Growing up, I did not watch the Saturday morning cartoons many of my friends watched. When I came home from school, however, I did often catch reruns of the classic episodes of Batman. The 1960s show featuring Adam West and Burt Ward, as Batman and Robin was goofy and brilliant all at the same time. (Even if it was at times awful, I still have a fondness for it and a nostalgia for one of my elementary school-aged favorites. Around the same time, I was also watching The Rifleman, Gunsmoke, and Ponderosa reruns on Saturday mornings.)
It was much later before I got into comic books and, even then, I was never a seriously devoted fan–too expensive for me, and too difficult too maintain, though I have kept my small, humble collection still to this day. While, I was always interested in the Detective Comics I was daunted by the vast size of the collection and skeptical about being able to keep up or follow along. As a result, I was more of a Marvel-made X-Men fan. (Comic book fans will recognize that this doesn’t actually make sense, as Professor X’s X-Men had a long story-line, as well, and it would be little different as far as “jumping in media res” was concerned, but somehow it made sense to my junior high brain.)
I find myself finally swinging back to Batman and DC Comics–the comic book company that publishes the Batman storylines, including the longstanding series Detective Comics–thanks to the newly recreated Batwoman. Ruminating on her original introduction and comparing it with her reintroduction is an interesting demonstration of cultural evolution.
Batwoman was the first new “Bat” in the Batman family. She was introduced in response to allegations that Bruce Wayne and Dick Grayson had a romantic relationship. In the 1950s, this could cause a great deal of trouble. Comics had to be approved for content as they were believed to be children’s lit and suspiciously regarded as [potentially] dangerously subversive.
U.S. Congress got involved, investigating juvenile delinquency in a Senate subcommittee and any potential role comics may have played in the phenomena. (Check out some of the texts/artifacts from this investigation held in the National Archives.) Self-regulation was instituted by the comic book industry to protect itself from outside censorship, effectively creating self-censorship. This is more or less how we get the Bat-woman in Detective Comics issue #233 in July of 1956 (the success of Superwoman didn’t hurt, either): In 1954′s Seduction of the Innocent (published in the same year as the self-imposed Comic Code Authority), Frederic Wertham let fly the allegation that Bruce and Dick were a homosexual item.
The Bat-woman was, thus, not only a female heroine, she was a love interest for Batman. So, clearly, Batman was not gay. Here, was a romantic foil for him: the large-breasted, buttoned-to-the-collar, utility-purse-wielding, motor-cycle-riding love interest. Here was a crime-fighting woman, an effeminate and shapely “champion of the law” to be his “great rival … the mysterious and glamorous girl.” (Detective Comics, #233, July 1956)
Is it not interesting that in her re-introduction to the comic world in 2006 she is a lesbian; indeed, a would-be Army soldier ousted from West Point under the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” (DADT) policy (introduced in 1993). In her new incarnation, she is depicted as a model West Point cadet at the top of her class, ousted by the accusation of “homosexual conduct.” While she is given an out by her supervisor, she chooses to be guided by the West Point code, instead: “A cadet will not lie, cheat, steal, or tolerate those who do.” This effectively ends her career as a U.S. Army soldier, setting her on the path towards Batwoman. She is driven by personal loss and a desire to serve–a career she was deprived of in the military. Hooah.
In this context, it seems ironic to me that the Army released a comic book in 2001 on its policies regarding DADT. (Comics with Problems) The medium seems destined to portray our national debate or sensibilities on the subject. It has certainly always been an art-form that has idolized and aggrandized the human body. To the extent that comic art can be sexually appealing to anyone, it certainly stands to reason that on this level, at least, a gay following would be as likely to develop as any other. But, comic book heroes are also often struggling with their otherness, their separation from everyone else who does not have to hide their identity–a theme that is especially relevant and poignant to gay adolescents and adults.
Plus, comic books are relatively safe to read. A teenage boy reading comic books will not call any attention to his alter-ego if he is in the closet. Similarly, a girl reading Wonderwoman comics is likely to be safely empowered, but not obviously outed. This may get trickier for the boy who prefers Wonderwoman to Superman, but even this can be done in safety, without threatening to unmask the fan’s identity.
It is the DC Universe’s constant question of identity, and the question of resulting isolation that resonates with many gay readers of comic book series. (Marvel’s mutant X-Men treat this subject slightly differently, focusing on the biological “otherness” and persecution of mutant superheroes.) But, it is the relatively recent decision to provide a greater pantheon of superheroes and seeks to give every reader challenged with isolation through “otherness” a hero in their like-identity that makes the new Batwoman storyline a sort of redemption of the original Bat-woman. Where there was originally fear of Batman representing an “other,” there is now the deliberate embrace of that exact “otherness.” Instead of the Bat-woman saving Batman from accusations of lust for Robin, the new Batwoman is about saving Gotham City (she just happens to be falling in love with women, too).