A guy and a girl walked into a bar. The guy drew superhero comics (the muscles-and-spandex kind) for a living while the girl made Bollywood movies (the flowers-having-sex kind). He had two martinis too many while she knocked back a half-a-dozen Bloody Marys. She took his hand, only for both of them to disappear in a blinding flash of light, SHAZAM!
Confused? You shouldn't be. If Bollywood films of a certain vintage set the standard for Victorian prudishness, comicbooks — especially those from the reigning superhero genre — were equal and opposite entities, in their over-the-top fantasias and ridiculous contortionist art. It's safe to say that for the longest time, comics had a sex problem: too in-your-face, too problematic, too much. And it's only recently that they have started the repair process.
Some of the weirdest sex scenes in recent comicbook history have come courtesy The Ultimates, Marvel's reboot of the Avengers series. The Ultimates debuted in 2002, with writer Mark Millar (Wanted, Kick-Ass) and artist Brian Hitch helming the first few miniseries. The idea behind this series was to adopt some of the grit and the old-world noir sensibilities of Frank Miller, among other people. Unfortunately, the creators did what a typical teenager would do on confronting the real world: draw as many boobs on as many walls as possible.
When we meet the scientist couple Janet and Hank Pym, we know from previous Marvel history that they can shrink or expand their body size at will. The Pyms are a bit like the Hulk, in the sense that their earnest nature and scientific temperament make them especially sensitive about their powers and the good. They desperately want to do something for the greater good, not just as superheroes but also as scientists. So when you see Millar using these powers for some superhero-style shrink-and-swell oral sex, it leaves you with a strange taste in your mouth (stop it, whatever you're thinking. Just stop.)
Hank (aka Giant Man/Ant Man) shrinks to the size of an insect and goes down on Janet, who puts her best Hollywood-O face on. Hank finishes, and says, panting: "Your turn, Jan." Riddle me this, Mr Millar. What, pray, is the strategy here, when you're nay so tall (about an inch or so) and about to perform cunnilingus on a fully grown woman? Do you go Rocky Balboa, climbing up the steps, punching that meat bag rat-a-tat-a-tat? And I don't even want to think about what Janice did because it reminds me, inevitably, of surgical leeches.
If you saw the recent Avengers movie, you would have noticed the twins Wanda and Pietro (Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver), who had a poorly fleshed-out Cersei-Jaime vibe going. Well, Millar and The Ultimates managed to make 'em bump uglies too, in a twincest scene that reads like a Zane novel. "Spurned by his father, desperate for his mother, Pietro found in Wanda a kind of love that no one in this room can really understand. You begin to look for alternatives. Maybe I was bewitched... that somehow feeling something for someone else would change my attitude towards life..." Oh, and did we mention that this most inglorious piece of action is being watched and narrated by the ageless, adamantium-clawed Wolverine, who suspects himself of being the twins' father? That's one name off the Father's Day honour list, Logan, you peeping tom, you.
Either of these scenes would be a good bet for the Bad Sex Award, but that's not the half of it. There is a bigger problem here that I wish to draw your attention to: the fetishisation of sex. Millar is, in essence, telling us that these men and women are remarkable because of the sex that they have. Saying Ant-Man is sexy is one thing. But what Millar is telling a teenager is this: "Hey, you know what's cool about all this power? Super-kinky, superhuman sex! Check out the rack on that Scarlet Witch!"
When Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons went about demolishing the hubris of superhero comics in Watchmen, this fetishisation was one of the first things to be mercilessly lampooned. For the uninitiated, one of the major characters in this book was an all-powerful, godlike superhero called Dr Manhattan, who had complete control over atomic and subatomic particles (thus allowing him to be invulnerable and present at several places at the same time) and a non-linear perception of time. In a deliciously gruesome scene, we see the blue-skinned Manhattan in bed with his girlfriend Laurie Jupiter (herself an ex-vigilante called Silk Spectre), when something creepy happens: Laurie, with her eyes shut, feels about half-a-dozen hands touching her simultaneously. She opens her eyes to see that he has made several replicas of himself; easily the creepiest gang-bang of all time. And that's not all: yet another replica is busy finishing an experiment in Manhattan's laboratory.
Moore was pointing towards two fundamental discrepancies in the superhero genre's humanising-via-sex attempts. Firstly, the women are rarely afforded any agency. Laurie opens her eyes, mid-act, to discover a legion of horny blue men summoned by her boyfriend in her bed. This can also be read as a larger commentary on the way female vigilantes are drawn: absurd acrobatic contortions making sure the male readership has an eyeful of boobs and butt. Secondly, Manhattan, like Superman, has a rather dim view of humanity and its potential. And he thought that Laurie would like his little parlour trick, because in the typical superhero's worldview, human beings are sex-crazed airheads who cannot resist rippling muscles in a cape (or in the nude, for that is how Manhattan is, for the most part).
