I am part of a generation that grew up reading comic books. We bought them and devoured them and traded them like baseball cards. Marvel Comics made a fortune on us and gave rise to dozens of ridiculous superheroes. Before the comics became a staple of the big screen, they were part of the regular Saturday cartoon lineup.
Superman, Batman, Archie and Jughead. Spiderman, Wonder Woman, Betty and Veronica. Richie Rich. Captain America. The Fantastic Four. Comic books were to us what computer games are for the most recent generation of kids.
So I must admit, as a native San Franciscan who should know better, that I missed all the clues and was completely surprised by the recent spate of stories about an upcoming summer blockbuster that features the latest rendition of the Man of Steel. Maybe I took the comics far too literally, but until I saw the pieces in the Los Angeles Times, Entertainment Weekly and several other magazines, I never realized that Superman is considered a gay icon.
And — holy kryptonite! — there have been hints that the world’s greatest superhero might actually fly both ways.
How did it get past me? Should I have seen the tights and the flamboyant cape and the too-tight shirt for what they really were? I always did have a few questions about Robin, the Boy Wonder, but I was willing to let all the "pow" and "shazzam" convince me otherwise. But Superman — it's like living in an alternative universe.
Normally, I would just pass it off as film studio hype — the kind that usually greets summer movies that cost $300 million to make, as "Superman Returns" reportedly did. But what launched all the recent gushing wasn’t the mainstream press, but the cover story that ran in The Advocate, the nation’s most prominent gay magazine, which boldly asked: "How Gay is Superman?"
It appears that superheroes that are unbelievably good-looking and lead double lives have taken on cult status in the gay community. Long before "Brokeback Mountain" appeared on the horizon, it appears that there were questions about the private lives of planet-hopping individuals. People with magical powers who somehow got pushed out of the mainstream of society apparently hold great appeal to gays. And in an attempt to ascertain just how serious this whole idea is, the Los Angeles Times even reported that "at issue now is whether that gay vibe will broaden the ‘Superman Returns’ audience."
Blogs have been particularly hot after the super-gay angle, with several noting just how, uh, queer Superman looks in some of the new movie posters. And there is much chatter in gay publications about the movie’s director, Bryan Singer, an openly gay filmmaker who directed the first two "X-Men" films. Could it be more obvious why he was chosen? The story has gotten so much play that the Times even asked which superhero has the most gay appeal (it was Wonder Woman by a headband over Batgirl).
Of course, this has made me, and probably others who grew up as comic book junkies, rethink the whole supergenre. Did I overlook the obvious when I followed the adventures of the "Green Lantern?" And how about the Human Torch, who used to utter the unforgettable phrase, "flame on." There was also that series of comics featuring Superman’s evil alter ego, Bizarro. How could I have been so obtuse?
This isn’t just your ordinary Rock Hudson/Jim Nabors kind of rumor. If the scribes are right and mainstream America gets wind of it, it could fan the anti-gay sentiment that gripped the nation last year and has social conservatives now pushing for a new constitutional ban on gay marriage. And it could potentially threaten future films, especially if "Superman Returns" turns out to be an expensive, high-flying dud.
After all, it pays to remember that "Batman & Robin" nearly sank that franchise, in part because the film was criticized for having homosexual overtones. (In the movie, Batman’s suit actually had nipples.) And it certainly didn’t help when the too-good-looking actor George Clooney remarked that he could have played Batman straight, but instead, "I made him gay." That series was only revived through the efforts of too-good-looking actor Christian Bale in last year's surprisingly good "Batman Begins" movie.
So I’ll be paying close attention to the cinematic versions of the comic book icons in the future, trying to see what other signals I missed, what other references flew by me like a speeding bullet. For a writer not to be up on the latest cultural revelations, you might as well be Jimmy Olsen.