Naturally Bold: Comic Book Superstar Phil Jimenez
Phil Jimenez is no stranger to bold ideas. As an artist and writer he has made a career out of crafting colorful tales of larger-than-life characters found in the fantastic realm of comic books. The boldness of superheroes is part of what drew him into the world of tights and flights— and the values they demonstrated, such as truth, justice and equality, resonated with him from an early age; values that would later allow him the courage to come out to his readers at the crucial moment his career began soaring to new heights at DC Comics.
Jimenez's choice to come out was daring for the time, given the fact that openly gay people were a rarity in any type of media, but he had more invested in his choice than simply being open and honest with his fans.
Phil Jimenez began working at DC Comics in the early 1990s. It was there he met and fell in love with co-worker Neal Pozner, the man responsible for revitalizing the character Aquaman in the mid-1980s. Pozner took the young artist under his wing as well as into his heart and the two began a relationship that was tragically cut short due to Pozner’s battle with AIDS.
When Jimenez was given the opportunity to create a comic book miniseries based on Aquaman’s former sidekick, Aqualad, he leapt at the chance. Renaming the character Tempest, he gave the superhero a new costume resembling the one Pozner had used during his run on Aquaman. However, it was issue #4 of Tempest that Phil made his boldest move: In the back of the comic, a space usually reserved for a letters column, he dedicated the miniseries to Neal, wrote openly about their relationship and the heartbreak he endured watching the man he loved pass away from a horrible disease.
His desire to follow the values of the superheroes he adored has served him well. Phil Jimenez is now one of the biggest names in comic books today. He has worked on the greatest icons in the industry, including Superman, Spider-Man, The X-Men and Wonder Woman. His work has amassed a fan base that crosses the boundaries of sexual orientation and proves that success comes form embracing, not turning away from, who you are.
We recently had the opportunity to sit down with the gifted artist/writer and ask him about his coming out, gay characters in mainstream comics, and the influence of queer culture on superheroes.
Did you feel like your were jeopardizing future possibilities when you came out in Tempest #4?
At the time, this was back in 1996 or so, I seem to remember not being particularly concerned about job prospects. DC Comics was, to my mind, just about THE best place to be young and gay and coming out. Then president Jeanette Kahn and so many of the employees had created such a safe space for gay people… and women, and people of color.
It was, however, one thing to be creeping out of the closet at 21 or 22 back then, and another to be in a romantic relationship with the man who had hired me, mentored me, was responsible for my early career, was much older than me, and had AIDS. It cannot be overstated the impact that Neal had on my young life in many important ways, and so I wanted to honor him with the Tempest miniseries and honor what we shared. So my "coming out" in the pages of that letter column was less of a political or social statement and more of an emotional one. I'm not naive enough to believe that there wasn't a socio-political component to it. I'm of the belief that little or nothing is done creatively without those aspects of our world creeping into our creative agenda, but more than anything, I wanted readers to know who Neal was, why he was important to DC Comics, to me, and how he had inspired the miniseries they were reading. I think Neal was terrified he wouldn't be remembered after he died, and I wanted to ensure that he was immortalized in a medium he loved so dearly.
If memory serves, there was some discussion about the letter column among editors and the company. I think DC Comics should be applauded for allowing the piece to be printed in the first place. They were taking a risk, too.
Do you feel there has been a shift in pop culture that has caused the LGBT community to gravitate towards the realm of costumed crime fighters as role models?
I do think superheroes have obvious appeal to some segments of the LGBT community. I've long thought of superheroes as drag queens of the comic book world. They sometimes have secret identities, wear flamboyant costumes, and often fight for social causes despite being misunderstood or even feared by many in the world around them. I have several close gay, comic book-reading friends who profoundly relate to the mutant metaphor of the X-Men series; they felt different, ugly, and alone, and really connected with that thematic aspect of the X-Men franchise.
Some readers clearly use these characters as revenge fantasies. One potent letter I received from a gay reader reminded me that while he always got beat up in school and could never fight back against his attackers, superheroes could. It was very important for him to see his favorite heroes definitively defeating their villains because that was something that did not happen in his own life and he had to believe it could happen somewhere.
However, with me it was less about relating to the sense of ostracization some heroes felt or defeating world-threatening villains than it was the "bigness" of super-heroes and their world I connected with. That's what always appealed to me—their fantastic, bigger-than-anything lives, their fantastic journeys, amazing powers, cosmic experiences… and yes, their clothes! Much of the genre fiction that appeals to me involves fantastic worlds and far away places not bogged down by mundane practicality.
As to symbols and role models: I certainly think the natural sex appeal of super-heroes gives them a certain "oomph" in the gay community. There's an obvious sexual/fetish aspect to the costuming that many find alluring. Beyond the ideals the characters represent, their physicality and sexuality is of great appeal to certain segments of the LGBT community. You can totally imagine why a character like Hawkman might be adopted by the muscle bear/leather community for example! There's much about the character of Wonder Woman, both in her original incarnation from the 1940s and some of her later ones that has helped shaped my worldview over the years. She was comics' original sexual outlaw, defying mores of the time and making up her own. She was a teacher who promoted a set of ideals I still find inspiring, like equality, generosity, kindness, and living life with fun and hope. She was noble and honorable and fought for these things because she believed in their inherent truths and because she was raised by a community of women and a fiercely devoted mother who believed in them too. And she knew how to rock a star-spangled bathing suit better than anyone I know.
