Sex and “The Man who Has Everything”

Long before Alan Moore delved into literary pornography with Lost Girls, he was infusing his work with a broad understanding of human sexuality as natural. And this wasn’t limited to auteur projects like Lost Girls but applied to his super-hero work as well.

Consider “For the Man who Has Everything,” the celebrated Superman story from Superman Annual #11 (1985), illustrated by Dave Gibbons.

In the story, Jason Todd, recently introduced as the new Robin, meets Wonder Woman for the first time. But this new Robin, at least as written by Moore, has hormones.

So at the story’s very beginning, he perfectly naturally remarks upon Wonder Woman’s skimpy outfit, in the context of her warning him about the cold.

Jason’s is a perfectly innocent comment. In context, it’s only a mildly snide response to Wonder Woman’s dialogue. But Batman sees right through it to the unspoken lust buried just beneath.

The morally upright Batman warns Jason using dogmatic language like “clean thoughts.” But in Batman’s wry smile in the next panel, we see that, Batman makes no moral judgment. Jason might be mortified to be called out in this fashion, but his mentor perfectly understands Jason’s attraction. After all, he’d need to, to see the lust beneath his young sidekick’s whispered, ostensibly innocent words.

It’s a brief scene, but it’s one of those wonderful, subtle character touches that communicate so much with such little space.

Of course, it’s perfectly natural that Jason would find Wonder Woman attractive. And it’s perfectly healthy that Batman would discourage this (especially since Wonder Woman is a colleague). But this Batman isn’t anti-sex. That knowing smile, so perfectly illustrated by Gibbons, speaks volumes.

During this period, Moore loved to have his conclusions echo his beginnings, and this is no different — although subtler than normal. After all the action’s done, Wonder Woman gives Superman a kiss for his birthday. Echoing the opening scene, Batman and Robin look vaguely uncomfortable in the background.

But this echo is also deeper, thematic: these are super-heroes with healthy libidos, and they’re not uncomfortable with sex.

Or at least, only Robin is, and that’s in a perfectly normal teenage way — likely both to whisper sexual comments and to shy away from seeing these parental figures, icons or not, smooching.

In response to the kiss, Superman doesn’t hem and haw awkwardly, as he might have in the 1950s. Instead, he smiles and says, “Mmm. Why don’t we do that more often?”

Remarkably, there’s nothing sleazy about any of this. The same line, spoken by Superman, could easily come off as a crude come on. Instead, with Gibbons’s the deftly graceful smiles, it comes off as a perfectly innocent, honest observation between two adults quite comfortable with one another.

The same tone is also present in the earlier scene, when Wonder Woman (who’s quite close to Jason, the way the image is framed, almost as if she’s kissing him on the cheek) says that he “look[s] so much like Dick that [she] forgot for a moment…” The dialogue’s double entendre is even placed in emphasis for effect, but it doesn’t come off in the sleazy way it easily could.

Wonder Woman, as the only female in this story, could easily come off as a flirt or a sex object. Instead, she comes off as having a normal, even mature, adult sexuality, one not bothered by Superman’s comment. She’s neither salacious nor naive.

Alan Moore gets a lot of blame for super-heroes turning dark and grim. And he’s already in full revisionist mode here: the main story demolishes the Silver Age notion of Krypton as a utopia. Suggesting that super-heroes had healthy libidos, while only done with minor touches, was equally revisionist, equally concerned with realism. But there’s nothing grimy here.

In the stereotype of revisionism that’s long been the dominant narrative in super-hero circles, Jason would have groped Wonder Woman, who would have enjoyed it. Instead, what we find here are well-adjusted human beings who — gasp! — are sexual beings too.

To say that “For the Man who Has Everything” is entirely about super-heroes and sex would reduce the story unfairly.

But this is a story about fantasies and their disappointing reality. About overcoming their power, which can have a hold on you every bit as strong as that alien plant binds itself to Superman’s muscular chest and gives him his “heart’s desire.”

In his case, that means getting to live on Krypton. Only Superman learns, over the course of the story, that he doesn’t miss Krypton at all — he only misses the idea of it. Like most American immigrants, the place of his birth is no longer his homeland. He’s acculturated, and he has more in common with Kansas or Metropolis, despite his powers, than he does with the land of his ancestors.

That’s powerful, resonant stuff.

It’s also perfectly revisionist, because revisionism tried to show the reality behind super-heroes, which were largely still written for children and regarded as little more than adolescent power fantasies.

That fantasy element is certainly present in Superman, who was conceived by two Jewish outsiders as a strongman who not only could right social injustices but could present an image of masculine confidence and get the girl, if only he wanted. The adolescent power fantasy has always been a sexual fantasy too.

In “For the Man who Has Everything,” that’s acknowledged. And bravely so.

It’s right there in the beginning. It’s no secret that many a fanboy has lusted after Wonder Woman, not unlike Robin. Of course, that’s why she’s clad (and drawn) that way. Grant Morrison has confessed (in our documentary Talking with Gods) that he used to draw super-heroes having sex. But generations of fanboys guiltily hid this lust, as if they were somehow wrong or bad to feel or think these things. And that’s mirrored in this story in Jason’s expression when Batman calls him out.

