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The Patron Saint of Superheroes

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

Tag Archives: Frederic Wertham

Does pop culture actively steer or passively reflect social attitudes?

The short answer: Yes.

For the longer answer, look at the evolution of gay subject matter in comic books and the industry’s shapeshifting attempts at self-regulation.

Comic book publishers started censoring themselves as soon as their medium took flight. DC was the first. Though publisher Harry Donenfeld entered the children’s market via Depression-era pornography, he dropped his “girlie” magazines in 1939 after Superman and Batman started making him a real fortune. DC also steered their writers away from lethal violence. (The body count in early Detective Comics and even Action Comics was disturbingly high.) Bob Kane wasn’t allowed to draw a holster on Batman’s hip anymore, but no one objected to Bruce Wayne sharing a bed with his ward Robin. It was a father-son relationship. (Right?)

After World War II, when Horror, Crime, and Romance were muscling out all those ostensibly straight yet celibate superheroes, the industry formed the Association of Comics Magazine Publishers. Their ur-Code of 1948 doesn’t mention the word “gay.” The term was still evolving its way up the lexicon ladder. But the ACMP (the model for the later and universally adopted Comics Code of the mid-50’s) didn’t use “homosexual,” “pervert,” “pedophilic inversion,” or any other antiquated equivalent. They just wanted “Sexy, wanton comics,” whatever their orientation, off the shelves.

The U.S. Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency didn’t fret openly about gays either. “Homosexual” appears only once in the 1954 hearings transcripts (the publication “Homosexual Life” is listed as an example of “everything of the worst type” that’s been mailed to “youngsters at preparatory schools”). Star witness Frederic Wertham had his homoerotic Batman and Robin analysis ready for testimony, but the Subcommittee was more concerned with the “murder, mayhem, robbery, rape, cannibalism, carnage, necrophilia, sex, sadism, masochism, and virtually every other form of crime, degeneracy, bestiality, and horror” that comic books promoted.

Yes, generic “sex” made the list, but the senators meant the Phantom Lady variety, those buxom heroines getting themselves tied-up every month (the covers made great blow-ups for the courthouse walls). The absence was an artistically inconvenient fact for Michael Chabon when he fictionalized the hearings in The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay. So he fudged it. His gay protagonist, a comic book writer and editor, is accused by New Jersey’s Senator Hendrickson of disseminating his own “psychological proclivities.” Though almost certainly homophobic, the real-life Hendrickson and the rest of the Subcommittee never voiced that particular prejudice. There was no need. No one in the comic book industry (including Batman and Robin creator Bob Kane) wanted to portray gay characters.

In Chabon’s rendering, Kane could see that Chabon’s protagonist Sammy Clay “seemed a little bit—you know . . .” And the rest of the funny-book crowd agrees: “He’s got that thing with the sidekick. . . . He takes over a character, first thing he does . . . he gives the guy a little pal. . . . The Lone Wolf and Cubby. Christ, he even gave a sidekick to the Lone Wolf!”

But if anyone had a sidekick proclivity, it was Kane. Scripter Bill Finger just asked him for a Watson, someone for Batman “to talk to,” not cuddle with. It was Kane who pioneered the little pal approach. He’d already invented Tinymite for the anthropomorphic Peter Pup. Robin was the natural next step. One instantly copied across the industry: Captain American and Bucky, Aquaman and Aqualad, Human Torch and Toro, Green Arrow and Speedy. It’s a long list, all justified by, uh—you know . . . readership identification.

By the time the Subcommittee was meeting, only bare-legged Robin remained on newsstands. The Comics Magazine Association of America (an Earth 2 version of the ACMP) formed two months later. It was the industry’s effort to stave off legislation. It worked. The CMAA created the Comics Code Authority which began issuing a literal Seal of approval on all publications. Technically comic books could be sold without it, if you could find a distributor willing to touch them.