I don't think one has to be LGBT to believe in these ideals or any of the ones super-heroes promote. Perhaps because many in the LGBT community are looking for such heroes when they don't have that many in their world, superheroes appeal to them in specific ways other characters do not.
Comics have historically been known for sexualizing women through the use of scantily clad costumes that could hardly be seen as functional. However, in recent years the industry has shifted to also take advantage of the obvious sex appeal of male superheroes as well. Do you feel that queer culture has had a direct influence on this change?
I do believe there's been a slight shift, particularly in the past 20 years. You can certainly find strong examples of it in various books, and they were brought to us not only by gay artists, but straight ones too who understood and acknowledged that their audiences were less narrow than some imagined.
Like most fiction aimed at young men, the hyper sexualization in art occurs primarily with the female characters. And I'm not even talking about their costumes—I’m talking about the slinky way they're often visually depicted, and their functions in-story as objects of desire for the male characters. That said, I do believe with more gay artists doing work in the business and more gay-friendly straight artists bringing a more evolved, sophisticated eye to their work, we really are seeing more male characters rendered in ways similar to female characters. Ultimately, though, I think you see in the art what is important to the artist or the company and what is often important to the gender identity/myth of the consumer.
Male characters are rendered with tiny heads but enormously muscled necks, backs, arms, and chests that would make some of those steroided-out Jersey Shore guys seem like skinny weaklings. Their strength comes not from their minds, but from their bodies. They epitomize male power fantasy in a very obvious physical way. Their sex appeal is rooted firmly in the traditional mold of how men can and should be sexy.
By the way, as a general note, I've really grown to dislike the notion of "functional" costumes in super-hero costumes in comic books. Not that I think they should be completely non-sensical, but costumes are outer representations of ideas the characters symbolize and embody, and most super-heroes are, as we've discussed, anything but "practical." I don't care where superheroes keep their loose change if the costumes they wear are beautifuly designed, rendered, and work as icons in and of themselves. If anything, I hope the LGBT community continues to have an influence on the bigness and occasional outlandishness of the designs of these costumes by embracing some of the more ridiculous aspects of them—capes, cowls, and star-spangled bathing suits, form fitting body suits and domino-masks, etc. Let's fight back a little bit on "the practical" and the mundane, at least in print, and let Hollywood and others figure out how to make the costumes work "in reality.”
Shortly, a new Batwoman series will launch by DC comics and will give LGBT readers their first high profile, queer super-hero in a monthly book produced by a mainstream publisher. While this is certainly exciting news, Batwoman (left, not drawn by Jimenez) isn’t the first openly gay super-hero to hit the comics scene. Why do you think Batwoman has been embraced in a way that other openly gay superheroes, such as Marvel’s Northstar, have not?
Not to put too fine a point on it, but I suspect it's likely to do with the fact that she's a lesbian, and a sexy lesbian at that. While I know many people behind the scenes are interested in a more inclusive, diverse universe, they are still beholden to companies making money from adventure tales told and marketed to a predominantly straight audience using very familiar character types, tropes, and gender assignments. I think it's far easier to sell a hot lesbian than a gay male character in nearly any medium—both to producers of the content and to the consumers—because the sexy lesbian in leather can fulfill fantasy requirements for most in a way that out gay male characters simply cannot.
I've become one of those people that believe homophobia is really just an offshoot of misogyny; that the fear and hate of gays is rooted in very strict ideas about gender. Particularly, that men and women should behave in certain ways and that anything feminine or female is considered weaker or less desirable than things masculine or male. I think it's why heroes and heroines are often depicted differently and why most have to be "hardcore" and "bad-ass" to be taken seriously. Any signs of traditionally "feminine" weakness undermine their credibility. I think gay male characters and many female characters suffer in popularity because what makes them wonderful—their otherness, their difference—what they represent, simply isn't acceptable for many to embrace as fantasy or role models. This is one of the reasons I think Wonder Woman is such a difficult character for so many. Historically, she functions best as a character when she embodies ideals that are classically considered feminine, but in recent years her character has been subverted and reimagined as the consummate warrior, at times a lethal machine—an almost 180 degree turn from her original incarnation. She's become alpha in a way men (and many women) instantly get and understand. Instead of love, her most potent weapon these days seems to be fear. Once, she was all about reforming criminals. Now, if they piss her off she just might kill them. The more bad-ass she is, stripped of fun and camp, the less "wonder" and the less "woman" she is, the more a segment of the consumer populace can dig her, because she fits more firmly into a particular fantasy mold. She’s no longer there to up-end the system of patriarchy, she's there to enforce it.
Batwoman represents a different kind of female character, and is linked to an already incredibly popular male counterpart in Batman. She's smart, savvy, sexy, and can kill you with a kick—all good, appealing skills to have, in the profession of comic book super-heroine. So my hope is that she can succeed in a milieu where others have struggled.
Most of my favorite comic book characters became my favorites because they were NOT like the alpha males that dominated the market. They had powers, values, and points of view that were different than their hyper-male counterparts…and spoke to me because of it. I certainly hope there's still room for characters like these in super-hero comic books. I think the universes we create across the industry are large enough to cover all bases and fantasies. Let's hope that being too much a woman—and through extrapolation, being too gay—no longer hinders creators, consumers, or characters in this marketplace!