And when the superhero is not getting his freak on, he is acting like a dinner party of Benedictine monks. When Mary Jane Parker tells Peter Parker (Spider-Man, played by Toby Maguire) that she has feelings for him, at the end of the first Spider-Man film, you would think that Parker would weep with joy. After all, this is the super-hot redhead that he spent most of the first half stalking and timidly wooing. But no, now that Parker is Spider-Man, he must abstain: with great power comes great celibacy, apparently (case in point Christian Bale's spectacular array of cockblocks in Nolan's Batman films: the one woman he did sleep with stabbed him in the back, quite literally). The Spider-Man reboot series, starring Andrew Garfield, was hardly better: throughout the film, we are reminded several times that Gwen Stacy, Parker's love interest, is a "weakness" for Spidey. Even in the climax, when Gwen's father (Dennis Leary) is dying in Spidey's arms, he doesn't say, "Hey yo, keep a masked eye or two on my little girl..." Instead, he makes Spidey promise to never see her again, because of course, Spider-Man will have Most Terrible Enemies. Even when you're talking about the women, you're not really talking about them.
Whither the well-adjusted (and sexually active) vigilante, then? The answer, I believe, lies in two recent titles, both published by Image Comics: Sex Criminals, written by Matt Fraction and drawn by Chip Zdarsky, and Sex, written by Joe Casey and drawn by Piotr Kowalski (Ian MacEwan in latter issues). Sex and Sex Criminals are neither squeamish nor verbose in their treatment of sexuality. They are honest and filled with real people (even when they are grandiose or over-the-top in a classically comics way) who yearn to have a healthy sexual life. And even when normalcy proves to be evasive, they take it in their stride: their reaction, whether measured or berserk, always comes across as profoundly human.
Sex Criminals is about Jon and Susie: two seemingly normal 20-somethings with the same superpower: the ability to stop time at the moment of orgasm. The first issue is narrated by Susie, who tells us the story of how she discovered her power: a lonely girl who discovers masturbation in the middle of a long bathtub session. Her first, suitably awkward sexual experience happens in high school, when she decides to sleep with her boyfriend Craig, sneaking away from a loud and boisterous party. This scene is brilliantly executed, Zdarsky's clean-cut realist lines and saturated colours bringing out the contrast between the party and "The Quiet", Susie's poetic name for the frozen-time interstitial world she inhabits post-orgasm (Jon, in comparison, calls it "Cumworld"). Fraction's writing is commendable too: he recognises the plot opportunity that a time-stopping girl gives him and uses it to convey a sense of loneliness that has been known to accompany sex without context — only in Susie's case, the loneliness is quite literal, for Craig and everybody else at the party has frozen.
Whither the well-adjusted (and sexually active) vigilante, then? The answer, I believe, lies in two recent titles: Sex Criminals, written by Matt Fraction and drawn by Chip Zdarsky, and Sex, written by Joe Casey and drawn by Piotr Kowalski (Ian MacEwan in latter issues).
"I suppose we always have these grand notions about what having sex will finally mean. Grand, romantic, weird — it comes with expectations. I'd hoped there was something special about it that would... that I wouldn't be left so goddamn alone. Eventually, it just wears off. I learned that pretty quickly. Then everything's normal and sh**ty again."
Jon and Susie eventually have sex and heal each other's loneliness in a way. But they don't stop there: the major plotline in the first few issues is the foreclosure of Susie's beloved public library, where she practically grew up. A bank is shutting down the library because of an outstanding loan and it seems that there's nothing anyone can do about it. That is, until Jon and Susie hit upon the hare-brained plan of having sex in the bank's restroom, stopping time and then robbing the "s**thead bank" (Susie's words) to stop the library's demise.
Sex Criminals manages to be entertaining and nimble-footed, even when it's swimming in troubled waters, like issues 5-10, when Jon's mental health issues are given a lot of space (he has a mild case of OCD, serious anxiety issues and deep-seated insecurity). More importantly, it tells its readers that laughter is both the origin of and the most natural companion to sex. Sex is funny: straight-laced or kinky, straight or gay. And any attempt to regulate sexual behaviour is equal parts terrifying and ridiculous, as evidenced by the principal group of antagonists, a white-robed holier-than-thou sex police of sorts who monitor individuals like Susie and Jon, desperate to keep the time-freezing antics secret.