The Authority also adopted and expanded their predecessor’s 1948 Code. Homophobia was official. “Marriage and Sex” subsection specified 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.” Which is to say, Chabon got it right after all.

So what was the rest of the world up to while the Code was fumigating the Batcave? Homosexual Life was inching into daylight. The same year, 1954, the first gay motorcycle club formed in Los Angeles, while in England the Wolfendon Commission began the process of decriminalizing homosexuality. Five years after their landmark report, Illinois became the first American state to strike sodomy from its own books. Another seven years and the Stonewall riots turned gay rights into a national movement.

The Comics Code Authority, however, wasn’t budging. Despite a 1971 update, “sexual abnormalities” were as “unacceptable” as ever, and “the protection of the children and family life” paramount. Yet the American Psychiatric Association was striking homosexuality from its mental disorder list, and Harvey Milk was campaigning for office in California. This was during the so-called Bronze Age of comics I grew up in. If any members of the Avengers, Defenders, X-Men or Champions (anyone remember the Champions?) had a secret sidekick proclivity, it went way way over my pre-adolescent head. As far as overt portrayals of gay superheroes: Not one. (Robin had already been sent off to college.)

When John Byrne wanted to include a gay superhero in his 1983 Alpha Flight, Marvel editor-in-chief Jim Shooter said no. I doubt anyone had ever asked before. But it was the eighties now. Things were changing. Wisconsin became the first state to outlaw discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation in 1982, and 600,000 protesters marched in Washington (the other “DC”) in 1987 for gay rights.

Two years later, the Code made its first major evolutionary leap. It’s new “Characterizations” subsection required creators to “show sensitivity to national, ethnic, religious, sexual, political and socioeconomic orientations.” Yes, “sexual” made the list. The gay-bashing Moral Majority disbanded the same year. Given the rise of religious conservatism under Ronald Reagan, its founder Jerry Falwell had reason to declare that the organization’s goals had been achieved. But the gay rights movement was even stronger. According to the new and improved Code, “Heroes should be role models and should reflect the prevailing social attitudes.” Those attitudes were increasingly non-homophobic.

But comics weren’t flinging the closet door wide either. DC’s 1989 The Legion of Super-Heroes relaunch included an implied lesbian romance, but DC had no interest in confirming it. Targeting “Mature Readers” outside the comic book mainstream (and so the Authority’s reach), Rick Veitch’s 1990 Brat Pack spoofed the Wertham-oriented superhero with the overtly gay and grotesquely pedophilic Midnight Mink (“Everyone knows I came out years ago!”) and his “bum-boy” Chippy. This was not what you could call an enlightened depiction of “Homosexual Life,” only a superhero creator skewering his genre and relishing the limitlessness of publishing outside the Code. But the unspoken taboos of the 1954 Subcommittee could now be shouted.

In 1992, Marvel and the Authority (both under new leadership) allowed the gay-coded North Star finally to roar out of the closet (he literally roars: “I am gay!”). Meanwhile back at The Legion, writers were depicting a gender-bending romance between Element Lad and his girlfriend who, it turns out, is actually a man taking a gender-altering drug. The newly sensitive Element Lad didn’t mind when s/he confessed. DC offered their first gay kiss the following year, albeit in a title from their “Mature Readers” imprint Vertigo. Meanwhile back in the real world, Commander-in-Chief Bill Clinton was kissing goodbye decades of anti-gay military policy and signing “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” into law.

Vertigo, like Marvel’s Epic, operated outside of the Comics Code, an option that existed since the Code’s voluntary inception but was never profitable before the 80’s. DC waited until after the Supreme Court struck down Colorado’s anti-gay legislation, before its less “Mature” Code-protected readers saw their first mainstream gay kiss between Starman and his boyfriend. Vermont had already recognized gay unions when the first two male Marvel characters smooched. The normally Code-sanctified X-Force dropped the Seal for that issue (though apparently for different reasons). Its cover includes a “Mature Content” warning, a further sign of the Authority’s waning authority.

