Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Earth 2's Sam: A Case of Heterosexism and Narrative Violence in Comic Books

For the past few weeks, the queer comic-verse has been spinning with news of Marvel and DC's competing LGBT announcements: '90s groundbreaking gay character Northstar's nuptials to boyfriend Kyle; and the introduction of a gay iteration of the iconic first Green Lantern Alan Scott. Here at Scarlet Betch, we were even more excited when previews for the introductory issue included the first appearance of Scott's boyfriend, Sam, a CEO from Hong Kong, and presumably a queer Asian character.

Earth 2 #2's cliffhanger proposal
Now, I'm not sure how many of you are aware of this, but queer Asian characters are hard to come by in comics. I think I can list them on my hand: Karma, Daken, Grace Choi, Satsu from BtVS... So, the possibility of a queer Asian character linked to a key iconic DC heavy-weight like Alan Scott was really exciting. Sam could be the Kyle to Alan Scott's Northstar. However, the outlook for Alan/Sam didn't look so great after last month's Earth 2 #2, where after an anemic screen time of a few pages as a couple, Alan and Sam are engulfed in an explosion on their train, just as Scott proposes marriage. The flash of green within the explosion at the end of the issue gave us a hint of hope that Sam might be spared the very "women in refrigerators"-like end he seemed to be set up for. Perhaps Scott would develop his powers in time to save his boyfriend and bring him back from the brink of death.

These hopes were dashed in wednesday's release of Earth 2 #3, where the mystical green fire which empowers Alan Scott to become Earth 2's Green Lantern was only concerned with protecting it's chosen champion and not his soon-to-be fiance. Sam's death is clearly designed by writer James Robinson to give Alan Scott a torturous and angst-filled origin. Transforming Alan's proposal ring into his new power ring, I imagine is intended to prove to us that Sam meant something, that his death is weighty and serious.

However, this neatly tied green plot bow over Sam's burning corpse only cheapen's Sam's death. Sam was never created to live, rather he was created to die. This trope of deceased loved one inspiring heroism is a longstanding theme in superhero comics, these deaths are only inspirational and effective if the deceased is someone we care about. We are hardly introduced to Sam before he is killed, which negates the emotional impact of his sacrifice.

On top of that, Alan Scott is disturbingly un-phased by Sam's death. In fact, when the green flame informs him that the love of his life and almost fiance has died, he exhibits no remorse. There is no pause to mourn his lover's passing, rather within moments of being introduced to this talking green bonfire, he gleefully accepts the power offered to him. He doesn't even look for Sam's body to verify what the green fireball has reported. If we are meant to empathize with the tragic origins of Alan Scott, why does he feel so little for his loss? Scott's lack of emotion is indicative of the fact that the writer's interest in Sam's death is not on the deceased but rather how this death affects or drives the protagonist.

But we know this story. We've seen it splashed on the pages of comics countless times before.The only difference is that this trope in comics is usually reserved for the female lovers of male protagonists. The significant others of superheroes brutally killed and shoved into refrigerators, raped, mutilated, or otherwise thrown into the chipper to advance the male hero's story line is by no means novel or unexpected. Alex deWitt wasn't the first and Sam (We don't even know his last name) won't be the last. But what the very "women in refrigerators" (WIR) treatment of Sam reveals is a larger trend in comics: the heterosexist portrayals of gay male characters and their partners.

Comic heroes are by and large straight white men and for the most part comfortably fit within the constrains of hegemonic masculinity. They are powerful, physically superior, violent, cerebral, and unequivocally male. Now that comics has begun to broaden its horizon and include non-hetero male protagonists in the stories it tells, one would have hoped that it would also have shed the sexist and misogynist tendancies exemplified by the "WIR" phenomenon. However, if we consider three prominent gay male superheroes-- Northstar, Post-New 52 Alan Scott, and Starman; and their respective non-super partners-- Kyle, Sam, and Tony; we see that all these relationships fall squarely in line with their heterosexual counterparts. The super-powered hero constantly finds his loved one under constant threat or the victim of some heinous act.

In this way Kyle, Sam, and Tony (all of whom are queer men of color, I might add... which only adds fuel to this problematic fire), are feminized in the "WIR" model and are made to play the role of damsel-in-distress:

  • Since Kyle's recent prominence in Northstar's storylines, he has been abducted, experimented upon, genetically tampered with, and most recently attempted to be killed by Northstar's enemies.
  • We've already discussed Sam's fate at length in this post. But it deserves to be reiterated how stunningly callous and cynical his short life and death were executed.
  • Tony, Starman aka Mikaal Thomas' African American boyfriend, enjoyed a long 12 year relationship with his blue-skinned alien boyfriend before suddenly and unceremoniously killed, prompting (surprise!) Starman's renewed crusade for vengeance and justice.
It is worth also examining some other gay male superhero couples that seem to avoid this trope. Some that come to mind are Wiccan and Hulkling (Young Avengers), Rictor and Shatterstar (X-Factor), and Apollo and Midnighter (The Authority). All three of these couples are comprised of two super-powered partners as opposed to a single super-powered partner, and for the most part are all white characters (Rictor is technically Mexican-American... but many artists seem to forget this fact). Even so, we can still see echoes of the "WIR" phenomenon in these characters.

Between Wiccan and Hulkling, Wiccan is often feminized of the pair. Given that he is patterned of an iconic superheroine, the Scarlet Witch (one of the most wronged characters in comics by WIR), it is easy to see why the familiar trope of female characters losing control of their powers (allusions to hysteria and emotional volatility) is heavily featured in Wiccan's storylines. Most recently in Avengers: Childrens Crusade, the entire inciting action for the globe-trotting adventure begins when Wiccan loses control of his powers when his boyfriend is injured.

The takeaway from all this, to me anyway, is that despite the gains made in the comics medium for presentations and portrayals of queer people and their lives, there are still potholes and pitfalls which litter our path to equality. And as much as DC should be commended for making Alan Scott a friend of Dorothy, it is unfortunate that this step towards a more diverse comic universe is built on the bones of another queer character of color.

1 betches:

T-Dogg said...

Here here! Well said!

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