Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Superheroes and homosexuals..

Interesting insight into how the media and specifically comic books are dealing with developing social culture.. below is an interview with Chuck Dixon a comic book writer who had written nearly every major superhero and thn some:

Beginning in March, Wildstorm Universe mainstays Midnighter (The Authority) and Grifter (Wildcats) team-up (or is that face-off, or both?) in the six-issue limited series Grifter and Midnighter, by writer Chuck Dixon and artist Ryan Benjamin.

Newsarama recently chatted with Dixon to discuss the series, and the action-packed adventure he has planned, as well as his views on his starring characters. Dixon’s attachment to this series has raised some eyebrows in fandom because of public comments the writer made in the past regarding the portrayal of homosexual characters in comic books, and the fact one-half of this series’ main cast is in fact, homosexual. Dixon handles the topic head on, as well as discusses Midnighter’s “left wing rage”.

What can you tell us about this adventure?Chuck Dixon: First off, it’s a crossover and, to my way of thinking, has to have certain elements that readers expect in a crossover. Then it has to exceed those expectations. The first issue establishes who Midnighter and Grifter are for those who are fans of either or neither and sets up the adventure to follow.

NRAMA: Would you consider this more of a team-up? A face-off? Or an old school face-off leads to a team-up?

CD: I’m not gonna blow smoke here. It’s old school. Both of these characters have a long history of expedient violence and I’m not going to hold back on showing them go mano y mano when they first meet. Given the twisted and Byzantine backgrounds for these two it’s no kind of contrivance to have them start out at odds. And Midnighter did kill Grifter once. So there’s some payback involved.

NRAMA: Give us a short description of each of your main characters here? What about them appeals to Chuck Dixon and led to you thinking of teaming them or putting them together in this story?

CD: Grifter is a covert operative for a shadowy intelligence organization known as IO as well as being a founding member of WildCATS. He’s got all kinds of wild psi-powers from when he was purposely exposed to DNA-altering elements back when he was a part of the para-military unit Team Seven. He’s a soldier who often questions his orders.Midnighter is a tough, street-level brawler with astounding healing powers and extra-human levels of physical strength along with other abilities that make him a dangerous fighter. He’s a former StormWatch member and now forms part of the core of The Authority. He’s the significant other of Apollo, a god-like super-being who also belongs to the same team.

The best way to describe his personality is that he embodies left wing rage.

NRAMA: Ooh, that begs for some follow-up… can you give us more insight into that particular element of his character? What is “left-wing rage”?

CD: That’s my read on the character. There are scenes in his own book and in Authority where he’s seen murdering right wing caricatures. He also seems very frustrated with social injustice. But rather than hold a sign in front of an embassy or organize a boycott, Midnighter tears someone a new one. There’s a lot of liberal wish-fulfillment wrapped up in the character.

NRAMA: So pardon the phraseology, but as you’ve identified yourself as clearly not coming from the left, do you think you can present Midnighter’s views in a “fair and balanced” manner?

CD: I absolutely can. I’m neither gay nor a liberal. I’ve never fought crime on the rooftops of a major city or traveled to distant worlds to battle aliens. But a big part of my job is to put myself in the place of the characters I’m writing. To me, that means being true to the character’s established personality and not bringing them into line with my beliefs. I’ve written anti-gun screeds for Batman.
I wrote Oliver Queen as a stone McGovernite. I wrote an anti-death penalty story even though my views are the polar opposite. Why? Because it made for a great story for that character.
While I’m extremely (and often unwisely) vocal about my views on my website I don’t present those views in my work. When I’m writing Connor Hawke or Alien Legion, the folks that buy it aren’t picking it up to hear my opinion on school lunch programs. Their not even picking it for me. They want to read stories about the title character.
That said, Midnighter wears his politics on his sleeve. By “liberal wish fulfillment” I mean that he does what a good liberal could never do but probably wishes he could. Midnighter embodies the rage and fury I see coming from the anti-Bush crowd.
There’s no denying this. No one who’s written him this way would try and distant themselves from that description any more than I would deny the Punisher serving the same purpose on the opposite of the scale.And there’s nothing fair or balanced about Midnighter’s views. He’s a sociopath.

NRAMA: So you think it’s your job to write the characters as you would a non-fiction biography? No creative interpretation involved/allowed?

