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