Fifty years after Fredric Wertham accused Batman and Robin of sharing a 'love relationship', Andrew Wheeler explores the enduring question of Batman's sexuality. Plus, what have we learned in 2004?
13 December 2004


My colleague John Fellows recently brought my attention to a piece that ran at Silver Bullet Comics earlier this year in which various comic pros were asked, 'is Batman gay?'

It's a question that Silver Bullet has returned to more than a few times, with varying degrees of insight, but the question has circulated for well over half a century. In fact, no other comic character has been subjected to such prolonged and intense scrutiny when it comes to their sexuality. Bruce Wayne is the Tom Cruise of comics.

Commentators tend to point to two main sources as the cause for the speculation. One is the 1960s TV show, which in turn influenced the two Joel Schumacher movies. The other is Fredric Wertham's notorious 1954 book, SEDUCTION OF THE INNOCENT. In both cases, the crux of the issue is Batman's relationship with his youthful sidekick Robin.

In his biography BOY WONDER: MY LIFE IN TIGHTS, Burt Ward, the small screen Robin, admits that the characters could be interpreted as lovers, and the show's double entendres and lavish camp help make the case persuasive. Tim Burton's Batman movies forewent the Boy Wonder and the breezy camp, but Joel Schumacher brought them back and pushed homoerotic iconography to the fore.

Yet the TV show didn't invent this reading of the character; it took its cues from the comics of the day. When Wertham accused comics of corrupting America's youth with violence and deviancy, DC responded by camping up. The publisher also added female heroes to the previously rather modern 'Bat family', but the male heroes' reticence to date them didn't help straighten them out.

Wertham himself said of the relationship between Batman and Robin; "It is like a wish-dream of two homosexuals living together", adding:

"Sometimes they are shown on a couch, Bruce reclining and Dick sitting next to him, jacket off, collar open, and his hand on his friend's arm. Like the girls in other stories, Robin is sometimes held captive by the villains. ...

"Robin is a handsome ephebic boy, usually shown in his uniform with bare legs. He is buoyant with energy and devoted to nothing on Earth or in interplanetary space as much as to Bruce Wayne. He often stands with his legs spread, the genital region discreetly evident.

"In these stories there are practically no decent, attractive, successful women. A typical female character is the Catwoman, who is vicious and uses a whip. The atmosphere is homosexual and anti-feminine. If the girl is good-looking she is undoubtedly the villainess. If she is after Bruce Wayne, she will have no chance against Dick."

The fashionable rebuttal to Wertham is to point out that a relationship between Batman and Robin would be paedophilia rather than a conventional homosexual relationship. However, for all that Wertham appears to have been a dangerous and misguided puritan with a deluded notion about the 'threat' of homosexuality, he didn't invent the gay reading of Batman any more than the TV show did.

Wertham was a psychologist who based his work on what he learned from his patients. In 1947 he established a sex offender clinic in New York called the Quaker Emergency Service Readjustment Center. In those unenlightened times (as opposed to these unenlightened times), that included dealing with gay patients, and it was these patients who brought Batman to his attention. It was the fans of the comic who first saw Batman as the idealisation of a homosexual lifestyle.

Robin had been introduced to the comics as a character for the readers to identify with. He was there to soften the tone of the book and make Batman more approachable to young readers. And that's exactly what he did. The gay reading of Batman doesn't sexualise Robin as Batman's boy toy or prey; it sexualises Batman as Robin's strong, masculine protector. We're meant to idolise Batman, just as Robin does. Gay readers would naturally take that hero worship a stage further.

"One young homosexual during psychotherapy brought us a copy of DETECTIVE COMICS, with a Batman story. He pointed out a picture of 'The Home of Bruce and Dick', a house beautifully landscaped, warmly lighted and showing the devoted pair side by side, looking out a picture window. When he was eight this boy had realized from fantasies about comic book pictures that he was aroused by men. At the age of ten or eleven, 'I found my liking, my sexual desires, in comic books. I think I put myself in the position of Robin. I did want to have relations with Batman'."

