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When I was a kid reading comics, I used to sometimes think ''they saved the mother and kid from the falling building, but would they rescue me if they knew I was a fag?'' I now have an answer for that. (Letter 17)
A Superhero for Gays?:
Gay Masculinity and
Green Lantern
Valerie Palmer-Mehta and Kellie Hay
When I was a kid reading comics, I used to
sometimes think ‘‘they saved the mother and
kid from the falling building, but would they
rescue me if they knew I was a fag?’’ I now
have an answer for that. (Letter 17)
The US comic book industry has addressed a
number of pressing social and political issues in its
narratives through the years, including alcohol
and drug abuse, racism, environmental devasta-
tion, gun control, and poverty. In the process, the
industry has provided a rich tapestry of American
cultural attitudes and philosophies that reflect
varying approaches to issues that continue to
haunt, confound, and rile the American public.
With its pulse on issues relevant to US public
culture, it is not surprising that the complexities
of gay identity and antigay hate crimes have been
increasingly explored by industry leaders, DC and
Marvel Comics, since the late 1980s. While there
are many comic book companies, DC Comics and
Marvel Comics are consistently the nation’s top
two comic book producers, controlling approxi-
mately 60% of the market (McAllister 19). These
two leaders in the field have introduced various
gay and lesbian characters in their mainstream
comic books since 1988, most of them in minor
roles (Franklin 224). In 2001, the long-standing
comic book Green Lantern, reaching approxi-
mately 65,000 readers every month, introduced
a well-adjusted, proudly out central character,
Terry Berg, in its issue #137. The issue won an
award from the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against
Defamation (GLAAD) for being the year’s best
comic book. DC Comics pushed the envelope
even further in the September and October 2002
issues of Green Lantern by becoming the first
mainstream comic book to focus a major two-part
story line on a central character, the aforemen-
tioned Terry Berg, whose experience of antigay
violence leaves him on the verge of death.
The Green Lantern hate crime story line has
received considerable attention in a range of me-
dia outlets; news stories have appeared in such
mainstream venues as The New York Times
(Gustines) and CNN.com (‘‘Comic’s Gay’’). Ad-
ditionally, the Green Lanterns writer at the time,
Judd Winick, was featured on an episode of
MSNBC’s Donahue discussing the debut of the
story line. Out magazine’s December 2002 issue
featured Winick drawn in comic art being hailed
as a straight alliance. Further, Out exclaims that
the writer of Green Lantern is a ‘‘superhero to
gays and lesbians’’ (Champagne 86). In a tele-
phone interview, Winick lamented the fact that
‘hate crimes only come on the radar when people
are beaten and murdered, when it also exists on a
daily level.’’ With this story, Winick said that he
hoped ‘‘to create dialogue’’ about the topic and to
prompt people to ‘‘think twice, check their mind-
sets, challenge their behavior.’’ Bob Schreck,
Valerie Palmer-Mehta and Kellie D. Hay are assistant professors of communication in the Department of Rhetoric, Communication
and Journalism at Oakland University in Rochester, Michigan. The authors wish to thank the GLAAD Center for the Study of Media
& Society for funding an earlier version of this article. The authors also wish to thank Van Cagle, former project coordinator of the
Center, for his integral support of the project and for offering insightful feedback on earlier drafts of this article.
390 The Journal of American Culture Volume 28, Number 4 December 2005
editor of the Green Lantern, states, ‘‘It’s a story
that needs to be told . . .. We’ve tried to reason-
ably, intelligently educate people that we’re not all
on one note’’ (Gustines). As if to underscore the
salience of the topic, as the first installment of the
two-part story line hit the stands in September
2002, the Associated Press reported that three
men in West Hollywood had been victims of anti-
gay violence (‘‘Gay Man Beaten’’).
The Green Lantern hate crime story line pro-
vides a compelling opportunity to examine reader
response to an important moment in the history
of the US comic book industry. It also presents an
opportunity to contribute to what is presently a
dearth of research on masculinity in general, and
gay masculinity in particular, in mainstream com-
ic books, a point that we establish in the next
section. In order to assess reader reaction to the
antigay hate crime story line, we analyze twenty-
nine unpublished letters
1
written in response to
the story line provided by Bob Schreck and Judd
Winick. In our analysis of the letters, we argue
that there was a meaningful level of understanding
regarding issues of concern to the gay community
among these particular letter writers. To begin, we
provide an overview of the burgeoning research
on masculinity studies and locate gay comic book
masculinities in that literature. Next, a synopsis of
the hate crime story line is supplied to establish a
context for analyzing the letters. Finally, we
present and examine the letters, which are
grouped according to content and tone.
The Representation of Masculinities
in Comic Books
The morphing state of masculinity has been an
issue of mounting dialogue for more than three
decades in the United States, and more recently, in
global contexts (Connell 39–66; Pease and Pringle
1–17; Kimmel, ‘‘Global’’ 21–38). Arthur Brittan
contends that the role of US men and what it
means to be ‘‘masculine’’ came under intense
scrutiny as a result of second-wave feminists’ in-
terrogations of the gender order and patriarchal
ideology, as well as challenges to heternormativity
brought forth by the gay rights movement of the
1960s and 1970s (179–86). As early as the 1970s,
men began to examine their roles in society more
critically in response to these challenges, even
prompting an independent field of study (Craig
2). These explorations have produced self-help
books (Farrell), men’s movements and scholarly
analyses of the movements (Kimmel, The Politics;
Messner; Schwalbe), autobiographies dealing with
the negotiation of normative expectations for
American masculinity (Bouldrey), and New Jour-
nalism biographies on twentieth-century Ameri-
can men, such as Elizabeth Gilbert’s analysis of
Eustace Conway IV, an environmentalist chal-
lenging notions of hegemonic masculinity and
its relationship to consumerism. Both Michael
Kimmel’s Manhood in America and E. Anthony
Rotundo’s American Manhood investigate the
cultural and social history of US masculinity
and the ways in which the construct has trans-
formed through time. Additionally, David Gil-
more has provided a cross-cultural analysis of
manhood, while others have focused on culturally
specific dimensions of American masculinities,
such as black masculinity (Carby; Majors and
Billson), Jewish masculinity (Brod), and gay mas-
culinity (Nardi). Of course, collections have
emerged that provide frameworks for theorizing
masculinities (Brod and Kaufman) and research-
ing masculinities generally (Kimmel, Hearn, and
Connell; Beynon; Connell 3–36; Whitehead).
