Saturday, October 4, 2014

Sex In the Comics: Are Superheroes Undersexed?

This is my least favorite aspect of comics, superheroes. A friend of mine recently said she doesn't think you should even be allowed a seat at the adult table if you're a fan of superheroes. I wouldn't go that far. I like some of the Kirby stuff and the work he inspired, other things that were published until the sixties. I even have a certain nostalgia for some of what I read as as a teenager in the eighties. Nonetheless, I realize they're for children. I like some parts the same way I appreciate other media for children. I look at it the same way I look at junk food. It has no nutritional value, a diet consisting mostly of it is dangerous, but having it once in a while is harmless to some. Superheroes can be fun in moderation, though only with a well-rounded diet of other kinds of comics, and I realize they're not for everyone.

The companies that publish them pander to the fact that their main demographic is too old, and they don't replenish their readership every few years like they should. Even worse it has helped make the word “adult” synonymous with “dirty”. Heroic fantasy fare is better suited to movies then to comics anyway. The author of Sex In the Comics, Maurice Horn seems to agree with my opinion of superheroes. In this, the most chaste chapter in the book I've been excerpting in installments, he acknowledges that superheroes are little more than adolescent male power fantasies, but realizes the genre is too ubiquitous to ignore if he is to write a book of comics history.

As I've said before, this book seems to have been published with the hopes of making a quick buck, since there illustration outnumbers the text in column inches, which is sparse enough and in large-enough type to retype in its entirety. Here is the fourth chapter of this 1985 book, which I got remaindered a couple years later. Though I'm apatheti about superheroes, I may as well get them out of the way.

In the preceding chapter we have dealt with some comics that bear some relationship to the human condition: G-men, war aces and world explorers are, after all, only human, even in the comics. Not so the so-called superheroes: whether they come from some alien planet, like Superman, or get their powers from uttering some magic word, like Captain Marvel, they have abilities so absurdly extreme that they no longer bear any relationship to ordinary mortals. The superhero is a peculiarly American phenomenon and has always met with strong cultural resistance in Europe. The idea of ludicrously attired heroes flying through the air solving every problem by brute force has always been viewed by the Europeans as something that could only appeal to children and barbarians. And childish wish fulfillment, which is the real wellspring of the superhero syndrome, doesn't leave much room for sexual fantasy, except in extremely rudimentary form.

Superman is without a doubt the extreme of the genus Superhero—indeed , he is the whole forefather of the whole tribe—and can therefore be taken as the standard by which all other costumed marvels are measured. Superman's saga is too well-known through countless retellings to need repeating here; suffice it to say that as the survivor of the distant planet Krypton. He is “the most powerful man on Earth”, but instead of taking advantage of this, he has chosen to lead his life as Clark Kent, “meek and mild-mannered reporter for the Daily Planet.” The celebrated triangle formed by Clark Kent, Lois Lane and Superman—Clark loves Lois, who rejects him, Lois loves Superman, who rejects her (it would sound like the premise of a Racine tragedy were not Clark and Superman one and the same)—is of such a peculiar nature that commentators and apologists are forever trying to explain it away. Thus Jules Feiffer in The Great Comic Book Heroes muses, “It can't be that Kent wanted Lois to respect him for himself, since himself was Superman. Then, it appears, he wanted Lois to respect him for his fake self, to love him when he acted the coward, to be there when he pretended he needed her”, Feiffer concludes, “A sissy who wanted girls who scorned him.” Ingenious, but a bit pat.
At any rate, Feiffer's explanation (Supe as a secret masochist) fails to satisfy such true believers who find such elaborations demeaning to their hero. Another ingenious explanation is put forward by Les Daniels in Comix: A History of Comic Books in America. Superman's “amusement with this eternal triangle”, he writes, perhaps with tongue in cheek, “suggests that the element at work here is less a capacity for neurotic suffering than for entertaining himself.” Crediting Superman with a sense of humor is one way of getting out of the predicament, though it is fair to observe that sex seems to be the only facet of his life that he finds humorous. He certainly takes all his other activities, especially battling villains, with dead seriousness.

To further contradict this view of Superman as a kind of Kryptonian Cary Grant, the Man of Steel's other sexual entanglements (yes, he has had a few) turn out no better. In fact, as Superboy, the teenage Clark has the same kind of crush on Lana Lang, his high school classmate, who in turn cares only for Superboy—an exact replica of his later relationship with Lois Lane. (In recent times, following the lead of the Superman III movie, Lana has reentered Superman's Life as Lois's rival.) As a college student Superman proceeds to fall in love again, this time with a mermaid from Atlantis, no less, but she spurns him in favor of the surgeon who cures her condition—a rational choice, as any sane person is bound to conlude.
One senses an infantile fear of sex here, a pattern of impotence that has always put Superman's admirer's on the defensive. Some fans have advanced the idea that due to his superpowers, Superman would simply ravage any human sex partners—an intriguing notion that was put to good use in Gilbert Shelton's Wonder Wart-Hog. It doesn't hold water, however, since Superman has ample opportunity to enjoy intercourse with Kryptonian women during his periodic visits to the miniature city of Kandor. The fact that he never does so is revealing in itself.