CD: I’m going to write him exactly as he’s been presented up till now. I have no desire to change him. Don’t look for Midnighter to be reading National Review in the quiet moments. If I wrote any quiet moments for him.Any changes I might make to that part of his character are not a matter of interpretation. Any changes would be wrong and a disservice to the writers that came before me and the readers who enjoy Midnighter’s antics.

NRAMA: A few years back you were publicly critical of not only Marvel’s handling of their Rawhide Kid character in the series Slap Leather, but you reputedly were critical of other writers – namely Judd Winick and Grant Morrison – as well for using familiar characters as platforms to present homosexuality in comic books.
We say reputedly because the message board your comments were posted to no longer exists, and we’re going by second hand accounts of your comments at that time.We could ask a million and one detailed questions about this, but maybe it’s best and more fair to simply ask you to speak to the fact that Midnighter is homosexual, how you feel about that, and if your earlier thoughts have any effect on your regard and approach to this character?

CD: Midnighter will indeed be presented as gay. After all the mis-quotes, hate posts, and misrepresentations of my opinions, you bet your ass I won’t be shying away from that aspect.I was critical of Marvel’s presentation of Rawhide Kid as a homosexual.
I thought that the limited series was done as a stunt and wound up demeaning both the Kid (a childhood favorite of mine) and the homosexual community. I committed some unforgivable sin by suggesting that perhaps a Howard Stern staff writer would not the ideal candidate for a sensitive portrayal of a gay western hero and that it was a mistake to retro-fit an established character rather than create a new one.
The Perpetually Outraged instantly labeled me as a homophobe and the label became permanent when I weighed in on Judd Winick’s introduction of an openly gay character in Green Lantern. My suggestion was that superhero comics are, whether die-hard fans like it or not, ostensibly children’s comics and perhaps not the forum to be informing children of homosexuality, heterosexuality, or sexually transmitted diseases. I think I incensed some people by saying that I didn’t want my kids receiving their sex ed from Judd Winick in the pages of a superhero comic book. I still don’t.
I’ve never backed away from my disdain for agenda-driven comics in what should be the medium’s primary escapist, mass appeal genre. Stand on your soap box all day long. But don’t stand on the shoulders of household-name icons. Write the characters in character and don’t write your world-view through them.And the introduction and retro-fitting of gay characters into established series has become an instant cliché. It’s done in a cynical manner strictly for marketing purposes in a way that should offend everyone.I don’t recall criticizing Grant Morrison on this particular issue.

NRAMA: So noted. You say you don’t want comics to be a forum to be informing children of homosexuality or heterosexuality. There is the POV that things like Bruce Wayne’s Billionaire playboy bachelorism, and the relationships between Lois and Clark, Peter and Mary Jane, Reed and Sue, their weddings (all turned into respective events in their series), and the relatively innocent but at times quite obvious sexual banter between these characters is “informing” readers of their heterosexuality. Do you agree?CD: I’m no more in favor of a frank sexual discussion between Reed and Sue or Lois and Clark than I would be were it Gay Character A and his partner.When I was writing Dick Grayson and Barbara Gordon’s romance I stayed away from stating that they were in any kind of sexual relationship. You could absolutely imply it. But you could just as easily tell yourself they were saving it for marriage. Is this method naïve? In movies made before the 60s it was the norm to present characters as romantically involved and then leave clear indicators that they were getting it on between scenes. Clark Gable and Jon Crawford go into a hot kiss and we fade to black. Cut to next morning and she’s making him breakfast and dressed in a different nightgown. Now they could have kissed one and then played Monopoly until dawn. The audience was left to choose what they wanted to believe and there was no need to explain the facts of life to the kids after a Cary Grant movie. We used to call them “air force” scenes. Whoosh! Right over the kid's heads.So Clark and Lois can be seen kissing and being affectionate and there’s no need to explain it. The sexual aspect of their relationship doesn’t have to be explored. But if Wonder Woman and Supergirl are seen kissing then that does call for an explanation. The sexual aspect of a relationship like that will call forth questions from the kiddies.Maggie Sawyer, in Superman, was obviously being portrayed as a lesbian. But there was a level of deniability because she wasn’t always being shown in romantic clinches with her girlfriend. Astute readers picked up on it. Others either didn’t notice or chose not to. Maggie even appeared on the cartoons with her girlfriend. I much prefer this kind of characterization over Northstar’s “I’M GAY!”The important thing, for story purposes, was that Maggie was a good, three-dimensional character first and a lesbian second.

