Seven episodes into Supergirl, the television show has proven to contain a lot of talent both behind the cameras and in front. It may even be the best live-action superhero show that has come out of DC’s recent crop thus far. From the first episode, it has put in effort to be woman-friendly, both in its variety of female characters (personality-wise) and the strength of their (mostly positive) relationships. In some ways, it has succeeded in reaching basic progressive goals. However, as of “Human for a Day,” Supergirl has shown that it has flaws, which make it fall drastically short from the progressive show it wants viewers to believe it is. In particular, one of its biggest pitfalls is in its exploitation of queer experience while having a dearth of queer characters.
“Human for a Day” plots itself around Kara losing her powers after using her “solar flare,” as Jimmy refers to it, in the previous episode against Red Tornado. To understand the full extent of the queer erasure Supergirl presents in this episode, we must return to the comics. The “solar flare” as attached to the Superman ethos is a very new thing, introduced in Geoff Johns and John Romita Jr.’s Superman #38, in which Superman experiences it for the first time and goes through a depowering similar to Kara’s. Publisher and license owner of Superman and Supergirl, DC Comics, took this and ran with it as a promotional opportunity.
“Superman #38 concludes the Men of Tomorrow storyline with one of the greatest reveals in Superman history: A Brand New Super Power,” the official DC Comics website still crows. Promotional websites such as Kotaku and IGN reported on the solar flare, as DC named it, and also referred to it as a new power that put consequence into Superman’s fight with arc antagonist Ulysses.
That’s all well and good except for one thing: the solar flare power isn’t new. The solar flare power wasn’t even created by Johns and Romita Jr. It first appeared in 1999, used by the character Apollo in Warren Ellis and Brian Hitch’s “The Authority #8.”
Apollo is best known as Midnighter’s other half; the gay Superman to his gay Batman. Their creation, in 1996, came 3 years after the United States government passed the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell act and 2 years before Will and Grace’s pilot aired. Ellis and Hitch dropped heavy hints about Apollo and Midnighter’s sexual orientation in their “Stormwatch #4” debut, but many readers didn’t pick up that the two were queer until Ellis and Hitch outed them in The Authority.
This pivotal moment occurs when Apollo uses his own version of the solar flare. Overwhelmed by the soldiers of an alternative Earth charging into their ship, teammate Jack Hawksmoor yells, “Apollo, damnit! You’re the heavy artillery!” Apollo responds with a last ditch effort, gathering the remainder of his solar energy and exploding it outward to destroy their opponents. Like Superman in “Superman #38”, it effectively wipes him out and he collapses onto the ship’s floor.
Midnighter reacts only in the way a lover would.
Ellis and Hitch then take it even farther with an intimate exchange, in order to emphasize to readers that they were, indeed, seeing two gay men have a heartfelt discussion about one of them potentially dying.
Note that the kiss on the cheek was originally meant to be a kiss on the lips, but DC editorial requested the change. Apollo and Midnighter would not have a real kiss until the panel of their marriage a few years later in “The Authority #29” by Mark Millar and Gary Erksine.
I’ve discussed in the past how, because of the equal marriage ruling by the Supreme Court earlier this year, a lot of people assume that homophobia (like sexism and racism before it) is over. But the comics industry has decades of damage ingrained, that was often caused by the same straight men that still run the companies today. Although Wildstorm had plans about ten years ago for Apollo to feature in his own book, like Midnighter did under Garth Ennis and Chris Sprouse, plans were scuttled due to issues behind the scenes. He most often appeared in The Authority books and, as the more feminine of the couple, was often disparaged subtly and blatantly by the straight male writers who handled him. He has also been raped and fridged several times, edging him closer to Dick Grayson in the ranks of Male Characters Treated As Badly As Women.
More recently, the integration of Wildstorm characters into the main DC universe has only spelled out trouble for Apollo. The New 52 Stormwatch title tried to make a place for him as well as a number of other characters, but failed. He can’t exist as part of his old team because The Authority’s methods of ruling the world with an iron fist contradict the unbreakable protection of the Justice League. Then, by sharing a world with Superman (and not with Majestic, a sometimes asexual Superman pastiche vastly different in personality) he is made redundant. DC has yet to attempt another book with him as a central character since New 52 Stormwatch’s cancellation two years ago.
Various bigotries presumably combine to make Apollo as a whole a less attractive prospect than picking up the basic mechanism of the most important plot point he was ever a part of and making it a boring, uncontroversial gimmick for a straight character who has always had his own books, and always will. Sharing this power and consequence with Supergirl, a white, straight, feminine woman who fits well within our heteronormative society, doesn’t do anything to improve the situation. In fact, Warner Brothers and DC, by bringing the solar flare to Supergirl’s TV show, signal that the reappropriation is to stay a permanent fixture within the Superman canon. In its 76 years of existence, the Superman canon has yet to see a significant and long-lasting queer character in its roster. In this action, DC and the creative team behind “Superman #38” effectively erase Apollo and his queerness along with him, as they have done to many characters over the years.
The solar flare is not the only queer narrative tool Supergirl has taken from queer people, however. The brightness of this moment spotlit other failures in queer representation. The show, in its short run so far, has enjoyed a “coming out” theme—coming out to your friends that you are really someone else; coming out to your mother that you don’t have the job she thinks you do; coming out to your colleague that you’re not actually a black man, but a green alien (which is part of a racist cycle in our media that deserves an article of its own [Please get in touch with pitches — Editor])—without having any visible queer characters. What Supergirl says to its queer audience is that it finds the queer narrative convenient for character building and for emotional moments, but not you, who have actually gone through the tumultuous and often traumatic process. The Supergirl writers want to cherry pick the “best,” “relatable” parts of the oppressed narrative and attach it to their characters, who are straight, mostly white, and incredibly privileged.
Supergirl makes light of “coming out,” presenting it as if it’s a transition everyone goes through in some shape or form. But what of the people who still can’t come out without severe consequences? What about America’s LGBT youth, who, as I have stated in a prior article and as is well-reported, make up 40% of America’s homeless population and have among the highest suicide rates? What about the gay men from countries where homosexuality is punishable by death when their profiles were revealed in the Ashley Madison hack? What about the gay men ISIS likes to push off of roofs? Although “coming out” is fun for Supergirl to play off of, it’s not fun for them. “Coming out” remains an important queer experience, where your quality of life often ends up in the hands of others. Straight people, whether they have lied to their mothers about their career choices or not, simply do not experience this.
Many have recently celebrated DC for its 12 current queer-led titles, including that of Apollo’s long-term, but not current, love interest, Midnighter. It’s the most queer representation DC has had at one time in its history as a company and is not a success that should be discounted. However, the larger DC Entertainment, and Warner Brothers corporate structures it belongs to, are still ignorant of queer characters and the queer audience that relies on them for validation. DC may have let Apollo and Midnighter share real intimacy on-panel since, but it still has a lot to atone for in the period it did not, and even more to learn. While Supergirl gets brownie points for having “feminist” elements, we must remember that a feminism that forgets queer rights is not progressive. We must continue to insist that the straight people behind the scenes of our favorite media treat queer people with dignity and give us our due instead of taking the little we own.