By Rachel Hartnett
Supersex: Sexuality, Fantasy, and the Superhero. Edited by Anna F. Peppard. University of Texas Press, 2020.
“By wearing their underwear on the outside and proudly displaying their exaggeratedly hard and sensuous curves inside revealing, skin-tight costumes, virtually all the most famous superheroes openly invite erotic possibilities” (Peppard 3). When superheroes burst into popular culture in 1938, the belief that they were aimed at younger readers lent them a largely asexual tone for audiences. This all changed in 1954: between the publication of Fredric Wertham’s Seduction of the Innocent and his testimony in a U.S. Congressional inquiry into the comic book industry and its effect on juvenile delinquency, superhero sexuality had entered the public consciousness. Critical analysis of superheroes and sexuality has since come an incredibly long way. However, as Anna F. Peppard’s edited collection, Supersex: Sexuality, Fantasy, and the Superhero, illustrates, there is much work left to do. This fantastic collection consists of thirteen critical chapters—as well as an introduction and conclusion—and purportedly “makes visible the modes and meanings of the simultaneous presence and absence of superhero sexuality by examining it in as many ways and places as possible” (15). It absolutely delivers.
The main argument of the collection is that “for better or worse, superheroes’ special ability to negotiate competing demands for sexual liberation and containment—which is reflected in the always-evolving but ever-present play of sexual presence and absence—is vital to their appeal, both historically and in the present moment” (17). The collected analyses of many iterations of superhero comics and transmedia adaptations demonstrates that sexuality has been a thematic underpinning for superheroes since their inception. While Part One focuses solely on comics, it includes analyses of works from mainstream and indie publishers spanning Golden Age, Silver Age, Bronze Age, and Modern Age comics. Part Two, titled “Film, Television, and Fan Culture,” addresses many multimedia disseminations of superhero stories, including films, television shows, fan fiction, and pornography. The breadth of this collection is its greatest strength. The collection certainly “helps highlight the diversity of superhero sexuality and, in so doing, the diversity of the fantasies this genre has inspired,” even while “seek[ing] to offer a broad survey and build a strong foundation for future work on the topic” rather than “address[ing] every possible permutation of superhero sexuality” (16-17).
The organization of the edited collection allows the audience to make connective threads between the works. Part One follows a mostly chronological order, dealing first with a Golden Age comic, then representations of family in the Silver Age Superman comics, followed by two chapters centering Chris Claremont’s run of The Uncanny X-Men (1975-1991), Gay Comix (1980-1988), and ending with Allen Hineberg and Him Cheung’s The Young Avengers (2006-2013). This order, however, is not limiting since the chapters demonstrate how representations of gender and sexuality have evolved throughout comics publication history.
Part Two is organized from most to least publicly consumed, beginning with the film adaptations garnering hundreds of million viewers, to television adaptations attracting “as many as twenty-two million viewers a week” (222), to superhero porn parodies totaling 2.3 million views, and ending with fan works with tens of thousands of possible viewers. Moreover, each chapter works well with each other and connects well to the overall themes of sexuality, evolution, and possibility. Together, the chapters resonate with the collection’s overall themes of sexuality, evolution, and possibility as well as connect with each other. This, I believe, is a particular strength of the volume: the ability for chapters to work in tandem together. For example, reading Sarah M. Pansuka’s “‘Super-Gay’ Gay Comix: Tracing the Underground Origins and Cultural Resonances of LGBTQ Superheroes” and Keith Friedlander’s and “Parents, Counterpublics, and Sexual Identity in Young Avengers” which both discuss Allen Hineberg and Him Cheung’s 2006 Marvel series The Young Avengers which contained the first gay superpowered couple for the publisher.
