COLUMNS

Grid Grid

“This Man, This Monster”: Super-Heroes and Super-Sexism.

Our Pilgrim forefathers and foremothers were fond of moral codes. Prominent among the many they embraced was a dress code that, based on social status and, of course, gender, governed what they could wear.

Our ancestors were one in a long line of societies in which religion’s defining struggle—the war against the flesh—revealed itself in ideas about clothing. These codes have been most visible in female fashion: since the sight of an ankle or a wrist can instantly send men into a sexual frenzy, they must be protected, not from female temptresses, but from themselves, from their own uncontrollable animalistic and even monstrous nature.

The actions of fanatical males around the world remind us that a woman can be stoned (or worse) if she fails to comply with her culture’s dress code. It would be easy, then, to think that such codes are fundamentally about the patriarchy’s need to control girls and women, while liberating boys and men. But such systems also tell us about males’ fears and desires about other males’ bodies.

***
Like the Pilgrims, another moral community with strict ideas about clothing is one we could call the DC-MarvelVerse (DCMV), the world of contemporary mainstream superhero comics. When online critics write about DCMV superhero uniforms, they typically focus on the significance of what such outfits expose, such as female T&A, while overlooking the meanings of what they conceal—often the entire male body.

In a strange way, male superhero costumes function like Puritan garb or even the Burka, an outfit that suppresses a secret (sexual) identity.

In arguments about superhero sexism, writers assume that veiled male bodies demonstrate unquestionable respect for the male form. These arguments adhere to a basic model of “harm/benefit analysis”: if regulations hurt one gender, then the other must profit. While superhero comics are undeniably grounded in the objectification of women, I think we should explore the meanings of these codes for men as well. Maybe Batman’s ‘Bat-Burka’ should prompt us to wonder why male heroes must be covered.

One explanation for the male cover-up—as for all cover-ups—is that there’s something to hide. Just as the mandatory Burka expresses fears about female bodies and male desire, the superhero costume reflects similar sexual anxieties. We often think of the mainstream superhero comic as a “power fantasy” without acknowledging its sexual dimension: it’s an erotic power fantasy. Perhaps some readers would be willing to admit that heroic tales are fantasies: “I would like to have the super power a superman has.”  They might be less inclined to admit that these stories are heterosexual male domination fantasies: “I would like to have the power to control hot females” (yet to admit this would be to acknowledge that these comics’ chivalric code is a sham). Most readers would find it far too scary to recognize that these comics may be homoerotic fantasies: “Watching male bodies in close contact in the male-centric DCMV turns me on.” The hidden body is an unconscious emblem of forbidden same-sex desire.

In recent online essays, writers like Kelly Thompson and others argue that superhero comics celebrate the male body by representing heroes as idealized athletes. Yet, for me, DCMV heroes are inherently un-athletic. Actual male athletes are built for strength, speed, agility, and endurance—think of bodies like those of Lance Armstrong, Hector “Macho” Camacho, or LeBron James. Even some of the strongest male athletes, such as NFL linebackers, lack super-bodies. In real-world situations, superheroes’ malformed, grotesque, and clumsy bodies would inhibit effective superheroing. Like the bodybuilder forms they exaggerate, they are built, not for action, but for posing; they display a physically self-destructive narcissism. Along with female superheroes, Epic Male Superheroes are poseurs first, crime fighters second, and athletes never:

When we watch male athletes at work (in basketball, track and field, wrestling), we see lots of exposed flesh. So why not in superhero comics? We might say, “Well, the heroes are fighting and want to protect their bodies.” (Yet even many WWE wresters show a lot more flesh). But this argument—this recourse to realism—doesn’t explain why something is the way it is in a fantasy. We could ask why heroes don’t wear lightweight super-protective armor designed by Iron Man’s Stark Industries, or why they don’t just treat their skin with a magic formula (created by Mr. Fantastic) that protects it from super-villain laser bolts. Or why not go naked as a sign of unrestrained liberated power, like Moore and Gibbons’s Dr. Manhattan? But such questions ignore what these fantasy comics are about.

It might be that, when male bodies are completely covered, it’s safer for male readers to identify with superheroes. Their muscles are not those of a good-looking real man, but rather a metaphorical index of a hero’s violent power, which, of course, is to be used only for good . . .

If the hyperactive musculature were exposed, these male forms would be revealed for what they really are: super grotesque. (I have never known a single person, male or female, who thought bodybuilders sexually attractive.) The hero costumes ensure that the covered super-body works symbolically: an over-muscled body signals raw power, not raw sexiness. The cover up has more to do with male fear than male privilege. Where have the visible firm young thighs of impressionable sidekicks like Robin gone? [See here for images of Robin's costume over time.]  

The crazy, absurdly ugly, without-a-real-world-purpose muscles of heroes and villains have another meaning: they embody the reader’s rage. In this way, Lee and Kirby’s Hulk is the ur-superhero: an openly monstrous hero-villain.

In fact, the heroic pose of the DCMV high-adventure Epic Hero is almost always monstrous. Bruce Banner, the Hulk’s alter ego, stands in for the nebbish reader, while the green monster is his unchained id. Like the Hulk, many heroes are enraged freaks: mouths screaming, eyes bulging, veins popping, bodies tensing as they ready themselves to exercise their rage-fueled power. Why are they always so angry?:

Speaking of exercise, how do they get these ridiculous bodies? Do they ever work out, or inject themselves with steroids? Why don’t we have story after story of heroes retiring early and dying because of the self-abuse they have endured? The answer: it’s fantasy.

Interestingly, the Hulk is a rare exception to the ban on exposed flesh: he wears almost no clothes. Readers accept his near-naked body because it’s not sexualized or objectified; it’s the existential anger of the misunderstood male who’s trapped in “a world he never made.”


If numerous attractive heroes with athletic bodies (e.g., Lee and Everett’s Daredevil) were to go nearly unclothed, the desires or anxieties of the hetero reader might be activated.

Also: The separation of the male pantheon into heroes and villains obscure that fact that both are Jekyll-Hyde-like doppelgangers of each other and the male reader. Male readers are likely to identify with villains who control women:

The often-maligned artist Rob Liefeld, a father of the Epic Body, understands all of this perhaps better than any other artist. He knows that it’s not about anatomy, proper proportions, or athletic bodies moving realistically. It’s about posing sexualized, over-muscled macho men. To emphasize this, he often eliminates panel backgrounds so that we focus solely on the hero. When Liefeld draws his trademark males with massive bodies and tiny heads, he’s onto something: heroes are not driven by mind or morality, but by fantasy bodies and sexual desires.

***
Those critical of gender politics in superhero comics claim that, while male costumes “make sense,” female outfits don’t. Their over-sexualized design is incompatible with crime-fighting: their huge breasts would pop out of the skimpy costumes. But in erotic power fantasies, the outfits make perfect sense—the possibility of a wardrobe malfunction is part of the thrill . . . Oops. As Kelly Thompson notes, many female heroes and villains look like actual porn stars.

And there’s a reason for this: the male reader wants a fantasy female he could theoretically “access” in real life. But he wants male heroes to be hyper-unrealistic—this way, he’s less likely to fantasize about them. If a male hero looked like a ripped male porn star, he could stimulate a reader’s homoerotic fantasy.

Critics often see the female body as exclusively sexual and the male body as merely physical. Yet in the eroticized DCMV, sex is power and power is sexualized. Thompson notes that Emma Frost has a “lingerie” costume that “makes sense” for her character, but not for other female heroes. Wouldn’t other women want the power to distract and seduce male villains, heroes, and readers?

In an ad campaign titled “The Real Power of the DC Universe,” DC implicitly tried to answer claims of sexism by showing the many heroic females that inhabit its comics: yet the real power was revealed to be T&A, especially T:

Readers claim that “the hidden phallus” is yet another sign that males are allowed to be free from sexualization. But in fantasies, the hidden and the repressed will out itself in some way. Male genitals are often implied by the costumes (in a way that female genitalia is not): bulges, covers, underwear-like tight briefs, etc. suggest that at any moment an “accidental” rip of the spandex might reveal a johnson . . . Oops.

