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Are Comic Books No Longer For Kids?

The world of comic books has sure changed a lot since we were young. It was a singular pleasure of a bygone day to gather an allowance and head for the corner drugstore for an issue of "Superman" for 12 cents, a quarter for a book with three - three! - stories. Today, comic books still seek an audience of young men (and to a lesser extent, young women) hungry for heroes. But that's where the similarities end.

Today's comic books have undergone a Starbucks transformation. They are now called "graphic novels" and are bound on fancier paper, selling at Borders or Barnes & Noble for $2.50. Even more striking is the business formula: the comic book industry is making the big bucks not on paper, but on the silver screen. Marvel Comics has had an amazing run at the movies, with massive box-office results for the "Spider-Man" films and now a monster third sequel in the "X-Men" movie series. On the other hand, Marvel isn't making much money in the old-fashioned publishing way. One recent estimate had them making only 22 percent of their revenues on the printed page.

Why is this important? Because by branching itself into the movie business, the comic book industry is no longer focusing solely on the freckle-faced ten-year-old. It's now big, big business, aiming to reach the 30-year-old audience with more adult messages, even though children will also be exposed to them.

So here we go with another delivery vehicle for children sacrificing innocence at the altar of controversy, in the hopes of gaining notoriety - and press attention. In 2003, Marvel went homosexual, trying to draw attention to itself by creating a gay superhero, the Rawhide Kid, but the "Rawhide Kid: Slap Leather" comic books never sold well, despite the initial raft of publicity.

Now DC Comics is trying to create its own gay shockwave by transforming Batwoman, a character killed off in 1979, into a lesbian socialite-turned-superhero in black and red latex. Spokesman Dan DiDio claims DC wants to strike a "more contemporary tone" and an openly lesbian character that still keeps her sexual preference hidden from certain family members has a lot of "strong emotional layers."

That isn't the only blow DC Comics is striking for diversity - and its search for a bigger audience. Others include the Blue Beetle, Firestorm, and The Atom - now reinvented as Mexican, black, and Asian heroes, respectively. Then there's the Great Ten, a government-sponsored team of Chinese superheroes. Some have joked that DC could really be groundbreaking by creating a superhero that's ugly or fat, which would add quite a dash of diversity.

There's nothing wrong with heroes that appeal to a broader youth audience. But a lesbian superhero? There are two ways this Batwoman idea rankles. First, that DC Comics is earnestly trying to indoctrinate today's young people and delight the homosexual lobby. After all, the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation loves this new character, and has previously awarded DC Comics seven awards for "Outstanding Comic Book" for pro-gay themes.

Second, and perhaps more commercially plausible, DC Comics knows that about 90 percent of its audience are young men, who are likely to find a 5-foot-ten lipstick lesbian in a tight latex suit worth a voyeuristic peek at the other side of the tracks. Some of today's comics-obsessed men find an online thrill in "hentai," or cartoon-character pornography based on the Japanese manga comic strips, and there are certainly lesbians in that genre.

Sexual themes and graphic violence are much more common than when most parents grew up reading books pre-screened by the Comics Code Authority, which added some restraint on "artistic license" on behalf of parents. But almost no one submits comic books to the CCA for approval any more.

Gay activists and journalists are now trying to push the idea of an intersection between homosexuals and superheroes in tights. The new cover story in the gay The Advocate magazine asks "How Gay Is Superman?" and salutes what it sees as summer movies flaunting "a bold queer spirit." In addition to digging deeply for hidden metaphors in the forthcoming "Superman Returns," gay activists are finding parallels in the new "X-Men" movie - that someone wants to cure the freakish mutant heroes, just like conservatives want to convert the homosexuals. As a gay activist, cast member Ian McKellen was very quick to emphasize this "cure" was the villain of the movie, as offensive as trying to change someone's "inferior" race.

Children as young as age six or seven are still reading these comic books, and I suspect most parents haven't a clue about the new messages emerging. Who would have predicted, ten years ago, that the comics would become a red-light neighborhood where sexually perverted superheroes would be packaged to elicit from children fascination and sympathy?