Poet Chris Tse looks into the hidden (and not-so-hidden) subtexts of comic books, and shares the role superheroes – particularly Catwoman in Batman Returns – played in his own journey.
Handsome, dazed, and to die for
When I was a young boy, my pulse quickened every time I came across a naked male torso in a magazine, on greeting cards in the mall gift shop, or on TV. Initially I couldn’t understand why such images held my attention. Later, I’d worry that someone would notice me lingering over these hunky men for much longer than a young boy should.
Sometimes, it felt safe to marvel at these displays of the male physique because it was a sports game or a TV show I was watching with my family or friends. As a kid, my younger brother was a big wrestling fan. I’m guessing he followed them for the storylines (?), whereas I stuck around to watch hulking men touching each other in their ridiculously skimpy costumes. And then there was that one ACC Thinksafe TV ad featuring a buff guy enjoying a steamy shower before stepping out and slipping on the wet floor. That ad sent my confused little brain into overdrive, to the point where I still couldn’t help but notice how hot he was while lying there with a suspected broken neck.
But my ultimate source of fit men in various states of undress (other than Farmers catalogues) were comic books. I’ll admit that the improbable physiques of male superheroes, often emphasised by their ludicrously tight costumes, were a major drawcard when I was a teenager. Of course, I never revealed this appreciation in front of my friends in case it said more about me than I was ready to admit to myself.
If there’s one thing I’ve learned from a lifetime of following comic books and, later, superhero movies, it’s that superheroes are complicated figures. Simply put, they’re heightened depictions of what it means to be human. Beneath the lycra, masks, and armour, they too grapple with tidal waves of conflicted emotions and personal trauma, which are often the reasons they suit up to fight crime. Sometimes their motives for assuming the role of protector can be at odds with the societal norms they are supposedly upholding. Because of this, they are often misunderstood, perceived as dangerous vigilantes or a threat to society.
While superheroes and villains wore literal masks to protect their identities, I too found ways to hide certain facets of myself from the world. On the inside, I was riddled with insecurity and confusion about my sexuality, but at the same time I wanted people to see me as a pillar of strength and support.
This duality is what I grew to relate to the most as I began to follow the adventures and struggles of characters like the X-Men and Batman. On the surface, their stories were about good versus evil, but over time the subtextual complexities woven throughout their storylines and characters’ histories became more apparent.
These stories were also vehicles for unpacking themes like discrimination, existentialism, and morality. They could also be seen as analogues of real-world injustices. In the comics, mutants are a minority group feared and treated as outsiders by the general population, and many of the X-Men narratives can be interpreted as parables about the queer experience, particularly in the 1990s with the introduction of the Legacy Virus storyline, which many saw as a parallel to the AIDs pandemic. A memorable scene in the 2003 film X2 features Bobby Drake/Iceman ‘coming out’ to his parents as a mutant (which can now be viewed in a different light considering the character did come out as gay in the comics a few years later). Despite these parallels, and one token gay mutant, the X-Men were still as straight as they come.
It never occurred to me that superheroes could be gay, especially since they were sold to us as symbols of strength and masculinity. Superman, Batman, and Captain America were manly men, the kind who used their superpowers and fighting prowess to save the day and damsels in distress. Most parents probably thought they were harmless idols and role models, but as I grew older I began to recognise them as characters with deep flaws and relationship issues. We glossed over these traits as children; all we wanted was to see them beat the bad guys. And yet, there’s no denying that comics and superheroes could also be extremely, deliciously queer even if they weren’t intended that way. The most cited example of this is the relationship between Batman and Robin, which has been the subject of much queer analysis and speculation.
Not just a friend...
Depictions of Batman in other media have often swung between the hyper-camp and the deathly serious. Tim Burton’s two film adaptations in 1989 and 1992 embraced the source material’s darker side with grimy colour palettes and art direction that was more in keeping with Burton’s own gothic tendencies. The late Joel Schumacher’s take on the Caped Crusader was more in line with the campy schtick of the classic 1960s Batman television series starring Adam West and Burt Ward. In contrast to Burton’s vision, Schumacher’s films were stacked with corny puns and fluorescent colours.
