Who Was The First Gay Superhero? — The Rough Road To Marvel’s Northstar

Now that we’ve covered the LGBTQ comic book basics, and the first mainstream, openly gay superhero, Extraño, it’s time to take a look at the (sort of) first mainstream gay superhero: Northstar.

At least, that’s what this was going to be about. Then, over the course of researching how Northstar became the poster boy for closeted gays, this post took a fun little detour. And by “fun little detour,” we mean flashback to a churlishly offensive time in society.

But to start off, let’s jump ship from DC to Marvel and travel back almost a full decade before Extraño’s jewelry was even a brightly shining glitter in Steve Englehart’s eye.

1979’s pre-backstory Alpha Flight standing their ground in Marvel’s The Uncanny X-Men #121.

Writer and artist John Byrne considers himself to have created the first gay superhero in Northstar, a character who first appeared in a couple issues of The Uncanny X-Men. That may be true, but he himself admits that when he first created the Canadian superhero team Alpha Flight in 1979, none of the characters had enough backstory to include a sexual orientation.

In fact, they had so little backstory that Byrne didn’t even want to work on their eponymous series for Marvel. When he finally agreed to do it in 1982, he decided he’d do it his way. One of the characters should be gay, and Northstar was his logical choice.

But while Byrne may have thought it was time for a gay superhero, Marvel editor-in-chief Jim Shooter had very different ideas. He had, reportedly, instituted a ban on homosexual portrayals throughout his tenure in the ’80s.

While direct quotes are tough to find regarding anyone discussing this supposed ban, it’s passed off as truth these days pretty everywhere you look. On top of that, Byrne alludes to the ban, and Shooter, for his part, hasn’t contradicted it — and he’s not a man afraid of pushing back.

Nor is he a stranger to LGBTQ controversy.

The Gay Panic Defense

Picture it: Marvel Comics, 1980. Jim Shooter’s riding high as editor-in-chief and decides it’s time to step back into the fray and tell a very special story in The Hulk! The Hulk!, to be clear, was different from The Incredible Hulk. The latter is a comic book, the former a magazine style book free from the Comics Code Authority.

Now Shooter dubbed the tale he wrote in issue #23 “A Very Personal Hell,” and it contains the infamous Bruce Banner rape scene. If you’re a geek at all, you’ve probably come across it somewhere on the vast interwebs.

If you haven’t, here’s a quick rundown: Bruce is attacked in the YMCA showers by two predatory gay men intent on defiling him. He escapes, freaks out, and then Hulks out, having been too panicked while it was happening to let his alter-ego come out and save him.

And, scene.

The episode (which is just one part of the story Shooter wrote) is offensive on pretty much every level, so kudos for consistency. From making one of the first forays into homosexuality one of violence and gay panic, to depictions that lean heavily into stereotypes and borderline caricatures, it’s just a nightmare.

It’s not getting re-posted here for the sake of space, but don’t worry, it’s easy enough to find if you just Google a few words you never thought you would type: Hulk rape. Or just head over to Hornet’s blog, here. Because no one wants that as part of their search history.

So that was published, and two issues later, The Hulk! received enough disgruntled mail that editor-in-chief Jim Shooter again stepped back into the fray in to address it. And he did not hold back.

Marvel’s The Hulk! #25
Marvel’s The Hulk! #25 – Even the National Gay Task Force stepped in to protest.

If you read through his responses to the letters, at the very least, Shooter came across as utterly tone-deaf. He vehemently defended his right to portray anyone he feels like as a villain, not seeming to understand or care about vilifying, as readers pointed out, an already persecuted minority. Stereotyping gay characters as being straight out of a gay panic fever dream was not his problem, since he just wanted to tell a personal story.

Of course, this was nearly 40 years ago. He’s since offered an apology, of sorts, in the comments of one of his blog posts. While he still strongly defends the scene, he does say that he may not have told the tale as well as he could. It was a different time, and he was young and naive.

Obviously, the subject still seems to rankle him, which isn’t surprising since, to this day, that scene and Jim Shooter are still being ridiculed and criticized. It left a mark on him, and dig around online enough and you’ll find those who suggest that the ban on homosexual portrayals was a direct response to the backlash he got from his Hulk story.

That’s plausible enough, but, as Shooter was quick to point out, the story was told in the Hulk’s magazine so that it wouldn’t be subject to the CCA. So how necessary was his extra decree for Marvel’s comic line that was subject to the Code, since the CCA didn’t drop their own ban on homosexual content until 1989?

Perhaps it was just one area that he felt needed extra reinforcement. The only area that needed extra reinforcement, apparently. The gay slope is a slippery one, after all.

None of this is to say Jim Shooter is homophobic, especially as this was, again, almost 40 years ago. But at the time, he wasn’t exactly creating a welcoming environment for the gay community or his gay readers.

And if you read through the letter columns, you probably also noticed a little kerfluffle going on with John Byrne after an interview in issue #57 of the fan publication, The Comics Journal. (Which still survives to this day!)