In her chapter, Panuska argues that Teddy Altman and Billy Kaplan’s romance (whose alter egos are Hulkling and Wiccan, respectively) “is relegated to innuendo and implication” while heterosexual romances between other members are allowed to openly kiss and flirt (130). Panuska uses this analysis to argue that LGBTQ sexuality should be visible within texts and reflect and represent gay culture. Friedlander takes a different approach by arguing that The Young Avengers “complicat[es] private/public dichotomies to create a superhero narrative directed at young, queer audiences” (153-4). Furthermore, he critiques how the binary between public life and private duty reinforces neoliberal notions of the ideal public citizen. Ultimately, he argues that while the sexual relationship between Wiccan and Hulkling may seem conservative within the series, the plot itself “challenged heteronormative traditions of the genre” (Friedlander 168). By including these chapters together, the collection creates a deeper, more nuanced look at queer representation in The Young Avengers and within superhero comics as a whole.
J. Andrew Deman provides a great example of the evolution of sexuality within comics as well as intersectional approaches to sexuality in “A Storm of Passion: Sexual Agency and Symbolic Capital in the X-Men’s Storm.” As evidenced by the title, Deman analyzes the depiction of Storm and her “transition from a passive sexual fantasy object to a dynamic character with sexual agency” (Deman 79). Despite her importance as the first black female superhero within mainstream comics, Storm’s representation within the Chris Claremont run of Uncanny X-Men (1975-1991) comics has been divisive. Her initial appearance in a revealing black leather outfit “presents Storm as an object of male gaze-directed sexual fantasy” (82) even as her position as a former queen—worshipped as a goddess—creates an asexual pedestalism for the character. However, this passive sexuality changes after an encounter with the androgynous female character Yukio. Their relationship, often read as romantic, involves the heroes saving each other in turn and Storm renegotiating what it means to truly live. Afterward, Storm adopts a new costume based on the punk rock aesthetic that “for women is traditionally used to ‘destabilize static sociogendered identities’” (87). Storm also quits caring for her attic garden which Deman reads as “rejecting both her connection to primordial nature (a connection steeped in gender, racial, and ethnic stereotypes) and her connection to the traditionally feminine nurturer role” (86). This chapter also features an in-depth analysis of Storm’s later relationship with Forge, a disabled Vietnam War veteran. This relationship positions Storm as a character with her own sexual desire. Additionally, her decision to leave the relationship after learning of a betrayal by Forge demonstrates self-determination and autonomy (notwithstanding her lack of superpowers at the time). Deman concludes that Storm’s enduring and iconic nature is due to her “sexual self-discovery” (98). Overall, the chapter highlights Storm’s position as a black female hero, the importance of analyzing superheroes through the lens of sexuality, and the imperative of intersectionality within comic studies.
The massive financial success of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), and its centrality within current fandom culture, almost guaranteed a chapter within this collection. This manifests as Samantha Langsdale’s “Over the Rainbow Bridge: Female/Queer Sexuality in Marvel’s Thor Film Trilogy” which tackles three films from the MCU. Although the MCU is made up of multiple directors, stories, and phases, Langsdale disseminates the trajectory of female representation throughout the Thor films to “illustrate these films’ competing departures from and adherence to generic and cultural stereotypes, as well as the special anxieties—and possibilities—produced by the combination of female sexuality and power, super or otherwise” (200). She highlights how both Thor (2011) and Thor: The Dark World (2013) present powerful, intelligent female characters that still “succumb to problematic stereotypes” and disappear after the second film in the series (201). However, this representation changes for the third and most-recent film. Thor: Ragnarok (2017) introduces two new female characters: Valkyrie and Thor’s older sister, Hela. Hela, as a fellow Asgardian, is extremely powerful. Additionally, Langsdale argues that the proximity of Hela’s presentation to masculinity “does act as a kind of drag” queering the character (207). However, Hela is also defined by her association with the “monstrous-feminine” reinforcing heteronormative constructions of gender and sexuality. Valkyrie, a former member of an all-female order of Asgardian warriors, is played by Tessa Thompson, “an actress of Afro-Panamanian, Mexican, and European descent” who also “self-identifies as queer” (211). Thompson confirmed through social media that her portrayal of Valkyrie is also bisexual (211). In addition to her queer status, Valkyrie defies many stereotypes for black female characters who are often presented as hypersexual and animalistic—but like the other female characters within the trilogy—is still ultimately unable to escape stereotypes. She is driven by trauma and self-abuse, she is played by a mixed-race, light-skinned actress (reinforcing colorism within Hollywood), and her bisexuality is erased in the film—a scene with a woman leaving Valkyrie’s bedroom was cut but several scenes showcasing flirtations with Thor remain in the film—reinforcing a heteronormative sexuality and only the faintest subtext of her bisexuality. As Langsdale eloquently states, “[t]he representation of female sexualities in the Thor films is not unlike a rainbow—a spectrum that progresses from muted to more vibrant tones” (200). However, as she demonstrates, superheroes and popular culture still have a long way to go.
