In the early 1990s, Marvel Comics entered a new era of representation thanks to Christian Cooper, the publisher's first openly gay writer and editor. During his tenure at the company, he created paranormal investigator Victoria Montesi (Marvel's first openly lesbian character) and served as associate editor on the history-making Alpha Flight #106, in which Northstar (a hero created by the iconic X-Men duo of Chris Claremont and John Byrne) came out as gay.
"It had to be a confession devoid of any expression of romance or sexuality, like a statement of fact: 'I am gay,'" Cooper recently told Yahoo! Entertainment, explaining how the moment wasn't allowed to be linked to anything romantic or intimate. "Even after that, they clamped us down. Someone decided, 'Let's do a Northstar limited series where he can't talk about the fact that he's gay.' Which they did and everyone roundly panned it, because it made no sense!"
Two decades later and Northstar married his boyfriend Kyle Jinadu in a same-sex wedding that was a widely publicized event for Marvel — an event proudly promoted on the cover of Astonishing X-Men #51. This almost certainly could not have been possible without Cooper's pioneering efforts to bring LGTBQ heroes to the forefront of the Marvel Universe.
When it came to Montesi, Cooper couldn't outright say she was a lesbian, but made it "clear that she's in a romantic relationship with a woman" known as Natasha. Victoria's sexual orientation, as well as her female gender, were not gimmicks or stunts. Both were instrumental in her backstory of being "a great disappointment" to her father, who wanted a male heir to continue his bloodline.
"I wasn't trying to hide the relationship with her lover, Natasha, but it was mostly off-screen. Natasha was incapacitated in the first issue, and spends the rest of the series in hospice care," Cooper explained. "There was no negotiation needed on that with Marvel, maybe because it was two women. There's this weird double standard about two women together not being nearly as threatening as two guys together."
The writer-editor also introduced Yoshi Mishima, the Star Trek franchise's first LGBTQ character in Marvel's short-lived Starfleet Academy series.
"There was pushback on that — pushback in terms of that I wasn't going to be able to show Yoshi having a kiss," he said. "My reaction to that was 'OK. If I can't show Yoshi having a kiss, I'm not going to show anybody having a kiss.'"
All in all, Cooper's trailblazing work at Marvel was part of an effort to subvert "the American misconception that comics are a juvenile medium, and that anything gay is inappropriate for anyone who is not an adult."
He added: "That's ridiculous, because I was a gay kid — I knew from the age of 5 that I was gay. Just because you're talking about someone being gay doesn't mean you're talking about their sexual practices, or stuff that's inappropriate for a particular age group. But that's hard for some people to wrap their minds around."
These days, Cooper is known for being an avid birdwatcher in Central Park and serving on the New York City Audubon's board of directors. His avian hobby recently thrust him into the headlines over a racially motivated incident. Thanks to all the renewed attention, however, he's looking to revisit Queer Nation, an unfinished superhero web comic he began to write after leaving Marvel in the late '90s.
"With my new notoriety or fame — whatever you want to call it — I am looking to take Queer Nation out of mothballs," he concluded. "It has a certain urgency right now that maybe it didn't have back then, because one of the core plot points is that a crazy right-wing fascist has been elected president and is pandering to the religious right. Oh wait, that couldn't happen in real life!"