One area of considerable growth in the re-
search on men and masculinities in the past dec-
ade has been in the realm of popular culture. Some
of this scholarship has focused on the represen-
tation of men and masculinity in a medley of
popular culture artifacts, from porn (Simpson
131–49) to music (Collins 149–80) to sports media
(Sabo and Jansen 169–84). Others have focused on
the representation of masculinity in television and
film (Holmlund 141–56; Lehman; Pfeil; Shugart
67–91; Silverman) and advertising (Dotson).
Scholarship that focuses specifically on the rep-
resentation of the male body in the media also has
emerged (Bordo 168–228; Jeffords; Tasker 73–90).
Analyses of the so-called crisis in masculinity and
391A Superhero for Gays? Gay Masculinity and Green Lantern Valerie Palmer-Mehta and Kellie Hay
the framing of white masculinity as ‘‘wounded’’ in
popular culture have provided yet another per-
spective on contemporary US masculinity (Rob-
inson; Savran; Tasker 109–31).
Even though there has been a remarkable ex-
pansion of scholarship on men and masculinity in
the past several decades, there still exists a lacuna
in research on the representation of masculinity in
comic books. This is somewhat surprising, as
‘classical comic book depictions of masculinity
are perhaps the quintessential expression of our
cultural beliefs about what it means to be a man’
(Brown 26). While a respectable number of schol-
ars have focused their attention on male charac-
ters in comics, thus providing analyses that are
implicitly about masculinity, the explicit focus of
the research lies elsewhere, and consequently, the
endeavor does not contribute substantially to our
understanding of the function of gender in Amer-
ican culture. For example, Michael Straub, in his
examination of the comic book Maus, discusses
‘what it means to have a Jewish identity in a post-
Auschwitz age’’ (37). While the article is, first and
foremost, about Jewish identity, Straub draws his
observations from a story that focuses on a man
and his father, a Holocaust survivor, and their
negotiation of life and relationships. Inevitably
the article suggests something about masculinity,
but this is implicit. Such is the case with a variety
of other research on comics whose primary con-
cern includes such things as the representation
of war (MacCallum-Stewart 1–18), nationalism
(Edwardson 184–201), the struggle between lib-
eral ideology and counterculture approaches to
radical change (Moore 263–78), and the American
monomyth (Lang and Trimble 157–73).
Few scholars have studied, as a primary focus
of investigation, the representation of masculinity
in general (Glasberg 25–32; Pecora 61–77; Brown
25–42), and the representation of gay masculinity
in particular (McLelland 13–25; Franklin III 221–
50; Sewell 251–74), in comic books. In his analysis
of sexual stereotypes in the Archie comic books
series, Ron Glasberg argues that the white male
character, Archie, exists ‘‘in a wish fulfillment
of eternal youth where he stands at the threshold
of a choice he never has to make’’ between the
characters Veronica and Betty, who respectively
represent ‘‘material success and interpersonal
intimacy’’ (31). Those men in the comic who
have matured and gained the capacity to make
such choices are represented as losing their power,
‘and that loss comes from having made a choice in
which one valuable option is gained at the expense
of another’’ (31). Glasberg contends that such
representations unfortunately suggest to male
readers that ‘‘maturity is an inevitable defeat’’ (32).
In her analysis of comic books as socializing
agents for young men, Norma Pecora contends that
comic books with superheroes like Superman and
Batman have served as ‘‘important symbols of
‘maleness’ in American culture since Superman was
introduced in 1939’’ (61) and that ‘‘little has
changed’’ as late as the 1990s (77). The many and
varied characters presented in comic books through
the years ‘‘have functioned in a world that is male
and white, where the women are either young and
buxom or old and frail—but never equals’’ (61).
‘Images of racism and anti-feminism are still very
much part of the comic book culture’’ as people of
color and women are typically relegated to the
background or are villains or trim (76). This is a
trend, Pecora argues, that has continued through
the years, and young men ‘‘are still offered cultural
representations that reinforce maleness as machis-
mo’’ and masculinity as violence oriented (77).
Jeffrey A. Brown analyzes the representation
and reception of alternative black masculinities
presented in three comic book series—Icon,
Hardware, and Static—by Milestone Comics, a
black-owned and controlled publishing company.
The Milestone characters are read in the context
of characters from Image Comics, an emerging
industry giant that, Brown argues, ‘‘set a new
standard of hypermasculinity’’ through ‘‘the ob-
vious overpresence of masculine signifiers’’ such
as ‘‘exaggerated representations of the male hero’s
body as a mass of veiny muscles’’ (33) and the
presentation of ‘‘brainless brawl after brainless
brawl’’ (36). Brown’s subjects commented on the
ways in which Milestone’s characters were more
multidimensional than those in Image Comics,
saying such things as, ‘‘It’s nice to see cool broth-
ers in the comics who can think their way out of a
392 The Journal of American Culture Volume 28, Number 4 December 2005
rough spot. You know, Icon’s a lawyer; Hard-
ware’s an all-purpose science super-genius; and
Static, well, he’s just a high school kid . . . but the
smartest of them all’’ (36). Drawing on ethno-
graphic data from an ethnically diverse group,
Brown reports that the Milestone representations
are effective in presenting alternative masculinities
because they ‘‘incorporate previously disassociat-
ed concepts of softness with hardness, of mind
with body . . . the Milestone books work to infuse
gentler, more responsible, and more cerebral qual-
ities within the codes of dominant masculinity’
(41). While fans recognize that the images of
masculinity that Milestone presents are ‘‘differ-
ent,’’ they are amenable to this change, Brown
asserts, because of Milestone’s merging of some
aspects of traditional comic book masculinity
with newer, more progressive elements.