[Note the lines emantating from the figure's "area." They have nothing to do with the costume; rather, they direct the reader to the symbolic home of the hero's power.]

And the prohibition against male genitalia is only a prohibition against the literal. Coded representations of exploding phallic power are everywhere, and have been a staple image for decades:

[Nukla 4, 1966.]

As always, Daniel Clowes, the premier theorist of the superhero, makes the logic clear in The Death-Ray:

One of Clowes’s influences, dirty joke scholar Gershon Legman, criticized the sadistic logic of popular culture’s attitudes toward sex. Since explicit displays are outlawed, libidinal energy is channeled into violence: we can’t make love, so we make war. The reader needs some kind of intense release—if he could get it watching sex, he wouldn’t need to get it viewing violence. In this way, the mainstream superhero story reveals itself as form of children’s literature that can’t deal with children’s and adult’s sexual urges. The absurd musculature of the Epic Super-Being announces that Thanatos has triumphed over Eros.

***
David Brothers writes that “a common problem for cape comics is . . . sexualized art. Imagery that prizes sexualization above all else—especially when it doesn’t make sense for the story—can pull you out of the moment and stop your reading experience dead.” Brothers makes a distinction between plot and visuals that doesn’t work for me. As erotic power fantasies, these stories are fully loaded with sexual imagery.

I can’t separate the erotic images of male and female characters from the plot: both are crucial parts of these stories. It may be well done or poorly done, but either way, all the sexy poses and ugly muscles and tight costumes make perfect sense.

[To see a different approach to male heroes, I recommend Mark Waid’s current Daredevil (drawn by Paolo Rivera and others) as an athletic comic that resists the “epic hero, epic muscles” trend.]

FILED UNDER: , , ,

98 Responses to “This Man, This Monster”: Super-Heroes and Super-Sexism.

  1. robert says:

    So comics books are like the entire world was 100 years ago.

  2. Allen Smith says:

    Well, never really thought the appeal of super heroes to me was sexual, although of course I admired Power Girl’s physical attributes. Never thought that way about the male superheroes, however, although I started reading comics in the sixties and not now, where everything is sexualized. Hmm…time to hit the shrink’s couch on this one.

  3. Teporocho says:

    “Their muscles are not those of a good-looking real man, but rather a metaphorical index of a hero’s violent power, which, of course, is to be used only for good . . .”

    Try to tell that to the girl who went 4 times to see Chris Helmworth in Thor….

    • Ken Parille says:

      That may be true, but I am talking about drawings in comic books, not real people in movies.

      • Teporocho says:

        Of course you are talking about comics, wich depends on representative art. Still I could take your essay and only change some names, titles and pics to those of Stallone or “Commando” and I think the point still would be the same: homoerotic represetantion trough ridiculous bulky anatomy (and really big guns). And I think I ´ve never met a woman who may find Stallone or Schwarzenegger as “sexy” or “handsome”, while nowadays actors like Helmsworth or Chirs Evans model their bodies trying to look exactly as the homoerotic representations that you have kindly examined here and have lots of acceptance from women.

        And since also I´ve nerver ever met a woman who has found “sexyness” in any drawing of Thor, it´s kind of funny how they reacted to the actor portraying him.

      • nottoosure says:

        I’ve actually just been pondering this – I don’t think that Evans or Hemsworth is in anyway trying to emulate the ’80s bodybuilding heroes. The look is different enough to retain sex appeal – they look built, but natural enough, whilst Stallone etc look grotesque. I’ll admit that I can’t quite put my finger on what’s different – Evans/Hemsworth don’t ‘bulge’ as much? – and maybe half of it’s down to the use of the female gaze by the camera in Thor (him changing at Jane’s), Captain America (emerging from Erskine’s experiment) and The Avengers (ass shots! Everywhere!). But to me they certainly look very different. Less bulgy, less sinewy, less obvious flexing and posing?

  4. Jay Evans says:

    Another factor might be the fact that these artists references are the comics they already read and google

  5. Jack Offinson says:

    Wow Ken. Is this really all that you can think of when you read comics? I’m sorry. This is the biggest waste of thought and writing ever.

  6. D.A. Graf says:

    A simpler and more likely explanation for the amount of cover furnished by male superhero costumes is that in a high-risk vocation, the more protection you can have, the better. Not every character has access to Stark or STAR Labs tech, or to unstable molecules. And specifically in the case of Bat-Man, part of his concept is a shadowy, frightening, creature of the night. Exposed caucasian skin would not lend well to that. Overall, this article struck me as a contrived, overly-analytical, pseudo-Freudian attempt to balance all of the commentary over the over-sexualization of female comics characters currently trending.

    • Briany Najar says:

      Simpler and more likely given that they’re real, not merely artful fantasies.

      It’s nice how all the dudes’ “coverings” just look like their skin is painted.
      Well, bviously it would be better if you could see their privates in as much detail as their six-packs, and if they were more prone to making out with each other rather than fighting all the time.
      Maybe they’ll get round to that when all the supervillains have been dealt with, once and for all.

    • Ken Parille says:

      “A simpler and more likely explanation for the amount of cover furnished by male superhero costumes is that in a high-risk vocation, the more protection you can have, the better.”

      This explanation is simpler — and I discuss it above. When you look at female costumes, however, it makes no sense to me.

      “attempt to balance all of the commentary over the over-sexualization of female comics characters currently trending.”

      true.

      It is “pseudo-Freudian” ? I would call it more just Freudian.

  7. Mike Hunter says:

    It’s telling that, as in everyday life in the Western world, superheroines “show more skin” in an erotically exploitative fashion than males do.

    This both indicates a power imbalance, with the clothed more “in control,” more civilized (primitives routinely derided in the past as “naked savages”)…

    …Yet also features women using, not brute strength to dominate, but erotic power over others.

    Manet – Le Déjeuner sur l’Herbe:
    http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/f/f1/Manet,_Edouard_-_Le_D%C3%A9jeuner_sur_l%27Herbe_%28The_Picnic%29_%281%29.jpg

    On the one hand, the woman central to the composition is vulnerably exposed; on the other, she cooly faces us, utterly unashamed.

    To further belabor the point, Equivalents, from the great Jerry Uelsmann:
    http://www.vintageworks.net/VintageWorks_Images/Full/12952a_Uelsmann.jpg

    Re the “almost naked” male superheroes, we can add Namor to the batch. Yet he’s atypical compared to the Hulk and Thing in being fairly sexual.

    It’s easy to conjecture that it’s “safe” to show more of the Hulk and Thing because they are, because of their monstrous condition, far less likely (at least in the world of mainstream comics) to be sexual. Ben Grimm’s love with Alicia would look prudish to the Victorians, and (surely things have changed since I quit reading the Hulk, countless years ago) the only romance the Hulk had was in one story arc where he was shrunk down to tiny size (hmmm!), with some princess in a micro-world.

    • Jesse says:

      I was wondering about Namor, as well — one of the few shirtless male costumes I can think of. Maybe Hercules, too? It’s interesting that Namor is portrayed as a seducer, and also interesting that he doesn’t ever seem to hang on to his own series for too long. Maybe those buttons Ken decribes get pushed.

  8. Joe S. Walker says:

    A pile of psychobabble to support two liberal shibboleths: Men Are Bad and All Straight Men Are Secretly Queer.

    • Jeet Heer says:

      Anyone who can’t see the misogynist and homoerotic content that is pervasive in the superhero genre is either blind or in denial.

    • Ken Parille says:

      Joe,

      “Men Are Bad and All Straight Men Are Secretly Queer.”

      I don’t believe either of these things, nor does my essay make these claims. Men can be heterosexual and yet worry — a worry encouraged by our culture — about their sexuality.

      • Jesse says:

        Even if you leave “worry” aside (since it’s more of an active, negative-sounding word) and leave it at preference for certain images and discomfort with others, the point still stands. As progressive as I consider myself to be, I refused to read that Rob Lowe issue (May 2011) of Vanity Fair out in public, but of course, didn’t have any trouble with the Emma Stone one the next month.

