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Superman's son comes out as bisexual in a new comic. It's a big deal — sort of

Oct 11, 2021
Originally published on October 12, 2021 12:15 pm

By now you've likely heard.

He's queer now.

Yep: Superman, Champion of the Oppressed, the Man of Steel, the Man of Tomorrow, the Last Son of Krypton, the Big Blue Boy Scout, Mr. Not-A-Bird-Nor-A-Plane Himself.

Queer. All of a sudden.

And at 83 years old, no less! Bless his heart.

But that's not what's happening here. Comics being comics, the truth is a lot more granular.

We're not talking about the classic, original-recipe Clark Kent/Kal-El Superman that's been around since the June 1938 issue of Action Comics #1 first hit the stands. It's not the Superman who's infiltrated the global zeitgeist to become a part of our collective consciousness via comics, serials, radio, television, film, toys, roller coasters and the bedsheets I got for Christmas 1979.

No, it's his son, Jonathan Kent. Whose precise backstory in the comics has been so ruthlessly pummeled by a series of reboots, retcons, space missions, time-travel and rapid aging as to render it so incomprehensible that it sends even diehards like me scurrying to the nearest wiki.

He's slated to come out as bisexual in the pages of Superman: Son of Kal-El #5, written by Tom Taylor with art by John Timms, which will published on November 9th. Jonathan and his male friend Jay, introduced earlier in the series, will share a kiss.

Here's what you need to know.

It's still Clark and Lois, not Clark and Louis

In current DC Comics continuity, Clark Kent married Lois Lane. They had a son, named after Clark's father, Jonathan. Lots of stuff happened to the super-tyke, including but not limited to the kind of narratively convenient rapid aging that a lot of sitcom moppets undergo, and now he's a 17-year-old with all of his father's powers. (There's been some talk, in the comics, that the combination of Kryptonian and human DNA may somehow make him somehow even more powerful than Superman, which doesn't make a lot of sense on the surface, but then, if a superhero can defy the Law of Gravity, why not the Laws of Gregor Mendel?)

And while Jon Kent is the O.G. Superman's son, and has gone by the nomme-de-cape Superboy until now, in the pages of Superman: Son of Kal-El, he's assumed the mantle of Superman, while his father heads off to deep space for an indefinite period of time.

DC Comics

(Not for nothing, but it should be noted that Taylor and Timms are spinning a good yarn, in Superman: Son of Kal-El. In just a handful of issues they've delineated Jon Kent's mindset and personality more clearly than anyone has been able to do before. Basically: He's a kid who's spent his life in his father's formidable shadow, a state of being that was compounded when Superman recently revealed his Clark Kent identity to the world. That's left Jon seeking not only a secret identity but trying to figure out a personal one: He's well-meaning but restless, and he chafes against his father's tendency to simply put out literal and figurative fires, instead of bending his formidable powers towards addressing the systemic problems that caused them.)

Wait. That sounds familiar ...

It should. We've been here before, quite recently. Just two months ago, in fact, DC Comics announced that the character of Tim Drake, one of several Robins who've clocked field time filling Batman's "red-breasted chief intern" position, would get a boyfriend. It made news, as it should: Robin, unlike many other queer superhero characters owned by the DC and Marvel, is a household name. (Sorry, Coagula. It's the truth.)

Yes, it's real. Big-time, marquee superheroes are officially queer. Names even your most dithering, out-of-touch great-uncle would recognize: Robin, the Boy Wonder! Superman, the original superhero! The first and best!

But when you take a step back, the canny strategy DC Comics is employing here comes into sharper focus. They haven't queered their core characters, after all — no, those heavily licensed nuggets of intellectual property resist meaningful change because they must, especially if they're to keep paying out dividends by, among other things, getting printed onto kids' bedsheets.

So instead the publisher introduces much-needed, long-overdue progress along the edges — a sympathetic villain here, a supporting character there. They re-introduce deep-bench characters that haven't appeared in any comic for decades, and slap 'em with a same-sex partner.

Finally, they start nudging a few top-tier characters out of the closet — but are always careful never to send 'em out without first attaching an all-important asterisk, as a bulwark against any backlash from homophobic readers (and/or stockholders):

Robin's queer!*

*Not the original Robin, or the Robin that's currently Batman's sidekick, but the Tim Drake Robin, the third character to assume the title.

Superman's queer!*

*Not the Clark Kent Superman, but his recently-introduced son.

It's a kind of release valve, that asterisk. It means they can say the thing ("Superman comes out!") that's certain to attract attention — attention in the form of this very article, in point of fact — but they'll always be able to ease the pressure by hitting that valve, and pointing to those all-important asterisks.

Thank you for being a trend

Back in July 2016, the DC Comics character Aqualad revealed he had a boyfriend. It didn't make waves (heh) at the time, because I mean ... it was Aqualad.

And even that news came with its own asterisk: This wasn't the original Aqualad introduced in 1960, but another character, Jackson Hyde, who'd assumed the title in 2010.

So if you're keeping score at home, that's Batman, Superman and Aquaman — three major DC players who've recently had very close, even intimate, queer contacts introduced into their stories.

Progress is being made, here, it's just a much smaller and more incremental species of progress than DC Comics' press releases, and much of the ensuing coverage, is suggesting.

It's not just a phase

In terms of representation, of course, this is an unalloyed Good ThingTM. As the world depicted on the comics page starts to look more like the world off of it, as more members of comics' diverse readership gain the opportunity to see a version of themselves on that page, the inevitable result is more, and better, stories. Richer, deeper stories, featuring more voices, perspectives, experiences and cultural touchstones.

