***Editors Note: Following articles contains graphic imagery originally featured in Invincible #110.
According to Judith Butler, gender is not a static, stable, and “natural” condition someone is born with, but rather a socially constructed concept that we perform. This carefully orchestrated performance of gender is therefore like a masquerade – an act by which we define ourselves through reiterated acting, creating an image for the outside world that corresponds with the world’s expectations, yet may not correspond with the identity underneath. If we see gender performativity as a masquerade, then what does the American masculine masquerade disguise? One way to answer this question is to have a look at American media that allegorically deal with disguises, masquerades, and hypermasculinity. The split personality is certainly an archetypical metaphor for masculinity and identity in Western culture and a masculine duality has been explored in literary works such as The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Jungian psychology, and innumerable Universal Monsters films. One of the most obvious contemporary examples of this archetype has been the depiction of superhero fiction in American comic books.
Considered to be a genuinely American invention, the superhero comic book and its portrayal of masquerades and split personalities offer a glimpse at what American hegemonic masculinity looks like and what it hides “under the hood.” The general idea has been that the characters’ alter ego as a superhero is a portrayal of an aggressive, sexualized, emotionally and physically invulnerable hypermasculinity, while their civilian secret identity, i.e. their true identity which is not performed and which does not embrace society’s idea of the aforementioned hypermasculinity, is a loser, laughable and pitiful. This dichotomy of Superman, Spider-Man, and Captain America – muscular vigilantes who regularly engage in fist fights and solve the world’s problems through the use of sheer brutality, get beautiful women, and do not mourn their emotional and physical scars – and Clark Kent, Peter Parker, and Steve Rogers, who are nerdy, skinny losers, unnoticed by the women they fall in love with, and always complaining abut their personal problems, seems to hint at American ideas of hegemonic masculinity that are closely connected to success and the notion that non-conformity leads to a socially ostracised identity.
However, Revisionism in American comic books has to a certain degree led to a shattering of this dichotomous representation of dual identities among superheroes, reflecting a change in American society concerning male identities. A social constructionist analysis of Invincible #110 and subsequent issues dealing with its ramifications shows that there has been a shift in the representation of what is considered to be a traditionally conservative performance of masculinity, blurring the lines between omnipotent, hypermasculine superheroes and vulnerable, unsuccessful secret identities.
Invincible is about the eponymous superhero, whose father is an extraterrestrial. His alien heritage gives him superhuman strength and the ability to fly, which he uses to protect Earth. His secret identity is Mark Grayson, a teen who has trouble coping with his origins and whose personal problems extend to his school life, girls, family, and his job. Although all these features can be considered to be the usual ingredients of a conventional superhero comic book, the title’s revisionist storytelling and the way it tackles split personalities and the nature of both identities, reflects a growing uncertainty about the validity of hegemonic masculinity and an acceptance of weakness for masqueraded superhero alter-egos, i.e. masculine identities. Issue #110, which was published in April 2014, is a powerful example of this thesis, since it is the first comic book to depict a male superhero being raped. This deconstruction of the idea of a superhero, a metaphor for male power fantasies, through the use of sexual violence and its aftermath might show a growing awareness and acceptance of weakness, failure, and victimisation even among the ultimate representation of hypermasculinity, which reflects a tendency in American society to allow for a broader variety on what it means to be a man.
Written by Robert Kirkman, pencilled by Ryan Ottley, inked by Cliff Rathburn, and coloured by John Rauch, issue #110 is part a storyline called Friends, which ran from issue #109 to #114. After being trapped in another dimension for several months, Invincible returns home, where his pregnant fiancée Eve was told that he had died in battle. Infuriated by the fact that Mark risked his life because of a potential threat, knowingly risking orphaning his unborn child, Eve decides to break up with him. For several panels, we see Mark kneeling in full superhero costume, blending his two identities – that of Mark, the father-and-husband-to-be, and Invincible, one of Earth’s most powerful superheroes – in a way that shows a superhero with weak spots, getting his heart broken by someone he cares for. This is followed by a double-page spread of Mark crying. Here he is, in his costume, the ultimate American representation of power fantasies and masculinity, in tears, begging his fiancée not to leave him. Alternating panels of Mark’s face, wiping away his tears, and Eve’s face full of rage, telling him to “get out of here!”, indicate that ideas of a patriarchal, androcentric attitude towards superhero comic books are out of place in this story.
The aforementioned rape takes place immediately after these events. Mark is confronted by Anissa, a female Viltrumite. The Viltrumites were told to procreate in order to prevent the extinction of their decimated race. Anissa is opposed to the idea of giving birth to a “half-breed” and “mat[ing] with the creatures that reside on this planet” and therefore chooses Mark to fulfil her Viltrumite duty. Right from the start, it is obvious that she does not care whether he approves of her intentions or not. In fact, she literally calls him “weak,” indicating that she chose him based on the assumption that he is not strong enough to defend himself. Mark fights back, but is eventually wrestled to the ground and raped. Anissa’s line “I don’t care what you want! And besides… It doesn’t feel like you’re so sure yourself” reflects the myth of the victim enjoying to be raped that ties in to the myth that males cannot be raped and that if they have an erection, then they are aroused and consenting to sex. Ottley’s art clearly shows that this is not the case. There can be no doubt that Mark is the victim of a crime. The following panels become smaller and smaller, narrowing their focus down from a wide perspective of both Anissa and Mark to a close-up of Mark’s eye, reflecting the intimacy and personal ramifications of the whole situation. Every single panel depicting Mark shows us a facial expression of dread, disgust, and repulsion. It is left very clear that this is happening against Mark’s will – the superhero, the identity we have come to associate with power and masculinity, is a victim. The fact that we are talking about a sexual crime intensifies this feeling, since in our traditionally androcentric view of sexuality, sex is something done by men to women, not the other way around or even without any hierarchy. Therefore, for hegemonic masculinity, male rape is the ultimate representation of being ‘de-masculinised’, a symbolic act of a male giving away his hegemony over his very own sex life. Even after being raped, Mark is further humiliated by Anissa who tells him to “man up,” implying that she herself is appalled by the fact that he let such a crime be done to him, questioning the masculinity of male victims by explicitly establishing the aforementioned correlation between (sexual) victimisation and gender-inappropriateness. Mark cries and after Anissa takes off, he is left devastated, hanging his head and pulling up his knees, in a position reminiscent of popular depictions of traumatised victims.