Robin serves as the reader’s surrogate here, and not only because he’s young and inexperienced as a super-hero. He not only meets Wonder Woman for the first time, but he enters the Fortress of Solitude, that ultimate inner super-hero sanctum, the lair of Superman’s secrets.

To put this in revisionist terms, he penetrates the place that symbolizes the reality behind the super-hero genre. The place that represents the super-hero’s private thoughts, an idea with which the story very much concerns itself.

Of course, the reader’s sexual fantasies are every bit as natural as Robin’s lust. Through him, they’re acknowledged from the outset, but they’re not indulged.

To do so would be, as Wonder Woman suggests (precisely at the point where the story could easily veer off into super-hero porn), “too predictable.”

Or perhaps the sundry reality, like Superman’s fantasy of Krypton, wouldn’t live up to the fantasy. Isn’t that implicitly Superman’s real reason for accepting Wonder Woman’s explanation? “You’re probably right,” he says, but he’s just learned that his deepest fantasy didn’t live up to reality.

Because what this “Man who Has Everything” lacks isn’t only Krypton. After all, he gets another gift there at the end, in the form of Wonder Woman’s embrace. He doesn’t have her either. He’s lacking a utopia of a different sort: someone to kiss and enjoy.

And maybe that’s okay too. And maybe that’s part of what the story has to say about Superman, besides that Krypton isn’t his home: that he may have romantic interests, but he can never consummate them or get married, because they could only disappoint. It would mean the end of Superman, and in “Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?”, Alan Moore shows us exactly that.

But if “For the Man who Has Everything” offers Superman therapy for his fantasy of Krypton, and arguably for his romantic yearnings, it also offers the reader therapy for his (or her) fantasy of super-heroes.

It’s a therapy that acknowledges sexuality as normal. It’s one that doesn’t look down on the reader for appreciating Wonder Woman’s costume. It doesn’t judge, at least not in this narrow sense. Nor does it, despite what critics of revisionism claim, drain the super-hero of any fun.

Instead, it offers a parable about the nature of such fantasies, one every bit as compelling, even heartwarming, as the best adolescent power fantasies — even though, true to the revisionist model, it’s a story defined not by Superman’s power but by his impotence. He can’t save Krypton, and all his awesome powers won’t help him free himself from the alien plant that offers him fantasy over reality.

What Superman can do is accept his limits. Accept reality as it is. Accept himself.

The super-hero genre, the story implies, should do likewise: accept — and embrace — reality, including the normal sexuality of its characters. The story offers a case study in how to tell a super-hero tale that’s powerful without being about power, at least as it’s traditionally accepted.

To prefer the illusion of utopia to reality is the mark of a madman. It’s what Mongul does, in the epilogue to “For the Man who Has Everything.” Such false utopias aren’t limited only to Silver Age Krypton; they also represent Silver Age psychology, which could not admit the mature sexuality Moore takes for granted here. To slander as “grim and gritty” all revisionism — indeed, even the very idea of realism in super-hero stories — is to be every bit as much the partisan as the reactionaries in Superman’s vision of Krypton.

But equally, the story implies that readers should do the same. Perhaps, in admitting their own participation in the super-hero power fantasy, they can hope to transcend the simplicity of so many such stories.

And perhaps, in admitting that they lust after sexy, skimpily-clad super-heroines, they can also understand these same characters as sexually mature adults, who might even be capable of refusing Superman in a confident but friendly, disarming way.

Because the two are related as surely as the fantasy of super-heroes entangles power and sexuality. Not all revisionists saw that, but Alan Moore did.

Tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

In 1996, while still an undergraduate, Dr. Julian Darius founded what would become Sequart Organization. After graduating magna cum laude from Lawrence University (Appleton, Wisconsin), he obtained his M.A. in English, authoring a thesis on John Milton and utopianism. In 2002, he moved to Waikiki, teaching college while obtaining an M.A. in French (high honors) and a Ph.D. in English. In 2011, he founded Martian Lit, which publishes creative work, including his comic book Martian Comics. He currently lives in Illinois.

See more, including free online content, on .

Also by Julian Darius:

This Lightning, This Madness: Understanding Alan Moore\'s Miracleman, Book One

author

executive producer

Classics on Infinite Earths: The Justice League and DC Crossover Canon

author

producer

New Life and New Civilizations: Exploring Star Trek Comics

contributor

executive producer

When Manga Came to America: Super-Hero Revisionism in Mai, the Psychic Girl

author

a short documentary on Chris Claremont's historic run and its influence

executive producer

Warren Ellis: The Captured Ghosts Interviews

introduction

Voyage in Noise: Warren Ellis and the Demise of Western Civilization

co-author

Shot in the Face: A Savage Journey to the Heart of Transmetropolitan

contributor

The Weirdest Sci-Fi Comic Ever Made: Understanding Jack Kirby\'s 2001: A Space Odyssey

author

The Devil is in the Details: Examining Matt Murdock and Daredevil

contributor

Everything and a Mini-Series for the Kitchen Sink: Understanding Infinite Crisis

author

Revisionism, Radical Experimentation, and Dystopia in Keith Giffen\'s Legion of Super-Heroes