While Glasberg, Pecora, and Brown focus on
heterosexual white and black masculinities, Mark
J. McLelland analyzes the representation of young
gay Japanese males and their love affairs in
Japanese comic books (manga) directed toward
women, and he discusses the reasons behind Jap-
anese women’s affinity for these particular repre-
sentations. McLelland argues that gay men in
women’s manga are depicted as favorably femi-
nine and androgynous, as ‘‘beautiful youths’’ who
could be ‘‘best friends or even ideal partners for
women’’ (13). In contrast, gay magazines made by
and for gay males in Japan depict hypermasculine
gay men negotiating a homosocial world, far away
from women and their concerns (14). McLelland
contends that Japanese women find satisfaction in
the depiction of gay male love affairs as depicted
in this medium because heterosexual relations in
Japan are limiting to women (24). ‘‘Heterosexual
sex in Japan is structured in relation to two strong
paradigms: the sex trade and the family’’ (22),
neither of which is terribly satisfying for women.
Indeed, ‘‘unreproductive sexual practice outside
marriage is represented as dangerous [for women],
the results of which are damaged morals as well as
damaged bodies’’ (24). Alternatively, ‘‘‘licensed’
sexuality which takes place within marriage leads
to a wife becoming a mother whereupon she is
desexualized’’ (24). The representation of love be-
tween men in the women’s manga gives hetero-
sexual women an opportunity to fantasize about
sexual relations in a more free and satisfying way
because the sexual relationships between men are
depicted as ‘‘both caring and enduring, based on
love not sex’’ (16), and there is no anxiety about
becoming pregnant or playing a subservient role
in the relationship or in society, issues that adult
heterosexual Japanese women regularly face.
Ultimately, McLelland questions whether these
representations of gay sexuality have anything to
do with gay male culture at all. Rather than mir-
roring gay culture, these depictions seem to reflect
the ‘‘concerns and fantasies of the women who
avidly produce and consume them’’ (24).
Edward Sewell examines the effects of author-
ship in his analysis comparing the representation of
queer characters in US alternative publications
produced by queer cartoonists with that of queer
characters created by heterosexual cartoonists in
US mainstream comic strips. Sewell suggests that
the representations of queers that heterosexual car-
toonists produce often lack important elements of
the queer lifestyle. Specifically, the queer characters
produced by heterosexual cartoonists tended to
have no distinguishing characteristics that would
differentiate them from heterosexual characters,
and they also were presented as nonthreatening
and ‘‘thoroughly assimilated’’ (271). In contrast,
Sewell’s analysis of queer characters in the alter-
native comic strips found that queer cartoonists
focus not on ‘‘assimilation into a dominant culture,
but rather on the creation of a thoroughly queer
culture that often is in opposition, if not direct
conflict with, the dominant heterosexual culture’
(271). Queer cartoonists create a world that is
mostly inhabited by queers, and the characters are
truly distinct from their heterosexual counterparts,
thinking and acting differently. Sewell contends
that queers need a ‘‘queer space’’ like that found on
the Internet, where queer characters are ‘‘allowed
to live in a queer world doing queer things with the
dominant culture playing a marginalized role’
(271). He longs for the day that we might open our
local mainstream daily newspaper and find an
‘authentically queer
2
comic strip, by an openly
queer cartoonist’’ (271).
393A Superhero for Gays? Gay Masculinity and Green Lantern Valerie Palmer-Mehta and Kellie Hay
Finally, Morris E. Franklin III provides one of
the most comprehensive analyses of the GLBT
community in comics to date in his investigation
of the emerging representation of gays and lesbi-
ans, as well as coming-out narratives, in US comic
books in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Franklin
analyzes published letters to the editor that react
to these representations, as well as the editors’
published responses to the letters. In his close
reading of the letters, he demonstrates that a range
of communication practices are at work, including
self-disclosure, confrontational arguments, praise
and blame of the editors, and morality debates.
He also reveals the varied reactions that these
representations elicit and the tensions that course
across audiences, between readers, and with the
editors. The supportive and critical positions in
the letters made several readership patterns clear;
comic book readers are active and engaged with
comic book texts and their makers, and gay read-
ers in particular have little tolerance for stereo-
types and flat, one-dimensional gay characters, as
they recognize the material and identity stakes at
play when GLBT issues surface in comics.
While the aforementioned articles stake out
important ground, there is still a lacuna in the
literature regarding the representation of gay
American masculinity, antigay hate crimes in
comic book culture, and audience response to
these representations. The hate crime story line in
Green Lantern and our unmitigated access to the
unpublished letters written in response to this pi-
oneering depiction provide a compelling oppor-
tunity to make such a contribution. By examining
the letters, we may gain a sense of how fans are
reacting to the representation of gay masculinity
and the antigay hate crime in this particular main-
stream outlet. Before presenting the letters, we
provide a synopsis of the hate crime story line in
issues #154 and #155 of Green Lantern.
Green Lantern
Hate Crime Story Line
At the end of issue #153, which is entitled
‘You Can Never, Never, Never Go Home
Again,’’ Kyle Rayner, who is the alter ego of
Green Lantern (in the same manner that Clark
Kent is the alter ego of Superman), receives a
phone call from his friend John Stewart indicating
that something bad has happened to seventeen-
year-old Terry Berg. Terry is Kyle’s assistant at
work and one of his close friends. In the last panel
of the issue, Kyle bows his head and says, ‘‘Oh,
God,’’ as a tear rolls down his face (22). It is not
until issue #154, entitled ‘‘Hate Crime: Part One,’
that the reader learns what has happened to Terry.
The cover of issue #154 shows two large, muscle-
bound white males baring their teeth, with blood
spattered on their arms. One of the men is pulling
Terry’s head up by his hair and both men are
holding him, presumably under his arms. The
reader would not recognize that this is indeed
Terry, except for his characteristic blond locks and
the cliffhanger in issue #153 warning that some-
thing terrible will happen to him. Blood is drip-
ping profusely from around Terry’s nose and
mouth, and it looks as though one of his teeth is
missing. The area around his left eye is swollen,
and his clothes are torn and spattered with blood.
The first panel on the first page of issue #154
shows Terry’s boyfriend, David, with tears
streaming down his face. Distraught, he explains
that he and Terry were walking home after vis-
iting a dance club. David was charged up from the
fun they were having, and this prompts David to
lean over and kiss Terry while they are out in the
street. David laments having engaged in this pub-
lic display of affection because, although at the
moment it appeared that they were alone, three
men have witnessed the kiss and begin whistling
at them. This by itself concerns Terry and David,
but then they hear the men shout the word
‘faggot’’ and start running toward them. Fright-
ened, Terry tries to get a signal on his cell phone
as he and David start running, with the three men
in hot pursuit. In a panic, Terry and David decide
to split up in order to distract their pursuers. The
men follow after Terry, chase him down, and beat
him ruthlessly. Moments later, David musters the
courage to go back and look for Terry. When he
finally finds him, David is able to recognize Terry
only by his shoes because he is so badly beaten.