What may be Supersex: Sexuality, Fantasy, and the Superhero’s greatest contribution to superhero sexuality studies is its inclusion of pornographic parodies as texts of analysis. The collection includes two chapters interrogating porn: Jeffrey A. Brown’s “The Visible and the Invisible: Superheroes, Pornography, and Phallic Masculinity” and “‘I Think That’s My Favorite Weapon in the Whole Batcave’: Interrogating the Subversions of Men.com’s Gay Superhero Porn Parodies” by Joseph Brennan. The latter, which directly addresses superhero parodies from Super Gay Hero, interrogates “how the embodied, pornified performances of gay and superheroic identities coalesce and clash, most often through the (re)deployment of clichés inherent to gay porn and/or the superhero genre” (Brennan 266). Brennan claims that “there is an inherent subversiveness to all superhero gay porn parody” notwithstanding “the fact that most of the examples at hand feature problematic elements” (267). This subversiveness comes from its important functioning as an “‘active’ form of queer reading, in as much as they involve not just imagining but actually creating alternative gay realities” especially when contrasted with the primarily subtextual or homoerotic queer readings within mainstream comics transmedia (274). In this sense, gay porn parodies are significant because they actually show openly queer superheroes; queerness is not closeted. Brennan notes gay superhero porn parodies are unable to escape the problematic elements of the adult entertainment industry which includes the lack of diversity of color in both porn and superhero comics, the “active/passive sexual positions as symbolic of victory/defeat,” and the “associations between the receptive sexual role (bottoming) and failed masculinity/effeminacy” (278, 284). This chapter ultimately argues that regardless of the lack of mainstream acceptance of pornography, gay porn parodies have the potential to provide a space for openly gay iterations of superhero characters even with the continued presence of the “problematic gendered roles and hierarchies that have long informed both the superhero genre and the gay porn genre” (285).
A primary way that further collections on this topic can improve is by foregrounding intersectionality. In this collection, even with Deman’s effort discussed at length above, intersectionality often feels like a secondary concern. Although Peppard’s introduction claims that the collection “prioritizes intersectional approaches” (15), I often found these analytical sections to come late in the chapters and have limited space for comprehensive development. I believe this is due to length limitations as a result of having so many chapters—thirteen in total. I do acknowledge that the purpose of the collection is a thoughtful, insightful look at sexuality with superhero comics, but it would benefit from both an increased racial diversity amongst the contributors—who do maintain diversity regarding nationality, gender, and sexuality—and a more thorough development of intersectional approaches (like Deman’s).
Ultimately, Supersex: Sexuality, Fantasy, and the Superhero presents an intriguing and analytical look at a topic that has been taboo for many scholars. The breadth of the chapters makes it an invaluable text for the future of superhero studies, sexuality studies, queer studies, and any intersections between these fields. Furthermore, many of these essays will hopefully become jumping off points for future analytical responses to sexuality within superhero comics.