At first glance, sex does not play a major role in Casey and Kowalski's Sex. The story follows Simon Cooke, a retired vigilante referred to only as "the Saint" or "the armoured saint", in a Gotham-like vice den called Saturn City. Cooke is a repressed alpha male, as strange as that might sound. As the Saint, he had several memorable duels with Annabelle Lagravenese aka Shadow Lynx, a costumed freelance criminal who's sexually attracted to him. After the Saint pummels the city's mobsters into hiding and retires, Lagravenese becomes the Madame of an establishment that offers voyeurs a customised live show (although it later branches out to straight-up prostitution as well). Casey's a smart writer, who never lets a good punch line pass him by. The books are full of lines that cleverly use or subvert sexual metaphors, drawing attention to the sexualisation of language in general. The lettering in these comics backs up this plan of action, like a tracking sequence where a character whispers urgently, "Let me know when you're close" (emphasis taken from the original).
The most impressive achievement of Sex is the way it describes the sexual tension between Lagravenese and Cooke. It's not just about the obvious adrenaline links between fighting and f**king, as evidenced by the land of Dorne from Game of Thrones, where everybody is always doing either the one or the other. It's also about the subtle ways in which the cat-and-mouse dynamics of sexual attraction and conquest reveal themselves to be antagonistic: Shadow Lynx and the Saint are not fighting despite having the hots for each other; they are fighting because of it. Most important of all, after a fair bit of soul-searching, Cooke decides to ask Lagravenese out, like a normal person. See how easy that is, Spider-Doofus?
As always, conversation is the key to clearing the air. To that extent, both Sex and Sex Criminals have vibrant and very entertaining Letters pages; the latter in particular, thanks to "The Brimpers", their dedicated fan group who take their name from a sex act referenced in an early issue. Fraction and Zdarsky, with their self-deprecating humour and their admirable candour, respond to their fan stories detailing sexcapades that rival Jon and Susie's. The sex-positive ideology that pervades the pages of Sex Criminals is carried over to the Letters pages as well.
I mention the bit about the Letters page also because comics fans are not always representative of the whims and fancies of the real world. Modern-era graphic memoirs are proof enough of this. In Embroideries, Marjane Satrapi takes us into her beloved grandmother's world, where she and her group of trusted friends would gossip about their sex lives. The stories speak of shocking ignorance and repression, of the raw deal that so many women end up getting even in marriages that they happily entered. One mother of three confesses that she has no idea what a penis looks like, because her husband could only have sex in the dark. The powerful aura of shame and sinfulness that we have built around sex is a tough adversary.
Chester Brown found this out when he published Paying For It (2011). In the author's own words, it was a graphic record of "every time I paid for sex up to the end of 2003 and every prostitute I've had sex with since then." Like a lot of critics, I found Paying For It to be an almost painfully honest account, a master of the confessional form doing what he does best. However, he was also attacked for "silencing" the prostitutes by obscuring their faces and recording only the "business" aspects of their lives. In my opinion, this was unfair because the author addresses this concern in the foreword itself:
"Quite a few of the sex-workers I spent time with opened up to me and told me about their families, their childhoods, their boyfriends, and other aspects of their lives. I wish I had the freedom to include that material in the following pages; it would have brought the women to life as full human beings and made this a better book. I'm assuming that all of them want to keep secret the sex-for-money part of their lives."
Through small, incisive vignettes, Brown rips apart the hypocrisy of many sides of the legalisation-of-prostitution debate. In a crucial Appendix, Brow draws three successive panels: in each of them, the same woman appears poised to go to bed with a different guy.
"I don't want to have sex with this guy, but I need the money, so I will."
"I don't want to have sex right now, but he's my boyfriend, and I love him, so I will."
"I no longer feel desire for my husband, but for the sake of my marriage I'll have sex with him."
Brown captions these panels with the following staccato sentence: "There is no moral difference between the above three circumstances."
I am quite hard-pressed to think of any set of books, across genre, that talk about sex in the candid and engrossing way that Paying For It, Sex and Sex Criminals do. You can also add to this list Steven Seagle's American Virgin, Osamu Tezuka's Apollo's Song and Lost Girls, a pornographic series by Alan Moore and Melinda Gebbie. These comics are not bound by the shackles imposed on Hollywood or television (HBO excluded, of course) and they use this freedom wisely, not in a gratuitous manner. They are reversing the wrongs done by the old stable of superhero comics and finally, the world is taking note.