NRAMA: That all said, Sue Richards has been pregnant three times. That could certainly lead to a life/sex discussion among kids. To play devil’s advocate, one could argue kissing and hand-holding and marriage – i.e. romantic love – does not necessarily equate to explaining a sex act of a homosexual character any more than it would a heterosexual character.And to go a step further, certainly some people would argue explaining to a child why a woman and woman would kiss should be no more extraordinary than explaining why a man and a woman would. Little girls often say they want to marry their fathers. The difference between love, romance, and sex is learned for everyone. Couldn’t one argue that the path for romance between same sex characters to be something that children do not regard as unusual and intrusive to the story is for society to become more accepting of it?

CD: You bring up issues that carry us away from my initial opinion. It’s all about context. There are a million different ways that the issue of sexuality of any kind can be introduced to children. But why can’t some comic creators resist the urge to do so in the pages of a superhero comic? It’s a genre where people wear capes and masks and have magic rings and lift buildings up over their heads. And no matter how much you wish the genre could grow old with you, these are still characters for children. They’re on pajamas and backpacks. They’re Legos, for God’s sake.Sure, your kids might see two dogs screwing on the sidewalk and you have to either brush it aside or have a “talk” about it. But that’s up to you as a parent. I really wish that superhero comics could be left to be about adventure and heroism and suspense. Why does Ant-Man have to be a wife-beater? Were the writers that much at a loss for a story?And does anyone really suppose that the first time a child sees a pregnant woman is in a comic book? I’ve never proposed sheltering children from real life. But let them have the funnybooks, okay?Will the inclusion of gay characters in mainstream comics make homosexuality more acceptable? I haven’t seen a mainstream comic story yet with a gay character that wasn’t loaded with stereotypes and clichés. A wise editor I used to work with cautioned his writers, “don’t write about human relationships unless you’ve had one.” Most of what I’ve seen of the conscious-raising variety of comics on this subject has been dismal and pandering. Loaded with mock outrage and received wisdom and very little honest human interaction. It’s dealt with an in-your-face issue rather than a story.They’re no different than the embarrassing attempts at inclusiveness in 70’s comics. All those white-guilt driven stories about battling The Man. Ugh.Having it all laid out in that kind of ham-handed way is far more harmful than the kids wondering why Uncle Jimmy never got married.My opinions on this have never come from a position of intolerance. It’s all a matter of context. Sure, the kids are gonna have to learn about love and sex and relationships. But why can’t that be outside the pages of a superhero comic? Why do comic writers have to take on the mantle of social engineer? I haven’t met a comic book writer yet I’d let talk to my kids about sex. Why would I want them doing it as part of a story about super-powered men and women in tights?

NRAMA: And on the topic of introducing and retro-fitting gay characters into established series, again, to play devil’s advocate, you mentioned the attempts at inclusiveness in the 70’s. Arguably the biggest comic book success story of all time was when Marvel completely re-invented on a dime what was a team of all white characters by instantly replacing them with cast of multi-racial characters, which at the time was very uncommon and arguably influenced by and promoting a social agenda.Do you regard the introduction of the All-New, All Different X-Men as you do the introduction of a gay character in the pages of Green Lantern?

CD: That’s not the same issue at all. Marvel was just following a trend that started with Sgt. Fury and the Howling Commandos and that found its source more in Kirby’s old kid gang stories than it did any kind of ideas of social engineering. The new X-Men line-up wasn’t the first time racial diversity had been introduced to comics. Saturday morning cartoons had long become integrated. And re-casting X-Men was probably done for reasons rooted in Marvel’s tried-and-true tradition of throwing things against the wall and seeing if they’ll stick. The X-Men was a loser title that was always at the bottom of the sales numbers. Shaking it up with a new cast and making that cast diverse turned out to be a smart move. I’m not convinced it was done to advance civil rights and heal the racial divide. After all, we have a Canadian, a German, and an Irish guy added to the cast. If anything, it was an effort to make the cast more international to appeal to a broader global audience. The only actual American minority in the group got kakked in the opening issues.And had one of the new X-Men been presented as gay (like that could have happened in the 70’s), at least he or she would have been created as gay rather than outted later to create buzz.In any case, the equating of sexual preference with race always strikes me as reaching.NRAMA: So just to be crystal clear, will Midnighter’s sexual orientation play a role in your story in any significant way?CD: Sure will.Midnighter was firmly established as having a homosexual relationship with Apollo and that’s the way I’m writing him. The Authority was always a mature readers book and I don’t have any problem with the frank presentation of sexual relationships there any more than I would in a movie or television show intended for the same audience.

