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The Patron Saint of Superheroes

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

The superhero genre encodes a fear of crossing gender binaries. Neil Shyminsky argues that “the mainstream superhero narrative is often surprisingly conservative, aimed at legitimizing normative ideologies and containing that which threatens them,” including “anxiety that is endemic to the superhero’s identity and sexuality” and so threatens their “unproblematically hetero, masculine” appearance (2011: 288-290). Sarah Panuska concludes similarly: “Given the typification of heterosexuality through the superhero’s masculine privilege, heterosexuality exists as an assumption– an implication – of the genre” (2013: 25). Shyminksy is analyzing 21st-century films and Panuska gay superheroes in recent comics, but the U.S. cultural desire for absolute gender divisions applies even more to the origins of the genre.

Lewis M. Terman and Catharine Cox Miles write in their 1936 Sex and Personality: Studies in Masculinity and Femininity: “The belief is all but universal that men and women as contrasting groups display characteristic sex differences in their behavior and that these differences are so deep seated and pervasive as to lend distinctive character to the entire personality” (1936: 1). The rationale underpins the authors’ influential M-F Personality Test, including “an explicit recognition of the existence of individual variant forms: the effeminate man and the masculine woman . . . ranging from the slightly variant to the genuine invert who is capable of romantic attachment only to members of his or her own sex” (2-3). While Terman and Miles hoped “concepts of M-F types existing in our present culture be made more definite,” superhero comics defined and reinforced those same concepts through fiction (3).

By establishing a very particular hyper-muscular, able-bodied masculinity as an ideal, the male superhero body projects all other physical variations as inferior and so potentially antagonistic. “In the misogynistic, homophobic (and racist) view of this ideology,” writes Yann Roblou, “the despised Other that masculinity defines itself against conventionally includes not just women but also feminized individuals” (2012: 84). For Fighting American, notes Carter, “the mind is the strength of the evil other” who is variously “emasculated” and “through differing body constructions” is depicted as physically “dysfunctional, blemished, or otherwise misshapen” (364).

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The trend is apparent as early as Action Comics #13, in which Siegel and Shuster introduce Superman’s first supervillain, the Ultra-Humanite, a balding, wheelchair-bound scientist who must rely on his henchmen to carry him from a burning building—in a pose that echoes Superman carrying Lois Lane from dangers in previous episodes (Siegel & Shuster 2006: 192). Beginning in 1931, Chester Gould’s Dick Tracy comic strip features an array of physically “blemished” villains—Pruneface, Flattop, Doc Humo—all supporting by contrast the hero’s masculinity. Finger and Kane continued the approach with Batman’s villains, including Joker and Clayface in 1940, Penguin in 1941, and Two-Face in 1942.

Marvel expanded the motif in the 60s with Doctor Doom’s scared face, the one-armed Dr. Connor’s transformation into the Lizard, the Kingpin’s visual obesity, the radiation-deformed bodies of the Gargoyle, Abomination, and the Leader, Baron Zemo’s skin-affixed mask, and the giant-headed M.O.D.O.K., who, writes Mike Conroy, plagued “Captain America, whose physical perfection he so resented” (2004: 253). Contemporary examples include the 2004 Punisher villain Finn Cooley, whose skinless face is enclosed in a transparent plastic mask, and the 2004 anti-mutant villain Ord, an alien whose face is mutilated during combat with the X-Men. Because of the contrasting structure of “superior and masculine” vs. “inferior and feminine,” each antagonist’s physical inferiority is itself emasculating and so self-defeating even prior to a superhero’s narrative domination. The superhero’s victory is visually a self-fulfilling prophecy.

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The gender binary also equates “variant” men with women—a thematic implication first literalized by Siegel and Shuster in Action Comics #20 when the Ultra-Humanite transplants his “tremendous brain” into a movie actress’ “young, vital body” (Siegel & Shuster 2007: 316, 191).  Though Superman concludes the story wondering, “Did Ultra escape? If so, will he continue his evil career?” (192), in the following issue, the narration switches pronouns to explain that Ultra “miraculously survived her last encounter,” and Superman refers to her now as a “madwoman” (Siegel & Shuster 2007a: 5, 7). The episode is rife with apparent sexual visual puns too, with Ultra first seducing a male scientist with her kitten and later falling into the yonic opening of a volcano’s crater. DC appears to have been troubled by a sexually fluid antagonist, because Luthor permanently replaces Ultra in the subsequent issue. Siegel and Shuster, however, only made the genre’s hyper-masculine binary logic explicit: not only is a partly paralyzed male body parallel to an ideally beautiful female body, a male genius is so feminized by his intellect that his sex identity is also female. Though the character’s sexuality is more ambiguous, the seduction of the scientist suggests that Ultra was what Terman and Miles term a so-called “genuine invert” even prior to the fantastical sex-change operation.

