Saturday, July 22, 2006

FOUR COLOR CARNALITY

A Study of Superhuman Sensuality
by John Jones, Manhunter from Marathon, IL

There are, in general, two sorts of everyday, mundane, very common, human activities we have never seen depicted in mainstream superhero comics, and that we most likely never will, barring some huge, sweeping, nigh unto unimaginable social upheaval: Superheroes relieving themselves, and superheroes doing the horizontal bop.

Even Frank Miller at his grim&grittiest has never depicted a Dark Knight with tights and trunks down around his knobby knees as he takes a mighty clenched-teeth dump in the... er... Bat-room... (heh); even Grant Morrison, at his most patronizingly trendy and deconstructionist, has never shown us the Last Son of Krypton performing re-entry procedures with a panting, sweaty Lois Lane, most likely under a red sun lamp in a locked, soundproof room at the Fortress of Solitude, to keep a bitterly vindictive Jimmy Olsen from deliberately interrupting their coital bliss at the climactic moment with a beautifully timed activation of his supersonic signal watch.

While I myself have no particular interest in knowing just how well Green Arrow can write his name in the snow or seeing the Hulk's titanium reinforced toilet bowl; I do think that sexuality is an important aspect of human behavior, and as such, one that's well worth looking at within the weird and woolly genre of Superhero Comics.

Since comic books in general, and superhero comics in specific, have always been seen as being primarily aimed at a juvenile market, and since here in America we have some weird idea that sex is, in and of itself, an inherently evil and corrupting influence that young humans must be protected from explicit exposure to at all costs, the superheroes of the Golden Age for the most part simply didn't have sex lives. This cheerful, childlike innocence, reminiscent of the primeval gambolings of a pre-apple Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden (except, you know, with guns and boomerangs and capes and hoods and suchlike esoterica instead of friendly, not yet extinct archeopterixes and the occasional affectionate giant sloth) did not save the four colored crusaders of comics Golden Age from being slaughtered wholesale by the assault of evil supervillain Dr. Frederick Wertham, who ignored their carnal innocence and instead focused on the fact that nine out of ten juvenile delinquents read comic books, and therefore, comic books clearly caused juvenile delinquency. (Like most supervillains, the vile Dr. Wertham conveniently ignored any and all facts contrary to his agenda, such as the fact that not only did nine out of ten juvenile delinquents read comic books, but so also did nine out of ten juveniles, period, as well as, at that time, about six out of ten young male adults, four out of ten girls and young women, and something like twelve out of ten heroic American servicemen.)

The only superheroes that readily withstood the assault of the mad doctor were those old unsinkables Batman and Superman, neither of whom had ever so much as leered at a woman in their lives up to that point, and whom, it should be noted, were apparently only ever allowed to kiss a girl on the mouth if she were some sort of inhuman half-icthyoid freak who was in the process of leaving forever to return to lost Atlantis, like Lori Lemaris did to poor paramour Clark Kent in SUPERMAN #129. Merely human women with actual genitalia who might be expected to show up from one story to the next rarely got to do more than look longingly at either of the Dour Duo, occasionally be lugged from burning buildings in their arms, and in rare moments of red hot scorching passion, peck one or the other of them on the cheek in gratitude for having their lives saved from some irksome alien gorilla with tentacles or a humanoid waffle iron from a parallel dimension for the fourteenth time that month.

All of which is by way of saying that the two fisted men and plucky women in tights and capes weren't getting any throughout the 40s and 50s, although, as I indicated, that didn't save the vast overwhelming majority of them from being callously eradicated for their terrible influence on kids anyway. Imagine, if you will, the horrifying social consequences of entire generations of American children, exposed to a genre of graphic, illustrated literature that taught them to respect property rights, be good citizens, and rat out any crooks or subversives they happened to see as part of their civic duty... my God, it's astonishing that more of the little monsters didn't take to the streets in a mad orgy of gum chewing, jitterbugging, and baseball card trading with the desperate abandon that only the damned and the degenerate can ever truly know. And if Dr. Wertham was so outraged by his truculent suspicions as to exactly what Batman and Robin might be doing in the privacy of Stately Wayne Manor, I shudder to even try to dimly visualize the frenzy of PTA mob violence, mass comic book burnings, and dusk to dawn prayer vigils he would have kicked off if he'd been able to locate so much as a single panel of Doll Man and Doll Girl necking in the back seat of their fully functional scale model toy roadster.

With the 40s hey-day of four color heroes and villains in mad multicultural motley pretty much dead and buried by the early 50s, the only publisher who remained in the superhero business full time -- DC -- was at real pains not to enrage the mob any further. If the nefarious Dr. Wertham had flown into insane rages about crime comics and the hero-sidekick relationship, one could only speculate as to how incensed he'd be if any superheroes ever so much as kissed a woman. So it was that, for the remainder of the 50s, those superheroes that survived the Mad Doctor's purges became even more bloodlessly asexual than they had been before.

Or... were they? Certainly, there wasn't anything going on up there on the surface, where the sort of moron who grows up to mind other's people's business and carefully monitor what other people's kids might be reading would be likely to notice it. But it should be noted for posterity that, while straight, normal sex/romance seemed locked in the deep freeze in superhero comics throughout the rest of the '50s, there were apparently some weird lizards living in Jimmy Olsen's head, at the very least. Tarting himself up to infiltrate mob gangs as a gun moll, taking along his trained chimp as a substitute kissee if his Capone-esque paramour became overly amorous (and the speculations on just how a young cub reporter trains a chimp to kiss are the sort to drive even a strong man shrieking into the arms of illegal tranquilizing agents, so let us turn our minds away as quickly as possible from that gruesome train of thought) wailing like a little girl for Big Boyfriend Superman the very instant things got even mildly confrontational... there were times, in fact, when the only way to tell Jimmy from Lois was to look for the red hair and freckles. Perhaps the editors at DC were feeling the strain of complying with the strictures of the new Comics Code Authority, or perhaps J. Edgar Hoover was secretly a big fan of Superman's Pal. We may never know the truth, but certainly, we can say that Our Man From Krypton seemed to show some strange taste in his choice of li'l buddies during this time period.

Going into the 60s, however, things began to change, albeit with a speed and smoothness reminiscent of various geological processes such as glaciation and continental drift.

