Anna Peppard with her book Supersex

Q&A with Dr. Anna Peppard on Sexuality, Fantasy, and the Superhero

From Superman, created in 1938, to the transmedia DC and Marvel universes of today, superheroes have always been sexy. And their sexiness has always been controversial, inspiring censorship and moral panic. Yet though it has inspired jokes and innuendos, accusations of moral depravity, and sporadic academic discourse, the topic of superhero sexuality is like superhero sexuality itself—seemingly obvious yet conspicuously absent. Supersex: Sexuality, Fantasy, and the Superhero is the first scholarly book specifically devoted to unpacking the superhero genre’s complicated relationship with sexuality.

Exploring sexual themes and imagery within mainstream comic books, television shows, and films as well as independent and explicitly pornographic productions catering to various orientations and kinks, Supersex offers a fresh—and lascivious—perspective on the superhero genre’s historical and contemporary popularity. Across fourteen essays touching on Superman, Batman, the X-Men, and many others, Anna F. Peppard and her contributors present superhero sexuality as both dangerously exciting and excitingly dangerous, encapsulating the superhero genre’s worst impulses and its most productively rebellious ones. Supersex argues that sex is at the heart of our fascination with superheroes, even—and sometimes especially—when the capes and tights stay on.

To celebrate the publication of Supersex, we asked Dr. Peppard some questions about her research.

In the introduction, you present Supersex through many examples that fit a framework of absence and presence, a tense relationship in which censorship can ultimately amplify the very thing meant to be muted. Would you describe the Batman: Damned #1 case?

In September of 2018, Batman: Damned #1 went on sale. It was the first of several scheduled releases within DC’s newly minted Black Label imprint, designed to appeal to “mature” readers. It was also the first on-panel appearance of the Dark Knight’s penis. The context isn’t sexual; the Batpenis is clearly but incidentally visible in one panel of a page where Bruce Wayne strips naked so that his computer may scan him for knife wounds. And the comic’s violence didn’t attract any significant criticism; the issue concludes with a splash page presenting the Joker’s mutilated and crucified corpse. Yet shortly after the release of Batman: Damned #1, every major pop and geek culture outlet ran something about the penis revelation. Mainstream outlets, like Vice and the Guardian, as well as talk shows like Late Night with Seth Myers, also picked up the story. The “Know Your Meme” page for “Batman’s penis controversy” covers several additional flashpoints, including a much-quoted tweet dubbing Batman’s penis “L’il Wayne.”

While much of the chatter was decidedly juvenile, female and queer fans were vocal in defending the appearance of Batman’s penis as an example of equal opportunity exploitation in a genre know for its hypersexualization of women, and as a challenge to the genre’s historical homophobia. Yet DC responded swiftly to try to put Batman’s penis back under wraps. Two weeks after the issue was released, DC co-president Jim Lee blamed the penis on “production errors,” while DC’s other co-president, Dan DiDio, bluntly stated, “It’s something we wished never happened.” Digital editions and subsequent reprintings of Batman: Damned #1 censored the Batpenis by clouding it in shadow. In some ways, however, this absence has only enhanced “L’il Wayne’s” presence. The decision to censor the original comic immediately made it a collector’s item; months later, signed copies of the original (uncensored) Batman: Damned #1 were listed on eBay for over $1,600 USD. Ironically, though, the same sealed plastic case that guarantees these signed comics’ mint-ness ensures they can never be read; as such, the visible penis that makes this comic collectible will remain invisible. But, of course, the fascination we have with superhero sexuality—whether it upsets or excites us—ensures the Batpenis will live on; it’s easily Google-able for any interested parties.

Given that we exist in what many scholars have described as a “pornified” culture, in which pictures and video of virtually any sex act imaginable are only a click away, the uproar over a single, not-overtly-sexual image of Batman’s penis does an especially good job of demonstrating the power and danger bound up in superhero sexuality. Supersex analyzes the evolution of that power and danger across decades, mediums, and moments of production and reception, unpacking why superhero sexuality matters so much, even to those who (supposedly) don’t want to see it, or even acknowledge its possibility.

Considering its global appeal and resonance, what makes the superhero a “quintessentially American (i.e., United States) phenomenon,” especially through the lens of Supersex (17)?

