Sex And The Single Superhero

I’ll be honest; I’ve been sitting on this one for a while.

Well, there was never any particularly pressing need to get it out, you know? It’s always there, always available, always hyperrelevant…even if there are those among us for whom “talk about comics” seems to be practically synonymous with “find reasons to pretend this is other than it is”. Holly said once, to a visitor on Andrew’s blog who was trollishly insisting on the perfect innocence of the superhero, something like: “man, do you really expect people to politely avert their eyes from the fucked-up sex shit that’s in play here?” Of course that’s just what he did expect, for some reason…

…Which I thought was a bit crazy, because after all, if you take out the sex then what point is there in having all the violence? The special violence of superheroes: tamed and anodyne violence, where nobody gets really hurt and everybody comes back from every beating hale and hearty after two issues…what’s the point to it all, what does it all stand for, if not for sex? All the painless punches, it’s all about an effortlessly joyful physicality, physicality as an ideal without consequences…the sensual thrill of pure bodily expression. Healthy, nourishing stuff, straight out of D.H. Lawrence: Batman and Superman naked to the waist, wrestling on the rug before the fireplace after an invigorating tromp across the moors, good clean brisk manly stuff, hearty laughter and honest exertion, while the stormclouds roil outside in an intimation of mortality that one can still, as long as one is on the rug, ignore for a time. Then afterwards the cigars and the port and the grave, but for the moment of sensual pleasure in physical expression one is freed from time…and thus one is always present in that time-free moment somehow, even after one has left it. And…that’s all pretty gay, I guess I hear some of you saying? But that’s where you’d be wrong. Thor is gay; but this stuff’s too unselfconscious to be gay. Hell, it’s too unselfconscious to be straight! Because this is just how it is, in the human world where all psychology is sourced in meat: sex, though many would deny it for some reason, is such a basic fact of incarnate existence that it seeps into everything. Hey, honestly, you don’t have to be Freud, or even William Moulton Marston, to believe it! I’ve talked before at some length about the typical trials of the superhero, and how the superhero story is in my view primarily about identity and agency, but I guess I haven’t really put those two perspectives together very artfully…

And I won’t promise any art now, either, but at least I can try to slap those two things together, collide them briskly and manfully at any rate, and this is pretty much how that shakes out: the fall from reputation as impotence, the appearance of the super-rival as cuckolding, the introduction of the arch-enemy as gendering, the creation of the evil duplicate as the confrontation with appetite…or kink, if you prefer…and the usurpation of power by the non-entity as rape, of course, but maybe we’ll get back to that in a minute? We’ll get back to it, if hopefully not in the way you think, but in the meantime the point is a simple one: all these different types of physical conflict stories can be read as sexual allegory by the superhero story’s own criteria, and it doesn’t have to be overt, it doesn’t have to be unpleasant or even particularly weighty, it is essentially froth…as everything in the superhero story is froth, really, because these are all stories that remain essentially pubescent in tone, and so the sexual reading of violence in them is also a soothing, decomplexifying reading. A fun reading! An exaggerated and at some level a comical reading, and what’s really wrong with that? There’s plenty of time, and plenty of ways, to examine more…ah, unyielding readings of all this stuff, but honestly if you can’t ever locate delight in them too, then where are you? So it isn’t necessarily immature, even if it’s got an undeniably juvenile bent to it. Sexual identity, in the real world, is a central part of identity in general; the discovery of capability and independence, of strong wants and likes, of a justified selfhood, is in the real world deeply enmeshed with the fever of adolescence and its sexual and quasi-sexual issues. Competition, opposition, the finding of ground upon which to be friends or enemies with others, in the real world is powerfully associated with the growth of sexual desire as a motivator of behaviour. Sometimes the association is causal and sometimes it’s only parallel, but in the story of any real person the one thing it can never be is left out…or even pushed back to a role of minor importance. Oh, it can be deadly serious stuff! But in the comics, being playful with it is exactly the art of it: put the sex stuff out in the open and defeating Lex Luthor doesn’t mean a thing to Superboy. Well, and that’s okay! I mean, what’s wrong with that? It’s not a dishonest form, the superhero story; that’s not what I’m saying. The sex does get talked about…!

