June 1, 2006 — -- Comic book readers meet the reincarnated Batwoman: Wealthy socialite Kathy Kane by day, costumed crime fighter by night and a lesbian.
In July, DC Comics will bring back Batwoman in "52," its yearlong limited series that began in May. Batwoman made her debut in 1956 and has not appeared in comics since she was killed off in 1979.
Now, DC Comics has brought back the female caped crusader and given her a makeover in an attempt to diversify its cast of characters and perhaps appeal to a broader audience. Other previous white heroes in D.C. such as Blue Beetle, Firestorm and The Atom have been reinvented in recent years as Mexican, African-American and Asian characters, respectively.
Character reinvention -- and gay characters -- in comic books are not new.
In 2003, Marvel Comics reintroduced the Rawhide Kid -- a legendary gunman from the Wild, Wild West who made his debut in 1955, when TV's "Gunsmoke" premiered -- as a gay character. The Kid never actually announced his homosexuality but it was insinuated in the limited comic book series.
The first comic book character to come out of the closet was Marvel Comics' Northstar -- the leader of the Canadian group Alpha Flight in the now-defunct Alpha Flight series -- 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 DC 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.
Marvel Comics plans to reintroduce White Tiger, a Hispanic male superhero of the 1970s, as a Latina crimefighter this summer. Marvel also reinvented Captain America in its 2003 comic book series "Truth: Red, White and Black," whose premise was that the supersoldier serum that created the star-spangled hero was first tested on an African-American soldier, not the blonde-haired, blue-eyed Steve Rogers.
"Comic books are catching up with the times," said M. Thomas Inge, professor of English and the Humanities at Randolph-Macon College in Virginia. "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 superhero of color in comics can be traced back to the 1940s, when writer-illustrator Will Eisner introduced the Spirit and his young, black, balloon-lipped sidekick Ebony White in newspaper strips. In comic books, the first mainstream black superhero emerged when Black Panther appeared in Marvel's "Fantastic Four" No. 52 in 1966.
Black Panther was the alter ego of T'Challa, the dignified king of a fictional African kingdom called Wakanda who led a double life as a costumed crimefighter. The character had no link to the Black Panther Party, founded by Bobby Seales that same year, in 1966. For a time, Black Panther's name was changed to The Black Leopard.
The Falcon, a Harlem social worker/crimefighter, debuted in Marvel as an ally of Captain America in 1969. Black Panther and The Falcon paved the way for the creation of other African-American and Latino superheroes such as White Tiger (whose alter-ego in the character's first incarnation in the 1970s was named Hector Ayala) in the 1970s and comic book series that focused on them as title characters.
Though Black Panther was the pioneer for black superheroes, he did not get his own solo comic book title until 1977. Gang member-turned crime-busting mercenary Luke Cage (also known as "Power Man") became the first African-American superhero to be the title character of a comic book when Marvel published "Luke Cage, Hero for Hire" in 1972.
Cage and DC Comics' Black Lightning were cousins of blaxploitation cinema's "Shaft" and "Superfly." In the beginning, they tended to be jive-talking, Afro-wearing supermen who battled more urban or ghetto-oriented villains. Cage in particular was known for, among other things, his trademark Afro and open-chested canary-colored shirt with the butterfly collar.
Still, Cage and Black Lightning represented the best comic book characters of that blaxploitation era. Actor Nicolas Cage was such a fan of Hero for Hire that he took his stage name from the character.
But these characters — as well as Black Panther and The Falcon — have not been nearly as successful as Spider-Man, Batman, Superman and The Hulk.
No black superhero -- or any hero of color or outwardly gay superhero -- has had the kind of sustained run enjoyed by Batman, Spider-Man and Superman in their own comic books. None has a hit TV show or blockbuster movie. The Panther had three different solo series that ran in the late 1970s, 1980s and late '90s before its revival in 2005. Cage's books ran between 1972 and 1986 before being revived for two other volumes in 1992 and in 2002.
Milestone Media -- which had a licensing agreement with DC Comics and published comics featuring a set of heroes who happened to be black, Asian and Hispanic -- launched in 1993 and folded after only four years because of poor sales, despite the popularity of characters such as Icon and Static.
"You have to wonder why some characters have been so popular and why some have not," said Inge. "In many ways, we have made a lot of progress, but there are things that suggest that perhaps we have not."
Some critics of gay comic book characters -- and the transformation of Batwoman -- have said the industry is only using shock value to attract new readers. DC Comics has said it is only striving to diversify its characters. Some have said that the industry is ignoring the children who read comic books.
But today's children are more concerned with Xboxes and iPods, not comic books, some critics say. More briefcase-carrying adults and older teens are found more often in comic book specialty shops than children.
"What children do you find in comic shops, anyway?" asked David Jay Gabriel, founder of the New York City Comic Book Museum. "It's the parents' job to monitor what their children are reading."
It remains to be seen how much of an impact the new Batwoman will have on the sales of "52." She may be a cape-wearing gay woman who dresses like a bat, but she's not that unique -- even in the comic book world.