Bruce Wayne/Batman has been the subject of queer speculation and analysis since the 1940s, particularly after the introduction of Dick Grayson/Robin as his crimefighting partner. The idea of a wealthy bachelor living with a young boy insinuated something more than just a hero/sidekick or mentor/mentee relationship. Homoerotic interpretations of their relationship became even more popular with the release of the 1960s television series, which is remembered for its overly camp tone and innuendo-laden dialogue. Even Burt Ward, who played Dick Grayson/Robin, acknowledged in his memoir that the relationship between Batman and Robin depicted in the television series could be interpreted as queer.
Although it seems gayness and Batman have always gone hand in hand, many writers have stated that he is canonically heterosexual. And yet, it didn’t stop the 1990s film adaptations from adding fuel to the gay witch hunt bonfire.
Despite its critical slaughtering at the time of its release (prompting both star George Clooney and director Schumacher to half-jokingly apologise for killing the franchise), Batman and Robin has become a cult favourite – a candy-sweet antidote to the darkier, grittier Dark Knight films that would follow under the direction of Christopher Nolan. Schumacher passed away while I was writing an early draft of this essay, and it was heartwarming to see so many people heralding Batman and Robin as a misunderstood work of genius. In a 2017 interview with GQ, Schumacher acknowledged its status as an underrated piece of gay cinema and the gay following it has attained since its release, thanks in part to the asset-enhancing rubber suits worn by the actors.
Schumacher, who was openly gay, did not anticipate the furore he would cause by adding nipples and codpieces to the heroes’ costumes, which in hindsight was not the most ridiculous or worst thing about the film. Schumacher claimed the costumes were based on classical Greek statues (a homoerotic red flag waves in the distance), so it made sense to add the nipples.
In an interview with Barbara Walters, Clooney, who took over as Bruce Wayne/Batman for Batman and Robin, said, ‘I was in a rubber suit and I had rubber nipples. I could have played Batman straight, but I made him gay.’ His comment was of course tongue-in-cheek, given the fact Bruce Wayne has a fiancée (played by Elle Macpherson) in Batman and Robin.
Although a part of me longed to look like these hyper-masculine superheroes (a crushing feeling that would be exacerbated over the years by the skyscraper-high standards of male beauty in gay culture and my own insecurity), I found myself drawn more to their female counterparts. I knew that wanting to be, or playing the part of, a female comic book character was a no-no. Boys were meant to fight over being Batman or Wolverine, not Wonder Woman or Psylocke. Thankfully, the gender imbalance of characters meant we had more than enough male characters to choose from and we were never put in a position where one of us had to play a female character. That is, until Batman Returns was released.
I am Catwoman, hear me roar
There’s a scene from Batman Returns that seared itself into my impressionable pre-pubescent brain from the moment I watched it. It’s the scene where Selina Kyle undergoes her transformation from meek personal assistant to the ferocious Catwoman. Having miraculously survived being pushed out of a skyscraper window by her boss Max Schreck, Selina arrives back at her apartment overcome by a dissociative fugue. A message on her answering machine causes her to snap, the night’s events triggering a rage in her that cannot be contained. She tears through her apartment trashing everything in sight before dismantling a black latex jacket and reconstructing it as her iconic Catwoman outfit. “I feel so much yummier,” she purrs to her cats when she’s done, her svelte silhouette framed by her apartment window, a pink neon sign smashed to read “HELL HERE” glowing behind her.
This version of the Catwoman outfit isn’t as refined as other interpretations in Batman’s history – its haphazard white stitching emphasises Selina’s fractured psyche, a reminder that her physical armour is pieced together from something otherwise benign. However, it remains one of the most iconic costumes in comic book movie history, representing the moment she was consumed by power and confidence – a symbol of her inner strength. This scene solidified my love for Catwoman, and it ignited something in me that I was still too young to fully articulate or understand.
Why are you dressed up like Batman?
I remember very vividly the after-school playdates my brother and I had at one of his friend’s house shortly after Batman Returns was released. The film was inescapable – television ads reminded us of its release and the multiple commercial tie-ins, including action figures, video games, and McDonald’s Happy Meal collectibles. My brother, his friend and I spent many afternoons reenacting scenes from the film.
Unsurprisingly, neither of them wanted to be Catwoman and would take turns being Batman and The Penguin, the film’s other villain. I would let them fight over those two characters and feign disappointment at drawing the proverbial short straw.