It just gets talked about elliptically. If there’s tension in the air as Superman breaks the time barrier to save the world, as Batman ascends to the top of the bridge to save the city, as Green Lantern musters all his willpower to save the Guardians of the Universe, it’s from the same kind of source that makes horses neigh and church bells toll in Lawrence…and behold, in the beginning was the Word, and the word was DUH. And I’m no Wertham; I’m not talking about any kind of squidgy repression that needs even more repressing, nor am I saying that if the Hulk would just get over himself and ejaculate already maybe he wouldn’t have so much to be pissed-off about…although, you know, there’s probably a lot to be said about the Hulk as the most anally-fixated of superheroes, despite his veiny super-erectness…oh no, God, not here! NOT HERE! Banner silently prays, but it’s too late: off he goes ashamed on the mighty THOOM of his uncontrollable bowels, out in the desert hiding and collecting, collecting and hiding, why don’t they just leave Hulk alone…!

No, this is not what I mean, either way, at all. Sex is the bleeding edge of Time and Change, at least as human beings mark such things it is; sex is the most liminal thing we’ve got, it’s everybody’s superhero Secret Origin and Final Crisis all in one, every time it goes down…Kirby dots and Ditko ribbons exploding from the pressing moment, big double-page centerfold splash. SHAZAM…! Nothing like freezing the moment, so people often remark on the superhero as a defender of the status quo, but we hardly ever discuss what kind of status quo he’s a defender of — somehow a strict political analysis of superheroic action always seems just a bit out of place? Amusingly out of place, perhaps? Not without the power to illuminate, but humour in the same jugular vein as Mad Magazine: transgressive, puncturing, illicit, irreverent. That’s actually a fairly deep root, that stuff, as we shall see: the tongue-in-cheek evaluation of the superhero story according to criteria not its own, that probably it’s never even heard of. Lots of people have tapped that root, and no less authentically if it wasn’t straightforwardly: Larry Niven famously asked if Superman’s climax wouldn’t blow the top off Lois Lane’s head, but then again I got quite a good mark on my Shakespeare paper comparing Olivier’s Richard III to Star Trek…oh, it was a fine time to be an Eng. Lit. guy in the late Eighties, let me tell you! Postmodernism may have closed the door on authorial intent, but it opened a window in the same gesture: wanna bring ephemera to the centre of your analysis? Perfectly okay, even encouraged. Want to indulge in a little Miltonic Allusion? Hell, you can’t pass this class without doing that! This won’t be the last time Geoff Klock comes up in this little essay of mine, by the way, so you can look for him lurking in the wings and behind the windows in the sets…I once complained that Geoff’s blog exhibited a level of contemporary bias that I wasn’t comfortable with, in that everyone seemed to speak of the cultural past as a mere adornment to the present aesthetic, but I see now it was my mistake to never ask why that might be…I mean, why would Geoff’s blog be so magnetic to the particular pop-culture crowd that could easily see Jack Kirby as being “like” those he influenced, yet not nearly so easily seeing them as being “like” him? The answer perhaps lies simply in subtleties of tone, communications invisible and untraceable to the conscious apprehension: Miltonic Allusion, after all, is what it’s all about. Wild readings that recontextualize their sources, like magic. Art in the transciption error, felix culpae like faces in the trees, gargoyles on the cathedrals. Well, maybe I shouldn’t have complained so much: I also got rather an impressive mark by doing a feminist reading of Titus Andronicus, didn’t I? So it isn’t like I’m any Galahad as far as the contemporary-bias game goes. Mind you, I still think they were taking it a bit too far…!

But then I am old, I am old. Trousers, peaches, overwhelming questions, etc. You know?

So back to Superboy, defender of the status quo…only this isn’t Mad Magazine, so what exactly is that status quo? It can’t be politics, this isn’t “Carl Barks And Karl Marx”! But rather it’s an argument for the idea that you can do the sexual reading of the superhero material because the sex is in there, even if it’s emblematized exclusively by the physical conflict. Therefore what’s the meaning of it all, when Superboy beats Lex Luthor? Well, the only thing that even makes it difficult for him is that he has to preserve his secret identity while he beats him, you know. This is the real reason why Lex never suspects Clark is Superboy (or, later, Superman), because as long as Superboy’s only job is to beat Lex Luthor then at least Luthor can say he and his enemy are pretty much evenly-matched…but if Superboy’s choosing to foil his schemes only with judicious applications of super-breath and X-ray vision in order to keep pretending that he can’t break out of a pair of handcuffs, all while maintaining his act, then if Luthor knew that he’d also know that he never could rise to the status of “problem” for Superboy, but instead could only be a complication to his real problem…which is, if he gives away his secret identity then he’ll probably have to fuck Lana Lang.