        Just my bit of personal over-sharing in support of Ken’s point for the day.

    • bkmunn says:

      My favourite shirtless superhero is Shibboleth. If I remember correctly, his superpower was that he could make you queer just by looking at him.

      I like the idea of calling a skintight second skin that shows everything except nonexistent genitalia a burqa. Have been thinking about compiling a list of shirtless superheroes for awhile now, but of course there is already a site (since 2007!) dedicated to modern and vintage examples of superhero beekcake , (http://shirtless-superheroes.blogspot.com/ ), and the target audience is not women.

      Maybe because it was key to my own sexual development as a kid, I consider the 70s to be a golden age for superhero comics costume sexuality. In Marvel male costumes alone you have the whole ERB/REH inspired barbarian characters and the post-Thing/Hulk monster characters (Beast, Werewolf by Night, Karkas, etc). Every other new hero seemed to have some aspect of shirtlessness or Doc Savage’s tatterdemalion-style built into their costume, from Son of Satan to Luke Cage.

      Outside of Wertham, I first became aware of the academic discussion of the homoerotic aspect of male superhero bodies in an article discussing the centrality of Charles Atlas ads to comic book culture and the general resulting shirtlessness of Sgt Fury, Sgt Rock, Capt. Savage, up to Conan. Do you think I could find a citation of that article anywhere? I remember it was a book article, published sometime in the 80s/early-90s.

      Regardless, I share with many commentators that themes of identity, gender, violence, and sexuality are central to almost all superhero narratives, simply by virtue of the standard illustrative biases and visual tropes present.

      Hell, even Supergoof is a Freudian’s wet dream.

      • Stephen Hirsch says:

        bkmunn-

        At first I thought the essay you were referring to was something by Scott Bukatman, but upon further inspection I realize I was thinking of his essay “X Bodies,” which, while mentioning Charles Atlas ads and covering all of the issues under discussion here, doesn’t seem like the article you’re talking about. It’s more about X-Men and Image Comics.

        Aren’t those original Image guys working a lot right now? Coincidence that superhero bodies become a “hot button issue” again?

        On a related note, how amazingly appropriate is it that Todd McFarlane spent a few million dollars to become the proud owner of all those record-breaking home run balls during MLB’s steroid era?

  9. Kim Thompson says:

    Two examples of “bared” male super-heroes Ken doesn’t mention: Namor the Sub-Mariner (from what I understand a big favorite of female adolescent Marvel comics fans), as Mike Hunter points out, and Hawkman. Interesting that the Sub-Mariner was created as the most transgressively “bad” (near-villainous) character in the Marvel universe, and that both were created VERY early on, before rules had had a chance to codify.

    Amusing that one of the dismissive comments about this excellent article is from a “Jack Offinson.” If it’s his real name I apologize, but sheesh. Has anyone seen Mike Hunt?

    • Rob Clough says:

      Regarding Namor, Marvel made repeated efforts to put a costume on him in the 70s, but the look never stuck (thankfully).

      Not sure if they technically count as superheroes, but both Conan and Shang-Chi were frequently depicted as shirtless.

      • Tim Hodler says:

        And then of course there’s Tarzan, one of the most obvious forefathers of the superhero. Interestingly, in the original Burroughs novels, Tarzan is often portrayed as completely nude — without even the loincloth he got later in the movies and comics. ERB’s John Carter was often naked, too. Maybe such imagery is less threatening in prose form than when depicted through artwork.

        It’s probably no accident that these unclothed comic-book heroes—Tarzan, Conan, and Shang-Chi (by way of being a Bruce Lee ripoff)—all have their origins outside of comics.

      • Jeet Heer says:

        It’s worth looking up the great interview with Burne Hogarth that Gary Groth conducted in The Comics Journal. Gary asked Hogarth about the sexuality of Tarzan, his androgynous look and the fact that when he’s naked his penis is always carefully hidden from view, which provokes an interesting response from Hogarth and an anecdote about a fan who was willing to pay for a painting of Tarzan fully in the buff with his manhood in view. It was fairly common for artists like Hogarth and Hal Foster to carefully hide the penis of their heroes even when drawing them nude. Usually there was a careful bit of fog or foliage to hide the offending member.

      • One interesting exception in superhero artists would be Mike Grell, who drew “The Warlord” (a character heavily “inspired” by Burroughs) and also re-designed some of the Legion of Super-Heroes’ costumes (changes that were later reverted).

        I was recently reading the Kubert adaptation of Tarzan, the character is shown nude (within Comics Code guidelines) for several pages before settling on the familiar loincloth.

      • Ken Parille says:

        “It’s probably no accident that these unclothed comic-book heroes—Tarzan, Conan, and Shang-Chi (by way of being a Bruce Lee ripoff)—all have their origins outside of comics.”

        Yes — current manistream superhero comics have “rules” that are instructively different form other mediums and genres.

      • patrick ford says:

        The ERB Mars characters are interesting in that they often wear “harnesses” but are otherwise completely naked.
        The Hogarth interview Part One:
        http://www.tcj.com/archive-viewer-issue-166/?pid=16842
        this section is relevant to the discussion:
        http://www.tcj.com/archive-viewer-issue-166/?pid=16865
        Part Two:
        http://www.tcj.com/archive-viewer-issue-167/?pid=16997
        Section Jeet mentions:
        http://www.tcj.com/archive-viewer-issue-167/?pid=17014

      • Ken Parille says:

        Rob -I had forgetten that odd black costume he wore for a time

  10. ryanholmberg says:

    I know this is a different context, but for what it’s worth: Atomu (Astroboy) was topless and bare-legged. But then, the airing of the Superman animated series on Japanese television beginning in 1956 set off an entire wave of Japanese superheroes in manga, and notably I think most if not all are fully clothed.

  11. david says:

    That new DC and X Men artwork is truly bloody awful! Its looks like everyones made of burnished metal. Do they click a tool in Photosshop called ‘Skittles’ or something (or ‘rainbow vomit’ maybe?)

    + Spot on about the cocklessness of male superheroes…flat as a pancake… I would say that is a straight intuitive fear of homosexuality in any implication…in the artist…to the reader…any angle.

    Though the women in the DC Greek/Roman mural thing look like transgender men!…their really beefy as well as the enormous breasts n bums.

    What a hideous world we have created.

    Oh and the anger thing has long been a source of drunken stoned amusement to me and my pals. Surely it stems from once the fantasy is over, the artist, writer, reader is still that nerdy little guy/girl with bad skin, and a wheeze at sport.

    But The resurgence of Rob Liefeld as a Player is truly the most scary…I have noticed on blogs n doo da all of the net recently people quietly saying ‘he aint so bad’. Just look at that picture of Captain America! Jesus wept.

    Still Image let Shaky Kane make a wonderful crazy comic with fantastic thick rough lined flat artwork and its selling too! there’s still hope.

    • Ken Parille says:

      That DC mural is called a “Bridal Party” . . . .

      • david says:

        oh right ha ha

        It kind of looks like a ancient fresco mural thing no? One of them’s even got laurels in her hair.

        So did Superman and Batman tie the knot then?

        Cut to Really angry photo of them jointly slashing a big knife into a muscly cake of burnished pink.

  12. patrick ford says:

    How come the movie Batman has rubber nipples and the movie Catwoman doesn’t?

    • Kim Thompson says:

      Because Joel Schumacher is gay and Tim Burton hasn’t hit puberty.

      • Paul Mason says:

        So Nolan’s Batman (all dressed in riot gear) just exposes the director as a closet Thatcherite? Or is that design just another victim of the modern “more realistic” superhero aesthetic? You know … more realistic b/c he has a costume with lots of zippers and pouches not b/c of any content to the character or the stories.

