Arts & Letters Daily
Copyright & Credits
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Volume 11, No. 2March 2001
IN HIS 1995 TELL-ALL SHOWBIZ AUTOBIOGRAPHY, Boy Wonder: My Life in Tights, the actor Burt Ward, who played Robin in the 1960s TV show Batman, addressed the long-standing rumor that Batman and Robin are gay. While stridently proclaiming his own real-life heterosexuality (and boasting of his many sexual conquests, including a nine-way love-in with eight female groupies), Ward conceded the possibility of an amorous link between the fictional Batman and Robin: "A mature man, unmarried and rarely seen in the company of women, takes a naive teenage boy under his wing.... They share many secrets and spend long hours alone in remote areas.... Holy homophobia!"
Ward was neither the first nor the last to be intrigued by the dynamic duo's sex life. In 1954, the psychiatrist Fredric Wertham cited the "homoeroticism" of Batman as evidence that comics were unfit reading material for children. In recent years, queer theorists like Andy Medhurst, a lecturer in media at the University of Sussex in Britain, have turned Wertham's insult on its head by championing the caped crusader's role as a gay icon.
Yet scholars who venture into the sexual Batcave often hit a formidable roadblock: DC Comics, which owns the Batman copyright, appears reluctant to grant reprint permission to scholarly works that discuss Batman's sexual orientation. Chris York, a graduate student in American studies at Michigan State University, ran into permissions difficulties after his article "All in the Family: Homophobia and Batman Comics in the 1950s" was accepted by the International Journal of Comic Art in May 2000. York's article argues that the writers of Batman comics responded to Wertham's accusation of "homoeroticism" by providing Batman with more female companions, such as Batgirl, Batwoman, and numerous girlfriends. York concludes: Surrounded by his "nuclear Bat-family," the "dark, deviant" vigilante of the early 1940s was transformed into a genial, problem-solving father figure. In support of his argument, York provides a detailed interpretation of four panels that appeared in various Batman comics in the 1950s.
When he wrote to DC Comics requesting permission to reprint these panels, York stressed that his article "in no way suggests that Batman and Robin were homosexuals." Despite the disclaimer, Barbara Rich, the manager of legal affairs and rights and permissions at DC, rejected York's request without reading the article.
John Lent, the editor of the International Journal of Comic Art, feels that DC's decision not to grant permission to York was "corporate censorship" motivated in part by "homophobia." Lent briefly considered running the art under provisions in the federal copyright law that allow for fair use of short quotations for scholarly purposes. But a legal challenge from DC was too much for Lent to risk. As York notes, copyright disputes are "tough for small journals because they don't have the capital to fight lawsuits."
On the pages of his journal where the Batman art was supposed to run, Lent printed a large box of text that reads, "DC Comics would not grant permission for the use of this four-panel series." Lent says he was motivated in part by his desire to call attention to the fact that copyright holders such as DC Comics often use the threat of lawsuits to hamper the publication of unauthorized interpretations of their characters.
DC's Barbara Rich insists that "censorship was not the motive" for rejecting York's request but declines to comment further. In a statement to Lingua Franca from DC publicity manager Peggy Burns, DC offers "no comment on any particular article or situation." DC spokesperson Patty Jeres, speaking to The Comics Journal, an industry magazine that reported on the York case in November 2000, suggested that Lent and York could have made a stronger effort to appeal the rejection. (Lent and York maintain that nothing in Rich's brief letter hinted that the rejection could have been appealed.)
DC's rejection of York's request fits an apparent pattern of resistance to gay interpretations of Batman. In 1991, Routledge published an anthology titled The Many Lives of the Batman, which includes an article on Batman as a camp icon. Permission to reprint art was denied. In 1993, The New Republic ran a satiric cover cartoon in which Batman and Robin exchange terms of endearment. DC immediately asked for, and received, an apology. In 2000, Continuum Books requested the use of comic art to illustrate communications scholar Will Brooker's Batman Unmasked: Analyzing a Cultural Icon, which examines Wertham's accusations of homosexuality and their afterlife. DC agreed to grant permission, but only if Continuum changed the title to Analyzing a Cultural Icon: Batman Unmasked. Continuum refused to make the change and had to publish Brooker's book without art.
Does DC Comics deny reprint permission to scholarly works, irrespective of the interpretive angle? That seems unlikely. According to DC's Peggy Burns, "There have been literally hundreds of permissions granted by DC for inclusion of material we've published in scholarly works ranging from articles to books." So why reject the requests from York, Brooker, and Routledge?
The University of Calgary professor Bart Beaty, co-editor of the forthcoming International Encyclopedia of Comics (Routledge), believes that York's article was "clearly" a victim of "censorship" and "homophobia." He also feels that the difficulty of securing copyright permission is "absolutely the most serious problem facing comic-book scholarship." For now, many comic-book scholars find themselves in the difficult position of writing about a visual medium without the aid of art. "Writing about comics by only quoting the written text," says Beaty, "is like writing about Shakespeare by only quoting the stage directions."
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