In Defense of the (Superhero) Sissy
Author: Brian Andersen
September 16, 2013
“Stupid Stereotype.” – Random queer social media commenter
As the creator, writer (and occasional artist) for my queer indie superhero comic So Super Duper, I’d been used to experiencing some unsavory remarks towards my rather feeble artistic abilities. No surprise really as I never considered myself an artist—I really only started drawing the first eight issues of my comic back in 2007 because at the time I didn’t know how to find a genuine artist. This was the pre-find-anyone-and-everyone-on-social-media days of yore, so strong remarks towards my doodles was both expected and common place.
I was, however, rather surprised and stunned by some negative feedback I recently received from my fellow gay comic book readers once they laid eyes on my main character’s effeminate, outlandish ways. Suddenly my superhero named Psyche, the main empathic (he can read emotions) character in question, was deemed “stereotypical” and an “affront to gay people.” Really? An affront? I thought an affront to gay people was cargo pants or the Cheney family. But my little queer hero?
“As a gay man I’m offended.” – Another random queer social media sweetheart
They say “write what you know” and as an out, proud gay man I purposely based Psyche’s mannerisms, his speech pattern, and his sarcastic nature off of myself. Just amped up a little for story effect. Everyone loves a colorful gay character, I figured. Right? No. In fact, some people absolutely hate gay people who “act gay.” Funny enough, the majority of these anti-So Super Duper-ers got their panties in a twist solely from gazing upon the ad for the recently released trade paperback collection of So Super Duper. An ad alone caused such a strong emotional reaction? Seriously?
To be fair, said “offensive” ad, with its bubblegum pink background, Psyche’s hand sassily placed on hip and the tagline boldly declaring “Quite possibly the gayest superhero in the universe” was a smidge in-your-face with its embracing of the effeminate side of the gay spectrum. But that’s what I loved about it. I never fathomed any of this would be viewed as a bad thing. Without even reading a single panel, page, or word balloon, these (dear, lovely, gentle) social media commenter’s had an immediate, deeply visceral reaction to my gay comic book. Apparently the word “gayest” implied “effeminate” or “sissy.” And effeminate/sissy equaled less than, weak, or undesirable to those so horribly offended by my comic book. Um, since when? I huffed at my keyboard.
Personally, when I look at my ad I see a happy, cute, brightly colored superhero who embraces himself in all his perceived gayness. At a glance he may seem a tinge more sissified than your average gay comic book character, but does that sissiness immediately equal a stereotype? And a negative one, at that? And since when are “straight acting” gay characters the only acceptable queer characters in comic book culture? Why is seeing a sissy in a comic book so darn offensive?
A Brief History of the Comic Book Sissy
Gay characters, at least out and proud gay characters, are relativity new in mainstream superhero comics. Sure, underground indie comics have been featuring gays in many forms for decades, but for the purpose of this exploration I’m sticking to the capes and spandex crowd. Don’t get me wrong, there have been a handful of “wink,wink, nudge, nudge” gay characters in superhero comics for years. Characters whose queerness is in the subtext but never fully stated or outwardly realized, like, to name but a few, DC Comics’ Cosmic Boy, and (initially) the X-Men’s Mystique and Destiny.
The first modern gay superhero to proclaim his queerness in the comic book page, the patron saint of superhero gays, is Marvel Comics’ Northstar. Northstar was the premier gay hero for years and years and while he was always written as aloof, snooty, entitled, and somewhat bitter, this mutant hero has never portrayed with any stereotypical gay traits. Even after the pointy-eared skiing Canadian superhero declared his gayness he was never shown as being “gay.” Any casual reader could look at his plain black and white costume and not be hit over the head with any overt homosexuality. The poor dear took twenty years to finally “be gay” and get his first on-panel same-sex kiss.
To find, perhaps, the first and fiercest sissy character in comics we need to look at the strange but glorious case of the late 80s superhero Extraño. Extraño, which means “strange” (yes, no joke) in Spanish, was a Latin-American magic based hero who joined a racially diverse group of heroes in DC Comics’ short-lived Guardians of the Universe. Extraño was a witty, humorous, limp-wristed fem—he goes so far as to call himself “auntie”—who wore a purple outfit so flamey and flouncy it would have put Liberace to shame. In short, a bold stereotype if ever there was one. And as a young homo, I loved it.