394 The Journal of American Culture Volume 28, Number 4 December 2005
Once Terry is in the hospital, we learn that he
suffers from a skull fracture, a broken arm, two
broken legs, four broken ribs, and a collapsed
lung, and he is also in danger of losing his left eye.
He is on a respirator, in a coma, and struggling for
life.
Everyone, especially David, is deeply shaken
by what has happened. The situation is made
worse for David because Terry’s father refuses to
let him into Terry’s hospital room to see him. In
issue #155, entitled ‘‘Hate Crime: Part Two,’’ Jen,
Kyle’s girlfriend, confronts Terry’s father in order
to gain entry for David. Terry’s father exclaims,
‘I do not want him in the room with Terry! You
hear me?! I’m his father, and the final word ends
with me! He’s [referring to David] lucky I let him
stay in the hospital!’’ Jen protests, saying,
‘Mr. Berg, this isn’t helping anyone. Please. Dav-
id has the right to see Terry. He’s his boyfriend.’
Mr. Berg replies,
You shut the hell up with that kind of talk!
All this business is what got Terry attacked
in the first place! Because of people like him!
[Mr. Berg points to David] If Terry hadn’t
met him then he’d be home right now. None
of this would ever have happened. No one
would have laid a finger on him! He’d be
safe. He wouldn’t . . . be here in this god-
forsaken hospital . . . he’d be home. (Winick,
‘Part Two’ 2–3)
In this angry statement, Mr. Berg blames David
for the crime rather than the three perpetrators,
and he even suggests that David is the reason that
Terry is gay.
3
Shortly after the incident, a police officer
questions Kyle, asking him if Terry uses drugs
and suggesting that Terry might have tried to
‘pick up’’ the perpetrators, thereby prompting the
attack (Winick, ‘‘Part One’’ 9–10). Kyle is enraged
by this line of questioning which, similar to Mr.
Berg’s statements, attempts to blame the victims.
During the interview, the officer is called away by
another officer. Kyle eavesdrops on their conver-
sation and finds out that one of the three perpe-
trators has been caught and is being held at Riker’s
Island House of Detention. He also hears that if
the perpetrator who is caught does not inform on
his accomplices soon, the other two may never be
caught.
Using his super powers, Green Lantern enters
the prisoner’s cell and demands to know where
the other two perpetrators are. When the prisoner
refuses, Green Lantern lifts him out of his bed,
turns him upside down, and threatens to break his
wrists. After both of his wrists have been broken,
the perpetrator finally tells Green Lantern the lo-
cation of his accomplices. Green Lantern hunts
them down and beats them both brutally in re-
taliation. While Green Lantern could have beaten
one of the perpetrators to death, he stops himself
at the last minute by punching the brick wall be-
hind the man’s head, leaving the man physically
and mentally traumatized but not dead. After-
ward, Green Lantern, now back to his Kyle Ray-
ner alter ego, returns to Terry’s bedside and says,
‘I did my part, now you’ve gotta do yours’’
(Winick, ‘‘Part One’’ 22). Terry still has not
emerged from his coma.
Drawing on comic book story lines and graph-
ic art, audiences engage in, react to, and imagine
themselves in the life-world of comic texts. As can
be seen in the letters that follow, comic book
readers are actively involved in the production
and consumption of comic texts; they are busy
self-fashioning story lines to suit their interests as
they share their ideas about character and plot
development. We turn now to our analysis of the
letters that Green Lantern fans sent to the writer
and editor of the comic book. We trace the com-
peting ideological positions that exist across read-
ers and examine the underlying assumptions and
political stakes that emerge.
Audience Response: Letters to the
Writer and Editor
The following unedited excerpts are taken
from the unsolicited and unpublished letters writ-
ten to the editor and writer of Green Lantern.
Thirty-one letters were sent in response to the
hate crime story line. Twenty-six (84%) of the
395A Superhero for Gays? Gay Masculinity and Green Lantern Valerie Palmer-Mehta and Kellie Hay
letters came from males, two (6%) came from
females, and three (10%) were from individuals
whose genders could not be identified. In what
follows, the letters are grouped according to their
content and tone. A total of 6.45% (n52) of the
letters were not categorized or analyzed because
they did not fit into a clear category. One of the
two uncategorized letters was a request to use the
cover of issue #154 as a visual aid in a speech for a
university speech team (Letter 31). The writer of
the second uncategorized letter simply stated that
after the September issue, he would no longer be
reading the Green Lantern, but he did not specify
why (Letter 30). The rest of the letters are cate-
gorized as follows: resistance to gay issues being
probed in a mainstream outlet, concern about
Green Lantern’s vigilante violence, concern about
the representation of GLBT characters, and, the
largest category, appreciative letters. In what fol-
lows, an examination of each of the categories is
provided.
Resistance to Gay Issues Being
Probed in a Mainstream Outlet
A total of 16% (n55) of the letters express
dissatisfaction with the story line because it fo-
cuses on an issue of concern to the GLBT com-
munity, and these authors are not sympathetic to
the community. Three of the five letters provide
emphatic statements about the immorality of ho-
mosexuality and the influence that such a topic
might have on young readers. In the first letter, a
Green Lantern reader asserts,
I am astonished and outraged by your writ-
ing. In issue #154 you created a scene that
sickened me. This is a book that kids read
and you’re telling them that it’s o.k. to be
gay. In issue #137 you had GL himself say
that being gay is not a sin. You have made a
mockery of Christianity. Leviticus 18:22
clearly states that being gay is an abomina-
tion unto the Lord. If you are a Christian
you need to take another look at the Bible
. . . I will not support a company that let’s
you write garbage like that. (Letter 10)
The second letter also evokes images of immo-
rality and concern for children:
Isn’t the real world immoral enough without
bringing this into the imaginary. And to top
it off he [Terry] had a crush on the main
character, this is one of the worst things you
could have done. I was unaware of the new
character last year, and I do wish to thank
you for saving me money by not having to
purchase anymore DC Comics so my kids
won’t have to be exposed to this trash.