Scholars have often described the United States as uniquely shaped by popular myth. By popular myth, I mean the myths created by and disseminated through popular and mass culture. The American West of the 1890s was a real place, yet our understanding of it is inseparable from the pop mythologizing of it that existed alongside the reality. This example is relevant to the superhero genre because the American frontier indelibly shaped enduring notions of American heroism as supremely individualistic, stoic, and, of course, superheroic; while Supersex focuses largely on conventional superheroes (i.e, those characters following in the legacy of Superman), the building blocks of the superhero are present in the mythologizing of frontier heroes like Davy Crockett, Daniel Boone, and even Teddy Roosevelt as indomitable supermen reshaped (or transformed) by the experience of “conquering” the frontier. For superheroes, the frontier is modern science and the modern American city. But similar themes remain: superheroes are changed by modern science and the modern city into supremely individualistic beings capable of conquering the threats science and cities pose to conventional (American) understandings of society and subjecthood. Sexuality has always had a vexed placed within these myths. Frontier heroes typically reject sexuality, associating it with domestication (and thus, feminization). Superheroes have often functioned similarly, though in both cases, male heroes’ spurning of female companionship contributes to intense homosocial bonds that often contain elements of homoeroticism. Leslie Fiedler references this in his classic study Love and Death in the American Novel. So does psychiatrist Fredric Wertham in his infamous anti-comics diatribe Seduction of the Innocent, originally published in 1954, in which he claimed that Batman and Robin represented “a wish dream of two homosexuals living together.” Wertham’s book was instrumental in the creation of the Comics Code Authority, a highly strict censoring body that would effectively ban depictions of LGBTQ identities in superhero comics for over thirty years.

More generally, superheroes are an especially useful illustration of the powerful contradictions informing American sexual ideals. On the one hand, American culture intensely commodifies sexuality. On the other hand, the Wertham example—and the recent controversy about Batman’s penis—demonstrates a concurrent and similarly intense prudishness. Throughout, Supersex discusses superhero sexuality as defined by the contradiction of presence and absence. The superhero genre’s spandex costumes and bulging male muscles and female curves (not to mention the abundance of sexual metaphors communicated through various superpowers) mean that it is inescapably erotic. Yet for much of the superhero genre’s history, sexuality of any kind—let alone sexual diversity of any kind—was effectively outlawed. Supersex examines how stories and fans have negotiated these restrictions and contradictions, within specific eras and over time, in ways that should help our ongoing efforts to understand the larger cultural contradictions informing—and sometimes informed by—the superhero genre.

The sexuality of superheroes can be, as you describe, both “dangerously exciting and excitingly dangerous (17).” We often think of superheroes as invincible, and yet violence threatens many for their sexuality, orientation, identity, and so forth. How does this fantasy address or redress our reality, especially considering the sexual violence we see historically in comics and comix?

Superhero stories—in comics and all types of media—have a definite sexual violence problem. Historically, female characters have borne the brunt of this violence. This is a bit inevitable, due to the nature of female superheroes’ costumes and bodies. Because female superheroes tend to be hypersexualized, any violence they’re involved with or subjected to is inevitably going to be sexualized in a way that male superhero violence often isn’t. But this isn’t just a visual problem; it’s also a narrative one. Sexual violence perpetrated against female superheroes or other female characters within superhero stories is often used as titillation for a presumed male audience, and as a plot device furthering the character development of male superheroes. When it’s the latter, it’s known as “fridging.” The term fridging was coined by comic book writer Gail Simone in reference to a Green Lantern story from 1994, in which the title character arrives home to find his girlfriend murdered, dismembered, and stuffed in his refrigerator. While telling stories about sexual violence can, of course, be very productive, instances of fridging participate in the dehumanization of female characters by ignoring their emotional reactions to such violence; the female characters suffer to justify male emotions and violence, rather than to tell thoughtful stories about female experiences or the larger social issue of sexual violence. There are many other problematic tropes related to violence in superhero stories. For instance, several of the Supersex contributors highlight the relationship between sexual deviance and villainy; evil characters are often coded as queer.

On the other hand, the fact that the superhero genre uses violent oppositions to tell its stories can make it a very productive place to study the thinking behind such oppositions. In addition, violence can, on occasion, destabilize gender and sexual norms. Violent clashes between male heroes and villains—in which spandex-clad bodies are dramatically and almost sensually entwined—can be read as implicitly queer. The violence enacted by female superheroes can also be subversive even—and sometimes especially—when those female superheroes are hypersexualized. By combining sex with violence, female superheroes can challenge the passivity associated with femininity, or objectification more generally. Supersex’s contributors interrogate all these possibilities.

As a highly visual medium, comics communicate so much via costuming and bodies. Is there a type of coded language (in text or marketing) that resonates with Supersex?

