Representing Queerness in the DCU

Sean/Shvaughn Erin and Jan Arrah (Element Lad)

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DCUQ

A friend recently asked me for “gay male comic book” recommendations. I named off some of the well-known characters in the DC Universe today: Alan Scott (the Golden Age Green Lantern who was reimagined as gay in DC’s recent relaunch, The New 52), Miguel José Barragán (aka Bunker who first appeared in Teen Titans #1, vol. 4)….and… ugh…

I soon realised that even those contemporary comic books weren’t really stories that I would recommend for quality storytelling—Bunker can often read like a caricature/tokenised attempt to introduce diversity into the DCU. In fact, the run was so bad that after only three years the Teen Titans series had to be scrapped and relaunched!

I reached out to some colleagues on a rather active comic book scholars listserv, but the responses were only moderately helpful. This got me thinking about trans*/genderqueer characters in the DCU more generally… the situation is, in fact, dire. A scholar of Europe, comic books, and a life long reader of DC Comics, I decided that I would create an ongoing series that occasionally features commentary about those queer corners of the DCU that have been missing (and sometimes completely erased—by intergalactic battles that span the time-space continuum!)  Without further adieu…

Shvaughn Erin and Jan Arrah

DC Comics’ Legion of Super-Heroes has not only been around since 1958, but also, this group of young heroes from the 30th century has had one of the longest traditions of including queer/coded characters during its nearly 60 years of publication.

Shvaughn Erin, a queer character that hasn’t been explored as queer in contemporary Legion comics, “came out” in a 1992 story under fairly traumatic circumstances as  DC’s first genderqueer/trans* character (note: placing any sort of label on the character is impossible and problematic, but for simplicities sake, I will argue that Erin is unquestionably queer).

First appearing in 1978, Erin was a member of the Science Police and was assigned as the SP’s Liaison Officer to the Legion of Super-Heroes. During Erin’s time as liaison, the character developed a relationship with Jan Arrah (Element Lad)—who had been one of the few characters that some fans thought might be gay (legend has it that a fan asked the question to a panel of editors/writers at a comic con in 1976, but the question was ignored). Moreover, Arrah had been one of the few Legionnaires never to have a significant other, and even seemed to have alluded to not being interested in women—even trying to convince himself that he could be into fellow a Legionnaire, Light Girl, as featured in this classic scene from Adventure Comics #326 (1964):

Not Quite So Normative

Once the two hit it off, most readers probably assumed Erin and Arrah were in a heteronormative relationship—this would all change with Legion of Super-Heroes #34. As the series jumped five years later in a dystopian future, the Legionnaires found themselves in the midst of an intergalactic war, where medical supplies had become a precious commodity.

It is at this time that Shvaughn runs out of the medication she had been secretly taking—known as “Profem”. Not having access to her medication, Shvaughn’s body physically changes—becoming more androgynous (and perhaps becoming a male body?). To Jan’s credit, the only physical change he seems to notice is that Shvaughn has shorter hair.

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Jan proclaims his love for Erin “in spite [italics mine] of the Profem, not because of it”. The story further implies that Erin had first started taking the Profem because she thought the only way to win Jan, a man, was to become a woman (it’s unclear as to what Erin identifies as). Erin does say, “My real name is Sean”). This use of the word “real” can understood as a problematic understanding of queerness or a general lack of queer-friendly vocabulary that was rampant during the early 90s. Nevertheless, in the end, Jan says that he fell in love with Shvaughn despite the medication—perhaps implying a preference for male bodies (?). Suffice it to say, this also means Jan exhibits some pansexual tendencies.

Erasure

The two eventually reconcile, and the series ends shortly after this revelation (because of the events of Zero Hour), so it’s unknown whether or not Sean continued taking the Profem after the end of the war. While there are many problematics with the representation of subjectivity in this story, needless to say, this is one queer relationship that should make a return to the DCU. If nothing else, it should return so that to undo the fact that this queer relationship was LITERALLY erased from the DCU with the time-bending Zero Hour: A Crisis in Time (along with the rest of the Legion).

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