Over at DC, thing remained pretty much business as usual for the entire decade, with one small exception. Which is to say, while nobody was kissing anybody anywhere near the mouth in the cape and cowl comics, the supporting character Superman Family comics targeted at the industry's then-lively female fan contingent, such as LOIS LANE and SUPERGIRL, were rather more libidinous. Lois, being pretty much stuck with her Superman's squeeze gig, didn't get a whole lot of action from the Man of Steel (since Superman, clearly, wasn't allowed to even entertain the occasional naughty thought), but she did occasionally get to kiss on other stalwarts like Bruce Wayne and various alien monarchs and such, mostly to make good ol' Kal El resoundingly jealous. (Since Supes normally retailated with subtle, thoughtful pranks like secretly using a growth ray to make Lois fat for an entire issue, then making fun of her new over-voluptuousness while pretending not to recognize her, you'd think Lois would have given up on this, but Lois was stubborn, not smart.) And Supergirl, startlingly enough, was practically the Make Out Queen of the early DC Silver Age. Transformed superhorses, studly alien superdudes, green android guys from the far future, mythical Greek and Roman demi-gods, and gigantic marsupial robots from other dimensions are just a small smattering of the amorous entities who locked lips with the startlingly Lucy Camden-esque Maid of Might over the course of the 60s. (Okay, I made up the thing about the marsupial robots, but there were at least half a dozen studly alien superdudes, and that's not even counting all the eager male Legionnaires she was probably making out with whenever Brainiac 5 was in space on a mission.) Other than the pleasantly libidinous Tart of Steel, though, the rest of DC's Power Pantheon languished pretty much unmolested, however much they might have wished otherwise, for the entire 60s.

Marvel, however, during this same time period, was heating things up a tiny little bit in their flagship superhero title. While Peter Parker's romance with...er... Betty whatshername...and Liz somebody or other... (the pre Gwen Stacy girls just all seem to kind of blur together, don't they?) were typically bloodless, with barely a squeezed hand, much less a kiss, to show for some 30 issues of continuity, over at the FF, the Thing and Johnny Storm frequently needed to take a firehose to Reed and Sue whenever that seminal Silver Age couple got into a clinch, which was astoundingly often for the 1960s. And matters only got worse -- or better, for the subject of on panel superhero displays of affection -- after the two of them officially tied the knot. While Lois Lane was still sighing a good ten feet away from an impassive-seeming Clark Kent as he inexplicably winked at the wall, Reed and Sue were making out like fifteen year olds at the drop of an innuendo, without the slightest concern for where they might happen to be whenever the urge to merge came over them. The Great Refuge, Wakanda, the Savage Land, the Negative Zone... if the FF weren't all at that very moment dodging particle beams aimed at them by Annihilus or building a giant match to shove into Galactus' jockstrap, you could bet that somewhere in the background Reed and Sue were taking turns dragging each other down to the Formica while engaging in some of the greatest tongue wrestling matches ever seen outside MELROSE PLACE.

For most of the 60s, though, the Richardses remained an anomaly at Marvel, and an astounding spectacle best reserved for the Adults Only Section for DC. In the same magazine, Johnny brooded over his lost love Crystal and never even looked at another girl, while the Thing carried on his doomed, obviously non-physical relationship with blind sculptress Alicia Masters. One row down on the newsstands, Giant-Man and the Wasp bantered but rarely touched and never smooched until their wedding; Peter Parker maintained his physical and emotional distance from whatever cutie Stan and Steve were throwing into the panels with him that month, Scott Summers and Jean Grey longed for each other until we wanted to beat them both to death with a lug wrench but never so much as held hands, Tony Stark couldn't even take his damn chest plate off so what were HIS chances, and Thor got Odin mad at him if he so much as looked at a mortal woman sideways. Captain America didn't even KNOW any chicks except the Scarlet Witch, who wasn't due to notice anything male herself until the Vision wandered aimlessly through her bedroom wall many years later. Matt Murdock pined for Karen Page and unlike Scott and Jean in X-MEN, they actually got past the secretly longing for each other stage and smooched a few times. However, poor Matt would have to wait decades, until Frank Miller and David Mazzuchelli brought Karen Page back as an anorexic junkie and former porn star, before he actually Got Some from the perpetually ditzy ex-secretary, and before he did, he had to suffer through having his house blown up by the Kingpin after the dim blonde sold the secret of Matt's double identity in exchange for a dime bag of heroin. It was a bad deal all the way around for the Man Without Fear, since during the time period he hadn't gotten any off Karen, she'd been drawn by Wally Wood and Gene Colan, while Dave Mazzuchelli's contrasting version of her looked as if she'd just finished an invigorating death march from Siberia to Kusan. In AVENGERS, Hawkeye had a big letch for the Black Widow that went back to their days as Iron Man villains together, but other than the occasional cuddle and some obligatory (bad) "Oh my darling how can we ever be together when I am a filthy Commie rat and you are an... Avenger!" dialogue, poor ol' Clint never got any either. (To this day, relentless tease and bitch goddess Natasha Romanoff continues to strut around in front of poor Clint wearing a black spandex jumpsuit that looks like Rich Corben sprayed it on her with an airbrush, while thinking malicious thoughts to herself about how poor Hawkeye is STILL a lovesick hound. Kraven the Hunter should smack her hard for being such a meanie to poor old Purple-Togs.) Bruce Banner and Betty Ross... the less said about that doomed couple the better, since for the first few weeks of their relationship he turned into the Hulk after nightfall, which had to cut way down on available make-out hours, and then for the next ten years, he got all green and broody if he got too excited... which would definitely give nearly any girl short of Thundra a darned good incentive to stay out of a backseat with him.

