'Morning,' reads the narration. 'And it begins like any other routine morning in the lives of millionaire Bruce Wayne and his ward, Dick Grayson ... We are thus explicitly told that this sharing of Bruce's bed is common Bat-practice. 'C'mon Dick!' says Bruce, yawning. 'A cold shower, a big breakfast!'
History does not record Dr. Wertham's reaction to receiving such an exquisitely formed distillation of his argument at such a propitious moment. But I think 'a cold, humorless smile' is a safe bet.
Now, of course taking comics panels out of context like this is silly. After all, Bruce and Dick's relationship was essentially that of father and son, and kids crawl into bed with their parents all the time.
This is the issue with gay readings. Any given bond between males can be homosocial without being homoerotic, and even the most explicitly homoerotic bond can exist without ever rubbing up against homosexual desire. To willfully and sneeringly misinterpret what was clearly intended as a familial connection as a romantic one - as Wertham did in 1954 and as so many Tumblr feeds do today - seems ungenerous at best and snide at worst, no?
As I write in my new history of Batman and nerd culture, The Caped Crusade: No! Intention doesn't matter when it comes to gay subtext. Imagery does.
Remember: Queer readers didn't see any vestige of themselves represented in the mass media of this era, let alone its comic books. And when queer audiences don't see ourselves in a given work, we look deeper, parsing every exchange for the faintest hint of something we recognize. This is why, as a visual medium filled with silent cues like body language and background detail, superhero comics have proven a particularly fertile vector for gay readings over the years. Images can assert layers of unspoken meanings that mere words can never conjure. That panel of a be-toweled Bruce and Dick lounging together in their solarium, for example, would not carry the potent homoerotic charge it does, were the same scene simply described in boring ol' prose.
The Shadow of Wertham
Wertham's crusade rallied church groups, schools and local legislatures against comics. Crime and horror comics folded by the dozen. Even Superman struggled to hang on. And as for Batman and Robin, they went from comics' premiere double act to ensemble players, welcoming a bevy of masked hangers-on into the Bat-ranks.
Alfred the butler had joined them in 1943, serving as a 24/7 chaperone. Now, between a Bat-Hound, a Batwoman, a Batgirl, a Bat-5th-Dimensional-Magical-Imp, and - all too briefly - a Bat-Ape, Batman and Robin could hardly find any time alone together. This was no coincidence. The shadow of Wertham lingered long into the '60s, and Batman editors resolved to do what they could to dispel it, even if doing so came with a body count: When asked why Alfred the butler was killed off - briefly - in 1964 to be replaced by the dithering Aunt Harriet, editor Julius Schwartz averred, 'There was a lot of discussion in those days about three males living in Wayne Manor.'
When the 1966 television series Batman came along it transposed the Dynamic Duo of that era's comics - a pair of sunlit, anodyne, civic-minded cops in capes, essentially - onto the screen but imbued the proceedings with a deadly mock-seriousness that made it a cultural phenomenon. Although the show became inextricably associated with the notion of camp, its pop-art sensibility never came off as particularly gay despite the presence of guest villains played by such fierce divas as Tallulah Bankhead and Liberace.
After the show went off the air, the creators of Batman comics resolved to get out from under its inescapable cultural penetrance by rebooting Batman as a lone avenger of the night. They shuffled Dick Grayson off to college in 1970, effectively ending the Bruce-Dick partnership that had grown so weighted with gay meta-meanings over the decades. Which, really, was all it took for heteronormativity to reassert itself, because while separately Batman and Robin came hardwired with vague gay associations (the fear of one's secret identity being exposed, for example), it was only ever their status as a bonded male-male pair that had truly raised eyebrows.
Once out of Bruce's shadow, Dick dutifully dated women and started his own superteam. Eventually he cast off the Robin identity for good, adopting the totally butch-badass nom de spandex Nightwing.
Yes. Well. That whole Freddie Mercury ensemble didn't last long.
Recently, in the pages of the comic Grayson, Dick's given up superheroing altogether to assume the role of a globetrotting master spy, albeit one partial to tight pants that show off that famously well-muscled hinder to all and sundry.
As for Batman, he cycled through a number of replacement Robins; he's like that friend who keeps dating slightly different iterations of the guy who got away in college. In recent decades, it certainly seems as if his writers have grown more self-aware about unintended gay readings and hence more circumspect. Batman has self-policed himself, and his optics, much more thoroughly since Dick left; it's quite rare to see any subtextual gay elements bubbling up to the surface.
But when they do, those bubbles geyser up at a furious froth with enough pounds per square inch to blow the Dynamic Duo's closet door off its hinges. The primary case in point: the Joel Schumacher films Batman Forever (1995) and Batman & Robin (1997).
Under Schumacher's direction, both films out-and-proudly featured a sugar-daddy Bruce and a surly, tank-topped, rough-trade Dick, complete with earring. And motorcycle. And Lysistrata-like rubber codpiece. And, of course - say it soft and it's almost like praying - Bat-nipples.
In the comics, Bruce and Dick had long before gone their separate ways. But here, on Schumacher's garish, neon-lit movie screens, they were together again. The films proved a final, defiantly queer victory lap for the Bruce and Dick team. What Schumacher produced wasn't gay subtext; it was gay domtext.
Yes, these two movies were gloriously godawful trainwrecks. No human being capable of rational thought would dispute that. But while the Schumacher Bat-films seem like outliers among the kinds of Batman stories that reign in the present day, they fit squarely within a long and storied legacy of homosocial, homoerotic, and homosexual resonances in the Bruce–Dick partnership.
Gayness is built into Batman.
Schumacher knew this. When he looked at Batman, Schumacher saw him in much the same way that thousands of queer readers had seen him for decades. He knew something about Bruce that Bruce will never be permitted to admit to himself, and he put it onscreen. And in much the same way, when Schumacher looked at Robin, he knew something important - something central, and revelatory, and eternal - about Dick.
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