The Evolution of Gay Sex in Comic Books

The comics industry recently accused Apple of homophobia, but their history with the LGBT community is much darker than that of the tech giant.
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(GRAPHIC: IMAGE COMICS/BRIAN K. VAUGHAN AND FIONA STAPLES)

(GRAPHIC: IMAGE COMICS/BRIAN K. VAUGHAN AND FIONA STAPLES)

Apple made more than a few new enemies yesterday—and this time the tech giant wasn't the one that did something wrong.

On Tuesday, April 9, Brian K. Vaughan, creator of the popular comic book Saga, released a statement on Tumblr claiming that the newest issue of his series was blocked from the App Store because of some potentially offensive imagery. "Fiona and I could always edit the images in question," Vaughan wrote, referring to Fiona Staples, his co-creator, herself a popular comic book artist since the mid-2000s, "but everything we put into the book is there to advance our story, not (just) to shock or titillate, so we're not changing shit."

The images in question? Two postage stamp-sized images of explicit (but not, by any means, erotic) gay sex.

It was immediately assumed that Apple was to blame. "[I]t's hard not to see this as a blatant case of homophobic bias," Katie McDonough wrote at Salon. "It's hard not to conclude that the rejection is homophobic," wrote The New Statesman's Alex Hern. (It's hard not to make a joke, here, about things being hard.) Even William Gibson, the beloved cyberpunk novelist, took to Twitter: "Apple in homophobic adult comic-banning embarrassment. What a sad place for such a supposedly smart firm to find itself, in 2013."

It would be a sad place to find itself—except that Apple, we now know, never even saw the comic.

After just about every digital-first publication, from Business Insider to The Atlantic denounced "the foolishness of Apple's decision," the founder of ComiXology, the platform through which Saga would have been distributed by Apple, released a statement that contradicted Vaughan's. In "Concluding the Saga #12 saga" (though this is far from over), David Steinberger confessed that it was his company that banned the comic and apologized to its creators. "As a partner of Apple, we have an obligation to respect its policies for apps and the books offered in apps," he wrote. "Based on our understanding of those policies, we believed that Saga #12 could not be made available in our app, and so we did not release it today."

ComiXology interpreted Apple's policies, then, as being unfriendly to gay pornographic imagery, but welcoming of all the hardcore scenes depicted in issues 1 through 11 of the series. A quick tour through Saga's archive can be shocking. (And it was quick because, while writing this in the Pacific Standard offices, I feared someone would look over my shoulder and report me to HR.) Past issues of the comic have shown heterosexual orgies, visits to the sex-resort planet of Sextillion, child prostitution, robot sex, and oh so much more.

They may be doing a lot of things wrong (the company has an inconsistent record of enforcing its strict anti-porn policy—the late Steve Jobs once told a customer that "folks who want porn can buy an Android"), but Apple, whose Steve Jobs replacement has been called the most powerful gay man in Silicon Valley, has never been seriously questioned for its acceptance of homosexuality. (Even before Tim Cook replaced Jobs, Apple made headlines for coming in first place among technology companies in a survey asking gay and lesbian participants to rank gay-friendly brands.) The irony here is that the comic book industry, many fanatics of which are responsible for fueling yesterday's anti-Apple attack, on the other hand, was famously slow to accept non-traditional character traits, or at least those within the realm of possibility—even if it is OK with depictions of anal sex now (sometimes with a champagne bottle—check out issue #4 of Saga, but not while you're at work).

It wasn't until 1989—more than a decade after Harvey Milk became the first openly gay politician to be elected to American office, and years after Randy Shilt's And the Band Played On: Politics, People, and the AIDS Epidemic became a best-seller, pushed further forward by adoring reviews—that the Comics Code Authority, established to self-regulate comic books in the United States, was amended to allow for non-stereotypical depictions of gay men and lesbians. That was the same year that Andy Lippincott, a character Garry Trudeau introduced to Doonesbury more than a decade earlier, was diagnosed with HIV. He died in 1990 of AIDS-related causes, and with him went the industry's squeamishness. Lippincott was quickly followed by Turbo Charge, Spectral, Willow and Tara and Kennedy from Buffy, and Archie's Kevin Keller, along with dozens of others.

Of course, many writers and artists worked around the Comics Code Authority, sneaking subtle hints or homosexual subtext into their books prior to 1989. (There's a reason Hal Sparks' Michael Novotny in Queer as Folk, the popular and influential Showtime television series from the early 2000s, owns and operates a comic book store, where his creation of Rage, featuring a gay superhero, fuels many of the show's plotlines.) And many who didn't were accused of it.

It's widely understood that the creation of the Comics Code Authority was in response to the 1954 publication of Fredrik Wertham's minor bestseller, Seduction of the Innocent, which suggested, among other things, that Batman and Robin were essentially the first queer couple of comics and encouraged young readers to replicate their deviant behavior. The duo represent "a wish dream of two homosexuals living together," Wertham wrote. "Only someone ignorant of the fundamentals of psychiatry and psychopathology of sex can fail to realize the subtle atmosphere of homoeroticism which pervades the adventures."

Because it was thought to be based on thousands of hours of serious research—the psychiatrist used his own case studies for the book, drawing on work he did with students at the low-cost mental-health clinic he ran in Harlem—Wertham's text, which also argues that comic books are a serious cause of juvenile delinquency, stirred a panic. Not only was the Comics Code Authority established soon after its publication, but cult titles (mostly those focusing on crime, suspense, and horror stories) were "shut down by the dozens," according to the New York Times.

But just two months ago, almost 60 years after it was published, we learned that Wertham's research (and the man himself) wasn't reliable. Digging through Wertham's papers, which were only made available to the public at the Library of Congress near the end of 2010, Carol L. Tilley, an assistant professor at the University of Illinois' Graduate School of Library and Information Science, discovered that Wertham had created composite students out of his subjects and greatly exaggerated the amount of research he did. In short, like Vaughan and/or Steinberger, Wertham had been lying.

With a book of lies and half-truths, Wertham was able to lock the closet on the gay superhero for 35 years and hold the industry back while others moved on without it. Eight years after his death in 1981, when he finally lost control, comics books surged forward, racing to incorporate characters of every kind. And now, today, even Apple is happy to distribute an artistic product that depicts gay sex. Robot sex, too.

We've come a long way. And even William Gibson, were he aware of the backstory, might agree that we're in a pretty happy place.

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