On quite another level Michael Fleischer, probably the best of Superman's official chroniclers, resorts to Freudian analysis in his commentary on Superman's bizarre sex life. “The sudden, violent loss of his mother while he was still an infant, during a period of his life when his psyche was grappling with the complexity of his affectional and erotic feelings for her, has left Superman with a deep reservoir of unconscious hostility towards women” is how he rather seductively puts it in The Great Comic Superman Book. Aside from the dubious validity of assigning Oedipal motivations to a native of another planet, the fact remains that men who harbor unconscious hostility towards women are perfectly capable of enjoying sex with them (though they may get a bit kinky about it). The sad truth is, Superboy never grew up, he only turned into Superman. His muscles may have gotten stronger, his X-ray vision more acute, his speed greater, but where it matters most—in the head and in the crotch—he is fated forever to remain a sixteen-year-old.
Interestingly, Superman's closest imitation was not even sixteen, but a preteen orphan boy named Billy Batson, who upon uttering the magic word “Shazam” turned into Captain Marvel, “the world's mightiest mortal”. There was not a hint of sex about Captain Marvel, who went the rounds bashing villains' heads without indulging in such sissy stuff as running after girls (for which his young readers, who were the same as Superman's, were undoubtedly grateful). In short, Captain Marvel was everything Superman was (but with a sense of humor) and this rankled Supe's publishers so much that they went to court and finally succeeded in silencing the Man of Steel's sarcastic rival.

Batman is a different case altogether. Though he has no superpowers except his extensive gadgetry (which anticipated James Bond's by two decades), his simpleminded devotion to fighting miscreants puts him squarely in the ranks of superheroes. Because his sidekick is a teenage boy (his ward, Robin), there have been rumors that he is a homosexual. However, his civilian alter ego, Bruce Wayne, is always described as “a playboy” and shown in the company of a string of pretty girls. Gay or not (or bisexual), Batman gets his kicks like every masked do-gooder in the comic books—from roaming far into the night in his costume and “striking fear into the hearts of criminals”. A pity.
And then there is Wonder Woman, who arrived on the scene in 1941. As the lone super-heroine in a horde of muscle-bound he-men, she had to stand out, and she did. She was that rarity—a demure Amazon (she replaced the miniskirt that she initially wore with a short culotte so she wouldn't stand revealed in her many displays of violent action). The daughter of Queen Hippolyte, she left her Amazon home of Paradise Island to help the allies defeat the axis during World War II. Though her adventures were written by a psychologist, William Marston, when it came to love she proved no smarter than Superman or any of her male counterparts. As the frumpy Diana Prince (her civilian alias), she was hopelessly infatuated with the dashing but inept Major Steve Trevor, whom she had saved countless times as Wonder Woman. Yet with all the opportunities that arose, she apparently never even got close to sexual fulfillment with Trevor in either of her impersonations.

To the defense of Wonder Woman, whose case was eventually taken up by the women's movement, sprang none other than Gloria Steinem, who declared “Wonder Woman hinted at an answer [to her sexual dilemma] when she alternately admired strength in Steve, and said she could not love a man who dominated her. Apparently, she could only love an equal.” Yet in all the time she was a member of the Justice Society (later Justice League) of America—groups of superheroes who banded together to defeat some supermenace too great for any single one of them—none of her male colleagues ever gave her a tumble, even though she was virtually the only super-female around. One would expect as much from Superman, but how about such supposedly virile characters as Hawkman or Mr. Terrific (his name wasn't concocted by a woman, you can be sure)? The sad fact is that, do as she might, Wonder Woman never got any attention from her male companions. No wonder, then, that she sporadically had to run home to her queen mother for solace and advice (no chicken soup).
The so-called relevant comics of the sixties brought a new wave of tight-suited superheroes but no better sexual performances. Spider-Man had the excuse of being teenaged and pimply, but an average teenager should have done better than the klutzy Peter Parker (Spider-Man's alias). Every time he came close to even kissing a girl he would be called upon to fight the latest weird menace threatening to destroy the world, giving some dumb excuse, he would leave the poor girl and get into his web-slinger's uniform. Stan Lee, who created the character for Marvel Comics, claims to this day he brought realism to the superhero genre. Only an overage comic-book editor would call the portrayal of a teenage boy dropping a heavy date to go on a fool's errand “realistic”.
Nor did the grown-up heroes of the Marvel stable behave in any more adult a manner. The Fantastic Four were among the first “superheroes with problems” created by Lee. Among them was an engaged and later married couple—Reed Richards, known as Mr. Fantastic, a scientist with remarkable stretching abilities, and his wife Sue, alias the Invisible Girl (hmmm, lots of possibilities there). Reed and Sue should have given the writers plenty of chances there to show or at least hint at premarital, marital, and extramarital sex, yet the two sounded more like bickering siblings than hot lovers. Only in recent times have they appeared in intimate situations that are more enjoyable pursuits than zapping villains.
It has been claimed as an article of faith that the superheroes' apparent sexlessness is due to the strictures of the Comics Code, an instrumentality established after the anti-comics crusade of the fifties. It should be noted, however, that the code is a set of self-regulations that a growing number of comic-book publishers have seen fit to ignore. The Code forbids the glamorization of gore, for example, but that has not prevented the increasingly graphic depiction of decapitation, dismemberment, and death in the panels, even the covers, of Code-approved comics. One can only conclude that the prudishness of the superheroes is the result of an antisex bias rather than moral or ethical scruples on the part of comic-book editors or publishers.
The picture has been slowly changing of late. Such new titles as Camelot 3000,The Teen Titans, The Omega Men and The X-Men have shown increasing candor in their depiction of sexual realities. In a recent issue of Omega Men there was a scene in a bordello—an unheard of license in comic books only a few years ago. Comic books have recently gone from being aimed almost exclusively aimed at childish wish fulfillment to one catering to adolescent fantasies; the superhero genre is so divorced from reality that it is probably futile to hope that it will ever go the full way to adulthood.

No comments:

Post a Comment