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The Patron Saint of Superheroes

Chris Gavaler Explores the Multiverse of Comics, Pop Culture, and Politics

England’s Literary Review awards a Bad Sex in fiction prize every year. They list “redundancy” as the cardinal sin (an odd criterion since sex tends to include a great deal of repetition), but I think it’s simile and metaphor that most offend the judges: “like a lepidopterist mounting a tough-skinned insect with a too blunt pin he screwed himself into her” (Rowan Somerville 2010); “he starts to steer her enjoyment like a ship towards its home port, to the deepest anchorage, right to the core of her pleasure” (Amos Oz 2009).

Being British, the magazine does not award a Great Sex prize.

In the multimedia genre of the superhero (or at least the superpowered), both the all time best and worst awards would probably go to Nicholson Baker for his 1994 novel The Fermata. (Baker’s protagonist abuses his ability to freeze time by molesting women for 300 pages).

But I’m voting for a different double winner.

For me, Watchmen takes both categories.

Zack Snyder’s 2009 adaptation includes one of the least erotic sex scenes ever filmed. Technically it’s Malin Akerman and Patrick Wilson pretending to fornicate in the Nite Owl hovercraft. But there are no people in a Snyder movie, only balletic cyborgs. Snyder’s camera reduces the human body to mere digital effect. It’s why his violence is so grotesquely idealized. The technique kills his erotics too, dehumanizes one of the most absurdly human acts. (Jeff Buckley crooning “Hallelujah” in the background doesn’t help either.)

Not that you could call the 1986 comic book erotic either. Dave Gibbons’ pen is postage-stamp precise but nowhere near expressionistic enough to evoke bodily pleasure.

A better partner for Alan Moore’s sexual creativity is, happily, his own wife, graphic artist Melinda Gebbie. Their Lost Girls is a pleasantly pornographic tour of Victorian literature, featuring “mature” renderings of the child heroines of Alice in Wonderland, Peter Pan, and The Wizard of Oz (three books I will never never never read to my children again).

But we’re talking superheroes.

Watchmen #3: Laurie Jupiter, AKA Silk Specter, in a ménage à trios with her blue-skinned husband, Dr. Manhattan. Two of him. (Another of his bodies is busy in the lab). This is the opposite of a turn-on, proof that her lover has lost all understanding of her (“I don’t know what stimulates you anymore”) if not the human condition in general.

The woman needs a man, not a superman. Pudgy everyguy Dan Dreiberg is a better match, but nuclear Armageddon dread has left him feeling impotent in both the metaphorical and literal sense. While their former teammate Ozymandias performs superhuman acrobatics on TV, Dan can’t even maintain an erection while on Laurie.

Fortunately, the solution hangs downstairs in his batcave of a basement. Dan is a new man when in costume. Gibbons draws Laurie naked but for her Silk Specter heels, but Nite Owl is cloaked when his hovercraft ejaculates fire (literally).

Moore tore the page from Johnston McCulley’s Zorro: “I donned cloak and mask . . . My body straightened, new blood seemed to course through my veins . . . fire came to me!”  During a post-coital smoke, the reignited Nite Owl declares: “I feel so confident it’s like I’m on fire.”

Ultimately though, a costume is more than a fetish. It’s not something just to be seductively peeled away but a barrier to be overcome. Real intimacy requires nakedness.

The next time Laurie reaches for Dan’s Nite Owl goggles, she whispers: “Here, take these off. I want to see you.” When Dr. Manhattan discovers the pair dozing and naked, he looks happy for them. Even if human sexuality is far beneath his God-like comprehension, he can still smile benevolently down at us.

Sex is silly and messy and anything but superhuman. Somehow Zack digitized Alan’s entire book without figuring that out.

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