Deconstructing expressions of idealized masculinity, particularly heterosexual masculinity, in pop culture heroes has in many cases become an exercise in illustrating the ways in which hypermasculinity continues to be the preferred model of gendered behavior for boys and young men in the United States. On the surface, the heroes of graphic novels simply reek of hypermasculinity; male superheroes are teeming with muscles, agency, sex appeal, and confidence. An awkward reporter can transform into Superman. A shy scientist becomes a massive Hulk. However, for many fans this popular reading of idealized masculinity fails to capture the appeal of comic books superheroes. Superheroes struggle with their identities, emotions, and choices in the same ways as those without super powers. I recently sat down artist, writer, and comic book enthusiast Stephen M. Jones to discuss ways in which classic and contemporary comic heroes reinforce and challenge cultural notions of masculinity.
“Let’s face it,” Jones said to me. “Superheroes have amazing bodies.” For many, the male body is a signifier of masculinity, symbolizing strength and power. One cannot overlook the ways in which graphic novel artists used the human body as a device for illustrating the transformation of a superhero in comic books. However, Jones reminded me that superheroes do not save the world with strength alone. They need strength, intelligence, and ingenuity. In other words, superheroes need to have a brain inside that body. Mr. Fantastic is a master of chemistry, engineering, biology, and physics. Spider-Man has a sixth sense, known as his “spider-sense.” Tony Stark created his Iron Man suit to escape captivity. This creative thinking sometimes challenges gender expectations. Remember, the spider suit that hides Spider-Man’s true identity while showing off his uber-masculine, toned, and defined calves and arms was sewn by Peter Parker.
Of course, with amazing bodies comes amazing sex appeal, which often leads to complex and even problematic romantic and sexual relationships in graphic novels. In the Silver Age of comic books, romantic and sexual relationships were heterosexual and often sexist. Womanizing, playboy characters like Bruce Wayne and Tony Stark were wildly popular. Marriages between characters are often short and unsuccessful.
Although the two major publishing companies (DC and Marvel) are still reluctant to create storylines that include long-term marriages between characters, there has been a dramatic increase in homosexual superheroes. “Marvel comics was kind of a trail blazer in this regard” Jones informed me. The first openly gay superhero was Northstar. The character was introduced in 1979 but did not state, “I am gay” until 1992.
Jones continued to tell me how the incorporation of gay superheroes has changed the mainstream comic book industry. Jones says:
Northstar was the first openly gay character but today there are many gay and lesbian superheroes. For example, Hulking and Wiccan are a couple. And in the new version of Batwoman, Kate Kane is a lesbian. These are just superheroes who happen to be gay. Although their sexuality is an integrated part of the story, they are just as much of a superhero as heterosexual characters.
Expanding characters’ sexualities is only one of the ways in which comic books have challenged social expectations of gender according to Jones. “From the beginning men wore tights” he joked. Jones argued that Marvel crossed gendered lines by presenting on male superheroes that struggle with deep inner conflicts. He said, “Marvel created these male characters who experience all kinds of emotions. They have anxiety. They have depression. These are not stoic men. They have self-doubt. They’re relatable because they have an emotional life.”
As we wrapped up our conversation, I asked Jones if he ever thought about the representation of masculinity in comics. He replied, “Not really. I never focused on that.” In telling his own story, of how he became interested in comic books, Jones actually found the ways that superheroes challenged conventional masculinity to be more of a draw than the ways in which comics reinforce gender expectations. He said:
As a kid I watched reruns of Batman and Wonder Woman. Although I liked comics, I was more of a collector than an avid reader. In my 20s, I started visiting a local comic store. I became a monthly subscriber. I found a Rawhide Kid mini-series where they made him gay. (Some people loved it; some people hated it – both in and out of the gay community). I started reading more. Eventually, I’d work at that store I used to visit.
All this does not mean that the gendered scripts outlined in mainstream comic books are not problematic. Male superheroes are still expected to have big adventures, fighting crime, and save the world. However, to be fair the women do too. And everyone has to do sit ups and watch their carbs. Then again, superheroes have superpowers; they probably also have super metabolisms.
*Stephen M. Jones is an Atlanta based artist and writer. He is a regular contributor for the Comic Book Nerd www.comicbooknerd.com. His work can be seen at www.smjart.com and www.facebook.com/WibblyWobblyBaubles.
Brown, Jeffrey A. 1999. “Comic Book Masculinity and the New Black Superhero.” African American Review 33(1):25–42.
Coogan, Peter. 2009. “The Definition of the Superhero.” in A Comics Studies Reader, edited by Jeet Heer and Kent Worcester. Univ. Press of Mississippi.
Palmer-Mehta, Valerie, and Kellie Hay. 2005. “A Superhero for Gays?: Gay Masculinity and Green Lantern.” The Journal of American Culture 28(4):390–404.
Heidi Rademacher is a doctoral student in the Department of Sociology at Stony Brook University. Heidi received a joint M.A. in Sociology and Women & Gender Studies from Brandeis University. Her research interests include culture, gender, and collective memory. She is a research assistant for The Memory Studies Bank and a news editor for Sociology Lens.