  13. ey says:

    When I was first exposed to comic heroes – in the late 50s – repression reigned: shirtless male characters had neither chest hair nor nipples. Female sexuality only occasionally surfaced through skin-tight pants or short skirts. While Spider-man had a basket, Kirby’s males were concave at the crotch.

    I was a skinny kid, and identified with Infantino’s Flash and Kane’s Green Lantern (when inked by Joe Giella) because their musculature was NOT emphasized, unlike Swan’s muscle-mag Superman and the balloonish Batman. The rendering probably reflected Giella’s lazy technique – when Murphy Anderson inked, the characters suddenly had Superman-type biceps.

    Today’s hysterically hype anatomy are partly a backlash against the early code standards – the message being, look what we can get away with now.

  14. Ken Parille says:

    According to the internet, women bruise more easily than men. Therefore, women’s bodies need to be covered more than men’s as they fight supervillians.

    So why aren’t they covered more and men exposed more, since men can take it?

  15. Al says:

    I think it’s even simpler than that.

    The hyper-muscled, strong superhero is how teenage boys like to see themselves (in their heads). The uber-boobed female superheroes are how teenage boys see women. Simple as that. (Let’s face it, every teenage boy things they are AWESOME, even the think weedy nerd types. And every woman, even the flat-chested traffic cop is an object of wonder to them)

    Granted, the above doesn’t make sense when you realise these strips are drawn by 20-40 somethings, but I guess they know their target audience

  16. Once again, lots of long words piled up to prove the obvious. Personally, I wish we could just stop doing bad work — by “bad” I mean “offensive with absolutely no iota of social value”. If the bad work doesn’t exist, it’s not published or monetized, it can’ infect the public. Wouldn’t it be nice to look back and laugh at “the Rob Liefeld era”?

    An even better signal would be from the public. What if fans perceive these comics the way we do dog shit on the sidewalk? Just walk by it like it’s not even there.

    As a recovering Claremont-era Marvel fanboy, I’m living proof that evolution is possible.

  17. Tom says:

    my problem with the thesis of this article is that comic book men *aren’t* covered. With the exception of Dr. Strange, Professor X, and a couple of puffy-magical-robe wearers, male superheros are depicted in skintight clothing which reads not as a covering of flesh, but as a complete exposure of it. Parille acknowledges this in the last half of his article, about the sexualized body-builder poses. but you can’t have it both ways — either the bodies are hidden so we won’t be turned on, or they’re completely revealed, pandering to vaguely homoerotic or narcissistic urges.

    • Paul Mason says:

      This is the crux of the matter but I don’t think it has to be an either or situation. Can’t it be the “painted on nakedness” of the male superhero functions as the subliminal homoerotic subtext guarded from it’s full expression with the lack of overt showing of skin? If read it that way for years.

    • Stephen Hirsch says:

      I think most would agree the typical male superhero costume registers as body paint rather than fabric. The burka analogy seems pretty inapt for this reason; the burka conceals the body, but the male superhero’s body is explicitly on display. It might be useful to make a distinction between the body and flesh here. The latter is what the male superhero “costume” conceals. These images revel in the form of the male body, they just don’t want it made up of recognizably human flesh.

      The body v. flesh distinction reminds me of how Leni Riefenstahl approaches the athletic body in “Olympia”–there’s a lot of silhouetting where the body becomes a kind of platonic, abstracted form. The detail of what those bodies are made of is glossed over (vulnerabilities, imperfections, idiosyncrasies). You can see the male superhero costume this way, as a platonic abstraction of the human body, de-fleshed and color-coded. Not all (perhaps not even the most interesting) implications are sexual. There’s some asexual desire for an ideal of athletic beauty, to see human body-forms in action, physicality, etc….now I’m also thinking it might be useful to distinguish the issue of anatomical distortions from the issue of costumes, which I think might get conflated in this piece and most others like it.

      • Ken Parille says:

        Stephen,

        You are taking the Burka analogy more literally than it’s intended — it’s there in part to set up the idea of outfits that conceal the viewer’s desire. Bat Burka . . .

        You mentioned, as others have, the notion of athletic beauty. I don’t see that at all, for the many reasons I discuss above – the forms look ugly . . . . I see the issue of distortion and costumes as related, again for reasons that I explain.

        also: “I think most would agree the typical male superhero costume registers as body paint rather than fabric.” Not me. Costumes can be read in different ways.

      • Cory says:

        So I think part of the issue is that energy is part of what pulls us into the story. it’s about action, you wanna see that. but when we draw men, we get to show the power with flexing muscles, and strained faces. with women we lose part of the ability to do that because big muscly girls aren’t the most attractive to most people. So I think at least part of it is that without that, another thing that has that energy and visual stimulation is sex. like you said they are similar. so I think part of what we need to figure out is how to show women with power without making them look manly.

        the distortion can look bad and take away from believability, but I think this was an effort to show the energy without drawing the women like men. There are ways to do that, its just not as easy with less references, the fanboys who DO want the T&A, and meeting deadlines without using memorized poses. So I agree with some things here and you do a good job to show your points with valid and sound arguments free of silly illustrations, but I think we need to start offering an alternative. maybe we can start a thread of good alternative techniques and stuff?

        thats part of why some of the arguments look silly against oversexualization, because people offer examples of men in feminine poses, so they look silly. I’ve seen a few that don’t and I think those are much better examples. (namor, batman with his shirt off, etc…/the equivalent should look more like a male model than a playboy pinup) I just think this makes the point better.

      • Kim Thompson says:

        “I think most would agree the typical male superhero costume registers as body paint rather than fabric.” Why just male? This fueled my adolescent enjoyment of the Gene Colan-drawn Black Widow from her Daredevil-co-starring days enormously. Arguably the sexiest super-hero comic ever.

    • Ken Parille says:

      My earlier responses are not appearing, so I will post this comment on Tom’s comment again.

      I think you can have it both ways; this is a good example of how the same thing can be interpreted in different ways at the same time. You say that we have to read “covering” as “not covering” – I read it as both.

  18. patrick ford says:

    Of course the reason Plastic Man can’t cut it in todays fetishized super suit comics is he shows so much skin.
    Bare legs are bad enough, but no shoes?
    And a backless costume with a plunging V neckline?
    No super heroes must be angry, and “serious.”
    See, it keeps people from laughing at them.
    http://d1466nnw0ex81e.cloudfront.net/iss/600w/982/229821/3608491_1.jpg

  19. patrick ford says:

    Jack Kirby had a bit of fun with Mark Borax in a 1987 interview.

    Kirby: I had a proposal like that yesterday. Somebody wanted me to do a naked Dr. Strange.
    Mark Borax: A naked Dr. Strange?
    Kirby: Well I suggested it, because I felt it would be in keeping with what was done in the Vatican.
    Mark Borax: You suggested the naked Dr. Strange?
    Kirby: Of course I would do it in the classical mode, which is nudity. The kind of Dr. Strange nobody’s seen before.
    Mark Borax: Wow.
    Jack Kirby: I would call it, “Strange Strange.”
    Mark Borax: (laughs)
    Kirby: Of course I’m joshing…That’ s my way of having fun.

  20. Stephen Hirsch says:

    “Yet, for me, DCMV heroes are inherently un-athletic. Actual male athletes are built for strength, speed, agility, and endurance … Even some of the strongest male athletes, such as NFL linebackers, lack super-bodies. In real-world situations, superheroes’ malformed, grotesque, and clumsy bodies would inhibit effective superheroing.”

    Eh…

    http://jocksandstilettojill.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/10/Body-StevenJackson.jpg

    Steven Jackson begs to differ!

  21. William says:

    This article was enjoyable and informative, and yet, you continue to miss a very essential point which I know TCJ would prefer to keep ignoring as much as their opposites, the mainstream super-hero fan community would like to forget- these were all created for young audiences several decades ago. It’s as simple as that. You need to churn out articles and psychological theories regarding the true messages hidden in the Hulk being barely dressed. No, he’s barely dressed because Jack Kirby drew him that way and because he’s a scientist which turns into a monster, hence his clothes rip. You might as well write a detailed piece on why Boris Karloff as the Frankenstein Monster is wearing a blazer. Was he, on a subtle level, promoting monster chic? We’ve taken these basic concepts and spun them into an entire industry of chatter and discussion, but don’t forget these were all borne out of another time, for a different generation. Context counts.