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The superhero plot structure of physical domination, despite overtly expressing traditional gender values, may also encode a subtext of bisexuality. Male antagonists and female love interests share the same oppositional relationship to the male superhero, who expresses his masculinity and so his physical superiority by rescuing the weak female and by emasculating the weaker male. By dominating both, he places them in parallel gender positions, and since his relationship to the female love interest is overtly romantic, his relationship to a male supervillain may be read similarly.

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Bisexuality is also paradoxically supported by heterosexual romances between male superheroes and female supervillains, suggesting an erotic subtext to all hero-villain relationships. Bill Finger and Bob Kane established the motif in the 1940 Batman #1 in which Batman allows Catwoman to escape after her debut appearance, musing: “Lovely girl! – what eyes! Say – mustn’t forget I’ve got a girl named Julie! Oh well… she still had lovely eyes! Maybe I’ll bump into her again sometime” (Kane et al 2006: 177). That flirtation evolved into an overt sexual relationship in Judd Winick and Guillem March’s 2011 Catwoman #1, which concludes with a multi-page sex scene. Typical superhero battle scenes feature two male bodies in equally close contact—a trope expanded into gay erotica in the 2007 short story collection Unmasked: Erotic Tales of Gay Superheroes.

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Whether analyzed as gay, female, transgender, emasculated, feminine, intellectual, or disabled, the Ultra-Humanite expresses superhero gender norms because the character is Superman’s opponent. Like a female superhero, however, a LGBTQsuperhero disturbs cultural dichotomies that dictate male, heterosexual, cisgender heroes. The 1941 Wonder Woman was preceded by at least eight other female superheroes, and the post-war period produced a surge of short-lived ones, with a second surge in the early 70s, followed a gradual but more lasting increase in the 80s to the present. But sexual orientation and sex identity were considered so socially taboo that the first gay superheroes were not named as such until the 80s and the first transgender superheroes until the 90s. However, where female superheroes are almost always visually overt even when not hypersexualized, gay characters do not necessarily carry visual markers. As a result, readers could interpret characters as gay.

Wertham again provides an early and striking example: “Only someone ignorant of the fundamentals of psychiatry and of the psychopathology of sex can fail to realize a subtle atmosphere of homoerotism which pervades the adventures of the mature ‘Batman’ and his young friend “Robin’” (1954: 189-90). The ambiguity is due in part to Bill Finger modeling Batman on earlier pulp heroes such as the Shadow and the Spider, characters who instead of male sidekicks adventured with female fiancées. Alan Moore, through the autobiography of a retired superhero in Watchmen, identifies “the repressed sex-urge” of these pulps: “I’d never been entirely sure what Lamont Cranston was up to with Margo Lane,” acknowledging that the relationships were not entirely “innocent and wholesome” (Moore & Gibson 1987: “Under the Hood,” 6). Narratively, Robin fulfills the same plot roles of confidante and secondary adventurer. “Like the girls in other stories,” observes Wertham, “Robin is sometimes held captive by the villains and Batman has to give in or ‘Robin gets killed’” (1954: 190-1).

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Bob Kane created Robin in 1940 to provide Bill Finger more opportunities for dialogue, repeating the young pal character type of the anthropomorphic Tinymite Kane created for the comic strip “Peter Pupp” while working for the Iger studio in the 30s. The formula spread through superhero comics, with Toro joining the Human Torch and Pinky Whiz Kid joining Mr. Scarlet later in 1940, followed in 1941 by Captain America’s Bucky, Sandman’s Sandy, Black Terror’s Tim, and Superman’s Jimmy Olsen.

The Association of Comics Magazine Publishers apparently did not interpret these relationships as homosexual, and so their 1948 Code did not bar homosexuality, only “Sexy, wanton comics” (ACMP Publishers Code). Though Wertham’s critique decimated male sidekicks, the 1954 U.S. Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency did not address the topic. The word “homosexual” appears only once in transcripts, with the publication Homosexual Life listed as an example of “everything of the worst type” that’s been mailed to “youngsters at preparatory schools” (U.S. Congress 1954). New York State assemblyman James Fitzpatrick also condemned transgender characters in his testimony, describing a comic in which a female character “turns out to be a man ─ complete and utter perversion.” When the Comics Magazine Association of America formed two months later, its Comics Code Authority adopted and expanded the ACMP code, with the new “Marriage and Sex” subsection specifying that “sexual abnormalities are unacceptable” and “Sex perversion or any inference to same is strictly forbidden”; as far as the “treatment of love-romance stories,” they must “emphasize the value of the home and the sanctity of marriage” (Code 1954).

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