Back at DC, the only married couple in evidence were Hawkman and Hawkgirl, and while they fought side by side against evil as a team and certainly seemed to enjoy each other's company, if they had the hots for each other, they hid it well. All the other male DC heroes had romantic interests of some sort in their lives, but if it hadn't been for recurring Imaginary Tales in which the sundry JLAers were actually married to their various lady loves (and still rarely touched them) you'd never have known there was anything going on between them. Everyone in the Legion seemed to be part of a couple, like some weirdly idealized high school where everybody got to be popular and nobody got stuck in the Chess Club, but unlike high school kids since time immemorial, the Legionnaires never kissed anyone... except, strangely, Supergirl, when she'd show up for a 30th Century Christmas party and ALL the guys would get in line to play tonsil hockey with her. (Look, I'm not saying it's strange that all the male Legionnaires got in line to make out with Kara under the mistletoe. I'm saying that it's strange we never saw Lightning Lad making out with Saturn Girl the rest of the year. Maybe 30th Century girls don't kiss before marriage.) Wonder Woman wasn't getting any, nor was her sidekick Wonder Girl, despite the fact that they were the only babes in two otherwise all male super-clubs, and Princess Diana, at least, pranced around in a costume she pretty much HAD to fall out of six or seven times an hour, repeatedly explaining to anyone who'd listen that not only did she lose all her powers if she were bound by a man, if they also just happened to tie her up with her magic lasso... this one right here, fellas, see, want to hold it?... she'd have to obey their every command, too. And still, the cheerful male idiots making up the rest of the JLA refused to get the hint. Green Lantern had some really kinky Domme/Sub switch-off roleplaying thing going on with Carol Ferris, but apparently, there wasn't any actual sex involved, just lots of tight costumes, mystic body jewelry, and frequent energy beam exchanges.

Nope. Other than Superman's bouncy, panting, ever-eager little blond cousin at DC, and the astoundingly vigorous Reed and Sue Richards at Marvel, the 60s were nearly as bad a time for super-sex as the 40s and 50s had been.

But face front, True Believer... the 70s were coming. To paraphrase an old, crude joke: ...and coming, and coming, and coming.

At Marvel, the Sexual Revolution seemed to hit in the very early 70s, only a few years behind its actual real world debut in the late 60s. Suddenly, all the superheroes presented by Stan Lee were making out with someone... the Pyms were necking whenever they had a spare couple of minutes in between fighting Equinox, the Thermodynamic Man, and a Stranger who turned out to actually be the Toad, Captain America was switching spit with a barely bikini-ed Sharon Carter on the beach in Bermuda, the Falcon was clearly gettin' all he could handle from blaxploitation flick refugee Leila, Daredevil and the Black Widow were damn near getting arrested for public lewdness out in San Francisco as they humped acrobatically from rooftop to rooftop, and even Human Bombs and irate superspeeding siblings couldn't pry the Scarlet Witch's tongue out of the Vision's artificially sweetened mouth for longer than a minute at a time. Even the overly cerebral Stephen Strange was pursuing a highly charged sexual romance with his apprentice Clea, a romance which took a really weird turn when Clea allowed herself to be seduced by no less a personage than the apparently perpetually priapic American Founding Father Benjamin Franklin! Ironically, about the only Marvel couple that wasn't jumping each other like high school kids in half their published panels was Mr. and Mrs. Fantastic, who, under Roy Thomas, had just managed to rack up the dubious distinction of being comicdom's first married couple to get a legal separation.

And... at DC... the heroes stood around, looking blandly at the heroines, or their editorially assigned, mandatory girlfriends, eyes rolled up in their heads, whistling the Oscar Mayer Weiner Song and thinking relentlessly clean thoughts. The Flash had married his own romantic interest, Iris West, but to all intents and purposes, their relationship remained the same as that of any other DC hero and his nominal romantic interest... she got in trouble, he rescued her. The Atom, Batman, Green Lantern, Superman, Green Arrow... some of these characters went through startling visual changes, others remained the same as they had always been, but none of them got anything remotely resembling a sex life except the hugely lucky Emerald Archer, whose spiffy new Neal Adams illustrated goatee somehow garnered him the amorous interest of dimensional defector Black Canary. Aquaman got married and even had a kid, giving us a clear indication he and Mera had been doing something vaguely naughty off panel, but there was little sign of any Atlantaean passions where we could see them. Even spanking new character Deadman, who had showed up back in '68, still resolutely refused to use his power of possessing and controlling any living body in exactly the manner every teen age fanboy immediately fantasized about doing themselves upon reading his adventures, namely, jumping into Lee Majors Six Million Dollar corpus for a long weekend in a water bed with Farrah Fawcett, or various and sundry equivalents that had instantly occurred to all of us as soon as we saw the astounding abilities Rama Kushna had gifted the hapless circus spook with. Seeming to neatly sum up the whole DC continuum's attitude towards sex and romance in the 70s, one truly remarkable early 70s SUPERBOY sequence featured a young Clark Kent contriving to knock an amorous Lana Lang unconscious with a heat-vision severed tree limb rather than comply with her breathily phrased wishes to plant a big wet one on her upturned, parted, pliant and oh-so-willing lips... a sequence which made me and doubtless every other male reader roll our eyes to the heavens and wonder if Superschnook weren't really, deeply, GAY or something.

Basically, DC, whose flagship title was ironically named Action Comics, remained the No Nookie Universe until just prior to Crisis, when it finally seemed to dawn on their Powers That Be that part of the three dimensional, angst driven, characterization style they were abruptly so desperate to steal from Marvel was ROMANCE, a.k.a., SEX.

At Marvel, not only did all their characters spend at least half their time or more making out with somebody else, things were actually getting a little weird a few feet off the mainstream. On the one hand we had Lilith, Daughter of Dracula, picking guys up in bars and literally sucking their faces, while, over here behind Door Number 2, drop dead gorgeous Cleveland party babe Bev Switzer was hitting the sheets with a sentient duck. In AVENGERS, ex-rummy and general louse The Swordsman came stumbling blearily back into the team in the company of Vietnamese 'bar girl' -- a pretty blatant euphemism for 'hooker' -- and mystic martial artist Mantis, who promptly dumped her whiney wannabe Cyrano to make a serious play for a badly befuddled Vision. Kang even showed up and kidnapped the Scarlet Witch, Mantis, and Agatha Harkness, stuffing them into those big glass test tubes that all supervillains and evil robots seem to order in bulk, (probably from the same manufacturer who cranks out thousands of tilting titanium slab tables with metal wrist and ankle clamps at each corner for securing those irritating snoopy female reporters, and experimental energy beams that turn most people into goo but which merely give the hero's plucky little brother strange and unearthly powers) claiming that one of them was 'the Celestial Madonna', whose son would be "THE ONE", and his plan was to take her and "through our child, rule the heavens"... which was the first time in comic book history, and as far as I can recall, the last, that any supervillain has showed up with a master plan that included rape and forcible impregnation... well, other than that Marcus guy in AVENGERS #200, and we try not to think about that issue too much, while fervently hoping it's on Kurt Busiek's list of stories to wipe out of existence someday soon.

