for nearly every marginalized group from top to bottom.
Starting out, [queer characters] could only be villains. And then you had a period where they could be heroes, but it was largely pastiche and stereotype and soul-crushing. And even then probably, even though intent is murdered by the result here, I think you had folks with good intentions, but very little research done, very little, if not lived experience, one-to-one experience with folks from these communities or any marginalized community.
Why has there been this shift?
In the mid-2000s, people sort of realized that we need to do a little more work here when we're presenting these characters. How did that shift? I think it shifts from having a diversification, not exclusively on the writing and art side, but also on the editorial side.
Everybody deserves a seat at the table, but the table has to be bigger than we think. We're not thinking (enough) about marketing. We're not thinking about sales. We're not thinking about editorial for the most part. And with all types of representation, it's not a field of dreams, and we can't keep approaching it like that. We need to have folks who actually know how to speak to these communities, who know how to ensure that the final product is uplifting and empowering and authentic. And that often goes far beyond just the writer or the penciler, so on and so forth.
Do you fear, though, that what’s been happening doesn’t also run the risk of plugging into a trend? How do you ensure that these characters don’t read as a cheap form of diversity check-boxing?
Well, there's a couple answers. And one is not going to be super romantic and it's going to be very utilitarian. And that is, I broadly don't care if it's a gimmick and it stays around and we get representation; it's going to stay around because people are buying and supporting it and we're going to win. That does not negate everything you said, but at a baseline level, when it comes to representation, I don't at the widest margin care why it happens because for decades, we didn't get any.
But the way that we make sure that it sticks, we have to now just expand who is sitting where behind the scenes, but we also have to make sure that these stories are not tokenizing. If bisexuality is explored in a thoughtful and authentic way, it will have a better chance of sticking because it will feel real. It will be backed up by story, backed up by character work. Because the fact is is that, like it or not, any major change with the character always runs the chance of not sticking around.
Does this news of it being Superman — probably the most iconic superhero of all time — coming out serve as a particularly significant milestone?
There is a huge significance to Jonathan Kent being bisexual and wearing that S-shield, which is so iconic. It's one of the most well-known symbols in the world behind the Christian cross. I do think it's funny though, watching people lose their minds when they say, “Superman is gay? What about Lois and Clark?” Well, I got news for you, Lois and Clark are in fact the parents of this queer Superman. It is a Superman, but it is somewhat perhaps purposely inflammatory when articles say “Superman is queer now” — well, a Superman is. It's not as though we went in and said Clark Kent is. Now that would be a very different thing.
I don't want to undercut the significance of a character wearing the S-symbol. Clark Kent and Lois Lane, two of the most iconic characters in a superhero fiction, now have to unpack being the parents of a queer son. And I'm excited where that goes.
“One cover and one issue does not mean anything because we've been there before. ... That’s why it can’t be a sole cover, and this sole story.”
I am curious about that specific backlash that some fans have about the idea of the original person behind the hero not being allowed to be gay, or Black, or what have you. It’s often framed as questioning the logic of the lore, but it also seems like it’s just that they see someone being queer as tainting their idea of the hero. On the flip side, would you say, then, that the fact that it’s Jonathan Kent, the son of the original Superman, serves as a kind of asterisk to a milestone, or a defense against that backlash?
I understand that mindset. Folks who've been waiting for representation and want one of the “real” versions of the characters, a character that “counts more” to join part of their community — of course I understand. That comes from wanting to feel validated and see yourself in the works that you're taking in. Having been on the inside and seeing how these things are weighed, I think it’s a huge leap. It's easily one of the biggest risks — and I say that only from a professional sense, not an emotional or moral sense — that I’ve seen these companies take.
The way that these things stick and last is when they do not seem tokenizing and they do not seem to be a gimmick. So if I just say out loud, we've taken a character that has nominally been straight for the past 80 years, and now we’re making him “gay” — no story is impossible to tell, but to support that and authenticate and sell that story in a way that is going to be lasting is an enormous challenge. I mean, everyone has prejudices and everyone has blind spots. But to realistically find a story that is both respectful to the new direction and respectful to what's come before, the challenge is greater the longer a character has been around.
What does this new storyline for Superman mean for the long game of a more inclusive comics universe?
Not to be unromantic, but one cover and one issue does not mean anything because we've been there before. I'm not going to get into when it's happened. But we have certainly been there before where characters have been presented as bisexual and these things just aren’t mentioned again for any number of reasons.
But that's why it can't be a sole cover, and this sole story. Talk to me in a year and we'll see what this means for the next 10 years. But broadly, if things continue to go the way they are, I think we will be closer to really having a more holistically diverse superhero community speaking for all companies. The challenge with these works is that no one character can really be everything to everyone. There is no queer monolithic story that we all go through, and so all we can do is help to continue to create these characters and tell different types of stories and proliferate them.