Pardon my language, but I think it’s to the point: for about fifty years, Superman’s never-ending struggle was pretty much against the evilly-particularizing forces of sexual operancy, was it not? Which is no more a bad thing in the Superman stories than it is in Peter Pan…in fact it’s as much a relief for the hero as it is compensatory for the reader, even if for Lex Luthor it’s a frankly hellish state of affairs. Oh, man, imagine being Lex Luthor! Who would probably like to move on every bit as much as Lana and Lois would, but can’t

Because he himself happens to be the particular thumb in that dike. Hell, if Lois and Lana knew, they’d put a bullet in his head! But, well, we’ll come back to that too, sort of. Outside, the stormclouds roil just like the terrifying, uncanny symbols that they are…in Lawrence’s world, as I once claimed in a paper that did not do so well when it came to the marking, the problem with the symbols is that they also disturb the world inside the reading, their dire import is actual within the fictional reality of the book and not just in the association of the reading, and so they really do mean all that stuff they’re about…hah, bet you wondered where Grant Morrison got it all from, didn’t you? NEVER STOPPED TO CONSIDER THE LAWRENTIAN ROOT OF THE SUPERHERO STORY!…outside they roil away in demonstration of the horrid presence of meaning, but here before the fire, on the rug, simplicity and expression are still guiltlessly in charge for the time being. The status quo?

The status quo, and it’s definitely a status quo with compensations…but outside the fictional world, it can’t last forever. It does last a good long while! But eventually the relation between the story and its reader changes. Because the reader, much as Lois and Lana and Lex (if they only really knew it!), desires something new.

Of course, he said darkly, this “something new” can take many forms.

It all comes down to fan fiction, in my opinion. How often do we find ourselves saying that we don’t like the administration of a venerable superhero title because it’s no better than “fan-fic”? Everybody talks about it, yet no one seems to be able to define it, and the nature of the calumny is…problematical, at least for me, because I don’t hate fan-fic; I think it’s got a perfectly good reason to exist, and find it endlessly cheering that people have taken their desire to participate more completely in their fiction into their own hands. So, that’s not really what I mean when I say, derisively, that something “reads like fan-fic”…although the desire to increase participation in the fiction is, I think, a component of what I mean. A bad Avengers story (for example) is routinely, even ostentatiously emptied of character-memory in a way many of your Star Trek or Harry Potter fan-fics are not; where we might expect to find, in a “fan-fic” kind of narrative, characters that are gifted with a sort of institutional memory of their histories and their milieux — and a consequent chattiness about the details of their past that “official” characters in serial entertainment rarely exhibit — clearly in a Brian Bendis or Mark Millar story or something of the like we encounter a sharp disconnection from any established continuity, and sometimes even from consistency with the preceding page. No “hey Spock, remember when we found that big amoeba in space” passages, you know? And yet these are not un-chatty characters, in these comics: far from it. So it makes you wonder what they are spending so much time talking about, and indeed referencing (since superhero dialogue remains the most exposition-oriented in all of literature), if not the histories that confine their plots…!

But we’ll get back to that, too. Well, actually we’ll get there in reasonably short order, as no discussion of fan-fic can be complete without discussion of the ubiquitous “Mary Sue” character, the writer’s stand-in. Even in a story where the characters all possess a comprehensive reader’s knowledge of themselves and their world, the Mary Sue goes them all one better — not only remembering more, but connecting more, and reasoning more openly on those connections. And not only that! But also creating connection where it wouldn’t otherwise exist, by hyper-aggressively writing herself into the plots and histories and relationships of times past. So it’s here, I think, that we encounter fan-fic’s own fine line, as distinct from the fine line between “official” writing and fan-fic itself: the fine line between the writer as greater participant in the fiction, and the writer as entire point of the fiction. What is this Mary Sue character, in her essence? Simplistically, she’s a way to carry affection for the story into the story, an embodied reader/writer, a voice from outside the text. Even to write in a God to your story is not to confront its characters with such an Outer Voice and Outer Purpose, as a Mary Sue! Who truly has no in-story justification, and whose powers of perception cross the ultimate line of the surface of the page itself. Mary Sue knows the hero of the story in a way no other character possibly can, admires and understands them, and can bring harmony to their life, in a way no other character can imagine. Is it love? It may be something like love, and like all love it depends on communication between subject and object…

…And, the critique resulting from such communication. So, to my mind this is very interesting, the subject of the Mary Sue as critique. It explains a lot, about the changing position of reader and identification-object and about the recontextualization of comic-book sex and violence. The astute reader of comics will have noticed it: that there are so many comics these days, where it isn’t that all the violence codes for sex, but that all the sex codes for violence, and that’s the source of the seamy slickness of our current-day nostalgic disease. Superhero comics are different because the sex that lies beneath their surface is different: the violence isn’t anodyne because the sex isn’t harmless. And in the end, that’s what the characters are all so busy talking about: every conversation is imbued with a certain subliminal prurience, a titillating whisper of dirtiness…of uneasiness, of danger. People complain about Alan Moore linking up rape with beloved children’s characters in Lost Girls…well, this is much the same thing, only the goal isn’t Art.