Even obscure, kung fu kraze inspired characters like Iron Fist were breaking new romantic and sexual ground in comic books by becoming the first white guy in the history of the medium to do the nasty with a black woman. Under Doug "Moon-Kingdom" Moench, a character subtly and non-exploitationally titled Shang Chi, Master of Kung Fu, not only did a whole lot of the ol' in-out himself, but also hung around with a group of the most highly sexed supporting characters since, well, the James Bond books that most of them were directly swiped from.

To sum up the 70s, then... At DC, it was still, for the vast most part, business as usual, meaning, all their characters might as well have been genderless androids. At Marvel, on the other hand, gorgeous women were screwing waterfowl, Vietnamese boom-boom girls were joining the Avengers, female vampires were starring in their own horror series and using sex appeal to lure hapless male victims to the slaughter, and cheesy warlords from alternate futures were showing up with raging woodies for captive super-heroines. Everybody, even the morose, petulant Peter Parker, was getting laid.

Had I been Superman, I'd have found a way to defect across the dimensional barrier post haste... but then, had I been Superman, Lana Lang would have gotten something considerably different from a mild concussion in that apple orchard, too, so maybe the Big Blue Boy Scout was happier where he was.

There was, however, one notable exception to the seemingly perpetual sexual doldrums at DC in the 70s... Batman, for around half a dozen brilliant issues of DETECTIVE COMICS in the middle of the decade, became not only a three dimensional character for the first time in his lengthy publishing history, but he also got seriously, irrefutably, and undeniably laid, not just once, but several times, in between getting kidnapped by Hugo Strange and jumped up and down on by Deadshot and having various other indignities heaped upon him by sundry other menaces and evildoers and wanks extraordinaire. Yes, under the guiding, masterful hands of Steve Engelhart, Bruce Wayne encountered the delectable Silver St. Cloud, who so explicitely and thoroughly unclogged his plumbing for him that even we, the astounded Bat-fan, could practically feel that fatuous, just-been-boffed-and-HOW-baby grin on his face from a universe away.

Of course, this one, sole exception to DC's otherwise ubiquitous 'no nookie' policy shouldn't surprise us, since it was Steve Engelhart who, over at Marvel, had created the explicitely sexual character of Mantis, and written the "Kang As Ron Jeremy Wannabe" storyline that culminated in said ex-Vietnamese hooker getting married to an entity who could be regarded equally as either (a) a fricking TREE, dude, or (b) the reanimated corpse of her badly fried ex-boyfriend, whichever one weirds you out more. Steve "Baby" Gerber might have shoved a buxom redhead into the sack with the luckiest duck in the multiverse, but only Stainless Steve Engelhart could marry a former Number One BJ girl off to a giant alien fern. It shouldn't, then, have come as a shock to anyone that Engelhart's astonishingly spot-on characterization of Bruce "Batman" Wayne... which still stands as the defining moment for the character in the eyes of many, among whom your humble narrator is definitely to be numbered... included giving the character a sexual dimension for the first time in nearly forty years.

While on the subject, it should also be noted in passing that in addition to his high profile, much lauded, and still treasured work on DETECTIVE, Stainless Steve E. also did a year long run on JUSTICE LEAGUE OF AMERICA that hardly anybody noticed at the time or gives a passing thought to today. However, in the context of this article, it's worth stating that under Engelhart, it was suddenly mentioned that Hawkman and Hawkgirl did, actually, have a sex life, which was brought up when the otherwise forgettable (and truly wretchedly drawn) mystic menace Count Crystal tried to rape the fiesty Shiera Hol, and got whacked in his ugly bald head with an Nth metal wing for his randy little pains.

The 70s at DC also saw the weird Silver Age revival/debut of Black Canary, and her growing relationship with Green Arrow, which, under somewhat more modern-thinking writers like Denny O'Neil, established itself as having a strong physical/romantic/sexual element almost from the beginning. Towards the end of the 70s, obscure advertising artist Mike Nasser was drawing Black Canary for some back up stories in Dollar Size WORLD'S FINEST comics in pretty much every stage of undress imaginable, just in case any of us fanboys out there hadn't already figured out that a woman who is built like Linda Carter and runs around in a body sheath, high heeled black buccaneer boots, and fishnet stockings is kinda sexy.

Of course, while most romantic relationships at DC did remain at a standstill during the 70s, the good girl art factor picked up enormously, with artists like Dave Cockrum giving the Legion of Superheroes a total visual redesign (putting Princess Projectra, for example, in a costume that had to be entirely illusory, since otherwise, it would simply have fallen off her within two or three normal walking steps). Mike Grell later took this normal, and perhaps even healthy, fanboy enjoyment of good looking women in tight, slinky clothing to truly bizarre extremes, as Cosmic Boy, for the love of God, started running around in a costume better suited to the Rocky Horror Picture Show than a mainstream superhero title, and the cute limb baring body sheath Cockrum had given Saturn Girl steadily shrank until it was little more than a couple of dots connected by a handful of microscopic pink lines. Supergirl got her hottest costume EVER in the 70s, with an open down the front hot blue floppy sleeved silk blouse with a stylized 'S' symbol accentuating one perky little breast, truncated red hot pants, bare legs that seemed to go up forever, the longest, sexiest blond hair we'd seen on her to date (or ever would again) and... um...I'm sure some sort of cape...somewhere... in the background... where I certainly didn't pay much attention to it.

Robin even kissed Batgirl a couple of times toward the end of the 70s, as I recall,and although there certainly wasn't anything actually incestuous about that, it certainly felt that way... most likely because it all took place in the pages of a Giant Sized monthly magazine called Batman Family.

