In Search Of LGBTQ Atlanteans

Now that DC Warner’s Aquaman movie is playing in North American theaters it brings up a recurring topic I have in general when encountering different cultures whether fictional or real. First though, everyone can relax because this has nothing to do with either Jason Momoa or aspects of the movie so no spoilers!

Does Atlantis have an LGBTQ community? This writer would like to think there must be Atlanteans that would recognizable in spirit to us even if the expressions of sexuality and community aren’t exactly similar.

Created by Paul Norris and Mort Weisinger, Aquaman first appeared in More Fun Comics #73 in late 1941. Aquaman is one of the small handful of characters which were continually published throughout the 1940s and 1950s as comics publishers either shifted from superhero titles whose popularity was decreasing to other genres or simply went out of business in the fallout of Frederic Wertham’s Seduction of the Innocent, the Senate subcommittee hearings, and the formation of the Comics Code Authority. Aquaman went unnoticed by Wertham. He certainly had his sights on other superheroes though: Batman, Robin, and Wonder Woman for their homoerotic readings; and Superman out of concern of authoritarian aspects Wertham believed the character could exhibit; and Black Cat and Phantom Lady because of the sexualized nature artists drew them. The character was relegated as a backup feature which bounced among several titles until 1962 when the first ongoing series was greenlit. While not having the benefit of reading every Aquaman story from 1941 to 1962 I think it’s safe to say that the Sea King’s adventures had little focus on fleshing out his connection with Atlantis. He was typically a loner without any supporting cast in each installment’s allotted 8 to 13 pages. After all, Aqualad didn’t debut until Adventure Comics #269 (February 1960) and Mera’s first appearance is over three and a half years later in Aquaman #11 (September 1963).

Let’s focus on Aqualad for now. The character may have been, and my research is by no means exhaustive, the first teenaged sidekick of an adult superhero after the creation of the Comics Code Authority. Green Arrow’s sidekick Speedy (aka Roy Harper) first appeared in More Fun Comics #73 which is also the comic of Aquaman’s debut. Several other DC teenage characters can be exempted. Young sidekick Janu the Jungle Boy joined Congo Bill just before the US Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency began in 1954. Tommy Tomorrow of the Planeteers, which debuted in Real Fact Comics #6 (January 1947), had a kid brother named Tim. Rip Hunter, Time Master had a supporting cast which included Corky, the young brother of token female/ Hunter love interest Bonnie. Hunter debuted in Showcase #20 (May-June 1959). Similarly, Nicky is the younger brother of Judy who both join the fledgling Sea Devils team in Showcase #27 (July-August 1960).

The purpose in trying to award Aqualad with this distinction is to lend support to my theory that DC editors and publisher at the time were being very cautious about how and when adult superheroes were given sidekicks in light of Frederic Wertham’s charges about Batman and Robin being gay. Of course, that leads to the question is the original version of Aqualad something other than straight? In my proto gay youth when my fascination with comics began in 1967 I would scour comics from cover to cover for subtext. Sometimes I would find it, as was the however unintentional case with the concept of chosen family in the Legion of Super Heroes. Other times I would create it. Admittedly I had ambiguous attractions to some male characters such as Ultra Boy, Element Lad, Mon-El, and yes, Aqualad.

The Kid From Atlantis is the story title of Aqualad’s debut. In its brief seven pages writer Robert Bernstein establishes Garth’s back story as an Atlantean child born with purple eyes; a “hereditary warning of a ‘throwback’ to our [surface] ancestors” which necessitates sending such people to live in exile on land. Oddly enough, the trait wasn’t indicative for Garth being an air breather but instead that he possessed a fear of fish. While Aqualad’s origin has been updated some over the decades this part remains mostly intact. In essence it’s a curse, a superstition, a prejudice in some ways among a scientifically advanced society — which should know better. It is easy to view this fictional fear of purple eyed Atlanteans as a metaphor for racism, bigotry, xenophobia, and homophobia just as the long standing fear of mutants in Marvel’s X-Men titles is considered to be by a majority (surprisingly not all) readers. As much as I, or possibly you, may want to think the curse is evidence Garth’s sexuality could be something other than heterosexual there is (yet) no in continuity basis for it. Which is not to say a writer in the future won’t craft a plausible reason for Garth to come out as bisexual or gay much like Renee Montoya’s coming out.

So that brings me to the current Jackson Hyde character using the Aqualad name. I am purposely not attempting to discuss the Kaldur’ahm character which appeared in the Young Justice animated series because at this time I’ve no background on the character. Hyde debuted in Brightest Day #10 (September 2010) and readers learned he is gay in a chapter of the 80 page DC Nation #0 which served as a teasing introduction to current Rebirth continuity. He’s was born in Xebel which is where Mera comes from. Unfortunately, Hyde doesn’t provide much insight into sexuality since for most of his life his Xebelian mother raised him in New Mexico.

