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Jim Shooter’s Other Homosexual

(Note: This piece was originally written in late 2007 or early 2008).

clarkson05Mention the name Jim Shooter to a gay comics fan and two references will likely pop in to his head. The first being Shooter’s association with the Legion and secondly, his attitude toward homosexuality. Shooter penned the lead “YMCA rape” story for The Hulk #23, a magazine sized comic that skirted the Comics Code. You can read a piece that I wrote about that story here. Shooter is also well known for the “no homosexuals in Marvel comics” edict that came after his Hulk story. While the policy is on an entirely different level from Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s statement at Columbia University that Iran has no homosexuals, it seems no less laughable or incredulous. Of course, I don’t mean to make light of homosexuals living in a repressive country.

Thanks to this unwritten policy, Alpha Flight writer Bill Mantlo made Northstar into an extra-dimensional fairy instead of dealing with the character’s sexuality as originally intended. Thankfully, this development was retconned out of continuity and despite its bad handling, Northstar came out. Andy Mangels in his “Out of the Closet and into the Comics” article for Amazing Heroes (issues #143 and #144 published in 1988) brought up the topic of Shooter’s policy. Unfortunately his sources at the time spoke on the condition of anonymity and while I do not doubt its enforcement for one minute, there is no definitive corroboration of online sources that I can find.

So, what’s my motivation for writing and your reason for reading this piece? Jim Shooter’s first new story for the Legion will hit comic shops Christmas week. Along with the imminent 50th anniversary of the Legion in April 2008, many fans are hoping it will be a new and memorable landmark in the team’s long history. While by far from definitive, the sentiments expressed on a DC message board thread seem more positive than not. You’ll have to fault me for a lack of patience affecting my desire to better research fandom opinions. [A link to a thread on DC’s previous message board was included.]

Should there be any need for concern about Shooter’s past homophobia coloring his new Legion work? Is it possible that Shooter’s attitude could have changed in the twenty-five plus years since he wrote Hulk #23? How might Shooter write another gay character if given the opportunity?

In answer to this last question at least I offer up a recounting of Jim Shooter’s other homosexual, a character named Ken Clarkson. After leaving (I’m trying to be a little kind) his position of editorial director at Marvel, Shooter became president of Valiant Comics in the early 1990s. It was seen, or at least intended, as an ambitious upstart with a small stable of original properties anchored by old Dell properties Magnus Robot Fighter and Solar, Man of the Atom. One of the original comics was titled X-O Manowar.

A little background on X-O Manowar. The foundation of the series seems convoluted and the first issue’s plot seems typical of early 90s comics attempting to rise above average story. Its premise involved a Visigoth barbarian named Aric, who’d been captured and held for 1,600 or so years by an alien spider race. The full back story of how and why this came about is left unexplained until it was told 18 months later in a “zero” issue special. All we know here is that our Visigoth somehow eludes his captors aboard an alien ship orbiting Earth. With the instructions of some unknown “map giver” (revealed in the special), Aric makes his way through little used corridors in search of a ring that promises freedom. Miraculously (or conveniently for the plot), Aric finds the ring near some alien tech battle suit. He quickly grabs it after realizing he’s been discovered, and finds the battle suit wrapping itself around him. Because Aric is a fighter, he somehow manages to destroy the ship and return to Earth, crashing on a mountaintop. Of course, those villainous spiders want their armor back and can track it to the non-descript poorer than dirt village where people take in Aric. When he’s not harvesting bananas (I swear!) he has romantic thoughts for Maria. Alas, while Maria is not a red-shirted cadet on Star Trek, she must cruelly die at the “hands” of the spiders for the contrivance of the plot while Aric is conveniently away in the closest large town for some unexplained reason. Handily, her young brother, who may be all of eleven, escapes unharmed and finds his way to the town to warn Aric, who somehow understands the boy even though her doesn’t understand much of the language, about the danger.

Back at the village the barbarian is faced with the villagers’ deaths and easily finds an alien communication device in Maria’s hair. This device relays message (in Aric’s language yet!) threatening more death unless Aric leaves the ring and walks away. Of course, you don’t threaten a barbarian and expect him not to do something. The ring is able to track the suit as well, and it guides him to the spiders’ military style ops site and miraculously, inexplicably he finds a rocket launcher that he uses to destroy the equipment in an inferno. Just as inexplicable is the disappearance of Aric’s clothes in this scene and the next when he saunters off to a different town, passing by a couple of good time girls who’re admiring his manliness.

