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The Patron Saint of Superheroes

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

Tag Archives: superhero sex

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Superheroes just want to settle down and get married.

Or at least they used to. Spring-Heeled Jack, Night Wind, Gray Seal, Zorro, Blackshirt, most of the pre-Depression pulp crowd eventually hung up their masks and retired into the domestic oblivion of happily everafter.

Or tried to. Until their readers and publishers and writers demanded sequels. But once you’ve closed the marriage plot, it’s hard to pry it back open. Fortunately the early pulp writers invented a utility belt’s worth of solutions, all still in use:

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1) Poker Night.

Yes, darling, we’re married now, but I still have my manly pastimes.

Baroness Orczy’s Scarlet Pimpernel kept it up for decades. Ditto for Graham Montague Jeffries’ Blackshirt. Just one problem though. No more titillating romantic subplot. The hero is domesticated, all that manly excess bunched neatly into his briefs. For Frederic van Rensselaer Dey’s Night Wind, that meant promising his new bride to stop breaking the arms of police officers who foolishly got in his way. By the second sequel, the speedster superman was barely using any of his mutant powers, and his series quietly petered away.

Domestication has proved equally disastrous for modern heroes. The mid-90’s Lois & Clark: the New Adventures of Superman enjoyed stellar ratings, right up to the wedding episode, after which viewership nosedived and the show was cancelled. Marriage is kryptonite. Even Orczy and Jeffries had to switch to other family members (sons and ancestors) to keep their plots going.

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2) Dial M.

Wife holding you down? No problem. Just kill her.

Thanks so much, Louis Joseph Vance, for introducing this heartless trope in the first of your seven Lone Wolf sequels.  Though his 1914 gentleman thief had happily settled down with the law enforcement agent who lovingly reformed him, Vance dispatches her between books, mentioning her death in passing chapter one dialogue. When Hollywood adapted Robert Ludlum’s first Bourne Identity sequel, they made sure we got to witness the girlfriend’s death (Ludlum, in chivalrous contrast, only sent her off to stay with relatives.)

It’s a grim choice, but one that acknowledges narrative logic. For the superhero to marry, he usually unmasks and retires, and so ending the retirement also ends the marriage. Happily everafter is also a hard place to scrape up plot conflict. In 1973, when Marvel could no longer write around Spider-Man’s eight years of romantic contentment, they shoved his girlfriend off a bridge. Gwen Stacy (and the Silver Age of comics) died with a SNAP! of her too happy neck. Gwen’s 2014 death had a similar effect on the Spider-Man film franchise.

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3) Groundhog Day.

Marriage? What marriage?

Johnston McCulley is responsible for the first superhero reboot. When Douglass Fairbanks donned Zorro’s mask and turned an obscure vigilante hero into an international icon, McCulley simply ignored the ending of his own novel  when he wrote his first sequel. Zorro did not unmask, he did not retire, and he certainly didn’t run off and get married.

This solution remains annoyingly common. After two decades of marital bliss between Peter Parker and Mary Jane, Marvel signed a deal with the devil (Mephisto in the comic) and rebooted an unmarried Spider-Man in 2008. Like Zorro, Peter had also unmasked publicly, an event erased from the minds of all onlookers (but not, alas, all readers). Lois and Clark, who were married (like their short-lived TV counterparts) in 1996, suffered the same fate when DC rebooted their entire, romantically-challenged universe in 2011. In fact, the very idea of the reboot came from the editorial staff’s frustration with the Lane-Kent status quo and how its innate dullness prevented them from cooking up a new Superman love triangle.

However you handle it, marriage is hell on a writer. But the last solution is my favorite:

4) Perpetual Foreplay.

Frank Packard ended his first Gray Seal book with an implied bang. His proto-Batman waltzes off-stage with his superheroine girlfriend, unmasked nuptials to follow. But when bad guys and good sales returned the hero to active duty in 1919, the door to their bedroom bliss slammed shut. Since the Gray Seal’s do-gooding adventures were motivated not by revenge or altruism but superheroic lust for his bride-to-be, Packard needed to stretch out their romance plot. His four sequels offer increasingly frustrating reasons for why the lovers must remain divided.

Awkward as it sounds, Packard’s approach became the strategy of choice among 1930s pulp writers facing the titillating prospect of unlimited sequels.

Starting in 1933, The Spider magazine published a novella every month for a decade. Wealthy socialite Richard Wentworth fights crime as a costumed vigilante while also courting (and putting off) fiancé Nita Van Sloan. Norvell Page (writing under the house name Grant Stockbridge) tells us Wentworth must “sacrifice his hopes of personal happiness” because “the Spider could never marry,” could never “take on the responsibilities of wife and children” while continuing his crime-fighting mission.” Fortunately, Nita, like the Gray Seal’s would-be wife, is endlessly patient.