(Letter 11)
The third letter expresses concern with the story
line because ‘‘adolescents should not have to deal
with gay bashing’’ (Letter 12). The reader contin-
ues, ‘‘The notion that a gay comic is cute and ap-
propriate for any child is outrageous’’ (Letter 12).
All these letters echo the same sentiments: those
of moral outrage and concern for the pollution of
children. Implicit is the assumption that children
are the primary readers of comic books. Although
conventional wisdom suggests that adolescents
are the main audience of comic books, Franklin
III reports that the actual age of most readers is
between twenty-five and forty (248). Underneath
this child protection rhetoric is an unfortunate
reality—the GBLT community and representa-
tions of it are not perceived as socially legitimate
or ethical. What is more, Christianity is hailed as
the moral backdrop that justifies the omission not
only of gay social issues surfacing in the realm of
representation but also gayness itself.
Regardless of how the story had been written,
the previous Green Lantern readers would not
have been happy with it. In the following letter,
however, the reader suggests that he would have
been more tolerant of the issue had it been written
differently:
Oh boy, here comes the obligatory homo-
phobic violence issue! ‘‘One shocking mo-
ment’’ indeed. I seriously doubt that any of
your readers haven’t seen this one coming
since the last time you preached the joys and
wonders of homosexuals to us. I suppose we
396 The Journal of American Culture Volume 28, Number 4 December 2005
could always hope that the issue will be dealt
with in a manner that includes good writing,
accurate human portrayals, and a touching
lesson in comparative morality. Unfortu-
nately, it has already been proven that the
only thing we can expect is a good message
turned into a hammer with which you will
bludgeon your readers to death. You’ve suc-
cessfully turned Terry into my least favorite
character in all comics. Rather than feel anx-
iety for his fate, I find myself hoping he’s
beaten severely enough that I’ll never have to
read about him again. (Letter 9)
This writer suggests that had the story line been
dealt with more skillfully, he might have been
drawn in. However, the hostility that permeates
his letter makes this assertion untenable. On the
one hand, he claims that this story ‘‘could have
been a touching lesson in comparative morality,’
yet the statements that come before and after it
are much harsher. His opening remarks suggest
that he is tired of GLBT issues before opening this
issue of Green Lantern. Without giving any con-
crete examples of poor writing or inaccurate por-
trayals, he simply alleges that Green Lantern
readers have been ‘‘bludgeoned with a hammer’
(note the metaphor), and he even expresses a wish
that Terry would receive the bludgeoning—but
with a fatal outcome. Rhetorically, this reader’s
‘lesson in comparative morality’’ is curiously un-
dercut by images of imagined violence and mur-
der and by a tone of sarcastic superiority and
contempt.
The last letter is akin to the preceding one; the
reader expresses dissatisfaction with what she
feels is writer Judd Winick’s tendency to focus on
gay issues:
Why is Winick so hung up on driving
through this gay agenda (everyone must love
gays) of his? I mean I’ve given this a lot of
thought and instead of preaching love for
gays and how difficult they have it.
Shouldn’t he be preaching (yes and I do
mean preaching cause that’s what he does)
on tolerance and love for everybody. I mean
the way he and gay activists tell it. I as a
heterosexual must be having a swell time,
with no problems. Well the exact opposite is
true . . .. Why doesn’t Winick give it a rest
with this tiresome ‘‘love gays’’ story line.
And just preach tolerance for everyone.
Whether you like them or not. (Letter 13)
Again, this is a mixed letter. While peppered with
hostility to the GLBT community, the writer
suggests that there should be tolerance for every-
one. There is an understated context about which
group of people have been more wronged. This is
a common strategy, conscious and unconscious,
for rejecting gay issues. As a heterosexual, she
contends that gay people are not the only people
who suffer, that straight people have problems
too—yet the reader does not consider the ways
in which the lives of straights and gays might
be different based on dominant cultural norms
regarding sexuality in US society.
Concern about Green Lantern’s
Vigilante Violence
Nineteen percent (n56) of the letter writers
express concern with the vigilante violence that
Green Lantern engages in to avenge Terry’s at-
tack. While most of these letter writers indicate
that they understand why Green Lantern was
pushed to act as he did, they all suggest that his
behavior was inappropriate for a superhero, an
extraordinary being who is supposed to be be-
yond such base human responses. For example,
one letter writer laments that ‘‘Green Lantern
used to be so much more than a petty thug’’
(Letter 5). Another letter writer suggests
that Green Lantern has taken a ‘‘fall from grace’
(Letter 7), and yet another writer begs, ‘‘Please
don’t make him a bad guy’’ (Letter 4). A fourth
writer argues,
Just because he is a superhero doesn’t mean
that he can take the law into his own hands,
even though he does it everyday fighting
super villains. This was a different situation.
The bad guys weren’t super villains, they
were just some stupid kids who did some-
thing they never should have done. So what
I guess I’m really saying is that unlike most
397A Superhero for Gays? Gay Masculinity and Green Lantern Valerie Palmer-Mehta and Kellie Hay
people I wasn’t bothered by the gay factor
in issue 154, but I was bothered by Kyle’s
response. (Letter 8)
A fifth letter writer is disturbed by the premed-
itation that Green Lantern engages in before tor-
turing the thugs who beat up Terry:
Face it, the character [Green Lantern] took a
defenseless individual, albeit one who was
guilty of a horrific crime, and tortured him.
This wasn’t a heat of the battle moment, nor
was it an accident. Rayner went to the jail,
set up a cover screen, hooked the bad guy up
like a slab of meat and slowly broke his
wrists. How do these actions make him any
better than the thugs he was going against? It
doesn’t, for it puts him at the same level.
(Letter 6)
The sixth writer suggests that ‘‘it was not so great
to see vigilantism and sensationalism at their
worst in GL 154’’ (Letter 3). He explains, ‘‘grant-
ed, without any argument, it was immoral for the
thugs to beat up Terry.’’ But he also argues that it
was immoral for Green Lantern to beat them up
as well. The writer describes himself as a liber-
tarian, and ‘‘accordingly, I hold the belief that
force is only justified in self defense. Non-
aggression, as a matter of principle is morally
better than aggression.’