Oh no! There’s a spider soldier that jumps out of hiding, but he’s no match for Aric the barbarian. Now who just happens to be standing nearby watching this brawl? The focus of this piece, Jim Shooter’s other despicable homosexual riddled with bad stereotypes: Ken Clarkson. Ken stands in a doorway and proclaims, “I came looking for local, but you surpass my wildest dreams!” [Bold from the original.] Interpreting his appearance as “birdlike” and reminiscent of useful “wizards” from long ago, Aric follows this new stranger back to a hotel room.

Speaking of Ken’s look let me talk about that. In this first panel he’s drawn so there isn’t much doubt about his orientation. His hands are clasped together, his wavy hair is neatly trimmed, and he wears a bright yellow shirt. His face has high cheekbones and effeminate looking eyebrows and he’s either really tanned or has Asian coloring (this is consistent throughout his appearances). Later in the story he wears a tailored purple suit, a matching fey fedorah, mauve tie and striped shirt.

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Alone in the room, gay guy introduces himself as Ken and draws up a bubble bath for the barbarian, leering from the tub’s edge as his “guest” soaks. Ken suggests “If you get too cold…” before going to bed alone and in the morning wakes to find Aric the Barbarian crouched under a potted palm. Unfazed, our little feygelah somehow persuades—I say somehow because it’s done off panel—to shave his manly red beard, use some product on his hair, and put on a suit (a more manly brown shade, mind you!). This odd couple then makes it to the local airport, and get on plane bound for New York. Oh, and big guy lets Ken hook his arm around his.

Once the plane lands in New York there are a couple of interesting points. We learn when Ken makes a call that he’s actually working for a group of more human appearing spider aliens, and the trip back to America was really just an elaborate scheme for an ambush. The other point that isn’t clear is whether Ken had been on an interrupted “sex trip” or if he’d been dispatched to act in the convoluted ruse. In appreciation for his “help”, Aric gives Ken a bear hug. His internal monologue reads: “He is one of those men who love men! I do not understand them but they can be good wizards…I will bring him great reward!” [Emphasis mine.]

Following the plan, Ken leads them out of the terminal and on to the tarmac. Ken tries to justify his actions to clueless Aric. Remember he doesn’t understand English! “I got an MBA. Went to work! I was ambitious, okay? I didn’t know who my bosses really were! By the time I did, I figured so they were weird [Try an alien race!]. So a lot of people think I’m weird.” Then momentarily filled with guilt he screams, “Hell, I can’t do this! Listen to me! Understand me! You’ve got to run away! They’re going to kill you!”

And of course, that’s exactly what a trio of mutated arachnids attempt with the help of some fancy laser weapons. Just two short panels later, one of those lasers cuts through Ken’s left arm above the elbow. Aric goes crazy, wills the ring to return the armor to him, and uses its weapons to squash the spiders, shouting, “Die! Die! Die!” After all this mayhem it’s nice that Aric is thoughtful enough to check to see if Ken is alive—which he is because he’s crucial to the series.

Essential yes, but instead of writing a positive gay character co-writers Shooter and Steve Englehart continue heaping stereotypes on the person. After another encounter with the aliens at the start of the second issue, Ken and Aric arrive at the home of Beverly, Ken’s doctor and apparently only friend. It serves as a convenient point for Ken to expound on his knowledge about and involvement with the aliens. Thanks to traceable tech the ring leads a trio of spiders to Bev’s home where Ken is captured and becomes bait for Aric. Ken proves to be an unwilling victim when he takes advantage of spider nature, grabs a gun and shoots the guards. At first glance it seems either Shooter or Englehart gave Ken a redeeming quality, but later developments show differently.

Gone after issue #2 are the aliens who’ve been killed in a big slug fest by Aric and the X-O armor. It’s never explained why they set up and ran a huge corporation. What’s relevant here is Ken’s revelation that he’s started to transfer all of the company assets into his name. Aside from this, Ken doesn’t play much of a role in the third issue. It isn’t that Ken told Aric, even if he could understand English well enough at this point, that he’d share the company and its wealth with Aric. It’s simply that Ken is using Aric, first as protection and secondly as a front because the big lug with his long red hair and noble savage appearance is instantly more likeable than his own bitchy and manipulative personality.

