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Midnight Cowboy

Courtesy of Marvel Comics

IN A WORLD CHOCK-FULL OF STRETCHED SPANDEX, megapersonalities and characters with a flair for the dramatic, it's a wonder comic-book publishers hadn't come up with the idea sooner. In what has become something of a media circus, Marvel Comics -- which produces Spider-Man, The Fantastic Four and X-Men -- is bringing back one of its classic Western characters, the Rawhide Kid, and making him gay. Homoerotic subtexts and gay imagery have been part of American comic books from the very beginning, but the Rawhide Kid is the first time a title character from a major comic publisher has been unambiguously homosexual.

And boy is the Kid gay! In the first issue of the newly released five-part run, appropriately titled "Slap Leather," the out and proud gunslinger makes his way to Wells Junction, where the overwhelmed sheriff is taking it from bad guy Cisco Pike and his gang. One look at the Kid and you know there's something going on here. Sporting a double-breasted tunic, a scarf, and a spotless pair of boots, the Kid sashays into town, calming things between the wounded sheriff and the angry thugs. As the sheriff lies on the ground, delirious from a gun battle, the Kid is already over the drama. "Oh, stop," he hisses, hand on hip, "it's a few bruises and two bullets. You'll live." The kid was an orphan, shy around the ladies, who was raised by his Texas Ranger uncle.

The Kid for the new millennium is no Zane Grey, unless he came to the Old West by way of Paul Lynde's dressing room on the old Hollywood Squares. When a group of boys from town seek out their new hero to ask him about run-ins with other Western celebrities, the Kid says this about the Lone Ranger: "I think that the mask and powder-blue outfit are fantastic. I can certainly see why that Indian follows him around." And when asked about Annie Oakley, he tells the boys she's "not my type, but I can see how someone with a very wide window of acceptability might find her attractive." The Rawhide Kid, besides wearing a white hat, talks like he'd be most at home at the White Party.

DESPITE THE MAINSTREAM COMIC-book industry's reputation as a haven for pimply hetero geeks, the reality is that pimply gay geeks have been working behind the scenes writing and drawing characters for decades. Andy Mangels, the first openly gay man to write for a mainstream comic, found the Kid "an extremely witty take on a Western." Then he added: "It doesn't intend to advance a gay message. It's a very gay character in your very average, clich├ęd Western story."

According to a timeline of gay imagery created by Mangels, the twin gay gods of wit and irony have been influential in the comics world since 1951, when Accepted Publications' Popular Teenagers series ran a story about two characters named Toni Gay and Butch Dykeman, references that sailed over the heads of most readers, except for a few queer souls laughing their closeted asses off. Three years later German psychiatrist Frederic Wertham published Seduction of the Innocent, his infamous broadside of the comics industry that lead to Senate hearings and the creation of the Comics Code Authority. Wertham, worried about the corruption of impressionable youth, took potshots at the venerable Batman, presciently going after Robin's "youthful ward" status long before Burt Ward pulled on a pair of tights in the campy 1960s TV series.

"They live in sumptuous quarters," the shocked Wertham wrote of the Caped Crusaders, "with beautiful flowers in large vases and they have a butler, Alfred. It is like a wish dream of two homosexuals living together." Hello! What gay boy wouldn't want to live in stately Wayne Manor?

Homoerotic comics quickly became a staple of the growing gay publishing world, while newspaper strips like "Doonesbury" and "For Better or For Worse" added gay characters to their stables. Readers of alternative newsweeklies have learned about the ups and downs of same-sex dating from the most complicated gay couple in newsprint, Akbar and Jeff, of "Life in Hell."

Wertham must have been rolling in his grave when DC Comics' well-respected and widely read The Authority introduced Apollo and Midnighter, who shared the first same-sex superhero kiss in 2000 and ended up having a commitment ceremony and adopting a child (instead of a phallic-looking car, they opted for a Volvo). But for almost a decade prior, superhero titles as varied as The Hulk and Justice League of America have featured gay/lesbian/bisexual/transgender characters, AIDS-related storylines and, in the case of The Green Lantern, the hunt for a gang of gay bashers. Even the squeaky-clean Superman gets help from out Metropolis cop Maggie Sawyer (whose character recently appeared on the WB's Smallville), despite the fact that Supe has never uttered the word lesbian. Showtime's Queer as Folk has also put itself in the middle of the gay-comic drama, with one of the show's characters creating the homo hero Rage. The storyline proved so compelling that Showtime produced a single issue of the fictitious comic book to go with a DVD pack of the show's second season.

Ironically, the Rawhide Kid was created in 1955 as a response to the Comics Code Authority, which discouraged crime and horror titles for more wholesome genres like the Western. With not much of a back story and plenty of competition, the Kid slinked off into the sunset 16 issues later. Then the granddaddies of the modern comic, Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, revived the Kid in 1960, making him an orphan, shy around the ladies, who had been raised by his Texas Ranger uncle. Slightly height-challenged and well known for his mane of red hair, the Rawhide Kid survived as his own title until 1979, but has occasionally popped up in random Marvel comics here and there. With the 2003 reissue he's not just shy around girls, he's come back as gay as a four-day weekend, thanks to Ron Zimmerman, who's made a name for himself writing not only for Spider-Man but also for Howard Stern and the wickedly funny, failed satire Action.

But is Zimmerman going too hard for the easy laughs by making the Rawhide Kid such a big swish? "What if he is?" says Joe Palmer, creator of the comic-fan Web site Gay League of America. "There are femmy gay and straight men in life. Why not in comics? Based on the two issues I've read, he's kind of femmy, but don't forget -- he's the fastest gun in the West!"

RAWHIDE KID | By RON ZIMMERMAN | MARVEL COMICS Five-issue series, 32 pages each | $3


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