When William Gibson and Edward Hale Bierstadt adapted Gibson’s The Shadow for radio, they decided the lonely-hearted hero could use a fiancé too. The 1937 premier introduces Lamont Cranston and Margo Lane sipping coffee in his private library, as she begs him to end his career as the Shadow. He’d promised her as much five years ago when their courtship began, but Lamont, like Richard, feels “there is still so much to do” before he can settle down and unmask. “No, Margo,” he explains, “no one must know, no one but you.” And Margo, the ever dutiful (though ever jilted) help-mate, agrees.

But these women aren’t dupes either. They keep their own keys to the batcave. Nita is the Spider’s “best alley in the battle against crime,” “the one woman in the world who knew his secrets.” And Lamont calls the good accomplished by the Shadow “our activities.” Without Margo’s leg work, half of Gibson’s radio plots would stall.

But what other shared “activities” are these couple up to?

Page seems straight-forward enough: “Greatly they loved.” Nita and Richard (would you believe she calls him “Dick”?) share “pleasurable moments together,” though of course “all too brief.” How pleasurable? Page never penned a sex scene, but it’s clear Nina has access to Richard’s bedroom when she leaves him notes while he’s sleeping off a night of adventuring. As far as the Shadow, Alan Moore says it best in Watchmen: “I’d never been entirely sure what Lamont Cranston was up to with Margo Lane, but I’d bet it wasn’t near as innocent and wholesome as Clark Kent’s relationship with her namesake Lois.”

Since unmasking is the climax of the superhero romance plot, these lovers know each other in every sense. The marriage plots never technically closes, but pulp readers knew what was happening between the covers.

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How any Hollywood exec fantasized that last summer’s Green Lantern could have spawned a Harry Potter-replacing franchise remains an unfathomable mystery. Three exposition-bloated minutes in and my ten-year-old son mumbled: “This isn’t very good.”

But the writers (seven names in the credits, never a good sign) got one thing right. When Lantern drops onto his love interest’s balcony (how many times has Superman pulled that maneuver with Lois?), she sees through his silly little disguise in seconds. And when he finally gets his kiss at the end, she first asks:

“Hal, can you take off the mask?”

If I were going to write a Superhero Guide to Love and Sex, that would be the first entry. Rule #1: Expose yourself. A superhero’s most intimate act is unmasking.

The advice originates from the roots of the genre (Spring-Heeled Jack, Scarlet Pimpernel, Zorro). It branches during the 1930’s into monkishly celibate heroes (Doc Savage, Superman) and earthier heroes with indulging fiancés (the Shadow, the Spider). And it’s still the core of 21st century superhero romances.

When DC turned their death of superman comic book arc into the PG-13 cartoon Superman: Doomsday in 2007, Anne Heche voiced Lois Lane’s annoyance with Superman for keeping their (surprisingly sexual) relationship a secret. Not only does he limit their trysts to the Fortress of Solitude (the ultimate bachelor pad), but he’s not confirmed his secret identity to her either. This Lois (for once) can see through Clark’s glasses, so she’s not miffed because he’s keeping her in the dark. She’s hurt that her lover isn’t committed to their relationship enough to show his real self. (That, by the way, is what you call a metaphor.) It only takes a scrape with the afterlife for the Man of Steel to come around. In the last scene, the post-coital Lois looks up from Superman’s bedsheets to see Clark putting on his glasses. Intimacy at last.

Staying in 2007, Austin Grossman’s novel Soon I Will Be Invincible plays by the same romance rules. The love-struck cyborg Fatale longs for her teammate Blackwolf:

“Our lips touch, and for a second it’s everything I thought it would be. The metal in my jaw is awkward but somehow exciting, and he kisses back. I pull him down to me, get his weight against me. I’d forgotten what it was like to want something this much. He reaches up under my shirt, and the feeling is so good it makes me want to cry. Nobody but a surgeon has touched me there for a really, really long time.

“Then I make a mistake. I reach for the mask, and he catches my arm, ready to break it. His jaw sets, and I’m dealing with Blackwolf again.”

For a superhero, unmasking is more intimate than sex.

It’s another team member who eventually lands Blackwolf. The two “are making out in the rain like high school kids,” and “Blackwolf’s mask came off, showing the shock of white hair he usually keeps hidden.” Even Fatale admits “it’s just about the most romantic thing I’ve ever seen.”

The mask means the same to gay superheroes. The hero of Perry Moore’s Hero (2007 was a banner year for superhero sex) masturbates to online porn of wide-nippled Uberman (the one page I mumbled over when reading aloud to my kids). But he doesn’t find real intimacy until he and the better half of his dynamic duo have shared identities. The novel’s most touching (and gently erotic) scene takes place not in bed but during a picnic lunch in a public park:

“I . . . placed my hands on his face. . . With one palm over his forehead and the other palm over his nose and mouth, I looked into those deep, dark pupils and saw the way he used to look at me when he was Dark Hero, when I didn’t know. Goran took my hand off his mouth and held it. He raised it to his mouth, placed his warm lips in the middle of my palm and kissed it. . . . I reached my arms around Goran, pulled him in, and our lips met.”

For a superhero, a happy ending means getting your mask off.

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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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