Jan 30, 2013

Pop Medicine: We Keep The Masks On

Pop Medicine is a "visiting" column by Travis Hedge Coke for the Comics Cube! Click here for the archive!

We Keep the Masks On
Pop Medicine
Travis Hedge Coke

Dedicated to Jenny Olsen, another iteration in the long legacy of Superman's pal, Jimmy, steadfastly ever-changing, always upsetting the sort of fans it's good to upset, and like life and superheroes, always finding a way.

Only the most self-conscious of fans bridles at reference to a superhero costume as long underwear, a union suit, body condom, pervert suit, or go-to-work clothes. Speedball there had his lined on the inside with spikes to excite himself into action, for Crom's sake. And with a new Superman movie rising up, the world feels once more compelled to discuss Kal El's package, do we wrap it in red or blue, and whether he should even have one. Of course, the accepted thing to do, is pretend as if that bit of showing off is equal to and same as the helium balloon chests and sexy martial arts poses that showcase as many sexual characteristics at one time as possible.

It was the toning down of sex that got us here.


Once upon a time, the Comics Code prohibited licentious content or anything that might casually inspire sexual speculation in loyal readers, but the embarrassed excusing that leaped into late 50s superhero comics does not seem to be so prescribed. With the commandment to avoid and repress in force, the superhero comic both becomes the mainstream of American comic books by the end of the 60s and shows a predilection for apologizing for nonfight sensuality. As standard sexual contacts and practices were either erased entirely (for all intents and purposes, the old DC method) or, when mild, reflexively apologized for on-page, starting I'd wager with Stan Lee, generations of superhero fans were being trained not to sublimated the drives into violence as some might worry, but to transition to looking elliptically and widely at sexual and sensual practices in the absence of heteronormative options.

The erasures of standardized sexual practices in superhero comics encouraged the solid fans to be creative. And, so too, the talent and publishers to get creative with their supers.

You can't trip up a dyed in the wool superhero fan with a way two loving people cannot have a satisfactory sex life or produce and raise children. We will think around every barrier, even if the barrier, itself, has to be turned into a tool. One of them is a robot (as happened in The Avengers, with Vision and the Scarlet Witch)? Magic babies and marriage as a civil right! Can't procreate (as happened in Action Comics, with the Kents)? Adopt! Live and work apart (like Professor X and his non-ex Lilandra in Uncanny X-Men)? Be adult about it and don't fault a wandering eye between video calls or visits.

Where no Code made these roundabout considerations der rigeuer, non-comicbook-comics, other mediums, the incitement is lacking. You could not sustain, for example, the frustration of Pushing Daisies conceit of lover's who cannot touch, in a superhero comic, because the fans wouldn't have it. The frustration, not the lack of direct contact. Every superhero fan I know who watched that show was succinctly pointing out they probably make suits for that sort of thing and even if they aren't manufactured, you could make one yourself.

When regular news media had a panic at on-page confirmation of sex between Catwoman and Batman a year ago, the missed out on the on-page sex in another title from that relaunch, JLD, because it was not heteronormative sexual engagement and despite keeping the costumes on, the sex in Catwoman appeared as mainstream media expects it. Justice Leaguer Zatanna and former Trenchcoat Brigader John Constantine have fingertip sex in JLD, which is explicitly intense and orgasmic (and work related) touching of fingers to fingers and nothing else, not a sexual practice as the average person has been trained to accept as sexual or qualifying.

This is what comes of never allowing Superman to kiss anyone he was not actively tricking or apologizing to the reader any time Mr Fantastic and his fiancee held hands. Man Without Fear's orgasm comes on the page in front of not only the reader but also a love audience, since Elektra climaxed playing piano at a party in direct response to knowing her beau Matt "Daredevil" Murdock is being shot at and bit at by pursuing security goons and guard dogs. That's Frank Miller for you, in a comic that also features a post-sex room and its occupants as a post-combat scenario of broken furniture and bruised smiles. Miller, who elsewhere gave us a Batman and Black Canary make out where they keep the masks on because they know it's better that way. Miller who gave us... hugs?

I'm playing sensual and intimate close to sexuality here, for the sake of brevity and bemusement, but let's not mistake that aspect for the only or the only that was restrained by the Code. Frank Miller has written Batman hugging two different Robins, embracing two separate children, and I can't think of anyone else who has written or drawn him holding any Robin even once. Robins are, by and large, children that this guy is raising. To avoid appearing pedophilic, he is rarely ever shown touching them at all since the 50s. Male, female, preadolescent or adolescent, there is minimal nonfight physical contact. Because it might be sex.

More accurately, it might appear sexual to a non-readership, to casual media or the average mildly paranoid person who's heard two dozen homophobic Batman jokes from TV or coworkers. And, we superhero fans, have learner to fear the amazing reach and strength of that non-reader audience. After all, its non-readers who were so worried about pedo Batman and bondage-gaming rodeo lesbians in Wonder Woman that drove the government into instating The Code to begin with. Except that, as I and others have covered before, no such moral panic crowd did enforce such a thing, no one really came out with pitchforked and torches and the really bad legal dramas regarding adult content in comics have come since we bought and perpetuated that myth.

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