Why do people speculate on superheroes' sex lives? Even though some people prefer not to think about their heroes that way, plenty of other people will. Pondering how incredible powers and other superhuman qualities would figure into sexual relations is nothing new. Millennia before anyone debated whether Lois Lane could bear Superman's child, whether any man could survive mating with She-Hulk, whether the Flash's lightning speed would leave his wife frustrated or if she'd appreciate his ability to vibrate at just the right speed, or which superhero would be the most fun on a date, ancient myths delved into the same basic issues as well. We want to be more than we are. The same basic drives that inspire us to dream up fantastic heroes sometimes figure into our contemplations of intimate relationships. Writer Jerry Siegel said he dreamed up Superman partly because he wished he could impress girls who ignored him.
During the past year, I've given talks on this topic at a number of conventions, by myself at several Wizard World conventions and with a panel of colleagues at WonderCon. The mere fact that I do panels about this has prompted interesting conversations both in person and online. At some point during any one of those conversations, at least one of three names will inevitably come up. I do not want anyone out there reading this to claim mistakenly that I'm equating these three authors with one another. I did not choose these names. Other people keep mentioning them. Absolutely do NOT take away the impression that the latter two would have supported or condoned the ideas and ignominious achievements of the earliest, Dr. Fredric Wertham.
I. Dr. Fredric Wertham, Seduction of the Innocent (1954)
After a 7-year campaign spent blaming comic books for the post-World War II increase in juvenile delinquency (instead of attributing it to factors like wartime destabilization of family life early attachment theorists would note), psychiatrist* Fredric Wertham released his book on the matter, Seduction of the Innocent (1954). "I think Hitler was a beginner compared to the comic book industry," he testified in congressional hearings. Armed with a biased sample (troubled youth with no untroubled comparison group), inadequate data collection, flawed conclusions, misrepresentations of comic book content, and outright data falsification (Tilley, 2012), Wertham launched an assault that damaged the comic book industry and left scars whose repercussions last to this day. In the portions of Seduction of the Innocent that addressed superheroes, Wertham painted Superman as a fascist, presented the Blue Beetle as a Kafkaesque nightmare, made one Captain Marvel story sound like it involved decapitation (the hero's head was invisible), called Sheena a man-hater, and worried children would expect the Flash or Green Lantern to rush in and save the day in real life, and yet he’s arguably better known for calling the Dynamic Duo gay even though that’s not what he said.
Wertham did not call Batman gay. He talked about overtones, connotations, “a subtle atmosphere of homoeroticism” (p. 190) that he perceived in Batman’s stories and in tales of any strong superheroine. “The homosexual connotation of the Wonder Woman type of story is psychologically unmistakable" (p. 192). Embarking on adventures with friends of the same gender, especially when that involved rescuing them, was something Wertham saw as disturbingly gay. "Several years ago a California psychiatrist pointed out that the Batman stories are psychologically homosexual," Wertham wrote (p. 189) in support of his own claims. I've asked many comics scholars, including Wertham experts, and none of us can find any evidence as to who that "California psychiatrist" was or that the person even existed.
* Psychiatrist, not psychologist. The psychologist writing this post feels obliged to point that out.
II. Larry Niven, "Man of Steel, Woman of Kleenex" (1971)
After musing over the difficulties Superman would face if he hoped to reproduce and perpetuate his Kryptonian species, science fiction grand master Larry Niven (Ringworld; The Magic Goes Away) turned his conjecture/party talk into an essay that has since achieved fame and infamy. "“Superman has been known to leave his fingerprints in steel and in hardened concrete, accidentally. What would he do to the woman in his arms during what amounts to an epileptic fit?” mused Niven. Some consider the essay hilarious whereas others find it unpleasant and misogynistic.
While acknowledging that an extraterrestrial should be genetically incompatible with earthling Lois Lane (“On the face of it, LL could more easily breed with an ear of corn than with Kal-El”), Niven focused his argument on other key points in the hard science of superhero sex:
Niven described the risks in gruesome detail. He presented the issues in his tongue-in-cheek manner, and yet the source material itself later treated some of those concerns seriously: 1970s comic books, the movie Superman II, and the television series Smallville all later touched seriously on the possibility that Superman might have to lose his powers before he could safely copulate with an earthwoman.
III. Kevin Smith, Mallrats (1995)
Kevin Smith periodically talks about superhero sex during his “Fatman on Batman” and other “Smodcast” podcasts online; he has written superhero comic book stories involving adult relationships, prostitution, HIV, date rape, and sexual abuse of children; and he co-founded, with Jamie Walton, the Wayne Foundation as a non-profit organization to wage war on child sex trafficking, a non-profit named, in part, for Batman’s alter ego Bruce Wayne. Before all that, though, he first made his mark as writer-director of the quirky independent comedy Clerks (1994), which he then followed by writing and directing the movie Mallrats (1995) about two slackers whose girlfriends dump them.
One of Mallrats’ leading slackers, Brodie (played by Jason Lee, the actor who would later provide Underdog’s movie voice and attempt other heroics in the television series My Name Is Earl), keeps wondering about superhero sex and reproduction, starting with issues previously raised in “Man of Steel, Woman of Kleenex.” Whereas Niven failed to consider that neither a Kryptonian’s sperm nor his unborn child would be superpowered unless exposed to the rays of Earth’s yellow sun and also neglected to name any non-Kryptonian superhumans as potential mothers, Brodie one-ups the sci-fi master: “If Lois gets a tan, the kid could kick right through her stomach. Only someone like Wonder Woman has a strong enough uterus to carry his kid.”
Answers only lead to more questions for Brodie, who obsesses over other superheroes’ reproductive issues and anatomy, not just Superman’s. “The Fantastic Four! Reed Richards – can his whole body stretch? I mean every part, like his –?”** he asks Stan Lee (played by Stan Lee, the creator or co-creator of Spider-Man, Iron Man, and hundreds of other Marvel Comics characters). Instead of discussing body parts, though, this fictionalized Stan explains that creating great characters with emotional depth involves reflecting upon real heartbreak and regrets about lost love. Thus does writer Kevin Smith, through the lips of Stan "the Man," relate character creations to relationships that play a part in human procreation.
** Yes, the Fantastic Four’s elastic leader Reed Richards can stretch his whole body, even the part Brodie didn’t directly name while pestering Stan. Richards can fit himself into a vase, flatten like a rug, and squeeze under a door without saying, “Oops, that part won’t stretch.”
References (other than linked online articles)
Niven, L. (1971). Man of steel, woman of Kleenex. In L. Niven (1971), All the myriad ways. New York: Ballantine.
Tilley, C. (2012). Seducing the innocent: Fredric Wertham and the falsifications that helped condemn comics. Information & Culture, 47, 383-413.
Wertham, F. (1954/2004). Seduction of the innocent. New York: Rinehart.