It's also worth mentioning that it was in the 70s that, for the first time, people started paying some attention to alternate superhero titles. Oh, there had always been lousy, short lived forays into superheroism by other publishers (and even rare pretty good ones, like T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents at Tower) but they came and went, most of them sticking around far beyond the point where their welcomes wore out, even if that was only for, like, an issue and a half. It was with the 70s that alternative publisher Eclipse first started putting out an interesting product, and any article on Superhero Sex Lives would be remiss in not making note of that carnality-drenched creation of Dave Stevens known as THE ROCKETEER. Perpetually horny, small minded, and relentlessly venal, pilot Cliff Secord and his stripper/nude model sometime girlfriend Betty was cleaned up considerably for Disney's later live action film adaptation, although, to be sure, the not particularly subtle presence of Jennifer Connelly's nipples pushing through every single item of clothing she wore during the movie's running time kept the theaters considerably steamier than they were during any showing of POCAHANTAS or THE RESCUERS. (Alas, such erect aureola action is one of the aesthetic details that tends to get lost on video, which is as good an argument for seeing movies in the theater as any you're likely to hear this millenium or last.)

And then... the 80s rolled around, and everything got... confusing.

On the one hand, DC suddenly seemed galvanized by an insane, out of left field, overwhelming drive to make every title they had appealing to the relatively small, primarily adolescent male, fan audience that was supporting the newly thriving direct sales market. Why DC chose to do this, effectively cashing in a mass market audience potentially numbering in millions at exactly the time when movie and TV crossover projects were exposing more 'average' people than ever to Superman and Batman, in order to try to gain the loyalty of a much smaller (and pickier) fanboy audience is... well... difficult to explain. However, the fact remains that they did, big time, and one of the elements they began adding to their own creative mix, as they strove to bring a certain Marvelish level of three dimensional 'reality' to their stolid stable of supericons, was sexuality. Superman began taking Lois Lane away to turn of the century Paris for romantic weekends. Batman was dating various women, including not only future wife Selina Kyle (if Imaginary Tales and Earth-2 continuity were to be believed) but a suddenly revived Vicky Vale and even, under Doug Moench, some weird vampire chick, as well. Green Lantern became so thoroughly whipped he gave up godlike power in order to keep gettin' some from a perpetually negligee clad Carole Ferris. The Atom got dumped by unfaithful bitch Jean Loring and fled to a lost jungle city full of miniaturized alien barbarians where he began a steamy romance with some tiny little yellow chick. In Wolfman's New Teen Titans, everyone was apparently getting it on except poor Beast Boy, whose only girlfriend for the entire run of the series turned out to be a treacherous little slut named Tara Markov who, at the age of fourteen, was smoking cigars and getting the enthusiastic wood put to her by no less a personage than Deathstroke the Terminator, in one of mainstream comic's queasier brushes with the sort of pedophiliac subject matter that simply could not have been done in the America of ten years later, when child molesters and kiddie porn peddlers had replaced drug dealers and Arab terrorists as the most loathed figures in modern culture.

Over at Marvel, Howard and Bev were pretty much forgotten, but the legacy of the 70s was so well established by now that every superhero continued to pretty much have a regular sex life as a matter of course. Fans may still argue over whether or not the iconically decent Captain America ever actually slept with hot blond SHIELD agent Sharon Carter, (dudes... he DID, okay?) but various writers and artists on Cap's series starting with Stern and Byrne made it exquisitely clear that Steve "Jolly" Rogers was doing an enthusiastic mattress dance with the cheerfully horny Bernadette Rosenthal at every opportunity the two of them could contrive.

Byrne got Sue Richards pregnant again (well, actually, Reed did the dirty deed, but Byrne was in the writer/artist section of the credits) kicked Ben Grimm out of the team for a while, and had Alicia Masters start dressing like a slut while making a play for the younger, hunkier Human Torch (something for which, admittedly, the shapely sculptress could hardly be blamed, after 20 years of draping herself all over apparently non-functional, only putative males like the ironically named Thing and the smoothly asexual Silver Surfer) while bringing in an obscure, badly conceived marketing ploy/near parody named She-Hulk, who promptly started sunbathing nude on top of the Baxter Building and humping Wyatt Wingfoot's brains out.

Hawkeye, after years of frustration and rejection from every redhead he ever hit on, finally wised up; learning a lesson from Cap and setting his sights on a blond SHIELD party girl named Mockingbird, who apparently impressed him so much with her erotic acumen that he promptly married her.

Spider-Man, under Roger Stern's direction, became an object of the carnal attentions of several nubile young ladies (including a cuddly klepto named the Black Cat), and over in X-Men, Scott Summers and Jean Grey were boffing like crazed weasels on top of any desert butte that presented itself.

In a strangely unnoted story arc in AVENGERS, Moon Dragon mind controlled the hunky God of Thunder into being her devoted love slave for several pages in a move that would have doubtless stirred fandom-wide controversy had the two characters' genders been reversed, or, for that matter, the same.

The Vision and the Scarlet Witch, whose relationship, to date, had survived everything that Thomas, Mantlo, and Engelhart could contrive to throw at it, from seemingly dozens of constantly-being-revealed sets of parents for Wanda to attacks by Golden Age villains and crazed mutants to, most dreadful of ALL for a regular sex life, marriage, actually managed, through some bizarre occurrence of 'chaos magic', to have children in the early part of the 80s. Towards the end of the decade, after her marriage to Giant-Man spectacularly self-destructed in a frenzy of betrayal and abuse, the Wasp briefly had an affair with Tony Stark that she ended when she became aware that he was actually Iron Man.

During roughly the same time period, a newly separated or divorced Crystal, after wrecking her marriage with the first ever recorded instance of marital infidelity in comics, rejoined the Fantastic Four and did her level best to wreck the Human Torch's new marriage to Alicia Masters, who would, a few years later, turn out to be a damned Skrull anyway, which must have made Johnny feel like an idiot for resolutely pushing the Sexiest Inhuman Of All Time away years before.

In the same title, an obscure character named Ms. Marvel (not the Carol Danvers one) became another comics first, if a dark one, by becoming the first woman ever to be explicitly raped - gang raped, no less -- in a mainstream superhero title.

Even Black Canary's gang rape in LONGBOW HUNTERS, earlier in the decade, had only been alluded to, as in that peculiar double standard of superhero comics, writer/artist Mike Grell did not shy away from showing graphic depictions of physical torture, but he could not show, or even explicitly state, that she had actually been sexually assaulted.