    • Ken Parille says:

      William,

      Thanks — I think you are right about the need to remeber the context in which these characters were created.

      I also think that the way they look now reflects a current context that is different from the past.

  22. Mike Hunter says:

    ————————
    Joe S. Walker says:

    A pile of psychobabble to support two liberal shibboleths: Men Are Bad and All Straight Men Are Secretly Queer.
    ————————

    Those simplistic slams certainly deserve razzing, but I didn’t “get” that message in any way from Ken’s fine essay.

    The attacks about the article being loaded with psychobabble are rather off-target; psychologizing there is definitely on the “lite” side, and pretty reasonably argued.

    ————————
    bkmunn says:

    …I first became aware of the academic discussion of the homoerotic aspect of male superhero bodies in an article discussing the centrality of Charles Atlas ads to comic book culture and the general resulting shirtlessness of Sgt Fury, Sgt Rock, Capt. Savage, up to Conan.
    ————————–

    Heh! Re Sgt. Fury, I recall some Marvel satire comic story (art by one of the Severins?) featuring him, Tommy gun blazing away, yelling, “Gotta keep fighting! Haven’t gotten my shirt torn off completely yet!

  23. Michael Grabowski says:

    The absurdity of a lot of these costumes, male and female, becomes so much more apparent when you see an attempt to put them on a physical person, whether big budget movie actor, a model, or con cosplayer. (To the extent that the illusion on screen works at all, it’s probably due to CGI rendering.) They don’t seem practical or effective, they just look ridiculous and laughable, and not a little embarrassing.

    • Ken Parille says:

      This is why an argument that tries to explain t.hese oufits solely in terms of realism doesnt work for me

      • Kristine says:

        I think that the people defending those costumes as “realistic” want (in their heart of hearts) a No-Prize. Stan Lee did a good job of conditioning us to rationalize errors and bullshit.

  24. Donald E. Simpson says:

    “And there’s a reason for this: the male reader wants a fantasy female he could theoretically “access” in real life. But he wants male heroes to be hyper-unrealistic—this way, he’s less likely to fantasize about them. If a male hero looked like a ripped male porn star, he could stimulate a reader’s homoerotic fantasy.”

    The preposterous gender distinctions in most superhero comics could simply be attributed to poor artists who lack the skill to differentiate between male and female bodies in more subtle (and realistic) ways. Or it may be that if they are capable of drawing realistic male and female bodies, artists are troubled to find that the two genders have more in common than not, and retreat into exaggeration to reassure themselves of their own (hetero-) sexuality. After all, the genre is all about clear, unambiguous distinctions, and the imperative to differentiate (male, female; good, evil; red, green; etc.). Everything that can be polarized sooner or later will be.

    Speaking of distinctions, I am not convinced that there is a clear point at which the hyper-macho male body becomes grotesque and therefore unerotic, i.e., that the grotesque and erotic are mutually exclusive (clearly, today’s superheroes have become grotesque; my question is, could this still be a turn-on for some male readers? I think so.). Further I’m not convinced that ripped male porn stars are more likely to trigger homoerotic yearnings than the Hulk. One may fantasize about being Peter North, i.e., performing acts to or on women, but never desire Peter North per se (although in his day one could admit he was quite attractive). Whether one identifies with a pornstar or superhero (i.e., wants to be doing what they are doing) or desires either one as an object seems to have more to do with the individual reader, and cannot be intrinsically decided or determined in the work, it seems to me.

    As far as costumes are concerned, for the most part my view is that they are simply color codes (again, the imperative for clear distinctions); seeing them as clothing when they are not explicitly armor or some sort is frankly difficult for me. Although, come to think of it, whenever I drew characters with capes, these functioned more as “speed lines” rather than cloaks (or Burkas).

    As I wrote on some long-lost blog years ago, what is noteworthy to me about today’s superheroes vs. the classics of yesteryear is that the classic superheroes spent a good deal if not most of their time in their limp, flaccid secret identities (the skinny Bruce Banner); today’s superheroes seem to be always always-erect, turgid, veiny phalluses (the Hulk). What’s more, today’s heroes are constantly teaming up, crossing over, and otherwise hanging out with one another — all the time, an impossible fantasy of male potency. (A Superman story of the 1940s or 1950s would mostly be about wimpy Clark Kent’s frustrated attempts to rescue Lois Lane or whatever, with Superman bursting forth to save the day only at the climax of the story; this is perhaps a somewhat more realistic metaphor of male sexuality than today’s eternal orgy, if you follow me). The repressed Clark Kent-Bruce Banner symbol of ineffectual flaccidity, of course, long ago resurfaced as R. Crumb, Harvey Pekar (as they appeared in their stories), and Dan Pussey, along with similar perennial losers of alternative comics. Superhero comics these days are all about power; alternatives are all a contemplation of powerlessness (if that’s not too broad a brush).

    Perhaps the underlying truth of today’s superhero genre is that if males were in such a constant state of arousal, sooner or later they would turn on each other (either violently or sexually). I guess what is most disturbing about the visual component of your essay is that superhero sexuality these days is more hideous than ever, especially the obnoxious depiction of Maxim-inspired, silicone-implanted women, now embraced by the once fairly conservative Marvel and DC. Of course this also speaks to the massive desensitization of the average male comics reader today, however many of them are still left. The trajectory of the superhero genre from a once-disposable form of youthful reading that one was expected to outgrow before assuming a healthy, well-adjusted adulthood, to an all-encompassing environment encouraging total developmental arrest, forms a strikingly dissonant backdrop to the more serious cartoonist’s quest to claim critical validation for the artform.

    • Ken Parille says:

      Donald,

      Thanks for this detailed response; and nearly everything you say makes a lot of sense to me.

      • Donald E. Simpson says:

        Thanks for the kind words, Ken. FYI, I’m the Don Simpson who drew Megaton Man, Wendy Whitebread, and King Kong back in the day, so the concept of gender distinctions has been a running theme in my work, you might say.

      • bkmunn says:

        I always loved that scene between Megaton Man and See-Thru Girl where she’s like “Who do you think we’re kidding? You can see everything I’ve got!”

        Was it “Stella by Starlight” ?

      • Donald E. Simpson says:

        bkmunn: Yes, I think it was at the end of #4. Stump the forgetful artist!

      • zack soto says:

        Just want to go off topic and say I’m a fan! Really into Border Worlds and Bizarre Heroes, in particular. Come back to comics some time,you are missed.

  25. “Male genitals are often implied by the costumes (in a way that female genitalia is not): bulges, covers, underwear-like tight briefs, etc. suggest that at any moment an “accidental” rip of the spandex might reveal a johnson . . . ”

    This is simply incorrect. Only the slightest and least conspicuous bulges are welcome in mainstream superhero comics, carefully avoided in spite of the tight costumes. If Liefeld is intentionally drawing attention to anything, it’s the fact that his character there is a castrato apparently surviving on hormone replacements. Any suggestion that there is something under the spandex which might reveal itself (such as when a photorealist such as Alex Ross draws a figure as his model appears) is met with shrieks of horror from phallophobic hetero male readers. While there is certainly some element of homoeroticism in male superhero costumes, it is carefully circumscribed by the comfort zone of straight boys who prefer to imagine that every man except him has been neutered. If there is any implication that the muscular male figures they’re looking at are also sexual figures, they recoil in disgust.

    • Ken Parille says:

      Jason,

      To be honest, I don’t know how to respond to your “this is simply incorrect” approach.

      Perhaps you are sure that your position is the correct one, I dont know; I think there are lots of different ways to think about these costumes and what they mean. Your analysis and commentary seem reasonable to me.

