A Superhero for Gays?: Gay Masculinity and Green Lantern
Palmer-Mehta, Valerie, Hay, Kellie, Journal of American Culture (Malden, MA)
When I was a kid reading comics, I used to sometimes think "they saved the mother and kid from the falling building, but would they rescue me if they knew I was a fag?" I now have an answer for that. (Letter 17)
The US comic book industry has addressed a number of pressing social and political issues in its narratives through the years, including alcohol and drug abuse, racism, environmental devastation, gun control, and poverty. In the process, the industry has provided a rich tapestry of American cultural attitudes and philosophies that reflect varying approaches to issues that continue to haunt, confound, and rile the American public. With its pulse on issues relevant to US public culture, it is not surprising that the complexities of gay identity and antigay hate crimes have been increasingly explored by industry leaders, DC and Marvel Comics, since the late 1980s. While there are many comic book companies, DC Comics and Marvel Comics are consistently the nation's top two comic book producers, controlling approximately 60% of the market (McAllister 19). These two leaders in the field have introduced various gay and lesbian characters in their mainstream comic books since 1988, most of them in minor roles (Franklin 224). In 2001, the long-standing comic book Green Lantern, reaching approximately 65,000 readers every month, introduced a well-adjusted, proudly out central character, Terry Berg, in its issue #137. The issue won an award from the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) for being the year's best comic book. DC Comics pushed the envelope even further in the September and October 2002 issues of Green Lantern by becoming the first mainstream comic book to focus a major two-part story line on a central character, the aforementioned Terry Berg, whose experience of antigay violence leaves him on the verge of death.
The Green Lantern hate crime story line has received considerable attention in a range of media outlets; news stories have appeared in such mainstream venues as The New York Times (Gustines) and CNN.com ("Comic's Gay"). Additionally, the Green Lantern's "writer at the time, Judd Winick, was featured on an episode of MSNBC's Donahue discussing the debut of the story line. Out magazine's December 2002 issue featured Winick drawn in comic art being hailed as a straight alliance. Further, Out exclaims that the writer of Green Lantern is a "superhero to gays and lesbians" (Champagne 86). In a telephone interview, Winick lamented the fact that "hate crimes only come on the radar when people are beaten and murdered, when it also exists on a daily level." With this story, Winick said that he hoped "to create dialogue" about the topic and to prompt people to "think twice, check their mindsets, challenge their behavior." Bob Schreck, editor of the Green Lantern, states, "It's a story that needs to be told .... We've tried to reasonably, intelligently educate people that we're not all on one note" (Gustines). As if to underscore the salience of the topic, as the first installment of the two-part story line hit the stands in September 2002, the Associated Press reported that three men in West Hollywood had been victims of antigay violence ("Gay Man Beaten").
The Green Lantern hate crime story line provides a compelling opportunity to examine reader response to an important moment in the history of the US comic book industry. It also presents an opportunity to contribute to what is presently a dearth of research on masculinity in general, and gay masculinity in particular, in mainstream comic books, a point that we establish in the next section. In order to assess reader reaction to the antigay hate crime story line, we analyze twentynine unpublished letters1 written in response to the story line provided by Bob Schreck and Judd Winick. In our analysis of the letters, we argue that there was a meaningful level of understanding regarding issues of concern to the gay community among these particular letter writers. …