After a run in with a high tech henchman sent by the rival Harada (a character central to another Valiant book) in issue three, Ken and Aric agree to meet with Harada in New Orleans during Mardi Gras (issue #4). Despite being wealthy from purloined assets, Ken seems to own just two suits, a brown one and the purple ensemble that he dons for the flight. A couple of men talking on the street are cruised by Ken.

Shooter is credited as the sole writer of issue #5. Thankfully by now Aric understands more English with the X-O’s help. Still, he doesn’t know it well enough to catch Ken’s duplicity on page three when he talks again about transferring company assets. Ken then remarks, “Mmm…you’re one good looking man, Aric. If you were gay you’d be perfect.” Aric replies in broken English, “What haves that to do with a men’s worth?”

Use of the word “gay” here is not the first time it appeared in a mainstream comic. That distinction goes to the story in Fantastic Four #251 (1983) written by John Byrne. With Shooter as EIC at Marvel at the time, this is then the second time “gay” is used in a Shooter comic.  Seemingly laudable on Shooter’s part considering the lisping gay would-be rapists in HULK #23, that is if Shooter was aware of it before publication.

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It would be if not for a following scene. Aric has left after a little tantrum and Ken is in his office alone except for the X-O suit. The scope of Ken’s scheming comes to the forefront as he talks about a plan to kill Aric to protect his ill-gotten empire. It might work except the suit also records sound, and later it communicates Ken’s speech to Aric, who now (surprise!) understands English much better.

A new contender for the battle suit kidnaps Ken, a man referred to as Ax. Ax refers to Ken as “fairy” and “pansy”, but it isn’t bothersome coming from a villain. Ken takes exception to it though and uses the ensuing confusion when Aric storms in to shoot one of Ax’s henchman, saying: “The kid hates “fruits.” As if that has anything to do with a man’s worth…”

This issue marks the last involvement as writer for both Shooter and Englehart. Bob Layton and Jorge Gonzalez wrote the series up to issue #18 and the zero special. The book may have continued after that, but if it did I dropped it due to money problems at the time. The writer change didn’t improve Ken’s character though. He’s still the hostage victim being held by Ax’s gang as the baddie and Aric battle it out, this time on a beach with a couple of deserted boats as backdrop. “Fairy boy” is this issue’s derogatory term.

A big development for the odd couple happens at the end of the story. Despite the strides he’s made in adapting to the modern world, Aric realizes that he can neither trust Ken nor do without him. He commands the X-O armor to construct a new arm for Ken, one that will keep track of Ken’s whereabouts and conversations, and if crossed Aric can use it to kill Ken by remote control.

What Aric (and we) have learned of Ken in a short time span is that he’s one gay man who’ll steal a company, its money, and scheme to kill the man who has sexual fantasies about and rescued him. Oh, and threw his lot in with alien spiders to boot.

The next issue is a chapter in the company wide Unity crossover and not much of it is relevant to Clarkson. He attempts to use a piece of machinery in a steel mill (a handy subsidiary of Orb Industries, the company he and Aric run), but the circuitry in the arm prevents it. Aric dangles the possibility of freedom from the arm if Ken proves his trustworthiness. Being a crossover, the Harbinger kids appear to ask Aric for help, and Zephyr, a slightly overweight girl with flying powers, refers to Ken as “Liberace.” Exit stage left for the “lost world” of Unity for the rest of this issue, and all of the next two.

The splash page for #10 features Ken (wearing a different purple ensemble) berating an employee for not getting his approval on a requisition order for toiler paper. With Aric away for month, Ken’s reverted to his true nature. Hmm. Being gay has nothing to do with a man’s worth, but being a controlling, manipulative, schemer sure doesn’t leave a favorable impression on your employees because they refer to him in whispers as the “nasty, little man.” Unfortunately for Ken, Aric has mysteriously returned from his month long absence, and the only good thing about the big guy’s return is it gives Ken another opportunity to steal the ring and armor from Aric. True, Ken nurses Aric, but it’s all an act and Aric isn’t fooled for a minute. Talking out loud to himself again, Ken thinks how the ring and armor will change his life. “It’s all a little overwhelming. Riches…men…fame—mine for just the taking…It’s what [I’ve] always wanted! Don’t be a sissy-ninny…use it!”

Let’s see. That’s sissy-ninny, fairy, fruit, pansy, fairy boy, and Liberace.