    • Donald E. Simpson says:

      I agree, the bulges are conspicuously absent in mainstream superheroes, still to this day. I remember the shock I experienced as a youngster (c. 1972), examining some kind of fashion photo or underwear ad that featured women, and the female models clearly had more of a bulge than John Romita (Sr.)’s Spider-Man in the corresponding area. (Grey Morrow is one of the few, who hardly ever worked in the mainstream, who consistently drew the male bulge.) I own a page of original Marie Severin art inked by Wally Wood from the Claws of the Cat #1, and there are several instances on just that one page of the fanny-cracks and cleavage being reduced or eliminated with whiteout. Can you imagine staffers in New York whose job it is to make such corrections? How does this “sanitize” the image, is what I’d like to know. (Today, I imagine there are probably Photoshop specialists whose job it is to amp up these attributes on the female figures, while policing the male figures.)

      Your comment also reminded me of the problem I’ve long had with Alex Ross’s work, an extensive gallery show of which just closed here in Pittsburgh at the Andy Warhol museum. Let me be clear, Alex has an enviable mastery of watercolor technique and his popularity is well deserved. But when I look at his work, all I tend to see are overmuscled bullies wearing circus costumes. In some ways, more simpler outline drawings (say, Joe Schuster, who was inspired by Hal Foster) convey the “idea” of superheroity (if that’s a word) than does more photo-realistic work, such as Alex’s.

      My idea of a comic book superhero is basically an outline drawing of a nude figure, covered in process cmyk colors (on newsprint), maybe with a few boot and glove lines. Greater visual realism, however much talent and skill it demonstrates, beyond a certain point only multiplies the absurdity of such imagery.

      • R. Fiore says:

        You’d wonder offhand how much of the cleft redaction in the Severin/Wood art was due to contstructive criticism from the Comics Code Authority.

      • Donald E. Simpson says:

        Oh, yeah, the Comic Code. I’d completely forgotten about that. Well certainly that was something that comics publishers in those days had to abide by. But it was self-imposed and voluntary, after all, and ultimately an expression of their desire to maintain as wide a public for its product as possible. In 1972, Marvel and DC were still operating under a presumption that a mainstream audience was still a possibility if in fact already a dwindling reality; in 2012, all bets are off, since there is only a market of a few thousand die-hard comic book fans anyway. It just seems to me like they’ve given up. This correlates perfectly with the abandonment of other once-prolific female-friendly genres (Archie, romance, et al) that we’ve seen since the advent of the Direct Market.

        Why they continue to show any restraint whatsoever (i.e., devolving into complete hardcore of one variety or another) can only be attributed to the claims of corporate licensing, movie adaptations, etc. on these venerable trademarks.

        Again, let me just remark how hideous are all the recent examples of the genre in the visual essay here. Things have gotten even worse in all respects in recent years (in the coarseness of the imagery, in the loss of drawing ability amongst mainstream artists, in the depiction of gender, etc.). Just repulsive.

      • R. Fiore says:

        “Contstructive.” So close. Soooo close.

        And yeah you right, that is some ugly-ass shit. You walk by that section of the comics shop the way you’d walk past a display of extreme fetish porn for a fetish you don’t share, slightly appalled and with no interest in investigating further.

  26. Donald E. Simpson says:

    I should have added, speaking of mutual exclusivity:

    “Is this really all that you can think of when you read comics?”

    Can a one be said to be thinking of anything (“thinking” at all) while reading a superhero comic book?!

  27. patrick ford says:

    Richard Corben comments on some of the broader aspects of the topic.
    http://www.muuta.net/Ints/IntCorbHM51.html

    BRAD BALFOUR: I think it was Jean-Pierre Dionnet who said in Zoom magazine that you were obsessed by sex, death, and violence.

    RICHARD CORBEN: All humanity is.

    BB: Is it stuff from the inner psyche – things your’re attracted to, maybe? – hidden homosexual or S&M tenderices?

    RC: I feel the images in my work do not specifically suggest what you infer. For instance, a drawing might show a hugely muscled male nude . This in itself is not deviant; however, the viewer projects some of his own feelings onto the drawing. He might view the art and say it shows “hidden homosexual or S&M tendencies.” A simple interpretation would be that the image shows a heroic idealism developed to such an extreme degree as to be slightly satirical and tongue-in-cheeck. This is in fact the intent. I think much of your interview reveals more of you than me.

    BB: Look at the way you exaggerate the male figure. Don’t you think there’s a sort of subtle homosexual implication in that?

    RC: I just emphasize the primary sexual characteristics, and the same thing with the women.

  28. R. Maheras says:

    Jeet wrote: “Anyone who can’t see the misogynist and homoerotic content that is pervasive in the superhero genre is either blind or in denial.”

    Either that or they are projecting, or over-analyzing the shit out of something.

    Keep in mind that, historically, creators in this industry are as different intellectually, politically and creatively as any other random clump of artists in other creative specialties. And since we are talking artists, let’s use use this appropriate cliche: Ken shouldn’t paint every superhero creator with the same broad brush.

    Speaking about cloaked heroes, I’ve often wondered if the Shadow had a bit of flab around his gut and droopy shoulders — kind of like Kurtzman depicted Shadowskeedeboomboom in “Mad.”

    • Donald E. Simpson says:

      “… historically, creators in this industry are as different intellectually, politically and creatively as any other random clump of artists in other creative specialties … ”

      The question might be, if this is the case, how is any of this evident in the work? If the goal is to look like a Wizard Top-Ten artist, and the means is to adopt the aesthetic of the WWE, Victoria’s Secret, Grand Theft Auto, S&M, etc., aren’t the results going to be more or less generic, whatever the subject position of the creator may have been at the outset?

      The essay, it seems to me, is about a dominant trend in superhero comics. Of course there are exceptions, most of which have come from major independents. Mike Allred’s work comes off as positively humanist and life-affirming compared to most of the Image-esque examples in the visual essay (indeed, it would come off that way even without the comparison). of course Allred is harkening back to a more traditional, and arguably more broadly appealing, approach to superheroes, not unlike the one manifested in most of the recent popular Hollywood adaptations (Spider-Man, Iron Man). But one cannot seriously argue about the overwhelming direction publishers and collectors have driven (or attenuated) the genre in print in recent decades. It’s been one long, ugly, hardcore team-up at least since the 1980s.

      What continues to fascinate is the involvement of iconic childhood namby-pamby trademarks like Batman and Superman in these travesties, and the pretense that the narratives somehow depict good vs. evil. No doubt, the artistic constraints — impossibilities — placed on corporate-owned properties breeds a good deal of the futility evident in the genre. It would be a great deal more healthy, in my view, if superhero comics were openly mysogynistic, homoerotic, pornographic — just let it all hang out. As it is, it’s a kind of festering cultural boil of some sort. At any rate, in my view, the genre as it is practiced “at the top” no longer has any connection to American cartooning as an artistic tradition. They may still look like comic books, but for the most part they are merely transcriptions of ultra-violent, completely amoral video games on paper.

  29. Mike Hunter says:

    ——————-
    Kim Thompson says:

    “I think most would agree the typical male superhero costume registers as body paint rather than fabric.” Why just male? This fueled my adolescent enjoyment of the Gene Colan-drawn Black Widow from her Daredevil-co-starring days enormously. Arguably the sexiest super-hero comic ever.
    ———————–

    Ah, yes; can’t forget her shower scene, then toweling herself off afterward! (Inked by Syd Shores; the details that stick to memory!)

    ———————–
    Stephen Hirsch says:

    …The body v. flesh distinction reminds me of how Leni Riefenstahl approaches the athletic body in “Olympia”–there’s a lot of silhouetting where the body becomes a kind of platonic, abstracted form. The detail of what those bodies are made of is glossed over (vulnerabilities, imperfections, idiosyncrasies). You can see the male superhero costume this way, as a platonic abstraction of the human body, de-fleshed and color-coded. Not all (perhaps not even the most interesting) implications are sexual. There’s some asexual desire for an ideal of athletic beauty, to see human body-forms in action, physicality, etc…
    ————————

    All of which neatly ties on to her photography book, The Last of the Nuba. These towering, warlike muscular African tribals — they called themselves “the men of men” — spend much of their time in ritualized wrestling contests, their bodies covered ghostly-white for the occasion with ashes: http://www.oskarlewis.com/weblog/photo/nuba-people-2 .