While I recognized something about Extraño was different from the more traditional butch male characters (that I found so dreary and boring) I never realize his sissy level was cranked all the way to 11. (Maybe 15.) I just found him fun. Even after he contracted the AIDS virus he was still every bit the hero, fighting bad guys as much as his more traditional heteronormative counterparts. And though he never officially came out in the comic book page everyone, everyone except me it appears, knew he was a fruit to the nth power. Unbeknownst to me at the time, many readers were so disgusted by Extraño and his Paul Lynde impression that DC was forced to kick him into comic book limbo. His extreme sissiness got him exiled and all but forgotten. (Poor Auntie Extraño.)
The Modern (Bland) Gay Superhero Era
Thankfully in the last 5 years or so a bumper crop of LGBT superheroes have started emerging in comic books. Marvel’s mutant books are so full of queers – Anole, Graymalkin, Prodigy, Bling, Northstar, Karma, Rictor and Shatterstar – they ought to call themselves the X-Gays. Marvel also has Lucy in the Sky, Lightspeed, the transgendered moloid Tong, Striker and in Young Avengers the poster boys for gay relationships, Wiccan and Hulkling.
These two dazzling, adorable teen boys are so in love and perfect and wholesome they could be the modern day Lois Lane and Superman from the 60s – only with one extra penis. And while Hulkling and Wiccan recently “took a break” from each other in the current Young Avengers storyline, it’s fairly clear that’s just for dramatic effect. I hasten to add how refreshing it is to see a gay couple’s relationship so front and center and used as a pivotal plot point in a Marvel comic. Awesome stuff. They’ll be back together sooner than we expect. (Or I’ll cry my eyes out.)
Not to be outdone, DC serves up some gay loving with Batwoman, Earth 2’s Green Lantern, Apollo and Midnighter (although it’s unclear if they’re presently a couple), a trans character in “Batgirl” and perhaps the closest sissy-ish modern gay character in comics with the Teen Titan’s Bunker. Following in the footsteps of Extraño, Bunker is a Latino male while a little more swish to him then the other Titans. But unlike Extraño, Bunker is a sissy anomaly because while he occasionally dips into the more fem side of the homosexual spectrum he’s also often portrayed as hetro as his fellow dude teammates. His character is frustratingly inconsistent. Almost as if he turns off and on his sissiness based on who’s (excuse the term) handling him.
These are all great additions to the ever expanding gay cannon of comic book gayness, and a very welcomed sight in my superhero comics, I must say. But, frankly, my only geeky qualm I have with these fine ladies and gentlemen is there isn’t an out and proud full-time sissy in the bunch (not counting Bunker). In fact, the only reason we know those modern homo’s are even mo’s is because we’re told outright they are when they pop into panel, minus Hulkling and Wiccan who are the rare same-sex couple who get to smooch frequently. (Yeah, I know many other heroes have kissed here and there –like Batwoman and Maggie Sawyer – but it’s the rare occurrence when they do). The way these queer heroes are portrayed in comics they could really just be straight heroes who say that they’re gay. Gay trait wise there is zilch in the sissy department for any of them. Even costume-wise—perhaps the gayest thing on any superhero character—there’s nada, nothing, zero in the way of a gay flourish.
This heteronormative structure has so permeated superhero comics that all our queer heroes have all become the same character, only with different colored costumes. “Acting straight” shouldn’t be the only way a gay character can be accepted and seen as respectable in our superhero comics. Some may say this homogenization of queerness is progress, an advancement in our comic book medium (and our media outright) as we’re no longer seen as screaming queens. And while I agree we need LGBT characters in superhero comics that can confidently butch it up next to a Superman or Captain America and appear every bit as tough and steely why can’t we also have a queer hero with some jazz hands (I know I feel confident and tough each time I bust out a pair of jazz hands) serving face next to these paragons of “manliness.”
A sissy could be giving readers a much needed different color of the gay spectrum. This current crop of queer characters are so watered down and run of the mill that they’re interchangeable with each other.
Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Sissy?