Tigra, during a brief appearance in the Avengers, generated much fan buzz as she demonstrated an apparent willingness to sleep with anything male, before later going on and having a brief affair with a de-powered, suicidal Hank Pym in the team's West Coast franchise. Chris Claremont spiced up everything he wrote during the 80s by having all his female characters hold hands, hug, and kiss each other at the slightest excuse, a tendency we might have been inclined to blame hormonally driven X-illustrators Dave Cockrum and John Byrne for if we hadn't seen all the female Avengers suddenly begin behaving similarly while drawn by Michael Golden in an AVENGERS ANNUAL Chris somehow snared the writing assignment on.

In the midst of all this frenzied coupling and carnal caressing, though, a few weirder elements crept into place, both, perhaps coincidentally, the result of popular artists deciding they were perfectly capable of writing their own scripts, and pretty much demanding that Marvel let them, too.

On DAREDEVIL, Matt Murdock broke up with a ditzy nympho named Heather he'd been dating since Jim Shooter's brief run on the book, as Frank Miller introduced a previously unseen and unmentioned college flame named Elektra. Elektra, by funny coincidence, happened to have spent the ten years or so since she and Matt had dated in college studying the fine art of sneaky ninja death under a bunch of goobers called the Hand, who, despite the fact that we were continually assured they were the most formidable band of assassins in the history of the Marvel Universe, demonstrated an almost Hydra-like incapacity to kill anyone, at any time, even if their target was outnumbered 40 or 50 to 1. Elektra was their finest, deadliest member, a distinction she amply proved by managing, after six or seven issues of heartfelt trying, to stab and wound... but not quite kill... the elderly, wheezing, nearsighted Daily Bugle reporter Ben Urich.

Now, normally, when one is writing about such things as sexual subtext in superhero comics, one pretty much understands that much of what one 'discovers'is going to be done with tongue in cheek, as most such subtext is pretty much inadvertent, and really only exists in the twisted perceptions of filthy minded, jaded old perverts like me, and 400,000 other drooling, overly libidinous fanboy geeks who hardly ever got any when we were at our prime and will be bitter about it for the remainder of this incarnation, anyway. But in the case of Elektra... well, I really have to think that the overwhelming sexual subtext of a woman named after a character in a classic Oedipal myth, who leaps around in a scanty costume with large phallic symbols in her hands that she repeatedly thrusts into her male victims... well, given that this is the creation of the guy who somewhat later on gave us the two most sleaze-drenched interpretations of the Darknight Detective that have ever been done... I'm going to make an assumption here that in THIS case, Frank Miller probably knew exactly what he was doing.

The 80s pretty much ended with yet another of the weirdest and most twisted events to ever occur in superhero sexuality: the apparent revelation, by John Byrne, that the Vision had never actually possessed male genitalia. This sent shockwaves through fandom and cast a rather disturbing light on the psyche of his long time paramour the Scarlet Witch, who with one gratuitous full frontal panel showing her husband's smooth, entirely featureless crotch went from being a tough, strong-willed woman with the courage to declare her love for an artificial man in the face of any and all adversity and who had become one of the few devoted wives and mothers among superhumans... to being... well... some disturbed, frigid freak who, after choosing not to pursue a deep crush on Captain America and firmly rebuffing the testosterone-drenched advances of Hawkeye, had firmly affixed herself to the one ostensible male she had ever met... who had neither spear nor magic helmet. She had even, apparently, by using her own probability defying chaos magic, managed to pathenogenetically conceive twin sons...all without ever bothering with the messy, icky business of sex.

This revelation, apparently driven by John Byrne's bizarre and egotistical need to disbelieve in the Vision's essential humanity despite two full decades of its establishment under actual writers, sent reverberations through comic book fandom, and through the character's own relationship with the Scarlet Witch, that have still not fully died down. In addition to deleting the Vision's tallywhacker, a move Byrne seemed to feel would leave absolutely no doubt as to the character's essential inhumanity, Byrne also discredited the Thomas-Engelhart origin story for the avenging android in which it had been revealed that he was basically a rebuilt version of the Golden Age Human Torch.

Nearly a decade later, Bob Harras would deal with this egregious abuse of continuity by arranging to have the Vision's mind transferred into an alternate dimensional body that was still, the story had been at pains to tell us, fully equipped, while other troubling aspects of Byrne's artificial penis theft have since been explained away as being the result of a conspiracy of Space Phantoms trying to drive the Scarlet Witch crazy for reasons of their own. (Many of the married women I know would get a little vexed, I must admit, if a legion of shapeshifting pranksters with bad haircuts somehow managed to make off with their husbands' family jewels.)

Presently, current Avengers scribe Kurt Busiek has gone to some trouble to establish the Vision as being 'functional' again, at least to the point where he's hitting on Carol Danvers in a recent issue, and was apparently being used by Morgana Le Fay as an artificial pleasure slave in one of the early issues of the current publishing run.

No discussion of superhero sexuality in the 1980s would be complete without an honorable mention going to Mark Evanier's work on CROSSFIRE and DNAGENTS. The latter title, which might better have been called the "T n'Agents", showcased cute looking artificially created teen age girls named Amber and Rainbow who were forever wriggling in and out of various items of clothing on panel. Evanier's more personal work on CROSSFIRE explored, among other sexual elements, the tough decision for an up and coming actress as to whether or not to do a nude scene in a low-budget suspense movie, and, later on, the ramifications of a sexual relationship between the human Crossfire and the artificially created Rainbow, as well as Rainbow's decision about appearing as a nude centerfold for a thinly disguised Hugh Hefner... a decision she threw cold water on thousands of fanboys, at the very least, when she phrased it by saying "I decided I didn't want all those guys holding up my picture with one hand".

Similarly, there are probably many in the audience who are waiting more or less impatiently for me to make long, detailed, and loving mention of Howard Chaykin's AMERICAN FLAGG! series, but, fortunately, I don't have to, because, whatever else he may have been, one thing Reuben Flagg was not, ever, was a superhero, which puts his tittering, leering, barely one step above CHERRY POPTART quality adventures quite outside the scope of this article. Flagg's sniggering, perpetually adolescent creator Howard Chaykin, though, did a whole bunch of smarmy, sleazy superhero comics in the 80s, including a truly appalling modern version of THE SHADOW in which, apparently, every single character was continually having sex with someone closely related to them, or, alternatively, a house pet, and which was otherwise so poorly plotted, scripted, and even, for Chaykin, drawn, as to excite no lasting interest whatsoever.

