Allan Heinberg – The Gay Times Interview

The latest issue of Gay Times has run a series of interviews with comic book creators, associated with gay-friendly books. Interviewer Joe Glass has offered Bleediing Cool the unexpurgatedversions. Including Allan Heinberg. writer for Young Avengers and Wonder Woman.

Joe Glass: You’ve worked in other media before coming to comics to write Young Avengers. Do you feel comics are more, less or equally receptive to involving gay characters and issues?

Allan Heinberg: My experience has been that it has been far easier to create a gay, lead character (or two) in mainstream comics than on American broadcast television.

JG:  Why do you think comics are so much more open to LGBT issues and especially lead characters than broadcast television? Was there any time you’ve wanted to introduce LGBT characters and been met with resistance?

It’s all about money. Television shows have much larger budgets than comic books, so the financial risks are far greater for the studios and the networks who are financing the shows. And sadly, gay lead characters are still not as easy to sell to mainstream audiences as heterosexual ones.

JG: An argument has occasionally been levelled critically that LGBT characters in mainstream superhero comics are often shown as being assimilated into heteronormative culture, whereas underground and indie comics will celebrate the differences found in LGBT communities/characters. Do you feel this is the case? Do you think that there is place in superhero comics to deal with LGBT issues?

AH: I don’t think I’ve seen enough gay and lesbian characters in mainstream superhero comics to be able to describe a general pattern or trend.  I will say that my approach to Wiccan and Hulkling in “Young Avengers” and in “Avengers: The Children’s Crusade” was to make their sexuality beside the point.  While they are open about their sexuality and their relationship, they’re by no means defined by it.  In my opinion, any super hero who’s primarily defined by his or her sexuality doesn’t make for a very interesting or multi-dimensional super hero.  Or human being, for that matter.

JG:  Wiccan and Hulkling’s sexuality is certainly secondary to their personalities and individual voices, but they are lauded among many fans for being some of the only gay characters whose relationship is openly covered in the comics. Do you ever feel like you have an extra level of responsibility and expectation with those characters?

AH: I have to be careful not to think too much about how the books or the characters are being received, so that I don’t let that consideration drive the storytelling. That said, I do try to write all the characters in the book — even the so-called villains — responsibly and compassionately. I think it just makes for more interesting storytelling.

JG: When Wiccan and Hulkling were outed in the Young Avengers comics, there were many fans who applauded the story. However, there were more conservative fans that were critical and even angry at the characters inclusion. Do you feel this is a worryingly common thing among comics fans?

AH: During the thirteen-issue run of “Young Avengers,” I was astonished to find that the majority of the mail we received was overwhelmingly positive and encouraging.  I think we only received four or five letters expressing concern about the adult themes in the book.  And only one or two of those was blatantly homophobic.  The overall response made me extremely happy and hopeful about the future.

JG: What other adult themes had caused concerns from your readers during the first YA run?

AH: There was concern about Wiccan and Hulkling’s sexuality — about Eli’s MGH abuse — and about Kate Bishop’s assault, as well.

JG: There are a large number of LGBT fans of comics. What do you feel attracts people of our community to comic books, and in particular superhero stories?

AH: Super hero comics tend to be about outsiders — people who are not accepted by the mainstream — or who feel they don’t belong there — who nonetheless strive and sacrifice to save the very people who rejected them in the first place.  Even poor Superman is constantly struggling to prove to himself and to the world that he’s worthy of his adopted humanity.  As a closeted gay kid growing up in Oklahoma in the 1970′s, I completely identified with that struggle.  Even now, I find it enormously moving.

JG: You’ve said yourself that Hulkling was originally intended to be a woman posing as a man, which could have meant possibly getting to deal with transgender issues. Did you feel that such issues were already being handled in Brian K Vaughan’s Runaways? Also, at what point did you decide that Hulkling worked better, or made more sense, as a gay man?

AH: When Jim Cheung and I began work on “Young Avengers,” I assumed Marvel would never let us have two gay lead characters out of the gate, so I initially conceived Hulkling as a female shapeshifter called Chimera, who would (in the Kree-Skrull War arc) discover that her true form was male.  Which would then force her boyfriend, Wiccan, to have to decide whether he was still in love with Hulkling now that she was a he.  It was a very long, convoluted way to sneak a gay love story into a mainstream Marvel Comic.  But then, after YA #1 came out, our brilliant editor, Tom Brevoort, said, “Wouldn’t it just be simpler to make them both gay?”  And that was that.  This was before the second volume of Brian K. Vaughan’s superb “Runaways” came out, so I didn’t know anything about Xavin’s story, but I was certainly glad we changed ours once I started reading BKV’s.

JG: You sound surprised by Marvel’s attitude to introducing gay characters, even going so far as preparing an elaborate way to bring it up. Was that something you thought would be an issue going into mainstream comics?

AH: Absolutely. I thought the dearth of openly gay characters in mainstream comics demonstrated a prejudice against them in the industry. And I was delighted to discover that in the end I was the one who’d been prejudiced.

