Legendary gunmen from the Wild, Wild West don't always shoot so straight — just ask the Rawhide Kid.
Today, an updated version of Marvel Comics' Rawhide Kid series will hit comic book stores. The gunslinger, who first made his debut 48 years ago, comes out of the closet.
When Marvel first announced the Rawhide Kid's return and "coming out party" in December, several reports called him the first gay character in comic books. Some called him the first gay lead character in a comic book.
But neither of those "firsts" is true. The Kid may be the first gay lead character in a Western saga, but outwardly gay characters in comic books have been around for at least 10 years. And as the Kid and successful programs such as NBC's Will & Grace have shown, the mainstream is no longer afraid to embrace what was once considered taboo, alternative and underground.
"Comic books are catching up with the times," said M. Thomas Inge, visiting professor of English and the Humanities at the University of Louisville in Kentucky. "Other forms of media have been more progressive with gay characters. … We have seen gay characters in [newspaper] comic strips such as For Better or Worse and Doonesbury. But comic books have lagged behind, perhaps because books that deal with serious political and social issues often tend not to sell well."
The first comic book character to come out of the closet was Northstar, the leader of the Canadian group Alpha Flight in the now-defunct series Alpha Flight in 1992. Northstar then starred in his own self-titled limited series years later, but received little fanfare.
Since then, homosexuals have appeared in various comics, but only as secondary or supporting characters. The most notable was D.C. Comics' Terry Berg, who emerged as a gay character in 2001 because he had a crush on Kyle Rayner, the alter ego of the Green Lantern. The Green Lantern series later drew headlines in September 2002 when Berg was the victim of a hate crime and nearly beaten to death.
But the Rawhide Kid is neither a secondary character nor a figure more recognized for the team of heroes he leads. He first appeared in 1955 when Westerns such as the Rawhide television series were popular. The comic book series ran for two years only, but was revived in 1960 by Stan Lee, now chairman emeritus of Marvel, and artist/writer Jack Kirby. They reinvented the character as a loner whose quest for justice was motivated by the slaying of a loved one. This Rawhide Kid ran until 1979.
The Kid has since appeared sporadically in Marvel's titles, remaining mostly shelved for the past 20 years. Now he's back, and Marvel's writers thought it would be interesting to explore the gunslinger's long-running uneasiness around women.
"We had really wanted to do a Western for a long time, but no one does Westerns anymore," said Marvel Editor-in-Chief Joe Quesada. "And to do a straight-up Western would have been double death. Then one of our editors thought it would be interesting if we put a gunslinger who just happened to be gay in the old Wild, Wild West and make it a comedy. The Rawhide Kid is not just one of the most legendary, bravest gunslingers ever and the best shooter anywhere, he just happens to be gay."
Alleged Blaze of Gay Glory
But not everyone thinks the new Rawhide Kid is a laughing matter. Some parents and conservative groups are mortified that Marvel Comics would promote a gay character. They complain that its writers are sending the wrong message to children.
"It is an assault on children because it is sending them the message that homosexuality is an acceptable, normal lifestyle," said Robert Knight, director of Concerned Women for America's Culture and Family Institute. "It is also a perversion of Westerns. All Western heroes have been portrayed as straight shooters — and that just doesn't mean hitting a target with a gun. It's a matter of character."
But Marvel says the Rawhide Kid series is not intended for young readers. The comic book is written by Ron Zimmerman, who has penned episodes of The Howard Stern Show and other TV shows, and will be published under MAX, Marvel's adult reader label.
"That's a fig leaf if I've ever heard one," said Knight. "Comic books are read by children, and everyone knows that they [adult-labeled books] can be found with the rest of the variety on the rack, side by side with the others. Marvel knows full well that many kids will get ahold of the Rawhide Kid, regardless of how it's labeled. A good deal of pornography falls in the hands of children.
"Why is Marvel glorifying homosexuality when it has taken so many lives and played a role in so many sexually transmitted diseases?" Knight asked.