The following issues continue this depiction and deconstruction of hypermasculinity. Issue #111 ends with a splash page of Mark pledging his father to help him, kneeling before him while holding an unconscious Eve in his arms. The notion of an independent superhero who does not need anyone to fight all evil that comes along his way has been shattered twice at this early stage of the storyline. Not only did Eve’s breaking up leave Mark devastated and confused, now he also admits his failure as a sole saviour, asking for help. The fact that he comes to his own father for help implicitly associates his behaviour with a child-like attitude. Men are not supposed to act like children; they are supposed to be the ones others come to for help. These ideas of hegemonic masculinity and its traits of courage, independence, and assertiveness, as well as its inherent call to provide adequately for one’s family and exercise leadership have all been subverted. Mark could not even protect his own fiancée and has to ask his father for help and guidance.
In issue #113, we get a glimpse of what it means to deal with the aftermath of rape, showing that this was not simply another episode in a violent world of superheroes and villains, but a traumatic experience Mark now has to cope with. He is startled when Eve touches him, pulling his arm back and inventing an excuse to leave the room and not discuss his odd behaviour. This reclusiveness, sometimes out of a feeling of guilt towards one’s partner, can be a typical feature of a victim’s trauma. Furthermore, when Mark sees Anissa for the first time since his rape, his hand is shaking. Unable to confront her because of his father’s presence, he has to stand next to his perpetrator, his physical reaction showing fear that turns into rage when his shaky hand turns into a fist. The panels of Mark’s shaking hand and his fist are opposite each other in the same tier. Everything that happens in this situation, the conversation between Anissa, Mark’s father and Mark himself, happens literally in-between those two opposite panels, showing how his experience surrounds everything else and that it is ever-present in his daily routine.
When his baby girl is born, Mark cries the moment he holds her in his arm. At this point, we have seen Mark repeatedly in tears, subverting the idea that men do not cry. At the end of this issue, hegemonic masculinity’s idea of male independence is once again deconstructed. Mark, who is Invincible, the comic book’s eponymous superhero, only goes out to save the world and do what we expect to see in a superhero comic book, because Eve tells him to. There is no hero’s journey, no obstacle he has to overcome, and no fears he has to confront to adhere to his true calling, but a feminine order and a “Yes, ma’am” in response. At this point, there are no traces left of a patriarchal society. The actions of the superhero himself are explicitly tied to female influence and commands. It is furthermore mentioned that usually she would not need him, since she has been a superhero for far longer than him, but that she is merely unable to fight because she has lost a leg in battle and just given birth to a child, which are very good and sensible reasons for her not to fight. She is no superhero fiancée dependent on her male counterpart’s super powers to save the day, but a leader who is commanding her one-man army to do the work.
However, issue #114 opens with Mark’s father stopping him from saving the world, further subverting the image of the superhero as an independent, strong leader. The reader, expecting an epic battle, gets to see an abrupt end of Mark’s quest with his father telling him that they need to talk. We then see a superhero sitting on a chair, hanging his head, while his father stands in front of him and gives him a talk. We see a low-spirited Mark, echoing images of a child that was caught doing something that needs to be reprimanded. When Mark finally stands up to tell his father that stopping Rex is the right thing to do, it looks as if he has overcome all obstacles to become a traditional, independent superhero who knows what is right and what to do, because he is a leader, but only until he asks Eve and destroys this image again. Yes, this title’s eponymous superhero only resumes his world-saving duties and dons his mask after asking his fiancée. The way it is presented here has unmistakably comical intentions, but it is in line with Mark’s characterisation in previous issues. Even after all the aforementioned deconstruction of superhero tropes, the reader still expects a battle between Mark and Rex and for the story to at least hold up to a traditional ending of a superhero story. However, these expectations are in vain. There is no fist fight, but a discussion between the story’s two main antagonists, followed by Mark’s return to Eve and his last words in this story: “He won.”
Invincible erodes the American masculine masquerade of gender performativity by subverting the image of a hypermasculine comic book superhero. What we are left with is a more honest portrayal of what to expect under the hood; a fragile human being. It is a quite liberating portrayal of the ultimate representation of masculinity as a vulnerable, interdependent being. Times have changed, images have shifted, and being masculine can mean a lot of different things. Invincible shows us that being a superhero, i.e. masculine, encapsulates a broad range of attributes and possibilities, including failure, weaknesses, and setbacks. The idea of a static hegemonic masculinity is a thing of the past and everyone should feel comfortable performing his gender the way s/he intends it to be. This realisation may well be Invincible’s greatest victory, more important than any successful fist fight.