    ————————–
    Michael Grabowski says:

    The absurdity of a lot of these costumes, male and female, becomes so much more apparent when you see an attempt to put them on a physical person, whether big budget movie actor, a model, or con cosplayer.
    —————————

    Yup! How much more commercially successful a comics career would the fine Grey Morrow have had if his characters hadn’t been so realistically proportioned, their costumes looking like fabric rather than body-paint:

    http://4.bp.blogspot.com/_hF09r6XaLRo/TKstNXQFZ7I/AAAAAAAAEMs/8dDZUjojY-g/s1600/gray+morrow+spectre+pencils.jpg

    http://4.bp.blogspot.com/-42nAd3fCDmE/TgC5UgzMIWI/AAAAAAAAE6c/m0lZ0hW5FGw/s1600/gray+morrow+batman+art.jpg

    http://1.bp.blogspot.com/-18ftWxBbppQ/ThowYLFZ9WI/AAAAAAAAAYo/w6MXfnL4yAc/s1600/morrow-howto.jpg

    http://4.bp.blogspot.com/-dZsj7F0Bjjg/TgC4MJjAsxI/AAAAAAAAE6Y/TP8xkuymnCQ/s1600/catwoman+gray+morrow+batman+dc+comics+original+comic+art.jpg

    http://2.bp.blogspot.com/-Vi-qM9PPos0/TdUsMogRshI/AAAAAAAAE1U/hDmI6wOuzcM/s1600/supergirl+art+gray+morrow+dc+comics+superman+silver+age+.gif

    ————————-
    Donald E. Simpson says:

    I guess what is most disturbing about the visual component of your essay is that superhero sexuality these days is more hideous than ever, especially the obnoxious depiction of Maxim-inspired, silicone-implanted women, now embraced by the once fairly conservative Marvel and DC. Of course this also speaks to the massive desensitization of the average male comics reader today, however many of them are still left…
    ————————–

    Yes, yes and yes…!

    ————————–
    FYI, I’m the Don Simpson who drew Megaton Man, Wendy Whitebread, and King Kong back in the day…
    ————————–

    …And the splendid Border Worlds, The Gospel of Supply-Side Jesus ( http://www.bobonline.net/progxiansd/ssj/index.html ), some wonderful tales in the great Wasteland ( http://www.factualopinion.com/the_factual_opinion/2012/03/wasteland-the-john-ostrander-interview.html ). A tip of the hat from a long-time fan…

  30. Scott Grammel says:

    I’ll admit that I didn’t even read the essay above, though I have read a good amount of the following commentary. Frankly, it just looked like another chance for the collective TCJ audience to throw stones at current mainstream superhero comics, which, given the high dross quotient, is an awful easy and cheap exercise. Starting things off with that Liefeld image certainly suggested such might be the case.

    Still, I just wanted to say that, as few new comics as I buy on any kind of regular basis, I’ve found myself in these last few years actually probably buying more mainstream superhero comics. Perhaps Parille touches on this, but there is these days a quite impressive array of widely varying but still acceptable artistic approaches. The more realistic stylists (Brian Hitch, J.H. Williams III) have occasionally got me reaching for my wallet, but for the most part I’ve been picking up and enjoying (sometimes more, sometimes less) what could easily be categorized as the New Retros: Darwyn Cooke, Javier Pulido, Marcos Martin,and Chris Samnee. Of course, none of those artists emphasize or exaggerate the musculature and physiques of their characters, and also realistically (okay, semi-realistically) present the typical superhero body suit.

    Since I’m firebombing any remaining reputation as a Domingos-level comics elitist, I’ll also mention that on Tuesday I bailed on a showing of Claire Denis’ Beau Travail to catch Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance, the viewing of which completely ratified the wisdom of that decision.

  31. Mike Hunter says:

    “Classic” Hulk: http://3.bp.blogspot.com/-rACvwJg0B6o/TZtUMtTkJuI/AAAAAAAAATs/OU4YJizDZ_w/s1600/The+Incredible+Hulk+011.jpg

    Modern bodybuilder Hulk, “ripped” and on steroids: http://www.tcj.com/%E2%80%9Cthis-man-this-monster%E2%80%9D-super-heroes-and-super-sexism/phulk/

    Then: http://andrewdevenney.net/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/2011/05/strong-man.png

    Now: http://www.getbig.com/boards/index.php?action=dlattach;topic=108131.0;attach=129332;image

    Recycling a bit of verbiage from a Hooded Utilitarian thread on modern “superhero cheesecake” ( http://hoodedutilitarian.com/2012/02/adding-incompetence-to-insult/ ):

    Re the truly atrocious modern superheroines depicted, it’s an unfortunate yet predictable effect of the ramping-up-of-everything we see in modern “culture.” Guys don’t just want to date models, they want supermodels; a man can’t simply be in shape, he’s got to be “cut,” have “ripped abs”; the spectacle of cinematic fare like Ben-Hur becomes, with heapin’ helpins’ of crack and steroids added, the utterly brainless, emotionally empty — with only simulacra of emotions involved — hyperkinetics of Transformers III

    —————————
    R. Maheras says:

    Jeet wrote: “Anyone who can’t see the misogynist and homoerotic content that is pervasive in the superhero genre is either blind or in denial.”

    Either that or they are projecting, or over-analyzing the shit out of something.
    —————————–

    I don’t find this emphasis on grotesquely inflated/”cut” male musculature particularly homoerotic at all; gay guys have much better taste than to find these Michelin Man-type bodies attractive! And if some gays find tight-costumed superheroes appealing, so what? That’s just a natural reaction; doesn’t mean the original product was deliberately crafted to cater to their tastes.

    And as far as making superheroines look like silicone-boosted Vegas showgirls, it’s more a reflection of the crass taste in what modern adolescent hetero guys find “sexy” (“Kids these days! I’d rather have Bettie Page anytime…”) rather than outright woman-hating.

    —————————-
    Donald E. Simpson says:

    “… historically, creators in this industry are as different intellectually, politically and creatively as any other random clump of artists in other creative specialties … ”

    The question might be, if this is the case, how is any of this evident in the work? If the goal is to look like a Wizard Top-Ten artist, and the means is to adopt the aesthetic of the WWE, Victoria’s Secret, Grand Theft Auto, S&M, etc., aren’t the results going to be more or less generic, whatever the subject position of the creator may have been at the outset?
    —————————-

    Yes; lest we forget, comics artists are commercial illustrators. Unless they have a fan-following or niche, they are powerfully motivated — if they wish to keep getting work — to reshape and distort their style in order to keep up with market trends, the look that’s “hot.”

    For instance, ‘way back when, I saw an artist as talented as Vince Giarrano (Badlands, Haywire) altering his style to match (*gad!*) Rob Liefeld’s: with tiny feet, extraneous lines added, once-realistic anatomy grown distorted…

    (Though of course Giarrano could still draw rings around Liefeld, needless to say. And no condemnation is implied here, artists gotta pay bills too.)

    —————————-
    Scott Grammel says:

    …Since I’m firebombing any remaining reputation as a Domingos-level comics elitist, I’ll also mention that on Tuesday I bailed on a showing of Claire Denis’ Beau Travail to catch Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance, the viewing of which completely ratified the wisdom of that decision.
    ——————————

    The former sounds pretty good, actually: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Beau_travail .

    But, can its hero pee fire?

    As a certain Fantagraphics publisher put it in Peter Bagge’s Prisoner of Hate Island, defending his having seen The Abyss to a horrified Gary Groth, “Sometimes my brain craves junk food”…

  32. Nice essay Ken. You might find Richard Cook’s post on the Marvel Swimsuit special of interest:

    http://hoodedutilitarian.com/2011/01/superheroes-in-speedos/

  33. Donald E. Simpson says:

    R. Fiore: “You walk by that section of the comics shop the way you’d walk past a display of extreme fetish porn for a fetish you don’t share, slightly appalled and with no interest in investigating further.”

