American comics, particularly of the superhero genre, often get bashed for promoting backwards, immature, and even abusive perspectives on sex. While there are certainly works that deserve every bit of this criticism, this bad press leads to many sex-positive works going unnoticed. This article aims to promote the knowledge of a few of these works.
One of the most recent sex-positive incarnations to burst onto the scene is Kate Kane, aka Batwoman. A Jewish lesbian, Kate is a character who, under the talents of writer Greg Rucka and artist J.H. Williams III, owns her sexuality. It is crucial to her identity, and she refuses to repudiate it even in the face of (the now defunct) “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell.” Her commanding officer calls her into his office to tell her two things: that she’s been caught with another woman and that she can lie about it to realize her dream and serve in the US Army. Kate slips her West Point class ring from her and, quoting the Cadet Honor Code, says, “A cadet does not lie, cheat, or steal, nor suffer others who do. I’m gay.” She maintains her sexuality and her integrity, even at the cost of her career.
This isn’t to say that the creators just use her homosexuality as a soapbox issue; they let Kate have fun with it. She is absolutely comfortable in her skin as she dances across the floor with her girlfriend in one scene while wearing the hell out of a slick tuxedo. She still experiences arguments and relationship strife – but who doesn’t? While being gay is an indelible part of her self-image, Rucka doesn’t have her make a big deal out of it; she simply is, which is exactly how a gay character ought to be written.
JH Williams III’s artwork contributes to Kate’s confident sexuality. She’s not drawn like a runway model but an athlete. She’s a sexy character because Williams draws her like a real woman. There’s no lascivious T&A in the way Williams draws Kate in and out of her Batwoman costume: no huge breasts, no backbreaking poses to show her ass and breasts at the same time, just fully functioning, badass woman. And Kate is all the sexier for it.
Thanks to Greg Rucka and JH Williams III, Kate Kane/Batwoman is a character who is sexy, but not sexualized. Sure, her sexuality affects her life, but it’s in a way that many of our sexualities affect us. She is gay not to provide titillating girl-on-girl scenes for the benefit of the reader, but simply because she is. And she revels in it. You can find her story, Batwoman: Elegy, on Amazon.com or at finer comic book retailers.
Another American capes-comic that shines a refreshingly positive light on female sexuality is Promethea, written by Alan Moore and, like Elegy, illustrated by JH Williams III. It follows the story of Sophie Bangs, a college student that becomes the current incarnation of Promethea, the embodiment of imagination. The comic spends a lot of time describing Moore’s philosophical beliefs, but within this discussion the narrative frequently addresses sex both explicitly and implicitly.
One of the most powerful moments of sexuality in the story is a sex scene between Promethea and the magician Jack Faust. What makes the sequence so striking is the age difference between Promethea and Jack. Promethea has the body of a dark, beautiful twenty-something, while Jack is old, balding, and overweight. This is not a normal pairing for comics, which is rife for depicting highly sanitized images of sex. Rather than playing out like a creepy fantasy, the dichotomy is characterized by Promethea’s control over the encounter and the sequence shows that it has something to say about sexuality. Jack, who up until this point has been crude, insulting, and crass, suddenly demonstrates shame in the face of Promethea’s beauty; just as he has disrobed his aging body, he disrobes his ego and exposes himself as vulnerable and self-conscious. Beauty becomes power, and Promethea exercises this power be reassuring Jack that he is, in his own way, beautiful. This is a pretty impressive sentiment for a genre populated by young, unrealistically fit muscle-folk.
The ubiquity of super-ripped characters in superhero comics often leads to body homogeny in the medium that simply does not reflect how women look in real life. JH Williams III’s art in Promethea attempts to rectify this issue. Over the course of the history of the story’s fictional world, there have been several women to take up the mantle of Promethea, and not one of them looks like the next. One is pear-shaped with wide hips and small breasts, while another has a stouter athletic build, while yet another is overweight. Heck, one of them is even transgender (he is male bodied in his natural form but realizes his true gender as Promethea). And they are all acknowledged as beautiful women.
There’s also more good news on the horizon. In May, writer Brian Wood and artist Oliver Coipel helm a new X-Men title with an all-female line-up. Marvel has released the cover of the first issue of this series and it is truly impressive; there’s not a piece of gratuitous sexuality on the thing. No one’s bending over to show off their ass to the reader or squeezing their breasts together to try to get a male reader to buy the comic. Instead, they all assume postures that ooze confidence and character. The story hasn’t come out yet, so it remains to be seen whether this title will be the step forward that this reader wants it to be or another contribution to the status quo of female sexuality in American superhero comics. If it is the prior, then it looks like there’s some hope for real progress for female sexuality in capes comics, and works like Batwoman and Promethea won’t be the exceptions but the norms.