These letters express concern for the character
Terry, and they acknowledge that antigay violence
is wrong. At the same time, the fans are deeply
troubled by the methods that Green Lantern em-
ploys to avenge the attack and what such a course
of action might suggest about the moral grounds
that have historically governed superheroes. The
concerns of these readers come through clearly in
the above excerpts, and the investment they have
in the integrity of Green Lantern as a superhero is
striking. They are not hostile, only deeply con-
cerned about issues of character and ethics. These
carefully crafted, thoughtful messages indicate
that such fans are not only engaged readers, but
they are also committed to constructing writerly
texts. They write back hoping for constructive
interventions, working with and against the grain
of the text.
Concern with Representation of
GLBT Characters
A total of 6.45% (n52) of the letter writers
express concern with the ways in which the
GLBT community is portrayed in the media, and
in particular, in comics. The first letter writer ex-
hibits anxiety regarding what will happen to Terry
in the forthcoming issue. He has read the teaser in
issue 153 that suggests that something terribly
wrong has happened:
I trust you to do the right thing with our
characters, like Terry in the upcoming issue
154 . . .. Now on the backside of a GLAAD
award and inclusive, insightful writing we
are again held hostage by time until next
month and [issue] 154 to hear about Terry.
But again, I trust you to do the right thing
with our book. We do need Terry to keep on
showing us something, every month, but
crises make the universe interesting, so I
trust. (Letter 2)
The comment that ‘‘we do need Terry’’ suggests
that the reader is concerned that Terry will die in
the forthcoming issue. The reader perhaps recog-
nizes that historically, in the media, the bodies of
women, minorities, and the gay community have
borne the burden of society’s ills, and they have
died disproportionately in comparison to straight
white male characters. Writer Judd Winick rec-
ognized this pattern in the media and early on
decided that would not happen to the character
Terry. ‘‘That’s the cliche´ in all mediums. Who dies
in movies? Gay people, people of color. Killing
him seemed like too much. We wanted a little bit
of hope’ (Gustines).
The second letter writer also has read the teaser
at the end of issue 153 and is anxious and some-
what pessimistic regarding what is going to hap-
pen to Terry:
NO. No, you are NOT going there. I just
finished reading GL #153 . . . and I think it’s
very obvious . . . that Kyle’s young gay as-
sistant Terry has either been injured or even
killed as a result of a hate crime act . . . I
applaud the fact that you at DC have even
398 The Journal of American Culture Volume 28, Number 4 December 2005
attempted to present the topic of homosex-
uality in your various titles. But let me also
tell you that you have not always been
kind and certainly not helpful in doing so.
(Letter 1)
The fan refers to various gay characters who have
emerged in comics through the years and laments
that many of them have been portrayed in a very
stereotypical fashion. He worries that the same
will hold true for Terry:
And now we have Terry, a regular non-meta
gay character who is probably about to fall
victim to yet another gay stereotype. All
gays are not disease ridden, all gays are not
fem or butch, all gays are not borderline
psychotic, and all gays are not potential vic-
tims of a violent demise (any more than an-
yone else is!). Yes, I know that this is just
comic book fiction, but there are people who
believe everything they read. The stories in
your books are capable of spreading very
dangerous and false information . . .. Please
be careful where this story is leading.
(Letter 1)
For some people, their only exposure to the gay
community is through the media. Hence, their
perceptions of the community are based largely
on what they read or view. It is not surprising,
then, that this reader would show concern re-
garding the way in which Terry’s situation will be
handled, especially since Terry is one of few char-
acters in the mainstream media who has been
portrayed in such a positive manner.
Appreciative Letters
Fifty-two percent (n516) of the letters, more
than half of all letters received, express appreci-
ation that DC Comics was bold enough to pro-
vide a story line that deals with an antigay hate
crime. Comments ranged from ‘‘thank you for
having the courage to release such a controversial
comic’’ (Letter 14) and ‘‘this is so progressive’
(Letter 15), to ‘‘it’s too important to hide events
like this in the closet’’ (Letter 21) and ‘‘this . . . is
an unprecedented step forward in comics as a
whole’’ (Letter 20). Some readers even recounted
their own experience of harassment or violence:
I’m also a 25 year old gay man. I came out at
16 and was subjected to some of the brutality
young queers face in America. I was ha-
rassed, though thankfully never physically
attacked, through high school. During that
time, I longed for positive queer characters
to help me justify myself and my feelings.
I found a handful, but also discovered that
queer characters who survived to the end of
the novel were exceedingly few . . . . When I
was a kid reading comics, I used to some-
times think ‘‘they saved the mother and kid
from the falling building, but would they
rescue me if they knew I was a fag?’’ I now
have an answer to that. My hope is that a
closeted teenager will read that comic book
and think ‘‘someone will fight for me. Some-
one who is respected and powerful will stand
up for me and my rights’’ . . .. My hope is
that a homophobe will pick up that comic
and think. (Letter 17)
Self-disclosure is a powerful communication
practice for this reader, one that both accom-
plishes catharsis and holds up hope for gay youth,
providing an interesting contrast to the earlier
readers’ tales about the pollution of children
through gay texts. Rather than tainting children,
this reader suggests that such representations will
provide support for gay youth and perhaps
prompt empathy among other readers for the
complexities in life that the GLBT community
must face.
Another reader was moved to recount his ex-
perience of antigay violence on a New Jersey city
street twelve years ago:
Nobody saved me that night. Clothing was
ripped. Bones were broken. I had two black
eyes, and a scar on my forehead that reminds
me of the incident twelve years later. I grew
up on comic books, and I never remembered
Superman or Batman or the Flash fighting
one fag-basher. But I did remember they
fought for justice, and so the next morning, I
went down to the police station to report the
crime. I was still wearing the ripped and
bloody t-shirt [that had the name of a gay
399A Superhero for Gays? Gay Masculinity and Green Lantern Valerie Palmer-Mehta and Kellie Hay
political organization on it]. The police of-
ficer asked, ‘‘Don’t you think you were ask-
ing for it, wearing a t-shirt like that?’’
When I asked if I could file a report, he told
me that it was useless. He said that he
was tired of defending people like me.