And “tinkerbell.” That’s the name Lauren, Aric’s MIA girlfriend (don’t ask because these comics are bad enough that I don’t want to go back and figure out where she came into the picture) uses when she shows up to visit Aric. After getting her walking papers from Aric she tells Ken he doesn’t need to send her things to her because “you can keep wearing them, “tink!”

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Being alone again (no surprise!) gives Ken the chance to expound. “I can’t keep the pretense up much longer…Aric’s growing suspicious of me. Not that he doesn’t have good reason to be.” Musing on the one reason he has not to kill Aric he surmises, “Face it, Ken. You’re better off giving him the ring back”

clarkson04It’s just as good because those nasty spiders who’ve been away for so long reappear almost on cue to scare the bejeezus out of Ken and running right to studly Aric for his help. They’re no match for the big guy who slices and dices them in the following issue (#11). All seems well until the boys realize later that week that they had same nightmare about the spiders. Ken weasels his way in to spending the night with Aric (“See—I even brought my own jammies!”) In case you’re curious, Ken’s jammies are a stunning shade of purple. Ken’s a stunning figure curled up seductively on the sofa with his smooth chest bared for Aric. Also on the fashion front: Ken wears a green suit! Maybe it was a Thursday?

Aric disappears in the middle of the night. It’s got something to do with those nasty spiders again. Thank god he’s wearing the armor. But in the next issue Ken is worried sick enough that he resorts to calling Lauren, she of the tinkerbell comment, and then acts like a brat with his new security chief.

Three days and an issue later Ken is lounging poolside wearing Speedos and acting snitty on the phone with his security chief when Aric makes a spectacular entrance by plummeting into the pool. Oops! Spoke too soon. Bare ass cheeks mean Ken’s wearing a thong. Before Aric disappears on a mission with guest star Turok, Ken gets a chance to be snide in person with his security officer and a research scientist. Priorities! Life has priorities!

Traffic is simply “horrid” on the BQE as Ken goes to pick up Aric from the airport. Ken’s two brief appearances in issue #15 are simply for him to yell into a huge cell phone at Aric. He gets mixed up in some nasty hijinks in issue #16 and called a “pansy” again.

At some point off panel and in between issues Ken has decided to run for senator and throws a fundraiser in Aric’s home. He’s chosen a stylish purple tux to wear. Of course, it’s just another of Ken’s schemes and Aric throws out all the guests right before doing it to Ken. Later, Ken acts bitchy to some “businessmen” who barge into his office unannounced, not realizing they’re from the local mob. And what article of clothing says “bitchy queen” better than any other? Why, an ascot! A purple one, too! We get to see Ken pout after his Porsche is blown up by a car bomb, courtesy of the gangsters.

The last of Ken’s appearances I can write about is in #18. After a verbal brow beating from Aric last time, Ken’s given up on his Senate bid, much to the chagrin of shady businessman (after the X-O armor) with whom he was conspiring. Still, we know from previous characterization the only thing that’s stopped Ken from killing Aric has been the warning system built into the tech based prosthetic arm. Mr. Shady Businessman threatens to take down Ken along with Aric if Ken doesn’t hand the X-O suit over to him. Who knows what happens after this issue? There is a cliffhanger ending and a next issue blurb, so while it seems the book continued for a while I must’ve dropped it.

Not all of the blame for the choices in portraying this character can be attributed to Shooter. After all, he’s only credited with the first five issues and had Englehart as co-writer for a couple and was at some early point ousted from the company by his business partners. Certainly writers Bob Layton and Jorge Gonzalez share some responsibility for their choices, but the initial character groundwork still lies with Shooter. A decade or so after the despicable Dewy and Luellen, Shooter decided to write another despicable character. It wasn’t an issue of possible censorship from the Comics Code Authority that prevented him from creating a positive character. Unlike DC and Marvel, Valiant comics were never submitted to the CCA for approval. Even if they had been, it’s questionable the CCA would have censored a positive gay character after its last revision in 1989 enstated language encouraging the use of gay characters, among other changes.

For the record, yes, there are gay people in real life that are manipulative, scheming, and bitchy. Yes, I do think there can be this kind of gay character in comics today. But today there are far more gay characters in comics than there were in 1992. As president of a comics company, Shooter had a perfect opportunity to create a progressive homosexual character. Whatever his motivation was, he chose to do otherwise.

Thanks, Jim.

March 7, 2015
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