(Also, the math works out. Given the hundreds of superhero characters owned by DC and Marvel, the fact that a handful of the biggest names among them might be queer just makes a kind of inevitable demographic sense. And when you consider that superheroes belong to a subset of humanity who are given to skintight outfits that show off their hyper-developed musculature and make their stomachs look like relief maps of the Black Hills of South Dakota — yeah, that scans.)

This is progress, and it's following precisely the same arc that representation of any marginalized community — women, people of color, queers, people with disabilities — has historically followed, in popular media.

Phase One: We're the villains; we threaten the status quo, and the (straight, white, cis, male) hero's job is to punish us, and preserve the way things are. We exist solely to drive the hero's story.

Phase Two: We're the victims; we're weak and vulnerable, and it's the hero's job to punish those who've hurt us. We exist to establish the hero's selflessness and nobility, but we're still a part of his story.

Phase Three: We're the sidekicks — the sassy friend, the wingman. We exist to supplement the hero's story, to offer support and encouragement. But it's still his story.

The goal, of course, is to reach Phase Four: We finally get to be the heroes of our own stories.

We're getting there, slowly. And while these recent comics developments might seem to slot neatly into Phase Four, it's not yet time for any laurel-resting.

Who's next?

The obvious question, then: Which major DC hero is gonna be the next one to get an off-shoot queer version of themselves?

If the question is obvious, the answer is even moreso: Wonder Woman. Mark my words.

Wonder Woman, let's remember, hails from an island of women who've been hanging around together for thousands of years, with nothing to stare at but one another. And as she herself summed it up so often, in her go-to comics catchphrase:

"Suffering Sappho!"

Yep, Diana's next. It's inevitable. The writing's on the urn.

But in a larger sense, "who's next" isn't the most pressing question facing us.

No, the real question that needs answering is this one: Where are these versions of Superman, Robin and Aqualad gonna get a timeshare next summer — Fire Island, or P-Town?

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Earlier today DC Comics, the publisher of Superman, Batman and many other superheroes, announced that Superman will come out of the closet as bisexual in a comic that will be published next month. But it's not the Superman you're thinking of. Glen Weldon, co-host of NPR's Pop Culture Happy Hour, joins us to put the news in context. Welcome back, Glen.

GLEN WELDON, BYLINE: Hey, Audie.

CORNISH: All right. I don't know what other Superman people might be thinking of, but there's a lot of headlines about this. And there's not been - we're not talking about the Superman that has been around since - God - 1938.

WELDON: No. But, man, if it was, that'd be something - right? - coming out at 83. Bless his heart. No, no. This is - as you mentioned, this isn't the Superman that everyone knows. This isn't Clark Kent, mild-mannered reporter for a great metropolitan newspaper. This is his son, who is filling in as Superman while his dad's out on a space mission.

CORNISH: Let me stop you there. I had no idea Superman had a son.

WELDON: Right.

CORNISH: Did I miss a major development?

WELDON: I mean, there's no reason in the world why you would unless you're reading Superman comics over just the last handful of years. In those comics, Clark Kent married Lois Lane, had a kid. Kid's named Jonathan. He is now 17 years old. He's got all his father's powers, and he is figuring a few things out about himself the way teenagers do. And in issue five of the comic "Superman: Son Of Kal-El," which will be out next month, he and his friend Jay will share a kiss. And because technically he is filling the role of Superman, DC Comics is able to say, oh, Superman comes out.

CORNISH: This is not the first hero, though, in the comics that, like - people have been discussing their sexuality, right? I mean, I feel like this conversation - I feel like we've had it before.

WELDON: Just two months ago, in fact, we were here talking about the news that Batman's sidekick Robin was coming out. No, that wasn't the original Robin or even the current Robin. That was the third Robin. There have been a lot of Robins, Audie. It's an internship with a very high turnover rate.

CORNISH: (Laughter) But, of course, DC Comics can still make headlines, right? We're talking about it now. This - you know, Superman is queer now is going to get a lot of clicks. Is this about marketing? Is this about inclusion? Is there something in this moment?

WELDON: Well, I mean, you've stumbled upon exactly their canny strategy. They've timed this announcement to National Coming Out Day. And I don't want to minimize it. Yes, it's a gimmick. But look. This is progress. Anytime the world on the comics page can look a little bit more like the world off of it and queer folk can finally see a version of themselves saving the world the way straight folks have seen versions of themselves saving the world forever, that's a good thing.

And it is part of a trend that's been going on for decades. It's just the way popular media treats any marginalized group, really. So first, we - queer characters - we were the villains. Then we're the victims. Then we're the sidekicks. But we're always there just to serve the hero, right? It's usually a straight, white, male hero. We're just a part of his story.

Now DC Comics can point to major characters like Robin and Superman and say, oh, you're finally the hero of your own stories. You got what you wanted, which - sure, it's great. But there's still that asterisk - right? - because, you know, the original Clark Kent Superman - he's not going to change. You can't. He's got to stay the same so he can keep selling action figures and mugs and commemorative towels or whatever. But DC Comics can make changes happen around his periphery, which is what today's news is all about. It's still progress. It's just a lot smaller and a lot more incremental progress than some of the headlines you're seeing today suggest.

CORNISH: Yeah, but do you make blockbuster films out of characters from the periphery?

WELDON: Well, yeah, you're not going to see a queer Superman on the big screen anytime soon - maybe never - because a lot of stuff that happens in the comics, Audie, stays in the comics. They're a lot like Vegas in that sense. But it is at least possible, right? And before today, it wasn't. And that much, at least, is kind of remarkable.

CORNISH: That's Glen Weldon, co-host of NPR's Pop Culture Happy Hour. Glen, thanks so much.

WELDON: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF LONDON SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA'S "PRELUDE AND MAIN TITLE MARCH") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.