Marvel originally introduced their cowboy hero Rawhide Kid back in 1955, a prototype for the newly institutionalized, Code-era comic book character. When they revamped him in 2003, his cover included a parent advisory, and the bareback-riding hero was now flamboyantly gay. He beat Brokeback Mountain out of the closet by two years. Rawhide Kid appeared from MAX, Marvel’s “adults only” imprint launched in 2001.

Marvel abandoned the Code for all their titles the following year. Their new tiered rating system resembled the movie industry’s: “All Ages”; “Parental Supervision Recommended” for twelve- to fourteen-year olds; “PSR+” for the fifteen to seventeen range; and “Parental Advisory – Explicit Content” for the eighteen and over crowd. With comic books stationed in specialty shops instead of 7-Elevens, advertisers no longer cared whether the Seal appeared on a cover or not. When two male members of Young Avengers started dating in 2005, it was under a PSR advisory. Homosexuality was now safe for tweens.

DC, the first comic book company to impose its own regulatory guidelines back in 1940, didn’t drop out of the CMAA until 2011. It was part of their universe-wide reboot in which all 52 of their titles began again at No. 1. The Seal does not appear on a single issue. With so many states see-sawing on gay rights, there was some anxiety that the relaunch would straighten the reigning gay superhero couple, Apollo and Midnighter, but that dynamic duo remains as smitten as ever. Batwoman stayed out of the Batcave too. The character (or her name at least) was introduced in 1956 to counter those horrible rumors about Batman’s sidekick proclivities, retired in the 60’s (along with Bat-Mite and Bat-Hound), erased from DC history in the 80’s, and finally recreated in 2006 as a red-lipped lesbian. And while Robin’s still not talking about his old Batcave adventures, DC’s latest gay character is another Teen Titan, one who comes from a Mexican smallville where, get this, everyone accepts him.

Do all of these changes only reflect social trends or are superheroes actually fighting the good fight and bending the old norms? I suspect it’s a little of both. Corporations like Marvel and DC are nowhere near the front line of any culture war, but when cultural tides start to shift, making a profit means anticipating the market. As a result, gay superheroes are now permanently entrenched in the multiverse mainstream.

It only took fifty years. A few more and I predict we’ll have our first gay comic book marriage. The only question is which states will it be legal in.

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“I am one of those odd, perhaps unfortunate men who derive an extreme erotic pleasure from the mere thought of a beautiful girl, chained or bound, or masked, or wearing extreme high-heels or high-laced boots . . . Your tales of Wonder Woman have fascinated me on account of this queer ‘twist’ in my psychological make-up. . . . if you have experienced the same sensation as I have from actually applying such [implements of confinement] to a beautiful girl, you’ll understand exactly what I mean.”

This is one of Wonder Woman’s first fan letters. It was written by an American infantryman in September 1943, ten months after Wonder Woman premiered. But DC insisted there was nothing erotic about their Amazon. Company policy forbade it:

“The use of chains, whips, or other such devices is forbidden. Anything having a sexual or sadistic implication is forbidden. The kidnaping of women is discouraged, and must never have any sexual implication.”

William Marston, Wonder Woman’s creator, never got the memo.

The Harvard-trained psychologist, like his overseas fan, was a bondage enthusiast. In fact, the doctor believed sexual bondage could save the world. And he invented Wonder Woman to prove it.

“Without a sound foundation in ‘sex love,’” Marston wrote in 1939, “no human being of either sex can possibly submit to any social control and like it.”

Sexual submission was his answer to war and crime: “erotic love is the emotional source of that all-important social trait, willing submission to other people, to their needs, their opinions, their manner of living and submission also to the leaders who govern the social group.”

For Marston, there’s only one difference between a criminal and a good citizen: “the lawbreaker is a social rebel who cannot enjoy the experience of yielding his own will to someone else’s, while the law-abiding citizen is a socially minded individual who enjoys submitting to others on a majority of occasions.”

