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You might know Christian Cooper as the mild-mannered New York City birdwatcher who became a social media hero last month following a racially-charged encounter in Central Park. But even before that incident thrust him into the wider public eye, the 57-year-old editor and writer was a comic book industry superhero. During the 1990s, Cooper was one of the first openly gay employees at Marvel Comics, and worked to increase LGBTQ representation in the pages of the company’s comics by leaps and bounds.
“It was really a dream come true to work there,” he tells Yahoo Entertainment. “I’d been a Marvel guy since I was a little kid. For anyone who is into comics and they get a chance to work at Marvel or DC, you’re like ‘This is so amazing.’”
Cooper certainly accomplished amazing things during his Marvel tenure. In March 1992, he served as the assistant editor on the landmark issue of Alpha Flight in which the mutant hero, Northstar (created by Chris Claremont and John Byrne), came out of the closet. Later that same year, he created the company’s first lesbian hero, Victoria Montesi, in the pages of Darkhold. And as the writer of the short-lived Star Trek: Starfleet Academy series, he boldly introduced the franchise’s first openly gay character, Yoshi Mishima. After parting ways with Marvel in the late ’90s, he became a web comic pioneer with Queer Nation, a never-completed series that he’s now hoping to revive.
Related: Christian Cooper Speaks Out About Viral Central Park Incident
“With my new notoriety or fame — whatever you want to call it — I am looking to take Queer Nation out of mothballs,” he says. “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!”
As part of Yahoo Entertainment’s Pride Month coverage, we spoke with Cooper about his marvelous years at Marvel, and what superhero entertainment he’s consuming now.
Yahoo Entertainment: What were your first years at Marvel Comics like?
Christian Cooper: Marvel was such a fun place. I think all of us from that era have very fond memories of it. In terms of the gay thing? They really didn't know what to do with it. There were one or two homophobes, as there always are, but almost everybody was like, "Whatever." I do remember this: As a going-away present from my old job, a lesbian friend had given me a picture of Steve Sax, who at the time was the second baseman for the Yankees. I know nothing about baseball or the Yankees, but I thought Steve Sax was hot.
So I put the picture up on my wall when I got to Marvel, and there was a colorist there who was a huge Yankees fan. He comes into my office and goes, "So you're a Yankees fan, huh?" I looked at him and said, "No." He said, "Oh? What, you're like some homosexual with a thing for Steve Sax?" And I said, "Yeah." His face just fell, he didn't know what to do with that! He just backed away and was like, "Uh, OK." Anyway, we remain good friends to this day! [Laughs]
What were the behind-the-scenes decisions that led to Northstar coming out in Alpha Flight #106?
I remember reading the first-ever issue of Alpha Flight when I was a freshman in college and thinking, "Northstar's gay." For anybody with a discerning eye, Northstar blipped on your gaydar from the get-go. Later on, there was an incredibly awful storyline where Northstar was coughing in every panel for a couple of issues; basically, the idea was they were going to give Northstar AIDS. Someone decided — rightly in my opinion — “We're not taking our only gay character and giving him AIDS.” So to get out of it, they came up with this absurd storyline where Northstar and his twin sister, Aurora, were the children of elves or fairies from fairy-land, and they had the two of them disappear to fairy-land.
Anyway, they undid that eventually and Alpha Flight passed into the hands of Bobbie Chase, who I was working with at the time as her assistant editor. We had to hire a new writer, and we talked to Scott Lobdell. We’re at a lunch going over the possible storylines, and Scott says, "I think maybe we should bring Northstar out of the closet." And we were like, "Yeah, it's time for Northstar to be out of the closet." So it was very matter-of-fact. His original issue was about twice as wordy as it ended up being — we just cut and cut. It's not the most subtle issue ever, but it got the job done.
We sent out a solicitation to comic shops that said that’s what was going to be happening in that issue. Then we got a phone call from some comic book shop, which asked, “Does Northstar really come out of the closet in No. 106?” I told Bobbie, and she said that we had to notify the head of PR. So I go trotting to her office, and you could just see the blood drain out of her face. The higher-ups tried to pull the issue from the printer before it was printed, but they were too late, thank god. The really ridiculous thing was that they gagged us from talking [to the press]. They had this opportunity to get all this publicity for the issue, and instead they said, "You can not talk about this issue at all."
But the issue came out, and it was pretty cool. There was some negative reaction — I think some Texas comic book shop owner said, "Now I have to put Alpha Flight on a top shelf in a special brown cover." I was like, “What?” And apparently, the Catholic Church was going to come out with a statement against us, but then decided not to. We had persistent goodwill from them, because we had done a Pope John Paul II comic. So yeah, it was a crazy time!
In the issue, Northstar’s coming out is part of a storyline that involves the AIDS crisis.
That was sort of what was happening in society. Before then, so many people had stayed in the closet, and gay stuff only came up in lurid ways. Suddenly, ordinary gay folk were saying, "No, I'm not staying in the closet anymore," because of the AIDS crisis.
Would you have preferred for it to have been part of a romantic storyline instead?
In that era, there was no way in hell we would have gotten a romantic coming out. It would have gotten through Bobbie and I, but we’d never have gotten it through anybody else. It had to be a confession devoid of any expression of romance or sexuality, like a statement of fact: "I am gay." 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! [Laughs]
Did you experience any pushback from Marvel when you created Victoria Montesi in the pages of Darkhold?
They wouldn't let me say that Vicky was a lesbian outright, but it's clear that she's in a romantic relationship with a woman. It’s part of the story in terms of it being one of several reasons why her father considered her a great disappointment. Not only the fact that she was lesbian, but also because the fact that she was born a woman — she was supposed to be a male heir to his line. 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. 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.
