by Travis Hedge Coke
When you are deep enough in comics, there are things that rankle you, that sit wrong, but you learn – not to give them a pass, but – to tolerate them as they go by. You put up with love thy rapist in Watchmen, or its weird classist politics, for the formalism and poetry. You notice Blondie is pretty much always white people, always straight folks, and you read for the gag and the warm family moment. Feathers and fringe on every single Native American character, rags and masks representing Africa. You know may this particular artist pencils his women are nude with delineated pubes but since the inker fixes all that, you roll on.
Forgiving Your Abuser
If you don’t work directly with your former abuser, despite the fact they have probably made only minimal life changes – and why should you? – your friends and colleagues will. That’s comics. Team ups. Heel turns.
“But, Scarlet Witch, Magneto did not know you were his daughter when he solicited you to angry kings or made you dance to entertain his drooling friends. He only thought you were an unrelated frightened, homeless teenage girl who desperately needed protection, often because he paid people to threaten you when the rest of the world didn’t do it for free! If he’d known you were related, maybe he would have acted differently. And, now you are not related, so hey! He was not a skeevy perverted terrorist pimp at… oh, he still was, but we need him on this mission, Wanda.”
Storm has worked alongside, and even befriended, a woman who once took over her body to have sex with another man using it, and who helped brainwash her into believing she was a recaptured slave in the 19th Century.
Teenagers in Their Underwear
If you read X-Men-related comics anywhere from the late 1970s to the early 1990s, you saw plenty of teenagers in their underwear. From the age of fourteen to sixteen, Kitty Pryde, that plucky paper girlfriend of many a young reader, was just randomly in her underpants or flashing them for a bunch of adult characters. New Mutants, which was about a team of teenaged x-related superheroes, featured a strong presence of tighty-whities. X-Men vs Micronauts, a crossover with a toy line, features teens in underwear and in bikinis, sometimes writhing in orgasm.
This does have some positive effects, for teenagers, in embracing their bodies and sexuality. It is, also, very often, leering grown adults coming up with excuses, as in the Kitty-centric, Mojo Mayhem, where Pryde’s underpants are visible in more than ten of its 40-plus pages, and often highlighted by other characters noticing them or her attempts to cover herself more.
Sexual Imposition is Cute
One of the stock methods to inspire warm feelings of sexual and protective nature in readers, is to show a character blush or attempt to cover themselves from prying eyes. Or, to show a more sexually aggressive character push them to an uncomfortable place, but use the narrative to imply this is a good thing.
Go Nagai’s Cutie Honey is a fantastic piece of work, and more knowledgable people than me, have drawn attention to how its varied depictions of women, including muscular body types, tall and short, all as intentionally attractive (and various as definitively not), and the frisson of combinations of feminine and masculine traits and ambiguous sexualities were a major leap from Japanese comics. However, the series is also predicated on sexual imposition and sexual embarrassment. When our heroine changes costumes or looks via her magic technology that creates clothes and hair out of air, she is briefly nude and often embarrassed about it. When she disguises herself as a giant statue of herself, two of the male characters she lives with, a young boy and an older man, climb over her, groping and licking while she attempts to show no reaction and hahahaha.
Better When Left Up to the Reader
There are a ton of queer characters in comics. There is an amazing amount of sexual tension. In all comics.
But, social mores, editorial diktats, and the absurd Comics Code of America, which held sway over mainstream comic books for decades, mean that a lot of things had to be subtle or expressed through clues, including homosexuality, bisexuality, or, indeed, female sexuality of any sort that wasn’t performatively for men. So, gay superhero poster boy, Northstar, was gay from the start. He was written, from moment one, and drawn from the beginning, as a gay man. But, they could not say it or show it clearly for decades. Other characters, like Kitty Pryde, to come back to her, have been written or drawn as queer, in a very “it’s up to the readers” fashion, but also fairly blatantly. Pryde, in X-Men: The End, has children with another woman, who the writer describes as her soulmate, and true love. But, even that writer, Chris Claremont, has suggested it’s better if the truth of that is left up to the individual reader, for religious-political reasons.
So, for all the fear that pros are going to make every straight character queer, we are faced with an industry that is much more likely to continually hint, or to trade on homoerotic lesbian overtones, or sexual frustration frisson, without ever actually outing and giving us undeniably queer characters, unless they can make it the point, and then bury the character with lack of use.
Straw Men With Legs and Arms
Every and any medium has weak satire. The earliest anglophone comics, and the earliest comics in most languages, from most cultures, are satirical in nature. Comics are an awesome, cheap, fast way to make fun of something and land the blow. The combination of text, which lends a kind of veracity, and image, which gives another, helps the satire supplant the actual in our minds, in a very sure way. And, you can exaggerate, controlling those two elements, beyond what you can do with a live skit or a purely visual or textual attack.
When Alan Moore satirized Frank Miller in the early 1980s, a big target was the idea that Miller drew too many black people in New York City. And, yes, compared to other early 80s superhero books, maybe Miller having one or two black people an issue seemed like a lot to someone, or compared to early 80s British comics at all. But, it’s New York City. The argument may have gone over fine in a British publication, but try convincing people who’ve ever been to New York that one or two black men is a joke-worthy prevalence.
When, What’s So Funny About Truth, Justice, and the American Way?, a Superman comic by the talented Joe Kelly and the exceptional Doug Mahnke and Lee Bermejo, was adapted to an animated feature, Superman vs the Elite, ten years after its publication, many of the satiric visual exaggerations were removed. Mainly, I would imagine, because while effective, they were cheap, easy, and in the case of several, racist.
In both versions, Superman fights a bunch of ethnic caricatures who believe in violently confronting supervillains, by… violently confronting them with his superior power and superior violence for America! A satirical take on the owned-and-published-by-the-same-company comic and team, The Authority. It’s a Time-Warner wing satirizing a Time-Warner feather. Superman using superior strength to threaten a giant black man who wears a bunch of chains and pulls ugly faces and a diseased-looking Puerto Rican who can’t handle her own powers. As satire of a homeless child abuse victim who did good for himself becoming a superhero, and a genius and comics fan who took earlier research and made herself an awesome suit of armor.