How LGBTQ Comics Went Mainstream

Your favorite comic characters are out and proud.

By Ben Masten

Clockwise: Dykes to Watch Out For – Credit: Alison Bechdel, J.H. Williams III/Batwoman – Credit: DC Comics, Kevin Keller – Credit: Archie Comics, Marko Djurdjevic/X-Men’s Northstar gets married – Credit: Marvel Comics. Photo Illustration by Kara Jillian Brown.

Howard Cruse had the chance to give voice to the gay rights movement through his art — but at first, he hesitated.

It was 1979, and a friend wanted to publish an anthology called “Gay Comix.” He wanted Howard, then a 35-year-old cartoonist and illustrator, to edit the first issue. Cruse had been out as a gay man in his personal life for many years, but taking on the “Gay Comix” job meant coming out in his professional life too. He worried that his mainstream career as a freelance cartoonist could be hurt.

But ultimately, he took the gig. “If ‘Gay Comix’ had not had an openly gay editor, it wouldn’t have had the confidence of gay contributors,” said Cruse, now 75.

“Gay Comix” became the most successful work of comic art to focus entirely on queer subjects by queer artists at the time.

“It was a way for me to come out professionally in a way that was not confessional, but affirmative, not ‘Oh, here’s my deep dark secret,'” said Cruse. “At the very beginning, I was very much the guy standing at the threshold beckoning other people to come in.”

Today, 40 years after the first issue of “Gay Comix” was published, LGBTQ characters and their stories are no longer the exclusive purview of underground comics and alternative newspapers. Gay comics in 2019 are out, proud and everywhere. Howard Cruse had to do some soul-searching before diving into queer subject matter, but the artists and writers of today are fearless about taking that plunge—precisely because they know how valuable it is to see their own experiences reflected in print.

Many artists post their work on the web or distribute it through independent publishers, but the gay comics boom isn’t just a small-press phenomenon. Even mainstream publishers of superhero fare are queer-friendly. DC Comics’ Batwoman is a lesbian, and its trench-coated paranormal investigator John Constantine is bisexual. Marvel’s Miss America is a super strong lesbian Latina, and the X-Man Northstar married his husband in 2012.

This is a welcome change for lifelong comics fans who didn’t see themselves represented in comics when they were young. Ted Abenheim, 69, president of Prism Comics, a nonprofit dedicated to raising the profile of LGBTQ creators, said, “There was nothing to turn to as a kid or in my teens that told my story.”

It’s true that for many years mainstream comics took at best halting steps toward queer representation. In the 1950s and ’60s, gay characters were unheard of in newspapers and comic books. It wasn’t until 1988 that DC introduced the flamboyantly gay hero Extraño—the self-described “old auntie” of his super-team whose HIV was transmitted at the hands of a vampire called the Hemo-Goblin. Extraño was a mixed bag for representation at best.

Even as recently as five years ago, Abenheim said, “there were not that many transgender comics, there were not that many bisexual stories. We have people coming up to us at conventions all the time now asking for those and for asexual material.”

It was precisely because of this lack of LGBTQ representation in mainstream comics that underground and alternative publications flourished for decades.

Alison Bechdel’s landmark strip “Dykes to Watch Out For” first began running in gay and lesbian newspapers in the early 1980s. She was inspired, in part, by Howard Cruse’s first issue of “Gay Comix,” which she picked up at the now-shuttered Oscar Wilde Bookshop in Greenwich Village. Bechdel recalls feeling compelled to fill a void with her work.

“My initial impulse was just to see images of me and my friends in the world because I didn’t in 1981,” said Bechdel, 58. “I wanted to see women with short hair and hairy legs.”

Her “Dykes” strips are a love letter to the queer activist community that made up Bechdel’s world in those days.

As the years passed, the cast of “Dykes to Watch Out For” watched as that activist community changed — and faded — around them. The characters started in their early 20s, and as they grew older formed lasting relationships, bought houses and started families while agonizing about becoming normal. By the time “Dykes to Watch Out For” ended in 2008, America was more out of the closet, but parts of the subculture that had inspired the strip had been lost. Bechdel describes it as “that complex transaction of obtaining justice and rights in exchange for part of our authenticity.”

“This was a liberation movement,” she said, “and the point of any liberation movement is to make itself obsolete.”

Marc Andreyko agrees. “You know you’ve evolved when you can have a boring gay character,” he says. Andreyko, 48, has written superheroes for both Marvel and DC and edited an anthology of stories titled “Love is Love,” which he organized as a benefit for victims of the Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando.

He welcomes the chance to tell stories about characters who are people first and queer second. “My sexuality is a huge part of who I am, but it’s also an insignificant part of who I am in the same breath,” said Andreyko. 

Or, as Alison Bechdel puts it, “What I realized in the course of doing my strip is that gay people are just regular schmucks like the rest of us.”