What was the fan reaction like to Vicky at the time?
The relationship with fans and writers back then was definitely via letter-writing, so that was how we gauged fan response to things. We got a s***-load of mail on Northstar and it was split about 50/50, which was disappointing, but not surprising considering that a lot of the readership for superhero comic was adolescent males uncomfortable with the whole issue. I don’t remember us getting mail on Vicky; no one went, “She’s a lesbian? I can’t read this anymore!” She was just below everyone’s radar.
What was your general experience like as a writer with Marvel? Were they increasingly open to featuring different kinds of characters?
Certainly on sexual orientation issues back in that era, they were pretty slow. When I tried to introduce Yoshi Mishima in Starfleet Academy, there was pushback on that — pushback in terms of that I wasn't going to be able to show Yoshi having a kiss. 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.”
The character who was originally supposed to be gay was Matthew Decker, the squad leader. It was going to be a role-reversal story, because in the initial issue, it's Matt who is looking askance at having a Ferengi on his team, and doesn't really want to have anything to do with them. Then Matt comes out, and now the Ferengi who was going to be looking askance at him. But Paramount wouldn’t let me make the leader of the squadron gay; they thought that was a bridge too far. If someone was going to boldly go there, it would have to be the TV series or the movies, not the comics. [Paramount controlled the Star Trek television franchise until 2005; both the TV and feature film franchise are currently owned by ViacomCBS.]
Star Trek takes place in a utopian future where we’re beyond 20th century prejudices. How would you have a written a gay character in that kind of setting?
Well, there's no prejudice in human society — that's why it's Nog the Ferengi who would have had a problem with it. [Nog was introduced on the TV series, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.] The Ferengi in particular were always portrayed as extraordinarily sexist, and a sexist society with clearly-defined gender roles is going to have a problem with someone who has varying sexuality. So that's how I was going to play it.
As licensed comics go, writing with Paramount was very cool. They let me do a lot of what I wanted, and when they didn’t, they forced me to get creative and come up with something even better. So Yoshi Mishima was my nod to the Japanese author, Yukio Mishima. He shows up periodically throughout the series, and played a big role in Issue #12. He was going to play an even bigger role in some of the issues that were coming up. We were going to have the Academy destroyed, and he was going to be meeting the Resistance, but we didn’t get a chance to do those sadly.
Did you feel any industry-wide impact your characters were having while you were at Marvel?
Not really; I always thought Marvel was a little bit late. DC already had openly gay characters by the time we got around to it, and because we were Marvel it was a big deal when we did it. That goes back to the American misconception that comics are a juvenile medium, and that anything gay is inappropriate for anyone who is not an adult. 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, and the stigma persisted at Marvel certainly longer than it did at DC.
After you left Marvel, you published the web comic, Queer Nation. Did you find the content restrictions on the internet more freeing?
What restrictions? [Laughs] It was whatever the hell I wanted to do, and I did it. I made the conscious decision myself that I wanted Queer Nation to be R-rated, not X-rated. I didn't want people to feel like they were reading something pornographic — there's plenty of places on the web for that. For me, R-rated meant naked breasts and butts are OK, but no genitalia. And the subject matter was no holds barred: foul language, ridiculous situations, intense political commentary… we did it all. People would react pretty much instantaneously. There really wasn't much in the way of web comics back then, and one of the reasons why I thought a web format was particularly good for Queer Nation is because a lot of LGBTQ people didn’t feel comfortable going into a comic book store. Meanwhile, gay bookstores didn’t know what to do with comics; they ended up gathering dust on a back shelf somewhere. Whereas if you did a web comic, it's immediately available to anybody who wants it, and they don't have to go into public.
Of course, we never figured out how to make money! I was pretty adamant that I wanted it to be free. We sold T-shirts; my stepmother still hounds me about all of the shirts that are still up in her attic. [Laughs] Ultimately, it was the victim of my having the opportunity to buy a Manhattan condo. All of a sudden, I was going to have a mortgage to pay and I was like, “I don’t really have the spare cash anymore to be able to do this.” But it’s a story I really, really want to finish! There were so many great twists and turns that I never got to tell; I had the general shape of the entire four-part story arc pretty much planned out. We finished the first part and had just started the second part when I finally put it on pause.
Are you following any comics or comic book-inspired TV shows right now?
Sadly, I went cold turkey out of necessity, but I’ve picked up a couple of things. I picked up Northstar’s wedding, and I’ve been reading Mags Visaggio, who is a trans comic book writer, and she's getting a lot of traction, which is fantastic. I’m addicted to The Flash on The CW, even though the recent seasons haven’t been quite as good as the earlier seasons. I don’t watch Legends of Tomorrow, but I would if they brought back the guy who played Hawkman, because he was hot. [Laughs] I look at Supergirl every once in a blue moon, and they have a trans actress on that show, Nicole Maines. If that’s not a sign of how far we’ve come, I don’t know what is. My boyfriend and I have also watched a couple episodes of Batwoman, and that character is a lesbian which is great — although I understand [Ruby Rose] isn’t coming back for second season.
As with Marvel comics back in your day, the Marvel Cinematic Universe has been a little slower to integrate LGBTQ characters. Would you love for one of your characters to wind up on the big screen?
That would be awesome! Though it would have be Vicky Montesi, and she's not a superhero — she’s an occult investigator and doesn’t run around in an outfit and fight crime or anything. But if they did a Darkhold series on TV, I’d be so happy. [The Darkhold book did make an appearance on the Marvel series, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., which is currently airing its final season on ABC.] I’d want to be in the writer’s room, goddammit! Let me fetch coffee, I don’t care — just put me in that writers’ room. [Laughs]
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