Based on some of the feedback I’ve received there’s a very vocal contingent of gay folks who are afraid of the sissy and what that means to them. I’m not naïve enough to not recognize that our media and literature essentially created the gay stereotypes many queers find offensive by perpetuating (maybe exploiting) many of the traits found amongst some (and I hasten to repeat; some) gay men.
When a community like ours has been picked on, discriminated against, and targeted all our lives by our cultures, our families, our religions, our governments, it’s easy to understand the hypersensitivity we as a gay community have towards character traits perceived as gay stereotypes. When we’ve been marginalized against and boiled down to nothing but these stereotypes in our media, I understand why we become fearful of these outwardly gay mannerisms. These identifies that signify someone as homosexual have become so indicative of that hatred towards our community that we want almost nothing to do with them in our media and literature. I find this to be incredibly sad.
We can’t let this fear turn us away from the sissy nature that many in the gay community can’t turn on and off in order to blend in with society. We’ve yet to see an out and proud fruity gay or uber dyke in our mainstream superhero comics and frankly it’s high time we have one, or ten. We exist in the world, we fruits and dykes are everywhere and we deserve representation in our literature as much as our straight acting gay brothers and sisters. The queer community seriously needs to stop being so dang noble and perfect all the time and just be human, embrace all the good and bad that makes each of us such fantastic humans. It’s time for us to accept the sissy and let his rainbow flag fly and save the day!
I’m here, I’m sissy, Get used to it
So yeah, I’m a big old fruit. Everyone and anyone who meets me, talks to me, or sees me sashaying down the street, knows that I’m a gay man. And I love it. I’m not putting on a show, trying to hard, or acting. I’m just being Brian.
I love that I embody many gay stereotypes. Many, many, many, according to those who know me. In fact, my local comic book store owner who’s shop is in the Castro neighborhood of San Francisco – possibly the gayest neighborhood on Earth (Sorry Chelsea and Boy’s Town) – calls me Big Gay Brian. I’m the gayest customer he has? In the Castro? Yeah, I’m pretty gay.
But as gay as I am that’s not all that I am. I may not have a stereotypical lisp, but I sure do have a witty, sarcastic, bitchy comment on hand at any and every given moment. I may be clean and like my clothes to be colorful and fashion forward, but I’m also lazy, very much not fit, and certainly do not live at the gym. I love pop diva music, like Britney and Madonna, but loath anything Real Housewives. And I don’t drink cocktails or alcohol or any kind, but I can eat my weight in cupcakes. Plus, jazz hands. I enjoy a good flashing of jazz hands anywhere, everywhere, but I also love a good baseball game. I could go on and on but hopefully you get where I’m going with this.
My point, and I do have one, is: does my perceived sissiness, my effeminate mannerisms and flamboyant personality mean I’m a weak, stereotype of a gay man? *Bleep* no! And neither should our sissy superheroes. I’m a person, a human being, with many shades that make up who I am. I may embody a few stereotypes but that doesn’t mean these traits sum up everything that I am. My soul, my heart, my humanity, is what makes these supposed stereotypes more than just stereotypes. It’s my humanity that grounds me, makes my sissiness a strength, empowers me, and because I don’t have to hide this “gay” side of myself I feel confident. I feel whole. I embrace my gayness and wear it with pride. A gay swishy superhero with layers can be more impactful and meaningful than a million Northstars.
The Humanity, Oh the Humanity
It really all comes down to characterization. A sissy superhero shouldn’t be something we gays recoil from if this sissy is imbued with humanity. If the writer gives a nelly queen a heart, a soul, a life, dreams and goals, hopes and wishes along fabulous feminine traits any reader – gay or straight – would be able identify with him and see that its his humanity that makes him more than the sum of his gay stereotypes.
When I sat down to create my indie comic series I knew I wanted my comics to be fun and very, very gay. I wanted characters who was mega, super, crazy uber gay—much like the man I see in the mirror each day (hellllo, gorgeous) – but I also set out to make these characters flawed, occasionally annoying, often delusional, and still very much a person. A person trying to do good and the best human being he can be. In my eye, that’s the mark of a hero, and something far more valuable and transcending than a fearful stereotype. No matter how pink the background of his comic book cover may be.