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Controversy In Comics: When Is It Genuine?

When is controversy in comics used to promote social commentary and when is it used as a way to garner sales?

Contentious issues exist in our society, so it makes sense that these issues would exist and come into play in many of the comics that we read. Comic books aren't only a form of entertainment, they also often act as social commentary. They provide an outlet for creators and fans of these books to discuss issues found in our news headlines and use stories to provide a discussion about these topics. They have the ability to spark conversation, debate and reflection because lets face it: we don't all always agree.

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In the last year, for example, the issue of same-sex marriage has really taken center stage in this country (more recently due to the Supreme Court's hearing of whether or not Prop 8 -- which eliminated the rights of same-sex couples to marry in California -- is constitutional). In the last year we also saw the very first same-sex marriage ceremony in mainstream comics in ASTONISHING X-MEN #51, which featured the marriage of Northstar and Kyle. This is a great example of comics taking a topic that is really present in our society, and bringing these issues into the stories we read. It's a reflection of reality, to an extent: same-sex marriage exists in our reality and therefore is brought into various forms of our entertainment. From television, to film, and yes, even to the comics we read. However, is the inclusion of these issues a natural progression of these characters and an honest way of bringing diversity to comics, or is it simply for the "hype"? At the end of the day, comics are a creative medium, but they also have to sell. And let's face it, there's nothing like a bit of controversy to get comics flying off the shelves, right?


Late last week the internet was abuzz with a recent development of a certain character in writer Gail Simone's BATGIRL series. According to sources like the Huffington Post and even the Human Rights Campaign, DC comics had introduced the very first transgender character to mainstream comics (even though that wasn't the first, but we will get into that later). In the issue in question Barbara Gordon revealed to her roommate Alysia Yeoh that she had endured some trying times: from being shot by the Joker, to recovering from paralysis, to the the fact that her brother is a complete nut-job. In return for Barbara's honesty, Alysia revealed that she is in fact transgender. This is a pretty significant moment in the issue and it comes during a conversation where the two characters are revealing much of their innermost secrets. They are trusting one another with personal information and as a result, this is a sensitive point in the story, and should have been significant, but was it genuine? Did the panel where Alysia revealed that that she is transgender feel genuine, or did it feel like a plot device that was inserted into the story in order to gain traction? Regardless of the intent, the moment did in fact gain traction and by the time the week was through even NPR was talking about it. The news of the "first transgender character in mainstream comics" had sparked a conversation that made national headlines.


However, these outlets had it wrong as Alysia Yeoh was not the first introduction of a transgender character to mainstream comics. In fact, DC Comics had at least one other reveal of a transgender character to mainstream comics earlier this year and that is an honor that goes to Sir Ystin, DC's Shining Knight. In DEMON KNIGHTS #14 following a battle that nearly took their lives, Sir Ystin and Exoristos engage in a conversation. During this exchange Exoristos reveals that she feels very close to Shining Knight and implies that her feelings are of the romantic kind. This results in Sir Ystin's reveal of not being "just a man or woman," but that Ystin is "both." The scene was far more subtle than Alysia's reveal to Barbara and it also feels natural in a very different way. If this is a subject to be brought up, then a romantic exchange seems the most likely scenario in which to do it. The moment was brief, and the story moved on in a different direction very quickly, but that moment still felt compelling. It did not feel like a plot device because it was inserted into a point in the story where it felt natural: it was the natural progression of the character and that moment. Additionally, the fact that artist Bernard Chang (you can read our interview with him from earlier today, here) illustrated Sir Ystin as this rather androgynous looking character really helped; giving Ystin both male and female attributes gave the inclination that this is something very much at the core of Ystin's character and something the Paul Cornell (the series' writer at the time) had intended all along. This did not feel like merely a plot device.

What do you think? Do you feel there are moments in comics that feel less than genuine? Do you think that by referencing contentious issues publishers are promoting awareness to the topics in question, or simply piggy-backing on the issues to potentially garner more sales? Are there moments you can think of that felt really genuine to you?