During his time on the title recently departed Aquaman writer fleshed out Atlantean, or more accurately Poseidonis, society by creating the Trides, the underwater equivalent of living on the wrong side of the tracks, and the Widowhood, a religious body under the guidance of Mother Cetea. No clues let alone evidence of queer Atlantean communities and cultures, but we can surmise other queer people exist in these underwater societies. This still isn’t a lot to go on, is it?

Where else in the scope of DC continuity and mythology to turn? During much of DC’s Silver Age there was little interconnecting continuity between features and solo and team up comics. Flash and Green Lantern were friends as were Hawkman and Atom. Lois Lane crossed over with Aquaman for a short story in Lois Lane #12 but this was before Aquaman claimed his Atlantean heritage by taking up residence in the city. Later on Lane would become very familiar with another Atlantean city as mermaid Lori Lemaris vied with Lois for Superman’s affection. One of Supergirl’s Silver Age love interests was Jerro the merboy who also hailed from Tritonis. Not to be forgotten is Wonder Girl (not Donna Troy but a young Princess Diana) who also had a merboy, Ronno, with whom she’d fallen in love with.

 

Flash forward to early 1982 and the debut of a backup feature beginning in Warlord #55 titled Arion who was a powerful Homo Magi before Atlantis sunk beneath the ocean. Created by Paul Kupperberg and artist Jan Duursema, the supporting cast was decidedly more diverse in the representation of its characters than had been seen in any of Aquaman’s series to date. Alas, the Comics Code prohibition against (paraphrasing here) any “deviancy” was still in effect and would not be replaced with a guideline to include positive depictions of LGBTQ characters until 1989. Which is not to say that LGBTQ characters did not exist in comics before 1989; they did but any clues were subtextual and or purposely designed with the hopes of not being detected by CCA monitors. And while it may be bad form, I’m unable to find my copies of the Arion series so I’m making the assumption that no coded queer characters appeared.

Originally Arion’s Atlantis was presented without connections with Aquaman’s Atlantis. This changed in The Atlantis Chronicles by Peter David and Esteban Maroto. While the time period in this mini series falls after that of Arion’s, a statue of the sorcerer in Poseidonis serves to subtly establish a connection between the two. In the second issue David and Maroto illustrate how Tritonis, the Atlantean city associated with Lori Lemaris of Superman mythos, came to exist and how its inhabitants were transformed into mer folk. With the third chapter the Poseidonians are showing bigotry towards the Tritonians; the favorite slur being “fish head”. After a long absence, Dardanus, the only child of Loma and Shalako who led Tritonis, reappears to present to the Tritonians the idea of being proud and embracing who they are. This is the same spirit that was displayed by LGBTQ community members in the 1966 Compton Cafeteria Riots in San Francisco and of course Stone Wall. One can take this as a metaphor for LGBTQ rights, but like the X-Men’s mutant as outside theme, it can apply to African Americans’ fight for civil rights and every minority group seeking equality.

Peter David has a well deserved record of LGBTQ representation in his stories. Issue three also includes what may be the first gay Atlantean male: an unnamed wedding planner who is working on the wedding of Princess Cora. Appearing in just two panels, the character is visually weighted with lots of stereotypical clues. What to make of this? Certainly gay men with flamboyant traits exist. Quentin Crisp, author of The Naked Civil Servant, comes to mind. Was this David’s idea or Maroto’s decisions? Was the representation affected by the Comics Code as was the case with Extrano several years earlier? It’s possible. The issue is cover dated 1990 but the comic’s production would have placed it at some point in 1989 (or possibly even a little earlier) right before or just as Code replaced its prohibition against “deviant characters”. What is important here I think is simply the fact that this character provides precedent that queerness existed in Atlantis millennia ago.

So far over the span of forty nine years, from Aquaman’s first appearance to the publication of The Atlantis Chronicles we arguably have one gay Atlantean. With Jackson Hyde, in spite of his being mostly raised on land, we have two undersea gay men. In part two I’ll attempt to make the argument why there can and should be more members of an LGBTQ community and more with Aqualad.

Art from The Atlantis Chronicles by Esteban Maroto and Eric Kachelhofer.
Tempest art by Phil Jimenez, John Stokes, and Carla Feeny.
Aqualad art by Ramona Fradon.
Aquaman art from More Fun Comics by Paul Norris.
The feature image of Atlantis is from the Warner Brothers Aquaman movie.
All rights reserved by DC Comics and or Warner Brothers.

December 30, 2018
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