author

And the Universe so Big: Understanding Batman: The Killing Joke

author

a feature-length documentary film on celebrated comics writer Warren Ellis

executive producer

Keeping the World Strange: A Planetary Guide

contributor

Minutes to Midnight: Twelve Essays on Watchmen

contributor

a documentary on the life and work of celebrated comics writer Grant Morrison

executive producer

Improving the Foundations: Batman Begins from Comics to Screen

author

Teenagers from the Future: Essays on the Legion of Super-Heroes

contributor

6 Comments

  1. I enjoyed this article because it really shows some of the pot holes creators overlook in fleshing out characters. Most completely overlook sexuality in characters except for in the most adolescent of ways – here I am thinking of the cover Land did of having Powergirl do push ups that are beyond her capacity due to her burgeoning bosom while a drill Sargent presses down on her head with his boot qualifies somewhere between gonzo aggressive porn and a love letter to misogyny.
    What is sad to me is that more creators are not allowed to really explore this avenue except in corny, ham ball ways. See above for an example.
    I think in order to get to better stories, we are going to have to admit that characters can be sexual and regardless of how uncomfortable that is, it is true and needs to be addressed.

    • Right. It’s such a basic element of humanity, yet so often ignored in super-hero stories. Then again, we have people saying that comics shouldn’t express reality, and this regressivism is all about nostalgia for the Silver Age, which wasn’t exactly a heyday for psychologically real portrayals…

  2. I have more than a suspicion that part of this heavy gravity around nostalgia is how dark our reality feels now. With a ticker counting down to the “Catastrophe Debt Doomsday” or whatever they are calling it on every major news channel, it makes the world feel grim at best. There is a growing need for entertainment and not just that, but mindless entertainment. The type that even though the good guy can act bad, I know for a certain they are good. They were made a hero. Which is a whole other catch of existential fish.

  3. Colin Smith says:

    Hello Julian:- I think it’s a really interesting way of looking at the annual, to realise that Alan Moore is presenting us with a world in which these wonderfully daft characters have personal lives, have sexualities, of their own. It’s part of what makes Mr Moore’s DC work of the period so relevant and inspirational even today, even more than a quarter of a century later, because he always presents people who exist as much as individuals as they do as super-folks. “Something …” is, as you describe, absolutely grounded in character and that’s – of course – related to the ages of the folks being presented to us. I always thought that the dream-Kal-El’s relationship with his son was wonderfully evoked, not just because of the pain it describes as regards the Man Of Steel’s loss of his homeworld, but also as a father-son relationship. The punch-up with the by-the-numbers Mongul is by far the least interesting part of the story; but Clark’s imagainary family, his embittered father hanging out with the neo-Nazis, the kinship bonds extending between the different almost city-states of Krypton, and so on, are what makes the story sing. In that, it’s the attention to the business of real life that counts, and that’s true, as you say, right down to the fact that these folks obviously know what sex is! (I’d never noted Robin being embarressed as Clark and Diana kiss; nice call.)

    So much of what was and is taken from Mr Moore’s work is still that grim’n'gritty sheen which is perceived to exist in the clearly cartoony Watchmen, for example. But I do wish that folks would pay attention to the fact, as you describe here in this telling example, that he wasn’t treating superheroes realitically – what rot – but as human beings.

    • Colin! What an honor to see your commenting!

      I agree about Mongul. The fight is far more interesting for Superman’s rage, which is all about the Krypton sequence. But at least it’s a fight that’s properly motivated, at least on the good guy’s side. And a bad guy who poses a real threat — but not with his fists. Still, yes, absolutely. And I agree with everything you say about that Krypton sequence, which is truly affecting.

      My only disagreement is on terms (as usual?). See, I think Moore is demonstrably treating super-heroes realistically, and that’s why he infuses these admittedly daft concepts with real humanity. Revisionism was, I think, pretty clear in its goal of increased realism. It’s just that realism doesn’t mean grim-’n'-gritty, like everyone seems to think today. It needn’t mean apologizing for super-heroes. That’s the entire genre, and realism in it never meant throwing the super-heroes out. It mean telling better, smarter stories, ones with a bit more relationship to reality. And in Moore’s case, it particularly meant developed human psyches, not adults with kids’ mentalities.

      But I’m a great defender of revisionism, as well as realism. And I think it’s the current rejection of revisionism, including its realism and (frankly) its intelligence, that’s to blame for the current state of things in super-hero comics. Of course, it’s movies and a lot of other things. But when you write about craftsmanship, as you so often and so brilliantly have, this was a trait revisionism obviously prized. In rejecting it in favor of Silver Age nostalgia, the genre is too often also rejecting the very idea that stories should reach for more or depict anything like an actual human psyche.

      Ah, my pet hobby horse!

      Thank you for your comment!

  4. Jordan Hill says:

    >”Grant Morrison has confessed (in our documentary Talking with Gods) that he used to draw super-heroes having sex.”

    Pics or it didn’t happen.

Leave a Reply