Steel Sinews:

Sex and the Super-Hero

There’s a moment in Cable and X-Force #5 where Dennis Hopeless’s script introduces some foreplay between mutants Colossus and Domino. Poor Piotr Rasputin has been experiencing some control issues recently as a result of being possessed by an entity known as the Phoenix. To enable his ability to shift between his flesh and steel forms, his costume has been outfitted with a device that resembles an insulin pump with a dial. Domino is delighted to discover that she can make her lover hard or soft with a simple twist of a knob.

Did you catch that? It is a neat little joke. It is also a rare moment of coquetry in amongst the usual bouts of super-hero fiction violence pitched as wish fulfilment fantasies for men. Over the years, chafing against the constraints of the Comics Code, comics have featured increasingly elaborate scenes of violence. Romance on the other hand, is the province of clichés, sentiment, or a set-up for tragedy. (Ron Marz’s girlfriend in a refrigerator from Green Lantern #54 remains a good model for what passes as drama).

For male characters, sex is a casual entitlement. Given how women characters are popularly understood to be costumed in these books – see the pointed reversals of the Hawkeye Initiative for example – this is understandable. The women are sex objects, whereas the men find release through violence.

This brings to mind Larry Niven’s 1971 satirical essay Man of Steel, Woman of Kleenex, which mocks the over-emphasis on the comic book strength and exaggerated feats of Superman, by describing how his semen would have the ability to punch through a womb. The idea continues to resurface in unexpected places, from Will Smith’s Hancock, to Grant Morrison’s The Filth (which features giant sperm impaling women on the streets of Los Angeles). Memetic mutation has even occurred, with John Byrne and J. Michael Straczynski introducing the concept of a seminally dangerous Superman to the likes of Generations and Earth One. The Kryptonian’s sexuality has the sniggering aspect of Eric Idle’s “nudge nudge, wink wink, say no more” bit. The apex of this juvenile speculation on the sex lives of super-heroes has to be Brody’s speech to Stan Lee in Kevin Smith’s Mallrats. It also points to an absence within male super-hero characters of a discernible adult sexuality. Enter Wonder Woman.

When William Moulton Marston was invited to create his own super-hero following articles on the popular comic trend in The Family Circle, he was inspired to write about a woman who not only preferred to eschew violence, but was physically superior to Superman. Wonder Woman is also playful, mocking her opponents and treating the business of living a simpler life as her alter ego Diana Prince as a form of role-play. The sexual subtext of these scenes is never far away and many commentators have pointed out the recurring use of bondage and submission within Marston’s stories. These intimations of a worldlier Diana than typically shown established the theme of lovemaking being superior to violence, yet still possessing aspects of domination and physical strength.

During this time, the depiction of sex outside of Wonder Woman had the air of the illicit, soft-core pornographic imagery in the pulp magazines or underground Tijuana Bibles. The circulation of mobile-phone amateur / voyeuristic porn today does not seem all that removed from that period’s sexual hypocrisy.

At one point, the real Diana Prince reappears, Wonder Woman having previously paid her off to adopt her identity. Prince is desperate to find employment to support her young family, and the Amazon agrees to help her, taking her place in the home. At this point the emotionally fragile husband, Dan, insists on chaining the disguised Wonder Woman to the kitchen stove.

“How thrilling! I see you’re chaining me to the cookstove. What a perfect caveman idea!”

Again this highlights the idea of role-play within Marston’s sex farce. One of the better recurring jokes within the comic is the adulation Steve Trevor receives for defeating mobs of Nazi spies, while he dreamily insists his angelic ‘Wonder Woman’ did it all. Then there’s Etta Candy and her fraternity sisters coming to Wonder Woman’s assistance by drawing on their experience with hazing rituals.

Marston’s super-hero is supremely confident in her physicality – for her, violence is merely playacting, whereas love is a serious matter. This mixture of performative action infused with sex was unfortunately particular to the celebrity psychologist. Following his death, the character of Wonder Woman has lost that playful aspect. Down the years, she has oscillated between a simpering romantic naïf to a condescending elitist, with brief lulls of effective characterisation.

The Diana Prince run of Dennis O’Neill and, all-too-briefly, Samuel R. Delany was criticized in 1972 by Joanne Edgar and Gloria Steinem in their debut issue of Ms. magazine. O’Neill had revamped the character by stripping away the magical setting of Marston, effectively depowering Wonder Woman, and she had become an ordinary mortal who relied on martial arts. The publicity resulting from this attack on the comic and the appropriation of the character as an iconic feminist symbol led to an abrupt abandonment of the storyline.

The irony is the Diana Prince character had direction and purpose, with her storylines beginning to question the issues of privilege facing the feminist movement. Afterwards, despite the best efforts of Martin Pasko, George Perez, Greg Rucka, and Gail Simone over the years to balance the po-faced strictures of the post-Steinem era with the superficial exploitation of Marston, the book was left stranded in a morass of influences.

In 2011, the controversial, albeit critically acclaimed, Azzarello and Chiang reboot chose to simply drop much of this confusion in favour of a radically altered backstory for Wonder Woman. An Ovid-meets-The Sopranos storyline has Diana confronted with a war of succession between the gods when Zeus disappears.

In Azzarello’s world, sex is dangerous, aggressive, the catalyst for crisis – here Eros packs two golden guns. The appearance of yet another godly bastard kicks off this adventure. The Amazons no longer engage in bondage games, but rape and human trafficking.  Marston’s mocking inversion of pulp violence has been replaced with fear and self-loathing.

After seventy years, Wonder Woman has become just as fixated on violence and death as her male counterparts. It is telling that this was all it took to make the book successful for comic fans and critics.

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Emmet O’Cuana is a freelance writer, critic, and podcaster based in Melbourne.

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Also by Emmet O'Cuana:

Waxing and Waning: Essays on Moon Knight


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