People obey laws because it feels good. Really good.  Criminals just need some “emotional re-education.”

After developing and publishing his psychological theories in the 20’s and 30’s, Marston decided it was time to apply his sound foundation in sex love to the children’s market. He had already publicly praised Superman, so he approached DC with his idea for “Suprema, the Wonder Woman.” His editors trimmed her name but not her message.

When Wonder Woman defeats a group of invaders from Saturn, she takes them to “Transformation Island” where they must wear “Venus girdles.”

“What does the beautiful gold girdle do to a prisoner?”

“It is magic metal from Venus—it removes all desire to do evil and compels complete authority to loving obedience.”

When the not-yet-reformed Saturn women break out, many of the other prisoners refuse to join them, even after removing their bonds:

“Without the girdle I feel dominant—invincible! But I don’t feel cruel and wicked as I used to—the Amazons transformed me! I love Wonder Woman and Queen Hippolyte—I can’t bear to have them hurt—I must save them!”

But the fan with the “queer twist” wasn’t the only reader who missed the moral. Where Marston saw loving submission, others, including members of DC’s own editorial advisory board, saw sado-masochistic torture. Marston was told to cut the chains.

But he refused to submit. Not only were “harmless erotic fantasies . . . good for people,” his were “the one truly great contribution of [his] Wonder Woman strip to moral education of the young. The only hope for peace is to teach people who are full of pep and unbound force to enjoy being bound—enjoy submission to kind authority.”

Fellow psychologist Frederic Wertham missed the message too. He considered Wonder Woman “one of the most harmful” crime comics and the character “a horror type. She is physically very powerful, tortures men, has her own female following, is the cruel, ‘phallic’ woman. While she is a frightening figure for boys, she is an undesirable ideal for girls, being the exact opposite of what girls are supposed to want to be.”

Marston’s sales figures told him another story. He believed the young male readers of Wonder Woman were shouting: “We love a girl who is stronger than men, who uses her strength to help others and who allures us with the love appeal of a true woman!”

I don’t need to imagine Marston’s bedroom practices. Though he encouraged wives to become “love leaders,” his own home operated on a different principle:

Polygamy.

After marrying a fellow psychologist and law student, Elizabeth Holloway, Marston began an affair with his research assistant, Olive Byrne. Holloway did not object. Byrne moved in with them, and Marston fathered four children, two with each mother. Byrne took the role of stay-at-home mom, while Hollway became the family bread-winner. Marston landed a job at Family Circle magazine, but I doubt his employers were aware of the geometry of their psychologist’s own family.

I also doubt their household was a paradise, but it was an island of social rebels hidden far beyond laws of convention. It was Holloway who told Marston that his comic book character needed to be a woman. She was a bit of an Amazon herself, living 99 years and, more wondrously, supporting all four children and Byrne after Marston’s death in 1947.

The tale of Venus girdles and Transformation Island was one of Marston’s last, published a year after his death. As the first widely popular comic book superheroine, Wonder Woman defined the character type. Soon the Phantom Lady and other scantily costumed heroines were getting themselves tied up too.

Despite Marston’s edifying intentions, the erotic effect of his creation never progressed much past the “queer twist” stage. An internet search today shows how little has changed since 1943. Marston’s infantryman would have a wide range of softporn superheroine sites to peruse. Some find a disturbing thrill in seeing their wonder women defeated:

“What is it about superheroines that is so fascinating? For one they are sexy and we guess it’s the skin-tight costume, leotard, tights, mask, cape and the fact that the ladies are seemingly invincible. Since they are ‘super’ they should easily dispose of any villains. So, the fascinating part comes about when the tables turn and one sees these women get challenged physically and mentally and placed in perilous erotic situations.”

There’s a word for “perilous erotic situations.” Rape.