    Indeed, there’s no accounting for taste (something I realized back when I was drawing the Drek material), which is why it is pointless to browbeat anyone for their personal proclivities, either in porn or illustrated adventure material. And that’s not my point; nor do I think that it’s Ken Parille’s, at least the way I’m reading his essay. I may only be picking up something from the visual component that is ancillary to his main thesis.

    In any case, the point I would like to bring out is that I see no problem with an underlying sexual metaphor (the flaccid, weak, puny, bespectacled, ineffectual secret identity and the erect, turgid, omnipotent superhero) as the engine to what is essentially boy’s reading material. After all, a growing boy has all of these mysterious energies surging through his body, and our Puritanical culture does not permit a frank discussion of these circumstances in graphic terms (or at least historically, it did not permit it in the heyday of the genre, the early Postwar era, 1940s-1970s). There’s nothing wrong, in my view, in reading superhero comics for a few summers, outgrowing them, and moving on to a presumably healthy, well-adjusted adult life. Further, there’s nothing wrong with wanting to create such material as an adult (a self-serving statement from a pro), or even for a grown-up to look back longingly at the juvenilia of their youth, and even to pay top-dollar collector’s prices to reacquire a few fragments of his past (another self-serving remark from a middle-aged baby boomer). What I do find disturbing, however, is corporations basing their entire business model on keeping a certain audience in a state of arrested adolescence with mean-spirited material that postures as sophisticated — it’s cynical and amoral, heinous, reprehensible, and whatever other adjective one can throw at it.

    I’m sure some will see in this a defense of the media of my youth vs. the trash of today (“Those KIDS!!”). But I think there is ample evidence to suggest that much of the mass market that was once served by the good ol’ fashioned, humble, disposable American comic book has now passed to Scholastic chapter books, Harry Potter, and the like — what they used to shelve at Borders as “early” and “young adult” reader books. (This material is probably of a higher quality and certainly more carefully edited, if not “wholesome,” than the hacked-out material of yesteryear, for example, the entire Fiction House line — my intent is not to romanticize the past.) Meanwhile, the comic book has devolved into a ratty tattoo parlor of barbarism (although I’m sure fans of the genre would find such a characterization “cool”).

    So if anyone’s keeping score, my suggestion would be to sublimate or to make explicit the underlying sexual dynamics of superheroes, but for Christ’s sake knock off the misguided in-between crap that passes off mind-numbing brutality as gravitas.

  34. Je says:

    But what about stuff like Star Trek, where William Shatner constantly has to lose his shirt? I feel like the audiences can’t be dissimilar…

  35. Mike Hunter says:

    ———————–
    Noah Berlatsky says:

    Nice essay Ken. You might find Richard Cook’s post on the Marvel Swimsuit special of interest:

    http://hoodedutilitarian.com/2011/01/superheroes-in-speedos/
    ————————-

    As a follow-up, “Swimsuit Issues: Marvel’s Craziest Swimsuit Specials”: http://www.comicsalliance.com/2009/11/10/marvel-comics-swimsuit-editions/

    (What I’d like to see is a super-villain swimsuit issue; let’s check out the Toad and Blob in Speedos…)

    • R. Maheras says:

      I never could take the obvious pandering of “swimsuit issues” very seriously, so for the only comic book art swimsuit issue I ever contributed to, I drew Fin Fang Foomilla in a bathing suit terrorizing a city.

      Oh, yes I did.

      Sometimes I’m such a imp…

  36. Pingback: Magpie Monday | Robert E. Stutts

  37. B9000 says:

    Sometimes a rocket is just a rocket.

  38. Len says:

    A tedious argument persistently raised.Much like the habit of pretentious intellectuals of refering to comic books as being “adolescent male power fantasies”,always pronounced with a copious helping of scorn but without an awareness that such fantasies can’t exist without the at least subconscious awareness of their own physical vulnerability and ineffectuality in adolescent males,the issues of homoeroticism and misogyny in comic books is something that I see always being debated by the same sort of “intellectuals”,those who rehash the same arguments in the same way over and over.Homoeroticism in mainstream comic art is largely in the eye of the beholder;the audience is both numerically and statistically male and heterosexual,for obvious pragmatic reasons depictions of overt homosexuality are exceptions to the rule.The truth is,a roomfull of old men sitting at folding tables playing cards in their shirtsleeves,drinking beer and eating deli sandwiches,as unsexy as it would probably seem to 99% of the population,is probably intensely homoerotic to some Gay man somewhere.As for misogyny,the often used example of the Lee/Kirby era Susan Storm-Richards aka the Invisible Girl/Woman constantly fails to take into account the possibility that what readers were seeing was not sexism but rather characterisation,that she was in fact being depicted as someone who,much like Ben Grimm aka The Thing,was often very unhappy with the role she found herself in and was both consciously and subconsciously rebelling against life as a costumed adventurer,to the point of making arbitrary or frivolous demands of her husband.On the issue of the displaying of women’s bodies and the concealing of male bodies,that some comic books use overt displays of usually exaggerated female anatomy to generate sales is not debated,they’re generally recognised for what they are,and again,the fact is the market for mainstream comics is a primarily a heterosexual male audience.Complaining about this,it could be argued,makes sense only if comics for women,Gays,and Lesbians were written and drawn to cater to heterosexual males as well as their obvious target audiences.Contradicting women’s complaints,it could be pointed out that the depictions of male characters in the comics that cater to exclusively female audiences,whether mainstream or otherwise,are at least,from a male perspective,as unrealistic and exploitative.The same individuals who loudly denounce the exploitation of women’s bodies in comics would in all likelihood,if female characters were hereafter only shown fully dressed or in loose-fitting costumes,or were entirely absent (as an attempt to placate women who bring up the issue of the “male gaze” in art),complain comic publishers had abandoned their female readers,or that artists had stopped drawing women because of a belief that women’s bodies were unattractive.I imagine that at some point seeing Wonder Woman or Storm in a housecoat and fluffy slippers,a baggy two-piece track suit,or a plain full length dress and coat,while their male peers got to run around in costumes would actually begin to annoy some women.

  39. Pingback: Homosexualité dans le comics : entre fantasmes et libéralisation | les p'tits papiers de Bastien Morel

  40. Steve says:

    Dr. Manhattan was not naked as a “sign of unrestrained liberated power”. He was naked because the nature of his power takes him away from his humanity, which includes the notion of “modesty”. If you have read the comic, you would see that over time his power is constant, but his “costume” becomes smaller and smaller as he pulls further and further away from humanity. It’s a simple visual representation of one of the main points of the character.

  41. Tom Spasic says:

    While it would be silly to deny any sexual or homoerotic component in superhero art, I’m surprised that nobody has mentioned something quite obvious to me.
    Comics use a visual shorthand. Motion lines to indicate movement, explosion lines fore er… explosions and so on.
    Now given the heroes are supposed to be strong, stronger than ordinary men and women, how is an artist to convey strength? What visual shorthand could they possibly use to get across the idea that these people are strong?
    Maybe drawing muscles could do it. And then to up the ante, more muscles, and then more and more.
    And because in most things in culture there is a ratcheting effect where once you start to go in one direction you generally keep going, here we are.
    The absence of groins in the male figures is, I suspect primarily a hangover from the comics code era, but also they don’t have groins like they don’t have nose hair or warts, or half the time fingernails. They are idealized fantasy figures, and not sexual fantasy figures, in the main.
    Again, I’m not going to pretend that there is absolutely no homoerotic component, subtext or what have you in superhero comics.
    But I do think that by skipping over the fact that in a visual medium employing illustrative shortcuts to codify the world strong people will get drawn as muscular figures you might seem to be rushing towards conclusions only partly correct.

  42. KenParille says:

    “you might seem to be rushing towards conclusions only partly correct.”

    That’s better than fully incorrect!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>