NRAMA: So just t be sure to represent your position clearly, you objected to Slap Leather because even though it was a MAX title was and audience appropriate, it “retro-fit” a character. Grifter and Midnighter on the other hand is audience appropriate and it is consistent with the origin and established profile of the characters?

CD: It’s the retro-fit that bothers me. The MAX versions of Nick Fury or Luke Cage were just as annoying to me. Particularly the implications that Luke Cage’s story could now be properly told without restrictions. That’s insulting as well as being artistically bankrupt.I’m sure you could get a lot of press with a Donald Duck book that showed sex, drug abuse, and domestic violence. But, in the long run, you’d have poisoned that franchise forever. Some publicity is bad publicity. And you can go broke underestimating the taste of the American public.Let’s be honest, “maturing” an established character is a hedge against poor sales. X-rated Nick Fury will sell a few thousand more copies than X-rated Double-0 Generic Spyguy. Creating a new womanizing super-spy or gay western hero is harder than re-jiggering an old one. It requires marketing and creativity and a level of earnestness that no one was willing to bring to it. Better to titillate hardcore fans or turn it all into a cynical joke.Look at Vertigo’s success with creating brand new mature reader characters. Preacher and Constantine and the others populate the line with new, vital creations rather than simply doing a dirty version of Batman. In the long run this has paid off with a strong backlist of trade paperbacks, movie deals, and TV deals that could not have happened by simply making mature imprint doppelgangers of DCU’s icon characters.Everyone says that the future of comics is in the bookstores and libraries. It’s of paramount practical concern that the comic companies guard and shepherd their franchises even more carefully than before. They’re being seen more and more by audiences of casual readers who have an expectation of who these characters are. This is no longer the sub-culture hobby that it was even ten years ago.NRAMA: Okay then. Finally, in general, any last thoughts or first impressions you want to leave readers with over the next couple of months while they await issue #1?

CD: Despite all of the brouhaha over me writing the limited series, this is the kind of story I’m known for; visually-driven, fast paced and violent with a few laughs thrown in. Ryan Benjamin has been around for a while but he really shines on this project and I predict he’ll soon be too damned good to answer my emails.

Interesting take from a good writer I pretty much disagree with his point of view, a) comics are not just for kids. b) by including homosexual characters, hell for that matter latino characters or disabled characters, the comics industry is just trying to make itself socially responsible and relevant. Society moves on but taking CD's view then every television programme, movie, comic book would consist of white middle aged men in every role.


Anonymous buttler said...

On the true-to-the-character front, calling the Midnighter a former StormWatch member is kind of a stretch, as he and Apollo were kept under such deep cover that StormWatch was completely unaware of their existence. A top-secret alternate StormWatch was part of their backstory, but they were never functioning members of the team that we saw in comics.

10:04 AM  
Blogger Timothy Liebe said...

::Society moves on but taking CD's view then every television programme, movie, comic book would consist of white middle aged men in every role.::

Well, sure - didn't you ever hear Tim Allen's routine - before he became Mr. Screwup Fixit or Santa Clause? "Men are pigs - we really are. Too bad we OWN EVERYTHING! (grunt! grunt! grunt!)" I strongly suspect Chuck Dixon would take Tim Allen at his word, not realizing "Tim the Toolman" is a lampoon of that kind of guy from a man who recognizes, and is concerned about, those tendencies in himself.

After enlightening us with his point of view on various subjects, it will be, as you say, interesting to see how Dixon handles writing an openly-gay superhero,

Tim Liebe
Dreaded Spouse-Creature of Tamora Pierce
- and co-writer of Marvel's White Tiger comic - #3 out now! :)

10:46 AM  

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