That’s been the not-particularly-veiled subtext of the superheroine since the Domino Lady started flirting with perilous erotic situations in the 30’s. Whatever Marston’s stated intentions, most of Wonder Woman’s bondage escapades are at the hands of her male adversaries. That’s not loving submission.

I don’t know if he was lying to his editors or himself, but you don’t need a magic lasso to get the truth out of his scripts. Marston ties up his heroine far more often than she ties up anyone else.

And she has remained tied down by her origins for decades. When Frank Miller and Bill Sienkiewicz planned a reinterpretation of the Amazon in the eighties, their working title was Wonder Woman: Bondage. Sienkiewicz’ test sketches removed any ambiguity from Marston’s subtext. No more Venus girdles. This was S&M.

Which is why I’m relieved to see that Brian Azzaarello’s newly rebooted Wonder Woman does not submit to her history. Although this Amazon is still battling villainy in a strapless bathing suit, Cliff Chiang’s art, while visually explosive, avoids erotics. Compare her to Guillem March’s oversexed Catwoman, and the new Wonder Woman is downright wholesome. (If you don’t object to a dismembered centaur or two.)

Best of all, she’s not the kind of beautiful girl who’s going to let either a well-meaning psychologist or a twisted G.I. tie her up.

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The short answer: Sort of.

Bob Kane never drew the dynamic duo in an intentionally compromising position, but were the two having sex in the gutters between the panels?

Can’t say. That’s the point of the comic book gutter. It requires the reader to fill in the narrative gap. If you read sex in that space, then sex it is. Frederic Wertham certainly did, and lots of it.

In his 1954  Seduction of the Innocent, Wertham famously explains: “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.’ . . . They live in sumptuous quarters, with beautiful flowers in large vases, and have a butler, Alfred. Batman is sometimes shown in a dressing gown. . . . It is like a wish dream of two homosexuals living together. Sometimes they are shown on a couch, Bruce reclining and Dick sitting next to him, jacket off, collar open, and his hand on his friend’s arm. . . . [Robin] often stands with his legs spread, the genital region discreetly evident.”

Wertham is great fun to lampoon, but the question remains: What about Batman and Robin encourages someone, anyone, to read in sex?

The long answer:

Batman was a throwback to the mystery men of the 1930’s pulps. Bill Finger plagiarized the first “Bat-man” episode from a monthly Shadow novella published three years earlier. Though mystery men like the Shadow and the Spider never settled down and married, they did have partners, fiancées who knew exactly what was under their heroes’ costumes.

Alan Moore (through the fictional autobiography of a retired superhero in Watchmen) identifies “the repressed sex-urge” of the pulps (“I’d never been entirely sure what Lamont Cranston was up to with Margo Lane . . . .”), sensing that these heroes and their fiancées were not entirely “innocent and wholesome.” Writers like Walter Gibson and Norvell Page couldn’t depict sex, but they sure knew how to imply it.

For Batman’s fifth episode, Gardner Fox inserted a pulp-standard fiancée, Julie Madison, a character even Batman forgets after Robin debuts a few issues later. Comic book superheroes had a new breed of helpmate to share their secrets. Fiancées were out, and sidekicks were in. In addition to knowing all the ins and outs of Bruce’s Batcave, the Boy Wonder fulfills the same plot roles. “Like the girls in other stories,” observes Wertham, “Robin is sometimes held captive by the villains,” something Julie never got to do after her first appearance.

The narrative gaps in the Shadow’s and the Spider’s stories lured many readers’ minds to the gutter, a ploy to titillate without stepping into censorable sexuality. I doubt Bob Kane and his DC cohorts intended the same, but when they plumbed old stories for new material, they brought the pulps’ sexual baggage with it. As a result, Batman and Robin’s sexuality is hilariously ambiguous, but with no way to prove or disprove Wertham’s or anyone else’s claims.

The short answer: Batman and Robin are as gay as you want them to be.

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