(Letter 16)
The candor and emotion in this letter demon-
strate the power of the Green Lantern story
line. It is rare that people feel safe enough to re-
count such a horrific experience, let alone to an
audience that they have never met. The story line
seems to have had a greater effect than one could
anticipate: it has created a forum where individ-
uals can discuss antigay hate crimes and a space
where individuals who have been the victim of
harassment and violence may share their experi-
ences.
The words of a high school student help illu-
minate the positive influence that the comic book
has had in the student’s school:
As the President of my high school’s Gay-
Straight Alliance, I have never been more
proud of mainstream comic books than I am
now. We discussed the issue of hate crimes
and gay bashing in our club and all agreed it
was laudable that Judd Winick and his team
brought these truths to the limelight. Since
such occurrences are not rare, and the three
incidents of gay bashing that occurred in the
last month in West Hollywood show this, it
is important that readers who are the main
target audience for these books know what
the current state of living gay and ‘‘out’’ is.
(Letter 18)
In contrast to one of the former letter writers who
stated that ‘‘adolescents should not have to deal
with gay bashing,’ it appears that these particular
adolescents are not only already aware of antigay
violence but that they also want and need to talk
about these issues in a mature manner. Rather
than being a source of turmoil or negativity, in
this instance, the story line has served as the im-
petus for a cathartic discussion regarding the re-
alities of the everyday lived experience of the gay
community and their friends and family.
Gay Masculinity in Mainstream
Comic Books
Based on this analysis of the twenty-nine let-
ters, we argue that there is a notable level of un-
derstanding regarding issues of concern to the gay
community among these particular letter writers,
pushing open new possibilities for future repre-
sentations of gay masculinity in mainstream com-
ic books. The range of responses was varied, but
overall, the letters suggest that these readers were,
in large part, supportive of the character Terry
Berg and the antigay hate crime story line being
addressed in this mainstream comic book. Other
letter writers openly stated that they were not
bothered by the fact that Green Lantern was
touching on an issue of importance to the gay
community, but they were concerned with way in
which the hero was handling the situation. These
readers understood why their hero would be out-
raged at the perpetrators of the crime, but they
were pushing the writer and editor for a more
evenhanded and nonviolent resolution, in keeping
with the tradition of the conduct of superheroes.
Other readers pushed the envelope even further,
arguing for more humane and multifaceted rep-
resentations of the GLBT community in Green
Lantern and other comic books. Ultimately, only
five of the twenty-nine letters expressed dissatis-
faction with the story line because it dealt with an
issue of concern to the GLBT community.
Edward Sewell longs for the day when people
will pick up their daily mainstream newspaper
and find a queer comic strip authored by a queer
cartoonist. Although this day has not yet come,
the representation of Terry Berg in Green Lantern
reflects an effort to bring a regular gay character
and the complexities of gay identity to the fore-
front of an American mainstream comic book.
Sewell was concerned about the ways in which
authorship influenced the representation of the
GLBT community; the character Terry Berg rep-
resents an interesting amalgam of experiences in-
volving the gay community and their allies. The
original idea for the character emanated from
conversations between Schreck, the editor of
400 The Journal of American Culture Volume 28, Number 4 December 2005
Green Lantern, and Ron Marz, the former writer
of the comic book. Schreck wanted to introduce a
character who ‘‘coped with his confused feelings
about his sexuality, much as Mr. Schreck, who
says he is bisexual, did while growing up’
(Gustines). When Marz left Marvel to work ex-
clusively for CrossGen Comics, Schreck hired
Winick to write for Green Lantern and to culti-
vate the character. Winick, who has been in the
cartoon industry since 1998, is also known for his
1994 role as one of the San Francisco roommates
on MTV’s The Real World. While there, he be-
came friends with one of the roommates, Pedro
Zamora, an AIDS educator. Through the course
of their friendship, Winick witnessed firsthand the
complexities that Pedro faced both as a gay male
and as someone who struggled with AIDS in US
culture.
4
While the hate crime story line began
with Schreck’s idea, based on his personal expe-
riences, it took form with Winick’s writing, which
drew upon his friendships with the gay commu-
nity, and finally, it was influenced by Cathy Ren-
na at GLAAD, the Gay and Lesbian Alliance
Against Defamation, an organization that works
to ensure the fair and accurate portrayal of the
GLBT community in the US media. As a result,
the story reflects the experiences and concerns of
an interesting array of people who are either part
of or deeply care about the gay community. Ul-
timately, their cumulative efforts produced a story
line that, based on the preceding letters, received
largely positive feedback from the Green Lantern
readership.
It is refreshing to note that, in the year 2002,
even mainstream corporations such as DC Com-
ics were willing to take risks and engage in po-
litically volatile social issues. As they did so, they
risked reduction in their market share, losing ad-
vertisers, or negative publicity. Our study, on the
other hand, paints what may seem an overly
bright picture of a readership that largely ap-
proves of these efforts and is mainly troubled by
their superhero’s descending to exact revenge on
the perpetrators of the hate crime. This rosy as-
sessment must be tempered by the self-selected
nature of our respondents; they were the readers
who cared enough to write a letter. Our assess-
ment must also be tempered by our contemporary
sociopolitical environment—one in which eleven
states passed legislation to ban same-sex marriage,
the nation at large re-elected a president who
supports a constitutional amendment to ban
same-sex marriage, and broadcast networks are
increasingly hesitant to air commercials and pro-
gramming that might be deemed offensive because
they reach out to the gay community. Such a mi-
lieu prompts the question, What will the future
hold for the representation of gay masculinity in
American comic book culture, or American pop-
ular culture in general? Future studies might focus
on the ways in which representations of the
GLBT community may be influenced by the con-
temporary retreat from gay rights.
In the ebb and flow of American politics, a few
steps forward often are followed by a backlash.
Backlash cuts at least two ways, like power and
resistance. Reactionary policy will likely call out a
broader audience than the GLBT community
alone; indeed, the Green Lantern story line ex-
amined here provides one example of a counter-
hegemonic text created by a network of gay and
straight allies. Whatever the outcome of our cur-
rent climate, comic book culture will continue to
address social issues and social policy, making the
tension productive between comic art and public
sites of struggle. We are called to reflect on what
these representations mean, and what they mean
to our common humanity.
