Comic books are getting gayer by the day. Archie Comics, once notorious for its boring conservatism, shocked the bigots when it introduced Kevin Keller, an openly gay teen who joined Archie's pals 'n' gals in 2010. Northstar, who first came out of the Marvel closet in 1992, married his partner Kyle Jinadu on the cover of Astonishing X-Men # 51. Even DC Comics got into the act, as it revamped its long-time characters Batwoman and Green Lantern Alan Scott as out and proud.
But a history of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people would not be complete without mentioning another gay Marvel hero, the Rawhide Kid.
I was never a fan of Marvel Comics, which is probably why I never heard of the Rawhide Kid during my formative years. According to Don Markstein's web site toonopedia.com, the Kid first appeared in 1955, at a time when Western comics and TV shows were more popular than super heroes. Like other cowboy heroes of the day, the Kid "was a typical gunfighter, roaming from town to town and getting into trouble." Alas, his first comic only lasted for 16 issues.
In 1960 the Rawhide Kid was revived by author Stan Lee and artist Jack Kirby, who would soon to make history with the Amazing Spider-Man. This time the Kid was given a name - Johnny Bart - a history - he was an orphan raised by his Uncle Ben in the town of Rawhide, Texas - and a motive - owlhoots killed his Uncle. This version of the Kid was more successful than the last one, as he and his horse Apache fought varmints for more than 150 issues, till May of 1979. He even had a mini-series in 1985 and teamed-up with the Avengers in the gay nineties.
You can not keep a good Kid down, and in 2003 the powers that be at Marvel decided to bring the Rawhide Kid back on a regular basis, but with a twist. The gunslinger who used to be shy around women emerged as a gay man in a limited-edition comic that Marvel titled Rawhide Kid: Slap Leather. Though Marvel already cracked the lavender glass ceiling with Northstar, the Kid's sexual orientation was still novel enough to cause a sensation.
The Rawhide Kid's adventures out of the cowboy closet were written by Howard Stern's pal Ron Zimmerman, who called the Kid "an empowering character that the gay community would be able to embrace," and drawn by veteran artist John Severin. Published as a five-issue miniseries, Rawhide Kid: Slap Leather was later collected in a trade paperback.
Realizing how controversial the concept of a gay hero is, the folks at Marvel decided to give the Rawhide Kid a light touch and a cautious approach. "He doesn't come out and say he's gay," promised Joe Quesada, Marvel's Editor-In-Chief. "But it's obvious through his actions and the things he says that his preference is men, not women."
He certainly has a better fashion sense than the average cowpoke. The online gay message board Datalounge, never one to mince words, described his "broad shouldered and slim hipped frame [as] lovingly outfitted in a double-row sky-blue button-front leather pantsuit paired with a white hat and matching Beaver-skin gloves". Only a gay man would wear such an outfit, IMHO.
Though as open as a pre-2012 Anderson Cooper, the Rawhide Kid's sly remarks and innuendos made his sexual orientation clear to anyone who is in the life. For example, in the first issue of Rawhide Kid: Slap Leather, the Kid expresses his admiration for the Lone Ranger: "I think that mask and powder-blue outfit are fantastic. I can certainly see why that Indian follows him around."
He is also fond of Wild Bill Hickock, who in the original draft he called a"very nice man. Big - ahem - I mean bigger than life." Unfortunately, Stan Lee, now Chairman Emeritus of Marvel Comics, agreed with the critics that the Wild Bill Hickock quip was in bad taste and ordered that it be removed from the finished product.
Needless to say, the religious right got into a frenzy over the very idea of a gay cowboy hero. Andrea Lafferty, Executive Director of the Traditional Values Coalition, went on CNN's Crossfire and expressed her fears that some young boy somewhere might grab a copy of Rawhide Kid: Slap Leather and immediately turn gay. Lafferty ignored the fact that most comic readers today are adults, and that Marvel eventually published Rawhide Kid: Slap Leather under its adult imprint Max which will feature a parental advisory label. Not that there was any need. As an "adult" comic, Rawhide Kid: Slap Leather is rather dull.
Other critics, from our side of the fence, worried that the comic's campy tone and smart attire would turn the Rawhide Kid into a caricature. There is nothing wrong with camp humor, especially in a genre often that takes itself too seriously. But why the ambiguity? Why couldn't Marvel give us a hero who says that he is gay and who has a gay life and has gay friends or even, God forbid, has gay sex?
Like the creators of Will and Grace, Marvel wanted to have it both ways, by giving us a character who would attract gays without alienating straights. "The original Kid was campy and irreverent. I think they are trying to recreate that," said former Bilerico contributor Cathy Renna, then News Media Director for the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD). "There will be the same complaints we hear about Will Truman: he's an asexual, stereotypical gay guy. Why not just go for it? It may be a lost opportunity."
The Rawhide Kid returned, as ambiguous as ever, in a 2010 miniseries written by Zimmerman and drawn by Howard Chaykin. And though the Kid's sexual orientation is still debated, as far as I am concerned, he is always gay.