Toronto
4 min

Wilde, wild west

Twenty-first century chaps

RIDE 'EM, COWBOY. Marvel Comics has retooled The Rawhide Kid - it turns out the redheaded scamp is an ornery 'omosexual. Credit: Xtra files

In the world of comic books, gay and lesbian characters are not uncommon in the European, Asian and independent markets. In North America’s mainstream – comic books like Superman, Spider-Man, Wonder Woman and the rest – homosexuality is still a big taboo. Even though they are filled with more homo-erotica than an Abercrombie And Fitch ad, comics here are a medium dominated by white, straight men. The ever-present perception that comic books are exclusively for children has made gay characters in books like The Uncanny X-Men, Catwoman and Green Lantern a hot topic.



This February, Marvel Comics revives beloved country and western hero The Rawhide Kid in a four-issue series – but now, it turns out, he’s gay. The Kid was first published in 1955 and had a popular run in the 1960s and ’70s. After announcing the new series two months ago, Marvel was surprised by a backlash almost impossible to measure. Everyone from CNN to the National Post covered the folk hero’s sudden outing. Many accused the company of “gay-ing up” the hero as a publicity stunt, while even more denounced the presence of homosexual characters in “children’s entertainment.”



Axel Alonso is a veteran editor of some of the edgiest comic books seen in the last 10 years. He is the man responsible for bringing together former Howard Stern writer Ron Zimmerman and original ’60s Rawhide Kid artist John Severin to create this newest vision of the cowboy icon. The new Rawhide Kid, “is not a gay outreach project,” says Alonso. “It is a work of fiction that honours and subverts Western archetypes in equal measure.”



The series is being printed under Marvel’s MAX, a mature readers imprint. “It’s not explicit at all,” says Alonso. “This series is no harder than an episode of Will And Grace. Only in this story, our guy can shoot the head off a pencil at a hundred yards, outwrestle a bear and makes a mean casserole.”



The idea, similar to the one behind Will And Grace, is to use a gay character to establish a different point of view from which to tell the story; it’s not a political campaign. “This is a straight western with a non-straight lead,” says Alonso. “If you prefer your gay character to be either goody-two-shoes with absolutely no characteristics that identify them as gay, or, even worse, cookie-cutter victims of societal oppression, then this ain’t the book for you.”



Bottom line, the sexuality of the Kid is a fresh interpretation of an old time classic.



But to the critics, the issue raised is that a beloved hero shouldn’t be tampered with in this way – no matter how innocent the intent. The controversy is not unlike those who objected to seeing the black character Storm join the Uncanny X-Men in the ’70s – though this time, the Internet provides a forum for those who disagree to sound off louder than ever.



Alonso takes it all with a grain of salt. “Some industry professionals and fans think this project has stepped over some line in the sand. Apparently, Stan Lee, who created the character with Jack Kirby and loves the idea for this series and went on CNN to defend it, and series artist John Severin, who was drawing the character back when I was in diapers, don’t understand their own character.”



The retooling of the Kid is part of the publisher’s mission. “Marvel wants its comics to reflect the world in all its diversity,” says Alonso.



Best-selling novelist and comic book writer Andy Mangels is one of the comic industry’s best-known gay creators and activists. He is behind the website www.outincomics.com; his own site is at www.andymangels.com. He has been watching the growth of and reaction to mainstream gay comic book characters for a long time and feels changes at Marvel are part of a growing industry trend. “All comics, even super-heroes, have been tending toward a more realistic worldview,” says Mangels. “Comic creators who wish to reflect the world around them accurately are finally including gay characters.”



This new inclusiveness is evident in a rise of leading gay roles, not just supporting roles. “The majority of gay comic book characters are remarkably PC,” says Mangels. “It’s actually rare to have a negative depiction of gays in today’s comic world; writers aren’t writing it, and if they did, editors and publishers wouldn’t allow it to see print.”



Mangels observes that most mainstream gay characters don’t champion gay causes or, like gay X-Man Northstar, they’ve made a small, non-priority commitment.



Mangels does not attribute the negative reaction to gay characters to sensationalist media but to the creators. “Some writers and artists have been very homophobic on the Internet,” Mangels says.



He was surprised by the response outside the industry. “I don’t think they expected this much attention from the outside world. I hope it translates to sales down the road when this finally comes out – so to speak – and that the people won’t forget it too early. It’s a major stepping stone in the fight for more gay representation in comics and, I think, a very positive one.”



Comic books remain a major inspiration for Hollywood producers, with studios buying up the most obscure properties for potential films. Comic books themselves continue to be an unstable market; with a growing diversity of stories it still struggles to maintain its position as a “mass medium.” Rob Rodi, writer of the now cancelled Codename: Knockout was the only creator “afforded the luxury of exploring gay and straight characters equally,” says Mangels. “It would be nice to see out gay and lesbian creators working in the field, perhaps on gay projects.”



Even without huge numbers of gay creators in the industry, those who are out are some of the powerhouses, including award winning illustrator P Craig Russel, bisexual Batman group editor Bob Shreck and former Wonder Woman writer/artist Phil Jimenez. Many other creators like Green Lantern scribe Judd Winnick and Scottish high flier Grant Morrison lead a pack of straight creators who don’t turn a blind eye to queer existence.



Representation in mainstream media is one of the most difficult journeys for any persecuted social group. We learned long ago with shows like Sesame Street that, for youth growing up, seeing representations of their life and struggles in film and television helps them to accept who they are as people and to develop into functioning adults. For homosexuals the battle of media representation has been twisted and complicated, filled with stereotypes and glossed over PC spokesmodels.



Today we are in the middle of a gay boom in media representation, but as a social group, homosexuals are still far away from being portrayed as characters in the mainstream and not a topic to be exploited



Despite controversy, change is happening: Storm is now one of the most popular characters of the X-Men franchise. So maybe one day, a queer hero like The Rawhide Kid may be a thing of bar-side legend.