The first issue of Midnighter & Apollo, DC’s new solo series about its first openly gay superhero power couple, opens with a literal bang. After the duo takes on a cult of subway pirates who sacrifice children to power a monstrous golem made out of train cars, Midnighter and Apollo head back home for a casual evening of drinks and dinner with friends before slipping into the easy rhythm of everyday domesticity. Midnighter washes dishes, Apollo dries, and the two revel in the simple, mundane pleasures of cohabitation.
At some point between rinsing plates and hanging them up to dry, the couple take advantage of the fact that they’re finally alone and get down to having sex right there in the kitchen. The moment’s spontaneous and intimate and reflective of the fact that Midnighter and Apollo have been on-again, off-again soulmates in various comics for nearly 20 years.
Though this isn’t the first time that Midnighter and Apollo have been depicted being sexually intimate with one another, this particular scene of the two raised a number of fans’ eyebrows because of the not-so-subtle implication that Midnighter, a hyper-violent, über-butch Batman analogue, is a bottom.
Last night, during a panel about representations of race and sexuality in comics at New York Comic Con, Midnighter & Apollo writer Steve Orlando described how a fan of the new book came up to him and said that he’d scored one for the bottoms.
Once the clapping and cheering died down a bit, Orlando insisted that sex scenes like this are an integral part of creating honest stories about queer people in pop culture. Considering the fact that we’ve seen characters like the Green Arrow performing cunnilingus on Black Canary, Orlando said, seeing Midnighter and Apollo getting down shouldn’t really shock people.
“It feels audacious because of the drought of representation and depiction of queer romance and queer sex acts in fiction,” Orlando said. “Honestly, from my own mindset, [Midnighter] is actually pretty tame, but it’s interesting because people have not seen this and have not been given what they deserve in so long.”
Orlando’s right to a point—mainstream comics have featured fairly explicit images of straight, heteronormative sex for decades now, but there’s definitely something to be said for identifying one of DC’s first openly gay heroes as a literal power bottom on the page.
When writer Warren Ellis created Midnighter and Apollo in 1998, the characters were both a groundbreaking step forward for queer representation in comics and rather conservative takes on what gay superheroes could and should be. The original characters were slightly different versions of Batman and Superman, meaning that they were two hyper-masculine, cisgender men with superpowers. Sure, they were technically gay, but their queerness came in very traditional, not-straight-but-narrow packaging.
Part of the problem with these sorts of depictions of gay men is that they’re a two-dimensional response to homophobic stereotypes about homosexuality and femininity. Heroic characters can be gay, sure, but their gender presentation must be discretely masculine, lest they come across like sissies or faggots.
Even in more complex, nuanced depictions of gay culture, bottom-shaming—the mockery of men who prefer to be the receptive partner during intercourse—is still fairly common. Like all forms of homophobia, bottom-shaming is tied to the idea that gayness and gay sex are feminine things and that feminine things are less-than.
In showing Midnighter as a bottom (though he could very well be versatile), Midnighter & Apollo is inviting its readers to broaden their understandings of gay men, gender, and homosexuality. Butch guys can be bottoms, feminine guys can be tops, none of that defines their masculinity.