To the young gay reader it was not paedophilia, but homoeroticism, fed by a text that lent itself readily to the task. The presentation of the Batman/Robin relationship did indeed resemble the "wish-dream of two homosexuals living together". It wasn't the movies, the TV show or the conservative agitprop of a 1950s psychologist that made Batman gay. It was the comics.

And the comics continue to serve a gay reading. Bruce Wayne is largely celibate, rejecting the comforts of heterosexual 'normality'. He lives a closeted secret life and is racked by torment. His dark mirror, The Joker, is an outré, flamboyant character who wears make up and lacks Batman's self-discipline, while the quizzing Riddler, the conflicted Two Face and the liberated Catwoman all present challenges to his 'lifestyle choice'. As gay role models go, Batman's not a man to emulate, but confused gay fans will find plenty to identify with.

So is Batman really gay? Of course not. He's a DC trademark, and DC's not going to dilute the marketability of one of its biggest licenses. DC is so adamant about the character's heterosexuality that even as recently as 2000, the publisher was rejecting requests by academics to use copyrighted materials in articles that discussed the character's sexuality.

DC seemingly also wouldn't allow Green Arrow's son Connor Hawke - a low grade second generation superhero - to be written as gay, despite the best efforts of some of his writers. And here's the real root of the problem. The reason people look for gay subtext is because it isn't there in the text.

Homosexuality remains largely invisible even in today's entertainment media, and if no characters are explicitly gay, they all become potentially gay, and every panel and line of dialogue is subject to scrutiny.

For many gay readers, Batman must be gay, because the way he's written makes him the closest thing they have to a hero of their own. It was true in 1954 when Wertham published SEDUCTION OF THE INNOCENT, and sadly it's still true fifty years later.


The year draws to a close, and one can expect a slew of year-in-review articles across the internet in the next couple of weeks. I'll be curious to see what sort of consensus is achieved this year, if any.

It's seemed that previous years were always heralded with grand prognostications. "It's Marvel's year." "It's manga's year." "It's the year comics break into the mainstream." I don't remember any such proclamations for 2004. I don't remember anyone being excited about 2004. And in retrospect, I think we were all very wise.

I've recently returned from Portland, the city with perhaps the densest population of comic creators on Earth, where I encountered a few industry pros and got their readings of the landscape. No one seemed sorry to see the year go. The same mood is reflected among most of the comic readers I know in London, who complain repeatedly that there's nothing to read anymore.

If 2004 is to be remembered for anything, it may as well be as the year CEREBUS and BONE ended, and the year BLACK HOLE and PROMETHEA drew to a close. It'll be remembered as a year when comics ended, which is a sad thing to be remembered for.

'I don't remember any of us being excited about 2004, and I think we were wise.' But worse, I think it's also a year when realisation dawned for a lot of people. It's a year when the hopes of years past proved unfounded. The bookstore market hasn't changed the face of the industry. Hollywood's love affair with superheroes hasn't translated to new readers. Whether the manga bubble is set to burst or not, the success of manga hasn't rubbed off on anyone else. Marvel has turned its back on the bold experiments of the Jemas years. Even the internet is yet to make an appreciable difference to the market, other than allowing people to download comics without paying for them.

There was a hope that people would read comics if only they were exposed to them, but comics are in bookstores now, the movies are making money, and publishers are producing intelligent books that receive mainstream press attention, and it still isn't making a difference. Maybe that's why Marvel fell back on the bad habit of raping and pillaging its readers. That huge market of casual readers isn't there, which means the comic industry really is just a cottage industry serving a dwindling market.

If that's the lesson 2004 has taught us, then it's a hard one, but maybe its best that the industry stops worrying so much about being big, and concentrates instead on being small but brilliant. Of course, for that to work, someone needs to pass the memo to Marvel.

And if that isn't a lesson that anyone ones to listen to, then I think there's one hope left for comics, and that's legalising hemp, thus making paper cheap enough that comics can finally be competitively priced.

Bookstores didn't work. Let's try cannabis!

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