JG: Do you think that could be a common misconception amongst creators and fans? I mean, purely from my point of view, I’ve been quite surprised at how open everyone has been saying the comics publishers are to LGBT issues.

AH: I do think it’s a common misconception. The truth is that comic book publishers just want to make great books that people want to buy and read. As long as there’s an audience for characters like the Runaways and books like Young Avengers, Marvel will continue to publish them.

JG: Why do you think there are so few LGBT characters in superhero comics?

AH: Based on my experience, I think it’s probably a reflection of the interests of the creators involved.

JG: Often with gay couples in comics (what few there are), they seem to act similar to each other (i.e. no partner seems dominant or passive etc) often either both just being snarky and both being fairly heteronormative. But Billy and Teddy seem to be standing out from each other, which I think really needs to be seen. That way we have a couple of different personalities on show, instead of ‘the gay teens’. Was that something you really wanted to set out to do with this arc, as well as the last arc of Young Avengers volume 1?

AH: That actually had less to do with Billy and Teddy as a couple than it did with wanting each member of the Young Avengers to have his or her own specific voice and point of view.

JG: Whilst gay critics and fans have applauded the inclusion of Wiccan and Hulkling, and as such prominent characters and members of the team, many have remained critical that they don’t seem to share any personal or intimate moments. In your recent issue of Avengers: the Children’s Crusade, they do seem to get their first moment when they hold hands and discuss ‘making out’. However, the characters have yet to kiss on panel. Do you feel that there are limits as to what you can include in a Marvel superhero comic?

AH: The truth is, I could do an entire issue of Wiccan and Hulkling in bed together, and Marvel would have no problem with it as long as they felt like it was serving the characters and moving their story forward.  The only reason that Wiccan and Hulkling haven’t kissed on panel yet is because there hasn’t been a moment where the story demands that they kiss. I suppose they could’ve kissed in “Crusade” #1, but I thought the physical intimacy and tenderness they shared was far more powerful — and something you rarely see in mainstream super hero comics.  (Although Peter David’s handling of Rictor’s romance with Shatterstar in “X-Factor” is brilliant.)   However, since “Crusade” is primarily Wiccan’s story — and since Hulkling is an important part of that story — I wouldn’t be at all surprised if we saw a certain amount of story-driven kissing as the book proceeds.

JG:  What has been, from your experience, Marvel’s stance on LGBT characters and issues in their mainstream superhero comics? Also, as an openly gay man yourself, how do you feel the level of acceptance is within the comics industry as a whole?

AH: In my experience, Marvel has been and continues to be completely open about LGBT characters and issues in the mainstream superhero comics.  I think Brian K. Vaughan and Peter David would tell you the same thing.  There is no editorial agenda on LGBT issues. Marvel leaves it entirely up to its writers.

JG: What has been the most important thing for you as a creator of working on Young Avengers and in particular these two prominent, teen, gay characters that are such positive role models?

AH: The most important thing for me continues to be trying to craft entertaining, surprising, character-driven, emotionally compelling stories that make readers want to keep reading.

JG: Have you ever considered having the boys meet any of Marvel’s other LGBT characters (outside of the ones in The Runaways)?

AH: I’d love for them to meet Northstar at some point. And a double-date with Rictor and Shatterstar would be fun.

JG:  Are there any characters or books that you’d love to write?

AH: I’d love to continue writing “Young Avengers” if my schedule allows and to have them interact a bit more with characters like Thor, Daredevil, Ms. Marvel, and Jessica Jones. I’m also a huge Barbara Gordon Batgirl fan. And I’ve always loved the Legion of Superheroes.

JG: As well as your work on ‘Young Avengers’, you’ve also worked for DC on ‘Wonder Woman’ and more. So, I suppose one question that may be on some fans minds may be “are you a Marvel or a DC?”

AH: I grew up as a DC person, but right now I’m very much a Marvel Universe person.

JG: Obviously, you still have ‘The Children’s Crusade’ on your plate, but no announced comic work afterwards. Are comics a medium you’d like to stay involved with?

AH: Absolutely. I would love to always be working on at least one comic book, if not more.

JG: Similarly, there’s no official word on what the Young Avengers will get up to after Avengers: the Children’s Crusade. So, assuming they make it out of this adventure, are the Young Avengers characters you’d love to come back to again?

AH: Yes, there are a number of Young Avengers stories that I still want to tell. Tom Brevoort, Jim Cheung, and I are just trying to figure out the best venue for them.

JG: Marvel have made the Young Avengers a major and important fixture of the Marvel Universe. How does it feel to have characters you created become such a big part of the MU?

AH: It’s been incredibly gratifying and actually rather humbling to watch other writers and artists tell their own stories with these characters.

JG:  A lot of writers have now had a crack at the Young Avengers. Do you have any favourites?

AH: I’ve enjoyed all of them. Particularly Matt Fraction and Alan Davis’s Hawkeye story in Young Avengers Presents. And Paul Cornell and Mark Brooks’s Vision story was lovely, as well.

Joe Glass has two comic projects launching at Cardiff International Comic Expo this Saturday, Stiffs and The Pride.

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