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

In November's <em>Superman: Son of Kal-El #5</em>, (written by Tom Taylor, art by John Timms), Jonathan Kent, son of Clark, will get a boyfriend.
DC Comics
In November's Superman: Son of Kal-El #5, (written by Tom Taylor, art by John Timms), Jonathan Kent, son of Clark, will get a boyfriend.

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
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.

Glen Weldon is a host of NPR's Pop Culture Happy Hour podcast. He reviews books, movies, comics and more for the NPR Arts Desk.

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