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Expanding Diversity

Art from Judgment Day
Art from Judgment Day

The recent appearances of the Legion of Super Heroes and Ultra, a re-imagination of Ultra the Multi Alien (and I hear all of you asking “Who?”),  has been on my mind. The Legion was my introduction to comics many years ago when these young superheroes were the headline feature in Adventure. The series’ futuristic aspect with flight rings, space travel, people from alien worlds was an immediate hook. Just as appealing to me as I tried to make sense of my dysfunctional family were these superheroic teenagers who made one big, mostly adult free family. Many other comics and stories that caught my attention in those early years shared a sci fi theme or other worldly elements. Advanced science made Aquaman’s domed city of Atlantis. Hawkman and Hawkgirl were from Thanagar and spent part of their time on their starcruiser parked in Earth orbit. Green Lantern was a member of a galactic police force that answered to the Guardians of the Universe whom I never liked because they were smug and authoritarian, not because they were short and blue. Adam Strange was an archelogist who saved the far away planet Rann from exotic disasters and had the ulitmate long distance relationship with Alanna. From the pages of Mystery In Space and Strange Adventures came features like Space Cabbie, Star Hawkins and his robot assistant Ilda, Star Rovers, the Space Museum, the post apocalyptic Atomic Knights, and the previously mentioned Ultra the Multi Alien.

As captivating, quirky, and inventive as these heroes were to me, they were all a product of their time and in one regard that means they were all heteronormative.

The Comics Code Authority’s guidelines heavily regulated the publishers and middle America parents of the 1960s and 1970s were definitely not eager to let their children read comics with characters or elements that strayed from contemporary social standards. The Code’s last revision in 1989 eliminated previous prohibitons, however oblique they were, against depicting LGBT characters or having LGBT relevant stories in comics. of course there’d been a small number of LGBT characters in the years leading up to that 1989 policy change. Characters like Maggie Sawyer, Northstar, and Extrano come to mind though I’d debate that Comics Code restrictions created a kind of two dimensionality to aspects of their lives. That wasn’t the case a few years later with Shrinking Violet and Light Lass and Element Lad and Shvaugn Erin (revealed to be 31st century transgender) to be in romantic relationships.

Even as the number and presence of LGBT characters have increased considerably over the years, alien and other fantastical cultures seem to be remarkably heterosexual. A few exceptions come to mind though. Phyla-Vell (who had at least a couple code names) and Moondragon were lovers and featured in Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning’s run of Guardians of the Galaxy, and they’ve shuffled off to limbo. Original Guardian Vance Astrovik learned that his father Arnold was gay, and that was the extent of that. Kieron Gillen had Noh-Varr allude to being less than 100% straight in a scene in his run on Young Avengers with Jamie McKelvie though it remains to be seen if any more will be done with this admission or other Kree warriors in general. Thirty six hundred Green Lanterns have patrolled the DC Universe for decades and yet every Green Lantern appears to be straight despite this vastness of space and abundance of life forms and culture. How did the inherent shape changing ability of Martian Manhunter’s people affect gender and sexuality in their cultures? We’ve seen how this can affect Marvel’s Skrulls with Xavin taking on a female form to please Karolina Dean in Runaways and then there is the long forgotten Skyppi. What of Hawkman’s homeworld of Thanagar? The post Crisis Thanagar had a militaristic tone overlaid on its culture but LGBT characters shouldn’t be automatically excluded from its society or its military. One example of how that could be accomplished is ancient Greece’s Sacred Band of Thebes, a special unit made of 150 gay male couples, who were both revered and feared for the fighting strength. Another example is the much lesser known zaggalah, a special caste of all male warriors, who protected the Siwa Oasis on Egypt’s western border. The zaggalah engaged in situational homosexuality because access to Siwan women was highly controlled. We don’t hav to look to the past for examples either. Could Thanagar’s military and law enforcement have had its own ban on gays and lesbians or a controversial “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy? hat about a culture that had suffered a horrific disaster like the Atlantis as imagined by both Marvel and DC. Large scale catastrophes would underscore a people’s need to reproduce and propogate to ensure their society lives on, but the sexuality of Atlanteans “born that way” wouldn’t be extinguished. As populations and life began to stabilize and could either Atlantean civilization conceive creating special roles in their societies for gender non-conforming individuals, say, as some Native American nations did by allowing two spirit people to become shamans if they were inclined.

Given as dense as modern day comics can be, my ideas to expand diversity among the Green Lanterns or Thanagar might seem like trying to shoehorn one more thing into the mix. True, that good happen. It certainly doesn’t have to be and as an example I’ll offer an EC story titled Judgment Day, written by Al Feldstein and drawn by Joe Orlando, from Weird Fantasy #18 (1953). You can read it here. The character names mentioned above aren’t meant to be complete or official in any way. They were simply names that came to mind while writing this semi strea of consciousness piece and thinking of ways writers could make a few worlds a little more diverse. And here’s hoping Jeff Lemire’s use of Legion sparks a lot of interest and sales leading to the team’s return and feature Vi and Ayla and Gravity Kid and Power Boy to boot!

March 7, 2015
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