Thursday, July 31, 2008

Cave-ing in

A friend just passed along "When Batman Was Gay," a post/essay about my favorite character's oft-discussed sexuality on The Bilerico Project: Daily Experiments in LGBTQ. Not a whole lot of new stuff there, if you've spent the last few decades reading and thinking about this issue, but author Tyrion Lannister does a fine job bringing together the familiar touchstones (Wertham, the changing role of Alfred, introduction of Batwoman and Batgirl, etc.), and the illustrations are those "Subtext? What subtext?" innuendo-loaded images we all know and love.

When I read that Lannister first climbed on board the batmobile in the Dark Knight Returns era, I suddenly felt old, or saw him as a youngun, or something. But he makes a provocative point: that, while Boomers take the campy Batman of the Silver Age comics and the '66 tv show for granted, readers his age have always known a darker, butcher Knight. I was also intrigued by his assertion that Silver Age Batman's partisans miss the central reason why Batman is a compelling and fascinating figure in the first place. Batman's most important relationships have always been with criminals. What drives him to pursue them? How does he distinguish himself from his queries? How is vigilantism anything but criminal? Indeed, Batman's most provocative implications have centered around the distinction between law and justice - Batman's dedication to the latter, often at the expense of the former.

Indeed, 98% of my bat-fantasies are hero/villain, not hero/sidekick or hero/fellow hero. (Probably because there's just not much narrative tension in two guys on the same side of a conflict going at it.) Still, for me, the most eye-opening part of the Bilerico piece was not Lannister's own remarks but this comment from a reader named Brian:

As a queer kid growing up in the sixties and seventies, before I even knew what queer meant, Batman represented the ultimate in cool. He drove a cool car, wore a cool costume and lived in a cool house with a secret cave underneath it. And my secret was safe as long as his was. It didn't matter if he was gay or not. What mattered was how well he kept his secret identity. Batman helped keep millions of us in the closet (i.e. "Batcave") long after we should have taken off our masks.

Fascinating! And it's true, in my case, that the core of the Batman myth is the high premium it places on disguise, on secrecy, on masking. I'm not sure I would blame the comic for keeping me in the closet/cave, though; coming out was my own responsibility. But damn, Batman made having a double life sexy, and the requisite costuming even sexier.

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