Don’t believe me?

Here comes Geoff Klock again, as promised, with his excellent “How To Read Superhero Comics” and its take on Frank Miller’s Dark Knight Returns. I won’t quote, but I definitely agree (and it’s hard to miss!) the sexualization of the Joker. Wertham got it wrong! Frank seems to scream in DKR…the relationship between Batman and Robin is totally healthy, it’s the relationship between Batman and the JOKER that you should be worried about! Well, or maybe not worried about…maybe, “conscious of”?

Because what it is — to my way of thinking, anyway — is a critique. Mary Sue’s extreme romantic identification with the hero has a predecessor, which is the supervillain: for who else is concerned with watching the hero, studying the hero, bringing the hero to a greater state of harmony and self-understanding through gentle correction? Who else stands there and quotes and quotes the hero’s past to him, explains his universe, expresses his love in pages and pages of monologue? Maybe you can’t see it so well on the surface…it’s a bit twisted, a bit distorted…but Frank, that one-time great comics professional and non-crazy person, got to its heart so you and I wouldn’t have to. As the reading gets more fraught, as the readers get older and the companies don’t really keep up with their interests, the reader identifies less with the hero and more with the villain, and so what the reader desires comes into alignment with what the villain would, if only he had access to the reader’s godlike knowledge. And so the non-entity who steals the hero’s power is a rapist Mary Sue of the writer’s design, you know? The ideal of villainy as warped affection reaches its summit in the non-character, the character who doesn’t have a reason to be there, except to do something to the hero that the laws of superhero comics technically forbid: not just to assault him sexually, but to assault his sexuality — to assault its health.

So…it isn’t all about the wrong lessons being taken from Watchmen, you know? In fact it might be as interesting to compile a list of all the post-DKR mainstream artists who have actually managed to get the thing right, as it would be to compile a list of those that have gotten it wrong…if only to see how many artists fall on both sides of that ledger, and what we can extract from that correlation. Maybe that would explain Wonderdog killing Marvin and eating him?

Maybe as a writer, when the business realities of the status quo repel your assault on the seriality of their properties, you resolve to try again in a different place, with a different plan? Maybe you become obsessed, and lose the thread of what you were doing; maybe it all turns subtly from critique into vandalism. The superhero should not live after his core foundational principle has been demolished — after the hearth and the rug have been lightning-struck, there should be nothing left. Shouldn’t there?

And yet the desire is frustrated just the same.

And that’s when love gets complicated.

10 responses to “Sex And The Single Superhero

  1. There was a lot of stuff in this one where I went, “Aha! But!” and then found that you had anticipated that objection and forestalled it.

    Basically I think that this interpretation is perfectly valid but it isn’t the point of superhero comics; the point of superhero comics is their face value. Because that’s the cool part. That’s what I think.

    Fanfic. Here’s how I would characterize it. First, can we agree that fanfic is a product of serialized entertainment? You don’t tend to get fanfic that’s based on something that’s basically done-in-one, do you?

    Okay. I would say that, in serialized entertainment, you have certain tensions that are inherent in your setup, and that’s what keeps your story going. Every story in this series uses those tensions. But fanfic uses them up. It resolves things that the series cannot stand to have resolved. I think that’s what people mean when they say that something’s like fanfic; they mean that it’s untying threads that should have stayed tied.

  2. “There was a lot of stuff in this one where I went, “Aha! But!” and then found that you had anticipated that objection and forestalled it.”

    Really? Awesome! I had no idea I was doing that…was actually thinking I’d left out way too much for clarity…

