Sunday, October 12, 2008

The Shirt Off My Back: The "Green Goblin Bending Over for Spider-man?” Tee

Living in Southern California, I haven’t had much trouble encountering a comic a day, or at least the influence of comic books on popular culture. Last month, at the Los Angeles County Fair, I took my picture with the incredible Hulk and his Hollywood alter ego Lou Ferrigno -- okay, they’re cardboard props, but of all the celebrities and fictional characters to feature in a homage to Hollywood? Other superstars should be green with envy.

Notice the shirt I was wearing, featuring an image of a beaten Green Goblin and an amazingly enraged Spider-man. (I think this image originally appeared in the Amazing Spider-man issue following Gwen Stacy’s death, if anyone wants to confirm . . .?) I wore this shirt a few weeks later at another Los Angeles event, specifically the West Hollywood Book Fair, where I was taken by a hilarious caricature of the Golden Girls on a T-shirt at the Prism Comics booth. The WeHo Book Fair features a whole comics pavilion, where I picked up Axiom’s Fat Boy & Harvey and Mike Wellman's Mac Afro in previous years, and that featured Len Wein and Ray Bradbury this year -- so it’s the real deal, a genuine comics culture happening. But I digress . . .

So I was taken by this awesome caricature of the Golden Girls, which stands as one of my top five favorite sitcoms of all time. (That’s a list for another blog, I think.) I asked the gentlemen working the booth if they had the image on a free promotional card, and they were kind enough to give me a whole calendar full of work by artist Glen Hanson, featuring similar cartoons of The Mary Tyler Moore Show and Buffy the Vampire Slayer. I was grateful for the offering, and still am, but what stands out from the brief exchange is their reasoning for the gift. Handing me the calendar, the guy says to me, he says, “Anything for someone wearing a shirt with Green Goblin bending over for Spider-man!” Uhm. Thanks?

If you haven’t considered the context clues, this fair is in West Hollywood. Prism Comics, boasting a Golden Girls T-shirt . . .? Yes, Prism Comics is a gay-oriented publication group. Not that there’s anything wrong with that! But to liken that visual excerpt of Spidey and the Goblin to something homosexual . . . well, that strikes me as queer, in the classical sense. Old, campy comics are often susceptible to perverted misinterpretation, right up until the mid-‘80s, thanks to VH1’s I Love the ‘80s analysis of Prince Adam’s purple pants and man-on-Beastman wrestle fests. John Lustig has made a career of it with his on-line Last Kiss. Still, when the image is on my chest, I must object to the unnecessary sexualization of my favorite superheroes, gay or straight.

This might sound immature, but comics have enough sexual inadequacy that we don’t have to project our own issues into these, well, issues. Consider Spidey’s current “One More Day” storyline, the result of an editorial decision to undo a married Spider-man and make him more empathetic to a younger audience. (Mark Waid and some other writers had a similar idea for Superman several years ago.) A recent installment of Comic Book Resources’ “Comic Book Urban Legends Revealed” tells the story of a defunct issue of The New Mutants starring a suicidal gay mutant teenager. Avid comic book fans know, this is just the tip of the iceberg, but these two examples, while different in context, both essentially denounce our heroes’ sexuality -- because an unmarried Supes or Spidey inadvertently reverts them to the bumbling dorks of yesteryear, Clark Kent in an impossible pursuit of the Big-S smitten Lois Lane, and Peter Parker blushing over his crush of the month. For Anole in The New Mutants, ignoring the consequences of his homosexuality may have saved his life, but the avoidance of the issue may have cost a gay comic fan a few more years of confusion and grief. Are either of these archetypes what we really want young men relate to?

The result of this censorship is what I experienced at the book fair: “Anything for someone wearing a shirt with Green Goblin bending over for Spider-man!” Misplaced sexuality. As long as our favorite heroes aren’t allowed to mature with their readership -- sometimes getting married, sometimes getting divorced, sometimes facing social prejudice, sometimes living happily ever after -- they’ll never be able to say more to their potential love interests than what the Golden Girls proverbially said to each other every week: “Thank you for being a friend.” I’m sure Spidey would bend over backwards, or give the shirt off his back, for something more substantial than that.

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