DC Comics’ latest collection of queer stories from queer creatives all over the DC Universe for Pride—and Pride in general this year—comes at complicated time for queer communities. Trans people face daily, horrifying denials of their rights, and places around the world attempt to erode the small, vital steps towards LGBTQ+ progress made this century. But the ways the collection addresses that pain alongside its joys holds a particular resonance this Pride... with a little help from one of the finest wielders of the Bat-Mantle.
While the vast majority of DC Pride 2022's stories choose to address the ongoing struggles LGBTQ+ people face in the real world right now by rejecting hatred and displaying an unabashed, relentlessly queer series of stories about love and acceptance, it would be unfair to frame it as naïve, or cynically ignorant, of the precarious state queer and in particular trans rights are in, in America and beyond. From the very get go, in a foreword from trans activist and actor/writer Nicole Maines—who played Dreamer on Supergirl, and then wrote for the character in several one-shot stories for DC—the anthology acknowledges that its blast of optimism and love is tempered with a reminder of the very real threats faced by the LGBTQ community in the here and now.
“Right now, we are seeing an unprecedented amount of aniti-LGBTQ+ legislation being introduced all across the country,” Maines’ foreword reads in part. “Lawmakers in a chilling number of states have made their message clear: young queer kids are public enemy number one, and they are wrong for being who they are. But seeing a proud queer person don a cape can inspire hope and tear that message down.”
If DC Pride 2022 thought that this was all it needed to say before going on to tell those proud, queer stories, that might be well enough. But it isn’t as far as the anthology goes, and it’s all the better for it. The final story in the collection, prefaced with a trigger warning for its content depiction of graphic content including slurs, acknowledges that it may feel out of place capping off the stories that you’ve just consumed: loving tales of Harley Quinn and Poison Ivy, of Tim Drake and his boyfriend Bernard, of a young Jon Kent flying through his first Pride parade as Superman. But it’s a necessary contrast, because its story is very real—a personal recollection of the past by Batman: The Animated Series’ growling Dark Knight himself, Kevin Conroy.
Conroy pens “Finding Batman”—illustrated and colored by J. Bone, and featuring lettering from Aditya Bidikar—as an introspective, haunting essay of his life as a gay man. From his childhood family traumas, balancing staying in the closet with a deteriorating marriage between his mother and father, through his struggles as a young actor told to deny his identity for the sake of his career—a career beginning as the AIDs crisis emerged, killing a generation of Conroy’s friends and associates—and to the very moment he found his voice for Batman.
It is a stark, unflinching tale, rendered so. The deliberate contrast in structure and its position in the shape of the whole anthology, down to its intentionally muted color, “Finding Batman” strikes you the moment you begin reading it, a frank, colorless contrast to the rainbow of pages you’d been reading before it. It demands attention because its story, Conroy’s own story, is a painful and necessary reminder of what queer generations before the ones reading and loving DC Pride 2022's other tales have, in the most part, been able to escape. Every time Conroy touches on a job lost, a slur hurled, a friend dying in the hospital, it’s another declarative piece of punctuation. It’s telling that there is just one striking shock of color beyond black, white, and cool shade tones in the entire story, and that is a splash of red letters to illustrate a slur hurled at Conroy by his own brother in a moment of anger.
That anger simmers throughout “Finding Batman,” if not largely from Conroy’s recollection of his younger self—his discomfort, his need to hide, his reservation of just how to confront the tandem horrors of AIDS and homophobic abuse in acting masks what anger the actor could’ve, must have felt in these moments. That is, until the story’s final page, the moment in Conroy’s audition for the role of Bruce Wayne when he is asked to relate to the tragic story of a boy who saw his parents gunned down before his young eyes. “A mask of confidence to the world,” Conroy reflects, “and a private one racked by conflict and wounds. Could I relate to that, they asked.”
Placing the grief of his own life—the death of his father, cradling his mentally ill brother—over the grief of Bruce Wayne holding his parents’ bodies in Crime Alley, Conroy recalls the growl that emerged from his voice as he read his line. It’s a roar that he describes: what escapes, what becomes the voice that would define a character for generations and continues to define it to this day, is a howl of pain and rage at the injustices Conroy spent his entire life facing. The Batman, in that moment that Conroy defines him, is not a figure of hope, a salve to his traumas, but a figure with which to channel that righteous fury.
It is a shocking note to conclude a Pride anthology on—but an honest one. Its power is a reminder that queer anger is as necessary as queer joy in a time when LGBTQ+ find their hard-earned rights slowly being picked apart. It’s a reminder that even one of the most beloved figures in the DC Universe can stand as a parallel of queer struggles, embodied by a trauamtised, but proudly gay man. “Finding Batman” may not be the explosive shock of color that ends DC Pride 2022's celebration you might have expected, but that it isn’t is as beautiful as if it had been.
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