Continued After the Next Page #20: Representation Matters Even in the 30th Century

As Pride Month 2022 comes to a close, I want to highlight what I feel is an often overlooked relationship in comic books. In the last couple of decades, gender and sexual identity in mainstream comic books have made great strides in diversity. I always have fond memories of the first same-sex relationship involving two superheroes that I saw in DC Comics.

The “Five Years Later” run of the Legion of Super-Heroes that started with Legion of Super-Heroes Volume 4 #1 (1989) has often been the subject of derision from fans as it represented a significant break in the history of the team. I am not sure how well received the book was at the time of publication, but it took almost thirty years for it to ever be collected. However, as a long time LSH fan, I find it to be one of the most daring, unique, and compelling version of one of my favorite super hero teams.

The initial run of this volume of the Legion was plotted and penciled by Keith Giffen with scripts by Tom and Mary Bierbaum. Within the pages of this run, particularly at the beginning, the reader is exposed to a slightly older group of familiar characters coming to grips with the reality of the political world that they live in and searching for the thing that is missing in their lives. For many, that thing is the Legion and their friends.

Lightning Lass – art by Steve Lightle

In the five years since the end of the Magic Wars, the characters of Salu Digby (Shrinking Violet or just “Vi”) and Ayla Ranzz (Lightning Lass) have suffered trauma but come through it with a love for each other that will forever remain truly special in my heart. I could go through all the details of what happened to them and how their relationship was portrayed in each individual issue of this series, but that has been done, and done well, by others [see below]. I want to focus on why this relationship means so much to me.

Shrinking Violet – art by Keith Giffen

I have wanted to write this article for some time. However, I have struggled with it as I am not confident that mine is the voice that needs to be heard. For full disclosure, I am a cis, hetero, white male. I believe that love is love and celebrate diversity in every medium and support inclusive representation in pop-culture and society as a whole. It is with that perspective that I approach this article. Representation is important.

While there are some breadcrumbs related to the independence and friendship of the couple in the previous volume of LSH dating back a couple of years from the launch of LSH Vol. 4, it is in Vol 4. that things become more apparent. The relationship between Ayla and Vi is never explicitly stated in this series. There is not a graphic passionate kiss. They are never called lovers or girlfriends or anything like that, but their love for each other was immediately evident to me as I read those books. In one passage, a fictional magazine article at the end of issue three identifies the inhabitants of the Ranzz ranch on Winath and includes the description, “close family friend and ex-Legionnaire Salu Digby”

Putting It All Out There

From the beginning of the series, the relationship is a consistent side plot in a very complex and well organized saga. It is in issue three that I really began to notice and I was thrilled with it. There is a particular scene on page six of that issue where Ayla and Vi are reunited, and they are walking in a grove filled with the statues of fallen comrades that is very important to the story. The setting is as critical as the dialogue.

The pair are walking topless and both are spooked at the silent memorials to dead friends, but Ayla says that she had dreams that she would one day find a statue of Vi in the grove. Vi is speechless but also she is clearly some combination of sad and heartbroken by the idea of that. Ayla’s response of “It’s Okay. You’re here now. That’s all that matters,” brought me goosebumps.

The genius of this scene, and really the first twenty-five issues of this series, is how the creators were able to do two things at once. The easy explanation of the scene is that the world that these young heroes live in has consequences, which is a theme that is repeated throughout the run, but the dual purpose was to show that Ayla and Vi were comfortable enough to be topless together and discussing how much they meant to one another. Remember this book was published in a world where the Moral Majority was very much a thing, and thankfully Twitter was not.

Why It Matters To Me

There are other examples of their love in the issues that followed, but I really want to get to the point here. This relationship meant so much to me because at the time, I was a teenager in High School. I was at the point in my life where I was learning what a “grown-up” relationship was and how it was about more than a vehicle for sexual activity. This fictional relationship was full of love and caring. There are multiple examples of concern for each other as well as scenes of tenderness and support.

I grew up in a household where bodies were not something to be embarrassed about. I had been to places where public nudity was acceptable, and seeing it depicted in this comic as natural was refreshing. To be fair, Keith Giffen’s pencils deftly avoid showing any actual nudity, but the implication is clear that in that grove scene. Vi and Ayla are topless. As I was becoming more mature, it was refreshing to see a couple be comfortable with their nude bodies, and that fact is never be mentioned once in the text or dialogue, which very much fit the nature of this couple.

The most important thing about this couple is that I had been connected with these characters for several years by the time LSH Vol. 4 came out. They were familiar to me. A few years before the comic came out, someone very close to me was in a same-sex relationship. To me, the gender of the partners was never an issue with my loved one, only their happiness. The very matter-of-fact way that this fictional relationship was portrayed, without fanfare or any sensationalism seemed appropriate to me. While the creators making a big deal of the relationship would probably have caused waves at DC editorial, the subdued and just accepted way that Ayla and Vi were portrayed made it about them more than their gender or sexuality.

I once spoke with one of the creators of this series and commented to them about how much I enjoyed the relationship between the two women. The creator seemed very pleased with the fact that they were able to “get away” with depicting a same-sex relationship in such a mainstream DC book. While Extraño‘s first appearance pre-dated the Ayla/Vi relationship in print, this is the first time two super-heroes were in this type of relationship, and it set the groundwork for others. Apollo/Midnighter, Hulkling/Wiccan, and Grace/Thunder are examples of who came after. Also within the Legion of Super-Heroes other characters explored different aspects of sexuality soon after Ayla and Vi’s relationship was portrayed and the future continues to be more diverse in the comics. We can only hope we get to that kind of acceptance sooner than later.

In 1989 America, the acceptance for LGBTQIA+ inclusion in pop culture was not what it is today. I have not done extensive research, but base on my recollection the relationship between Lightning Lass and Shrinking Violet in The Legion of Super-Heroes was the first open and accepted lesbian relationship between heroes in mainstream comics. I enjoyed this storytelling because the themes that this relationship portrayed reminded me of the things in my life that I saw as normal.

As I have said earlier, representation matters and this is what it meant to me.

Note: For more detailed investigation of the relationship between Ayla and Vi, I recommend the following two articles:

Shrinking Violet and Lightning Lass on the Gay League

A History of Shrinking Violet and Lightning Lass’ Relationship by Brian Cronin on CBR

If you search the character names on Twitter you will find some lovely fan art. This piece by Gene Gonzales stood out as super sweet.