    The idea that fan-fic uses up the profitable tensions is a good one, but I’m not sure it’s any less a blind-man-and-the-elephant criterion than the stuff up above…DKR also uses up those tensions, to powerful and deliberate effect, and I don’t think anyone would call it Frank Miller’s Batman fan-fic? Although there isn’t really any explicitly-statable reason not to call it so, I think…since in the world of corporate comics it’s all about new people coming in and altering the ongoing story either in a purely commercial way or in a more artistically-subversive one, either one could attract the epithet “fan-fic”, in a way that shows the interaction between the publisher and the readership to be of considerable importance…and aren’t all superheroes already Mary Sues somehow? So the lines are blurry: indiscriminate readers who align themselves with the interests of the publishers rather than the artists like to dismiss Watchmen as “Charlton fan-fic”, and though it’s a stupid thing to say it’s also not an absolutely trivial thing to rebut: the termination of seriality is what makes books like DKR and Watchmen “edgy”, to the devoted comics reader, and so if fan-fic is born from serial narrative to exhaust its possibilities, then anything exhausting the possibilities of serial narrative must be “fan-fic” by definition…mustn’t it? And yet why should fan-fic be the only kind of fic that’s allowed to push those particular boundaries? Secret Origins and Final Crises come in here again, along with “What Ifs”…most of the What If? stories ever written are about two things: termination of seriality, and the revelation of “hidden” laws that control and explain the mysterious events of the main line. For example, why did the Fantastic Four get the powers they did, instead of other ones? What If? explains the process, at the same time that it demonstrates the necessity of main-line outcomes. Secret Origins, in a similar way, nails down things that were previously left loose…and at DC, at any rate, there still exists a “master reality” as a tradition of the shared universe, which master reality implies both an ultimate beginning and an ultimate end. In fact, as the same field gets ploughed and re-ploughed the identity of the person owning the Hand at the Dawn of Time may get cloudier and more uncertain…but the Hand itself becomes more and more inescapable as the foundation of every character’s story, until the ultimate cogito of canonicity becomes “what can you do with that Hand”…

    That is, if you haven’t already decided that CoIE wasn’t just a very elaborate fan-fic itself, playing so tremendously as it did on serial entertainment’s institutional memory. Though of course it kind of was, wasn’t it…?

    But I dunno: I think Bendis’ Marvel work is all “glorified fan-fic” not because it unties knots but because it doesn’t even recognize the existence of said knots…so it seems to me another tributary to fan-fic must be disregard for the tensions that make a piece of serial entertainment go. For that matter, the Sentry never played with any extant storytelling tensions that I could see, and it was the biggest fan-ficcy thing I’ve ever ground teeth over…

    But wait, there I go making the same mistake again, colouring “fan-fic” with the connotation of badness, and I don’t really think it is bad…I can’t just call all work I don’t like “fan-fic”, can I? Especially when there’s stuff that’s unapologetically fan-ficcy which I really like


    It’s complicated?

    On the face-value line, hah! I like that. But I’d draw a line between the point of superhero comics, and the mechanisms of superhero comics?

    Not to get too deep into matters we will cover elsewhere in short order, Matthew!

  3. DKR also uses up those tensions, to powerful and deliberate effect, and I don’t think anyone would call it Frank Miller’s Batman fan-fic? Although there isn’t really any explicitly-statable reason not to call it so, I think

    I don’t mind calling it that. Why wouldn’t I? Because it’s published by DC, because he’s Frank Miller?

    Part of my position here is informed by the 5YL era of Legion comics, written by Keith Giffen and Tom and Mary Bierbaum, who came to the project from Legion fandom. Their run was definitely called “fanfic” by many, and I think there’s truth to that (although I yield to no-one in my admiration for those comics). So if it’s not necessarily a bad thing to be fanfic, I don’t object to including DKR in there too.

    I think Bendis’ Marvel work is all “glorified fan-fic” not because it unties knots but because it doesn’t even recognize the existence of said knots…so it seems to me another tributary to fan-fic must be disregard for the tensions that make a piece of serial entertainment go.

    Fair enough.

    On the face-value line, hah! I like that. But I’d draw a line between the point of superhero comics, and the mechanisms of superhero comics?

    Most definitely. However. The mechanisms can include things like codenames and costumes and powers and secret HQs, which can be awesome, and the awesomeness is (part of) the point.

    It’s like Steven Brust talking about writing, I think, The Phoenix Guards. He says he likes writing about stuff that’s cool, and capes and swords are cool. So, to Brust, that’s the point. Not that that’s all that he’s up to. But you can’t disregard it either.

    aren’t all superheroes already Mary Sues somehow?

    I prefer to use the original and most restrictive definition of “Mary Sue”; I think it takes us the furthest. Which, to my understanding, includes these features. A Mary Sue is

    – a character in fanfic
    – who was created by the fanfic writer and not the author(s) of the fictional universe in which the story was set
    – who represents the writer
    – for the purpose of letting the writer fantasize that he or she was really in that world
    – and who is unsubtly idealized in a way that ought to be embarrassing to the writer
    – sometimes to the point of having, like, silver eyes or a cat’s tail or something
    – and who takes over the focus of the fanfic story to the point where it doesn’t really work as a story of the source material

    I mean, if we use “Mary Sue” to mean “a character who represents, at least sometimes, the author’s point of view” or “a character who we are supposed to think is cool”, or both, then so many characters out there are Mary Sues that the conversation stops being interesting.

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