The ‘Anti-Hero’ Revolution
Some say the criticism of the Rawhide Kid comes from those who do not understand the comic book industry and who may have their own agendas. And contrary to popular belief, more adults seem to be found in comic book shops than children.
"What children do you find in comic shops anyway?" asked David Jay Gabriel, executive director of the New York City Comic Book Museum. "For those mothers who say they're not going to allow their kids to read the Rawhide Kid, I say you're right. You shouldn't allow your children to read it because it's not meant for kids. That's why Marvel has published it under its MAX title. It's the parents' job to monitor what their children are reading."
The emergence of gay characters like the Rawhide Kid is an extension of the anti-hero revolution that began in the 1960s. Against the backdrop of the the Vietnam War, the civil rights movement and the assassinations of leaders such as John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr., these heroes reflected a humbled nation stripped of its innocence. They were no longer godlike, did not wear white cowboy hats, and faced the same contemporary issues and everyday problems as their real-life readers.
It went beyond Spider-Man wondering how he was going to pay his rent. The conflict between Professor Xavier and Magneto in the Uncanny X-Men over whether mutants should protect or conquer the humans who feared and ostracized them was an allegory for the civil rights movement and the dispute between Martin Luther King and Malcolm X. Green Lantern confronted hate crime, and Image Comics' Shadowhawk died of AIDS in 1995.
Even hookers are becoming heroes. Last November, Image presented a one-shot comic book called The Pro, a comedy that chronicles the adventures of a fouled-mouthed prostitute/single mother who is suddenly granted superhuman powers.
The comic pokes fun at heroes, making references to normal indignities such as the wedgies even they must feel while working in their tight costumes. The Pro doesn't always use her powers for the good of all mankind — at one point she uses them to increase her "business." She is even shown giving one fellow hero oral sex in gratitude for saving her baby.
Still, The Pro's debut caused little buzz in the mainstream press. Maybe it's because 10-year-old Image is not as famous as its much older forefathers, Marvel and D.C. Comics. Or maybe a prostitute is a more "acceptable" anti-hero than a gay cowboy.
"More gay characters are being seen on TV, in motion pictures," said Inge. "But, with the current political climate — various conservative and religious groups out there who are resistant to change fuel a certain homophobia with their old-fashioned ideas about homosexuality — you could say it's not a good climate for the Rawhide Kid."
Fantasy Rooted in Reality
The Rawhide Kid's sexuality is not the main theme of the issue that hits stands today. It is only the backdrop to a story about how a town deals with adversity when outlaws invade — and how a father tries to win back his son's confidence after he is embarrassed in front of him. Rawhide writer Zimmerman only hints at the Kid's homosexuality with the hero's apparent — and stereotypical — effeminate mannerisms, love of style and neatness, abhorrence of violence and slight crush on Wild Bill Hickcock.
But could the stereotypical images and humor do more harm to gays? Quesada says Marvel's writers and editors were mindful of this when they resurrected the Rawhide Kid.
"We were concerned about what we were going to present and whether we would be presenting it the wrong way, which is why we presented Rawhide to gay writers in the comic book community," said Quesada. "No one here is making fun of or laughing at gays. If you're a fan of Will & Grace, which uses images that some may interpret as pushing a certain image, you should like the book. And people like Will & Grace. No one complains about the show."
Arguably, Marvel could be using Rawhide Kid to profit off the mere word "gay" and the fear and buzz it can stir. Sometimes, there is no such thing as bad publicity.
"Whether it's the Marvel publicity machine or not, it's good that it's out there," said Gabriel. "Marvel has always infused reality into their books. Some didn't like it when they had a building explode in one of their books [in an apparent reference to 9/11]. Too bad, it's out there. Gays are out there."
Whether Rawhide Kid flies off the shelves or not, Marvel says no one should necessarily expect a whole new rash of gay characters. On the other hand, it won't be dodging controversial issues either.
"We don't have [an imaginary] city like Metropolis and Gotham. What affects New York, what affects our readers, also affects our characters," said Quesada. "The day Marvel stops dealing with reality, relevant issues, is the day we go out of business."