Every time we played this game I threw myself into embodying Selina Kyle, imagining the sleek black latex of her Catwoman costume slipping over me like a second skin. I fashioned a whip out of string and a cardboard tube, and attached twisty ties to my fingers as claws. I never stopped to question why I enjoyed playing Catwoman so much – all I knew is that these short bursts of escapism really did make me feel so much yummier.
This did present a very particular dilemma. I knew I was supposed to like male superheroes, which I did, but I found myself being increasingly drawn to female characters. First there was Catwoman, then there was Jean Grey and Psylocke of the X-Men, and Wonder Woman. Similarly, when my friends I played arcade games like Street Fighter 2, I preferred to play as Chun Li or Cammy over the fan favourite male characters like Ryu and Ken.
I couldn’t understand what it was about these female characters that I found so alluring – it wasn’t a physical or sexual attraction, or necessarily a desire to be a woman. Yet there was definitely an affinity – an attraction to a feminine strength and energy that was at odds with the worship of masculine tropes that were drilled into me on a daily basis through other media. It was through these female characters that I began to understand the relationship between, and my own balance of, masculine and feminine energies.
I would experiment with tapping into this dormant feminine energy throughout my teenage years, from stumbling around in my Mum’s high heels to playing a princess in the school pantomime in a schlocky blonde wig and with balloons for boobs. The former was done in secret, and only if I was certain I was home alone. The latter was an altogether different experience – it was even more thrilling and liberating because I’d been given permission to do this without reprimand or made to feel ashamed for dressing as a girl.
Many years later, but still before I’d come out to my family, I found myself performing in a show called Goldilocks and The Three Queers. I played the titular queers’ surly landlady Ling Ling, a grotesque caricature that allowed me to be both sassy and crude in drag. The show was bawdy and extremely camp, and opened up my queer world. Several of the cast and crew were gay, and for the first time I found myself with actual real-life gay friends. I didn’t have to self-censor by presenting a veiled version of myself – during rehearsals I could strip away my mask and reveal my true identity.
You’re the coolest role model a young person could have!
Queer representation in comic books has changed significantly since I read them as teenager. Back then, publishers were obviously careful about not alienating their core fanbase of teenage boys, so queer characters and themes weren’t used very sparingly, which meant explicit queerness was typically reserved for secondary characters. Any same-sex relationships were only hinted at and depicted in such a way so as not to breach the Comics Code Authority’s so-called decency standards.
However, growing demand for representation – and an acknowledgement that comic book audiences these days are much more diverse – has resulted in some major changes in how queerness is treated and depicted in comic books. In more recent years, beloved Marvel characters such as Iceman (one of the original X-Men) and Mystique have been confirmed as canonically queer. Over in the DC universe, storylines have addressed the queerness of characters such as Batwoman, Wonder Woman, and the Earth2 version of Green Lantern.
They aren’t just supporting characters – they are major characters who appear in both the comics and in various film and television adaptations, although Marvel’s hyping of the appearance of the ‘first openly gay character’ in the Marvel Cinematic Universe ahead of the release of The Avengers: Endgame was a let down when it turned out to be an unremarkable cameo by one of the film’s (heterosexual) directors. This highlights the need for proper representation in a way that breaks the cycle of queer characters and themes being treated as tokenism or, at its worst, queerbaiting.
I wonder what it would’ve been like for me to have had this widespread representation as a teenager free from coding and subtext. Would it have helped me to accept who I am sooner? Regardless, the queerness and homoerotic allusions in the world of comic books and superheroes provided a way into feeling and understanding for me. For some people, they’re just stories for kids, but they meant so much more to me and other queer kids. I might not have acquired superhuman strength or the ability to read minds, but I still see myself in those stories and the many, many shows and films that are now a fixture of our pop culture landscape.
Chris Tse was born and raised in Lower Hutt, New Zealand. He studied film and English literature at Victoria University of Wellington, where he also completed an MA in Creative Writing at the International Institute of Modern Letters.
His poetry, short fiction, and non-fiction have been recorded for radio and widely published in numerous journals, magazines, and anthologies. He is one of three poets included in the joint collection AUP New Poets 4.
Chris’ first full-length poetry collection, How to be Dead in a Year of Snakes, was published by Auckland University Press in September 2014. In 2016, Snakes received the Jessie Mackay Award for Best First Book of Poetry and was a finalist in the poetry category at the Ockham New Zealand Book Awards.
Chris Tse, 2017. Photo by Rebecca McMillan, courtesy of Chris Tse
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