Sex and the Superhero
Baby, it's cold outside! Warm up with Corrina Lawson as she talks Sex and Superheroes.
Mainstream superhero books rarely handle romantic intimacy well. It’s so rare, in fact, that I can count the instances where the intimacy is sexy and romantic on the finger of one hand.
I have guesses as to why this is. The first would be that it's mostly men writing superhero comics, and many of those men write sex or intimacy with a snicker and a leer. See Scott Lobdell’s oversexualization of Starfire when DC Comics rebooted the New 52 or the weird sex between Catwoman and Batman in the similar period, which featured an R-rated scene in which the body positions don’t even make sense.
And we won’t even talk about the ridiculous Ant-Man and the Wasp reunion sex which featured him shrinking and, well, the panel speaks for itself. Not sexy at all, though lots of sexual stuff is implied.
To portray physical intimacy well, it has to be written as a mature level and many superhero creators are stuck in superheroes as an adolescent power fantasy, which leaves sex in the realm of adolescent-male ideas about sex.
And yet, sex is the most intense form of physical and emotional intimacy there is.
When I sat down to write a romance featuring a character with a self-healing power, the book that became Love’s Inferno, I knew that power would have to come into play in the intimacy of the bedroom. If the hero is an adrenaline junkie who gets off on healing himself, then it follows that he might become addicted to pain, which follows that this might well impact his sex life. This eventually led me down the path of a BDSM erotic romance that eventually did become X-rated, because the character’s power plays a large part in his sex life. It was necessary to show that to show the emotional intimacy between the characters during the sex.
It’s not that I’m asking for X-rated sex in mainstream superhero comics. Not in the least, as, often, closing the figurative bedroom door can be sexier than showing the sex. (See that Ant-Man/Wasp scene.) But I am asking for an adult version of sexual relations, where it’s about the emotions of the characters involved and, yes, about the specific powers of the individuals.
There are so many possibilities too that are going unexplored. Wolverine, a dark character, is often seen engaging in extreme R-rated violence but not so much in specific sexual activity. He infamously had his penis cut off at one point and that was played for the laughs. Hello, people, where are my excellent Wolverine BDSM moments, where he has a safe space to get an adrenaline rush from his healing with people he trusts? But, no, let’s laugh at the fact he can regrow his penis.
And, yes, BDSM can be done in a comic. There’s an excellent BDSM scene between Big Barda (the top, of course) and Mister Miracle in the recent Mister Miracle series by Tom King and Mitch Gerads. It’s not X-rated but, of course, the world’s greatest escape artist would love the challenge of being tied up by his wife.
Another example: everyone snickers at the sexual implications of heroes with stretching powers. No one writes that maturely, however. I mean, c’mon, you know Sue and Reed Richards are having all kinds of fun exploring their powers in the bedroom. Reed probably has a list of what she likes and doesn’t like, because he likes data. Can you imagine the implications of using a force bubble around Reed’s various parts as foreplay? Reed and Sue are going to have quite a playful relationship. Let’s see hints of it.
Then there’s Daredevil, with his special sense of touch, which must be wild to experience as his intimate partner. It might explain Black Widow’s attraction to him. Yet there’s been so much more written about Black Widow’s sexual prowess and attraction than Daredevil’s. But Matt Murdoch has a power that literally enhances his touch. Hello.
Martian Manhanter’s shapeshifting. Green Lantern’s projections. These could be the basis of fascinating hints about their sex lives. To go back to the Fantastic Four, there’s the thing. No one wants to talk about Ben Grimm’s sex life but, hey, Alicia has to be the top there, and she knows it, and that has implications in their overall relationship.
If creators insist on writing about superheroes with active sex lives, they also need to write about how these heroes’ powers affect their sex life. Otherwise, they’re missing a good portion of how their main characters interact with the ones they love.
There are a few excellent examples of intimacy. The first is not from a comic, it’s the famous scene of Superman taking Lois Lane flying in the first Superman movie. “I like pink very much, Lois.” It’s not that Superman is using his x-ray vision to take advantage of Lois, it’s about the playful flirting between them, with references to his power. And, of course, there’s the flight itself.
The implication, followed up in many great Lois/Clark scenes in comics, is that Lois and Clark definitely have joined the mile-high club, though without a plane. (Hopefully, not too high because it’s cold up there, but maybe the cape is enough cover.) This is what leads to many scenes of Lois wrapped in the Superman cape. None of this is X-rated but the implications are certainly adult.
Ed Brubaker is one of the few male writers who has consistently handled sex well in superhero comics. In his Catwoman run,there are PG/R-rated scenes of Slam Bradley and Selina, with sex spontaneously happening on a desk, and in several other places. They’re using the sex to get past a shared trauma, torture by Black Mask. Selina knows it, Slam knows it, but he’s also in love with her, which she doesn’t realize at first. Slam eventually breaks it off because he knows to continue would be heartbreaking for him. It’s rather lovely and shows that sex, while not unhealthy, can only go so far in bonding a couple.
In the same run on Catwoman, Brubaker uses a different approach for the sex between Selina and Bruce/Batman.
There’s a long build-up to when Bruce finally spends the night with Selina, then a fade to black, because the foreplay already said everything about their relationship. There’s also a lovely page in Batman Incorporated by Grant Morrison, with Selina and Bruce flirting in a workout room, post-sex, that perfectly captures that relationship. By contrast, that infamous scene with Bruce and Selina sprawled, half-naked, on a rooftop, in the New 52 Catwoman series. This lacks any sexiness besides the snickering kind.
Perhaps the most famous scene where powers come into play is in the classic Chris Claremont/John Byrne X-Men run. That’s the scene between Scott and Jean on a remote mountain, in which she removes his eye wear and psychically holds back his power. “I just wanted to see your eyes, Scott.”
This is bonding, this is a specific use of powers, this is romantic, and this is hot. There are feels here, lacking in so many other sexual superhero moments.
And all it takes to write emotional and sexual intimacy well is paying attention to the characters as depicted, and following those implications. Yet, sadly, many superhero creators (mostly male) seem to develop brain freeze when it comes to these scenes. It’s frustrating and, worse, getting the intimacy wrong means getting part of the storytelling wrong.
What are your thoughts on Superheroes and Sex? Join the conversation in the comments or on social media! #superherosex
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