Supersex foregrounds the superhero genre as a “body genre”—that is, a genre that’s centrally concerned with telling stories about and with bodies. And the conceit of superpowers and the technologies of comics—wherein anything that can be drawn can be believed—and CGI—which is, in some respects, a new form of cartooning—allow superhero bodies to tell particularly fascinating stories. These bodies are prone to exaggerations that make them superconductors for gender, sexual, racial, and other bodily norms; in many cases, superhero bodies are designed to represent cultural ideals, often in less-than-progressive ways. Yet the exaggeration of superhero bodies is also key to their ability to resist conservative norms. There’s always a measure of homoeroticism or queerness to the form-fitting and frequently flamboyant costumes worn by most male superheroes, which their exaggerated bodies—which are certainly meant to be admired—further showcase. Because objectifying female bodies is less unusual in our culture, the hypersexualized bodies and costumes of female superheroes are sometimes less deviant. Yet even the most stereotypical female superheroes also resist norms by being strong and violent, and even just through their ability to be treated as heroic while wearing costumes that might result in shaming in the “real world.” All genders and orientations of superheroes are also, by virtue of their superpowers, physically non-normative; superhero bodies routinely sprout sticky tentacles or fiery tendrils, merge with rock or metal, and liquify, stretch, bend, or transform into a thousand different sexed and sexless shapes.

Supersex extensively explores the inherent queerness of superheroes, and the consequences of that queerness; many contributors debate the degree to which this queerness is subversive, given its longtime “official” rejection under the Comics Code and after. It’s always important to keep in mind that the fantastic-ness of the superhero body allows it to be both inherently queer and defiantly literal; to repurpose a famous Freudianism, sometimes a flaming teenager is just a flaming teenager.

As the comics medium and superhero genre tracks across all age groups, can you describe when you first encountered comics, and how your engagement has evolved?

I first encountered superheroes through my passionate love, as a twelve-year-old girl, of the television show Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman. I revisited my love of Lois & Clark for my chapter in Supersex, which examines that show’s rare privileging of a female gaze in its presentation of Clark Kent/Superman as a “sensitive new age man.” I didn’t get seriously into comics until my early twenties, largely for reasons of access; I grew up in a rural area, and didn’t have many places to buy them (the gas station occasionally had an issue of Superman, but it wasn’t something you could count on). But I still managed to fall in love with superhero comics in my teen years, and it was their unique presentation of bodies that did it. I still recall my fixation on a particular panel of a particular issue of a Spider-Man comic; I’m not sure of the issue number, but I’m quite sure it was drawn by John Romita Jr. It was an image of Peter Parker waking up from a nightmare, shirtless and sweaty, in his darkened bedroom. My teenage self stared at that panel long enough to memorize it. I remember trying to understand my fixation on it in a number of different ways. I recall touching the page, as though touching the paper could get me closer to touching Peter; I wanted to know what all those lithe muscles felt like, but I also wanted to comfort him in this moment of private vulnerability, to stroke his cheek and chest and tell him it was just a dream, to urge him to come back to bed. I also acted out the scene, trying to imagine what it would feel like to have those lithe muscles, those super-senses, and the sensation of rightness and calmness that must come with those things, even (or especially) in a moment of crisis. Partly, this experience is indicative of typical teenage hormones—the stuff we all go through when we go through puberty, trying to figure out who we are, what we want, and how we fit into the world. But I also think there’s something about this experience that’s especially typical of teenage interactions with comics and superheroes. I was fixated on this image because comics allow you to do that; their presentation of stories in symbolic fragments means you control how long you look at each image, and, to an extent, how you look at it. I was also fixated because Peter Parker is a superhero; it was the combined strength and vulnerability of his hypervisible body that most attracted me.

When I rediscovered superhero comics in my early twenties (facilitated by the growth of digital comics and my moving to Toronto), I fell even more deeply in love. The same things that interested me about comics and superheroes as a teenager—namely, their unique presentation of hypervisible bodies—felt even more relevant and appealing once I started studying things like queer theory and embodiment feminism. Still, when I started my PhD in English Literature at York University, I wasn’t originally going to write about superheroes; I was going to write about representations of gender in the literary naturalism of Frank Norris. But I eventually came to realize that superhero comics were an ideal place to explore the theories and philosophies of gender, sex, and the body I cared most deeply about. I wanted to talk about how bodies tell stories; superhero bodies tell some truly fascinating stories. I’m still obsessed with these stories, both reading them, and trying to understand them. Supersex is my latest attempt to figure out what these stories mean, to me, to other fans and fan-scholars, and to our culture at large. I’m sure it won’t be my last!

Anna F. Peppard is a Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada postdoctoral fellow in Brock University’s department of communication, popular culture, and film. She has published widely on representations of gender, race, and sexuality in popular media, including comic books, television, and sports culture. She is a regular contributor to the podcast Three Panel Contrast.