One of the weird things about the 1980s, though, was that while the nearly tantric excesses of the 1970s seemed to be taken as carte blanche by some writers and artists to pull out all the stops in terms of depicting the sex lives of superheroes and their supporting casts, other creators almost seemed to feel a somewhat disgusted backlash to such rampant R and PG rated material. Many popular and notable alternative superhero titles seemed all but sexless during the '80s.

On the other hand, John Ostrander's GRIMJACK wallowed in sexual material, from Grimjack's 'what the hell, why not' decision to couple with an old enemy in order to provide her with 'tantric energy' for a spell she was casting on his behalf, to his championing of the cause of a young prison inmate who was being used as a sexual plaything by a gang of older convicts.

Coming out the other side of Crisis with a zealous mandate to make their entire line of characters as much like Marvel's had been back in the 70s as possible, DC quickly incorporated sexuality, among other things, into all their storylines.

A permanently villainized Carol "Star Sapphire" Ferris deliberately taunted her paralyzed partner Hector Hammond with her nude body, declaring that this was why women had always ruled men, in a sequence that many comics shop owners griped should have been given a Mature Readers Only label. Meanwhile, Carol's ex boyfriend, Green Lantern Hal Jordan, who had once proven the thesis she had stated so eloquently to ol' Hec by giving up his power ring when she threatened to otherwise cut off his nookie, was back in the Green Lantern Corps fending off the amorous advances of a cute blond alien Green Lantern who happened to bear a superficial resemblance to a human 14 year old girl. Concerned with appearances, the editorial staff mandated that Arisia would have to be visibly more mature before a relationship between her and Hal could be okayed, so writer Engelhart had her power ring respond to her subconscious desire to seduce Hal by increasing her cup size dramatically. This apparently (and mystifying) assuaged Jordan's emotional objections, allowing him to jam his tongue down Arisia's throat in many beautifully rendered Joe Staton panels for the next ten or twenty issues. In the same title, red skinned alien hottie Katma Tui, who had declared way back in her first, circa 1960s appearance that her race did not express emotions physically the way humans did, suddenly discovered her erogenous zones and began to hit the sheets regularly with GL John Stewart, eventually marrying him.

In the previously mentioned Green Arrow limited series known as LONGBOW HUNTERS, the frequently misogynistic Mike Grell had Black Canary kidnapped, taken to a warehouse, repeatedly tortured and, by implication, raped by a gang of bad guys, for no real reason other than to justify her boyfriend Green Arrow's revolting decision to abandon his gimmicky shafts and simply start employing barbed hunting heads on the criminals he fought. (Since the new, grim&gritty Green Arrow routinely battled heavily armed drug smugglers and expatriate members of the Yakuza who all sported automatic weapons, this should have realistically resulted in his quick and ugly death, but somehow or other, the back to the basics Emerald Archer managed to consistently outshoot, with a bow and arrow, dozens of murderous sociopaths armed with surplus Soviet assault rifles.)

John Byrne gave us a rebooted Superman who, far from being a stolidly isolated icon of such enormous inherent decency and purity that one could not even imagine him ever having an impure thought, instead pursued carnal relationships not only with Lois Lane, but with newly created and utterly uninhibited Daily Planet reporter named Cat something or other, as well.

Wally West, newly installed as his mentor Barry Allen's replacement Flash, went through a bunch of bedmates fairly quickly, including, in what may have been a superhero first, a brief affair with an older woman who was still married to someone else at the time the sexual relationship began.

Robin, who had at some point taken the name Nightwing inspired by Superman's adventures in Kandor associated with that name, despite the fact that in the post Crisis universe, Kandor didn't exist, started a passionate affair with alien princess Starfire which eventually resulted in their getting married.

Plumbing the utmost depths of sleaze and perversity was... you guessed it... Frank Miller, who along with gifted new artist David Mazzuchelli gave us a disturbing vision of Batman's world in BATMAN: YEAR ONE, where an all but asexual Batman plunged regularly into a Gotham crime scene populated by characters such as a lesbian bondage queen/dominatrix prostitute (and occasional pedophile) named Selina Kyle, whom we saw become Catwoman in direct response to Batman's own inspiring career, and her frequent bedmate, the 'young as you want me to be' child hooker Holly, who, even generously, couldn't possibly have been older than 14 and who looked a lot younger.

Add into this mix a somewhat youngish Lt. James Gordon whose marital infidelities we were apparently supposed to overlook because he could beat up ex-Green Berets with his bare hands, even after having been worked over by six guys with baseball bats only a few hours before, and we had an even grimmer&grittier look at superhero sexuality than Miller had given us previously in the similarly bleak, hormone-drenched DARK KNIGHT RETURNS.

It's notable, though, that throughout both story arcs, Batman himself stands out above the tawdry behavior of many (well, all of them but Alfred, really) supporting cast members as a pure, asexual paladin figure, who has clearly sublimated his sex drive in its entirety into a burning, bitter need for violent vengeance on the criminal class that killed his parents.

Even the Swamp Thing, who was as nad-free as John Byrne's Vision, got a sex life of sorts, through sharing hallucinogenic fruit with his girlfriend Abby in some of the more controversial sequences put out by mainstream comics of the Me Decade, (though to my mind, the concept of confusing, you know, The Nasty, with eating a big potato grown in your lover's fungoid, rotting body was... well... just plain deranged).

And in the same author's frequently cited WATCHMEN miniseries, sex was a large part of all the various 'superheroes' characterizations, from the more normal couplings of the two Silk Spectres with various male partners down the decades, through the rather more bizarre relationships of a few of the original Minutemen, to the fact that a complete aversion to sex and a subsequent sublimination of all sex drive into violence against crime was the primary motivation of the nearly sociopathic Rorschach.

Superhuman sexuality seemed to take a back seat to graphic violence over the course of most of the 90s, thanks in no little part to the speculator driven Image craze for bad-but-exciting art with either explicit or implied violence in every single panel. Another contributing factor to this perhaps was that growing access to the Internet had started to sensitize the parents of America to their children's increasing exposure to sexual material, resulting in an incoherent but very real impulse among comics creators to tone down the sex in their own, kid-targeted products.

Notably over-libidinous creators like Chris Claremont, John Byrne, and Howard Chaykin produced comparatively little over the course of the 90s, at least, when stacked up against their output in the previous ten to twenty years, which doubtless contributed to the seeming slacking-off of superhero sexual antics throughout the decade.