It wasn’t really related to the Hulk, but Shooter made sure to bring it up and throw Byrne under the bus in the middle of his own lashing. He decried the “stupid prejudice,” while making it clear that Byrne had every right to express it — so long as it’s not in the pages of Marvel.

So what did Byrne say? We’ll get to the part above that had pissed off that particular gay reader, but why not take a detour first to an earlier part of the TCJ interview?

I Shall Become A Butterfly

Fun fact: One of Byrne’s first comic-type projects was creating an openly gay superhero!

Kind of.

As he told TCJ, Byrne created a character he dubbed Gay Guy for The College of Art’s school paper at the Southern Alberta Institute of Technology. Take one look at the strip and you’ll see that it’s most definitely a parody. As Byrne himself says, he was trying to emulate “the deliberately outrageous (and often tasteless) humor” of National Lampoon.

But as he also explains in TCJ, “Gay-Guy was this little boy who had his lollipop stolen by Ruby the Dyke and grew up hating women.” He then goes on to describe Gay-Guy’s purple leisure suit, pink cape and “diamond studded glasses” that made up his superhero uniform.

Yeah, it’s not exactly a progressive depiction. But then, this was the early ’70s. Stonewall had just happened two years earlier, and stereotyping was just one of those cool parts of society everyone expected.

Still, it may have been a step up from the paper’s gay superhero that it replaced, “Fat Faggot.” (No, I’m not researching that one. Find it yourself.) And at least Gay Guy was a campy superhero of sorts and not a sexual predator…

John Byrne’s original artwork on Gay Guy. You can find more pages here.

(As an aside, this also raises the question: How do we decide who was the first gay superhero? If underground comics count, how underground can we go? Do college papers count? Do they have to be done by “established” artists and writers? Gay Guy has his own entry in the International Catalogue of Superheroes. And he was created in 1971, eight years before even the blank slate version of Northstar. He even fought an early version of Karisma, a Fantastic Four villain created by Byrne.)

In any case, now that we’ve seen one of Byrne’s earliest representations of an LGBTQ hero, let’s get to his critique of inker Bob Layton. According to his interview in The Comics Journal #57:

Angel’s offensively slimy, queer inking from Marvel’s Incredible Hulk Annual #7.

“It’s kind of difficult to put into words why I don’t like Bob Laytons’s inking. This is going to sound really silly, but I actually feel physically ill when I look at Bob’s stuff. I really do. It’s like everything is greasy and slimy. You know those things you can buy that hang from your rear view mirror that are made out of rubber and you touch them and they feel greasy. That’s how Bob’s stuff looks to me. And all his men are queer. They have these bouffant hairdos and heavy eye make-up and an upper lip with a little shadow in the corner which to me says lipstick. Even the Hulk. I will never forgive him for what he did to the Hulk’s face in the annual that we did together. A lot of the other stuff I liked, but the Hulk’s face, the Angel’s face, the Angel, God!I remember my father looking at the stats of the finished inks and there’s a shot of the Angel standing there with his hands on his hips saying hello to somebody and my father said, ‘Well this guy’s queer.’ No, he didn’t look queer in the pencils Dad.”

So that was enlightening.

Don’t worry, there are plenty of other cringe-worthy parts of the interview, and it gives you a decent insight into the pretty sexist boys club that used to be the comic book industry. (And, sadly, to a great degree, still is. Though it is getting better).

But when you put that excerpt together with Gay Guy, you have to wonder if the flamboyant superhero was a wink, wink, nudge, nudge parody done by a somewhat tactless (but talented) college kid, or if he was emblematic of an idea Byrne held for some time that there were certain ways “queers” should look and act that somehow made them less than their straight counterparts.

Still, Byrne’s human, the same as the rest of us, and he’s capable of learning and growing. As he says on his own page, he thought of making one of the members of Alpha Flight gay after reading a Scientific American article. The article pointed to increasing evidence that homosexuality was a result of genetics, not environment.

That flies in the face of the backstory he gave Gay Guy eleven years earlier. And by the time he decided to make Northstar gay, he seems to have gotten past the idea that gay folks should look and act a certain way.

Also worth noting is that in 1987, when Superman was rebooted following Crisis On Infinite Earths, Byrne created Metropolis cop, Maggie Sawyer. Though she wasn’t quite a superhero, it didn’t take long for her to come out, predating even Extraño as DC’s first openly gay character.

Of course, like Extraño , she didn’t actually say the words, as they both had to just barely skirt the CCA’s restrictions. But Byrne left no doubt as to her sexuality, even if he couldn’t just flat out state it at the time. And Maggie, for the record, is a wonderfully far cry from Ruby the Dyke. She’s become an integral part of the Superman mythos, has moved from Metropolis to Gotham and back, was engaged, for a time, to Batwoman, and even crossed into the Arrowverse on CW’s Supergirl.

But none of that started until 1987, when Byrne left for DC and Shooter was fired from Marvel. Northstar received his backstory back when Alpha Flight received their own series in 1982, just a couple years removed from the episodes above.

So now that we’ve gotten a taste of that wackily offensive culture of the time, how well did Marvel’s first gay superhero work out?

Keep watching.

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