Notes
The authors would like to thank Judd Winick and Bob Schreck for
allowing us to have access to the letters. We also would like to thank
Judd Winick for making himself available to answer questions we
had about the text and his motivation to write particular scenes.
1. To ensure the anonymity and privacy of the letter writers,
their names have not been used.
2. While we recognize Sewell’s concerns about eliding differenc-
es, we challenge the notion that there exists an ‘‘authentic queerness’
and an essentialist or unitary notion of homosexuality (or hetero-
sexuality). As Steven Seidman remarks, ‘‘The questioning of the no-
tion of a core homosexual identity is at the heart of queer theory’’
(253). Indeed, the notion of an ‘‘authentic queerness’’ might even
violate the very concept of queerness, which seeks to blur boundaries
regarding sexuality.
401A Superhero for Gays? Gay Masculinity and Green Lantern Valerie Palmer-Mehta and Kellie Hay
3. The decision to have David’s complicity questioned by Terry’s
father (and even David himself) and to have Jen explain that the
situation was not his fault was a conscious decision made by writer
Judd Winick. In the authors’ telephone interview with Winick on
October 3, 2002, Winick explained that he made this decision be-
cause blaming the victims was ‘‘the most realistic thing to occur.’’ He
wanted to underscore how harmful such a perspective is to the vic-
tim. Winick continues, ‘‘With younger gays and lesbians, they may
think they have to be cautious [when it comes to public displays of
affection]; [they] don’t want to flaunt it, push it. That’s wrong! But in
day to day life, what is the end result? Mild affection almost got him
murdered. I thought a young guy would think to blame himself.
Even so, it doesn’t make it your fault—that’s why Jen says to David,
‘it isn’t your fault.’’’ Further, Winick thought to involve Mr. Berg
because his response reflects many parents’ reactions when obstacles
arise in the lives of their GLBT children. Winick continues, ‘‘Terry’s
coming out was successful—until it comes to his family life. They
weren’t very supportive, but when Terry becomes hurt, then the
truth really comes out. Families are okay when they don’t have to
discuss it, but when it becomes an obstacle, then the truth comes out
. . .. The father was looking for someone to blame.’ Winick’s
thoughtful consideration of the complexities of GLBT family life
results in a story line that explores the tensions felt by family mem-
bers and concerns felt by victims while also pointing out that the hate
crime was not caused by the victims.
4. In 2000, Winick published the book, Pedro and Me, which
recounts his friendship with Pedro.
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Letter 1. Bob Schreck, t.s. 8 Sept. 2002. Green Lantern Unpublished
Letters to the Editor and Writer. Oakland University, Department
of Rhetoric, Communication and Journalism, Rochester, MI.
Letter 2. ——. t.s. 17 Aug. 2002. Green Lantern Unpublished
Letters to the Editor and Writer. Oakland University, Depart-
ment of Rhetoric, Communication and Journalism, Rochester,
MI.
Letter 3. ——. t.s. 5 Oct. 2002. Green Lantern Unpublished
Letters to the Editor and Writer. Oakland University, Depart-
ment of Rhetoric, Communication and Journalism, Rochester,
MI.
402 The Journal of American Culture Volume 28, Number 4 December 2005
Letter 4. ——. t.s. 14 Sept. 2002. Green Lantern Unpublished Let-
ters to the Editor and Writer. Oakland University, Department of
Rhetoric, Communication and Journalism, Rochester, MI.
Letter 5. ——. t.s. 22 Sept. 2002. Green Lantern Unpublished Let-
ters to the Editor and Writer. Oakland University, Department of
Rhetoric, Communication and Journalism, Rochester, MI.
Letter 6. ——. t.s. 23 Sept. 2002. Green Lantern Unpublished Let-
ters to the Editor and Writer. Oakland University, Department of
Rhetoric, Communication and Journalism, Rochester, MI.
Letter 7. ——. t.s. 11 Sept. 2002. Green Lantern Unpublished Let-
ters to the Editor and Writer. Oakland University, Department of
Rhetoric, Communication and Journalism, Rochester, MI.
Letter 8. ——. t.s. 22 Sept. 2002. Green Lantern Unpublished Let-
ters to the Editor and Writer. Oakland University, Department of
Rhetoric, Communication and Journalism, Rochester, MI.
Letter 9. ——. t.s. 28 Aug. 2002. Green Lantern Unpublished Let-
ters to the Editor and Writer. Oakland University, Department of
Rhetoric, Communication and Journalism, Rochester, MI.
Letter 10. ——. t.s. 24 Sept. 2002. Green Lantern Unpublished
Letters to the Editor and Writer. Oakland University, Depart-
ment of Rhetoric, Communication and Journalism, Rochester,
MI.
Letter 11. ——. t.s. 14 Aug. 2002. Green Lantern Unpublished
Letters to the Editor and Writer. Oakland University, Depart-
ment of Rhetoric, Communication and Journalism, Rochester,
MI.
Letter 12. ——. t.s. 14 Aug. 2002. Green Lantern Unpublished
Letters to the Editor and Writer. Oakland University, Depart-
ment of Rhetoric, Communication and Journalism, Rochester,
MI.
Letter 13. ——. t.s. 19 Sept. 2002. Green Lantern Unpublished
Letters to the Editor and Writer. Oakland University, Depart-
ment of Rhetoric, Communication and Journalism, Rochester,
MI.
Letter 14. ——. t.s. 15 Sept. 2002. Green Lantern Unpublished
Letters to the Editor and Writer. Oakland University, Depart-
ment of Rhetoric, Communication and Journalism, Rochester,
MI.
Letter 15. ——. t.s. 14 Aug. 2002. Green Lantern Unpublished
Letters to the Editor and Writer. Oakland University, Depart-
ment of Rhetoric, Communication and Journalism, Rochester,
MI.
Letter 16. ——. t.s. 2002. Green Lantern Unpublished Letters to the
Editor and Writer. Oakland University, Department of Rhetoric,
Communication and Journalism, Rochester, MI.
Letter 17. Judd Winick, t.s. 28 Sept. 2002. Green Lantern Unpub-
lished Letters to the Editor and Writer. Oakland University,
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404 The Journal of American Culture Volume 28, Number 4 December 2005
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