Neil Gaiman made frequent mention and story-grist of the somewhat weird sex lives of his huge cast of bizarre but always interesting and often likeable supporting characters in the brilliant and all but indescribable SANDMAN, but DC had made a probably wise move to spin off its horror and occult line into a more Mature Readers oriented separate line called Vertigo, so while writers like Gaiman and Grant Morrison had access to DC's mainstream continuity for story material, they could explore it in far more adult ways than had ever been done previously.

Grant Morrison chose to do this in increasingly bizarre, convoluted, and unreadably perverse examinations of the sexuality of the characters in DOOM PATROL and THE INVISIBLES, while Gaiman explored the intricacies and logical consequences of mortals having carnal knowledge of a variety of mythic and supernatural figures quite intriguingly in the forementioned SANDMAN.

Superman died, rose again, and got married; Batman stayed pretty asexual (Lord, he must miss Silver St. Cloud), even spending some time in a wheelchair after a disastrous encounter with the hugely muscled Bane; Hal Jordan went crazy and shuffled off the post Crisis coil, Hawkman imploded into non-existence, Wonder Woman... did... a bunch of weird stuff I don't even want to think about... and so it went.

Over at Marvel, Peter Parker was married to fashion model Mary Jane Watson, and between his discovery that he was really a clone, and then his subsequent discovery that no he actually wasn't, he didn't seem to have much time for a sex life.

In the Hulk, superhero sex lives got very strange for a while, as Rick Jones started dating a woman named Marlo that ol' Greenskin (who had been grey at the time) had slept with during a brief stint as an enforcer in Las Vegas. After having all his split personalities fully integrated into one eight foot tall bright green superstrong, superintelligent form with a tendency to be quick tempered, the Hulk seemed to have a lot of trouble getting his long suffering wife Betty to give him any lovin', which may be the reason he kept going on petulant rampages.

Over in AVENGERS,as previously noted, Bob Harras went to considerable trouble to give the Vision his bright red boner back, and under the same writer, the Black Knight alternately made out with Crystal and got jumped by Sersi, Hercules fell in love with a dying mortal girl, and the Black Widow seemed to be contemplating having sex with every single Avenger, member of the Avengers support staff, or Federal liaison team, that set foot across the threshhold of the newly rebuilt Avengers Mansion, except, of course, Hawkeye.

Another reason that superhero sex may have seemed to be going through a lull during much of the 90s was that Alan Moore, one of comic's premier explorers of metahuman carnality, had limited most of his work in comics for the decade to various projects for Image, where, as previously stated, the major focus was on violence, not sex. Moore's work, whether on obviously personal projects like the 1963 mini series, or more directly derivative titles like WILDC.A.T.s or VIOLATOR, was always the best thing Image was publishing in any given month, but made little mention of sex or even romance as a story element. It wasn't until the very end of the 90s that Moore returned to exploring various sexual elements of the superhero world, as recent developments between characters in TOP 10 and PROMETHEA amply attest to.

It hasn't escaped me that, while typing the above, my narrative style has gone from an entertaining, somewhat tongue in cheek discussion of the probably spurious sexual overtones of the innocent, goofy stories of the early Silver Age, to a catalogue of joyless couplings, gratuitous sleaze, bizarre and petulant sexually based attacks on various aspects of continuity, and outright disturbing deviancy of a sort one would more appropriately expect to find in a Time Square porn parlor than a comic book direct sales shop.

From the interesting, often delightful spectacle of an occasionally crossdressing cub reporter or an innocently randy teenage blond from a distant world, we've somehow segued into a dark, often disgusting discussion of 14 year old bimboes as members of the new Teen Titans and whether or not one of the few surviving female characters from the Golden Age of comics was actually raped as well as tortured in an infamous Prestige Format mini series.

This is, I think, a pretty fair representation of the general devolution of American superhero comics over the course of the past four decades. The relatively subtle, indirect, implied sexuality of the 50s, 60s, and 70s, which began with an unusually wet kiss goodbye between the survivor of a doomed planet and an altruistic mermaid returning home to Atlantis, and which culminated with a bizarre but brilliantly inspired plotline in which a former Vietnamese prostitute aspired not only to Celestial Madonna-hood, but to marriage with a sentient tree (!) has been replaced by the crude, leering sexual caperings of characters written by people like Chaykin, Miller, Giffen, and others to whom human sexuality is apparently best represented by a bondage catalogue and an endlessly looped highlight reel of Johnny "The Wad" Holmes greatest money shots.

Even relatively straightforward heterosexual romance seems to have declined in quality over the past forty years, as we've gone from the passionate, enthusiastic antics of couples who actually seemed to enjoy dating each other, like Dr. Strange and Clea, or Spider-Man and the Black Cat, to the obligatory, often even onerous seeming mating rituals of the modern day Lois Lane and Clark Kent.

Must superheroes have sex? Should superheroes have sex? Was John Byrne on the morally, or just aesthetically, correct path when he stole the artificial reproductive organs of one of the Avengers' most heroic male members (groan), or should we embrace the lascivious leanings of more libidinously inclined creators like Frank Miller and Chris Claremont and throw open the realm of superhero comics to teen team gangbangs, girl/girl shower scenes, incestuous superfamilies, and weird human/canine matings such as we're currently regarding with at least some bemused approbation in the pages of TOP 10?

For myself, all I can say is what I say about virtually ANY story element in superhero comics... when it's handled well, by a good writer, I like it fine; when it's done poorly by a hack, I want to hire Henry Hill to go pistol whip him into submission.

Sex is clearly a part of the normal... or even abnormal... human experience. It seems to me, then, that if we're going to have a realistic exploration of superhumanity in graphic, serial fiction, sex should and must be an allowable part of that.

We just, you know, shouldn't let Grant Morrison do it.

* * * * * * * * * *

John Jones, the Manhunter from Marathon, IL, no longer dwells in Marathon, IL. He admits to being frankly obsessed with sex at times, thank you very much, and he'd like to note for the record right here and now that if certain women he went to high school and college with had been more generous with their affections at seminal moments in his youthful development, he would probably have a good job in an insurance office somewhere right now.

1 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Actually I've heard Grell says Black Canary wasn't actually raped. Tortured in other ways and it cost her the use of the Canary Cry but not raped.

11:04 PM  

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