OR: Comics Normalise Kink But At The Same Time Don’t, PART 2
I briefly wrote some muddled nonsense about fetishy stuff in comics a few days ago, and sort of said there’d be a part two.
HERE IT IS.
Hey! Superheroes, right? Weirdos in skintight suits with their pants (underwear) on over their trousers (pants)! More ridiculous than sexy! Ha! Since when has there been sexiness in bloody superhero comics?!?
PART A: THE PAST
Superheroes wore fun costumes, like circus performers, gaudy and recognisable! Yeah! Nowt sexy, just outfits to show off their fine physiques and memorable brands!
That’s cool, right? Superhero comics were for kids. Simplistic moral adventures occasionally leavened by genuine invention and cool images. Pretty boring for anyone over, like, 10, though (I mean, those Showcase/Essential collections of old stuff are nice, but often make for a pretty turgid read).
When I was a young lad, superhero comics didn’t crop up in my life very often – I was a reader of Transformers and Hero Turtles and the like, and aside from the odd thing that made me feel a bit funny, they were largely devoid of DISGUSTING FILTH. Comics! They’re for kids! Innocent adventures selling me new toys!
Then, skip forward a few years and I’m a precocious pre-teen and I’m totally embroiled in the fetishistic world of the superhero…
PART B: THE NEARER PAST
The first Yankee comic I bought was a Wolverine one, which seemed to me to be the adventures of a hairy, shirtless man who takes blue ladies to seedy motels and makes them shapeshift into the woman he really fancies. I can remember a LOT of the dialogue from it, as I read it lots and lots as it was basically a creepy chunk of sleazy soap opera that was NOT what I remembered superhero characters being.
Over the next few years, I bought a lot of Marvel stuff, and there would always be something slightly strange and ‘off’ happening, that wasn’t overtly sexual but definitely seemed somehow ‘wrong’ (or at least something I knew I shouldn’t show my parents). Quite apart from the outfits basically being sprayed on to the characters, and the females posing suggestively despite the situation, there was all sorts of other stuff going on.
Spider-man’d have Shriek (wearing clothes stolen from a fetish clothing store) positioned over his incapacitated body talking to Carrion (who she had also dressed in leather tights and hood) about how Spidey secretly wants to be her evil, evil sexy husband, and all she’d have to do is give him a little push. Spider-man’d be getting forcibly aged or Spider-man’d be wearing Black Cat’s facemask to disguise his identity (I was reading a lot of Spider-man), or Turbo in New Warriors‘d be male one month and female the next, but still wearing the same costume (I found out years later that, sadly, it was different people, and Turbo didn’t just switch genders as part of hir power), or the female characters, even out of their costumes, would be basically dressing like fabulously ostentatious female impersonators.
The outfits weren’t overtly fetishistic, however (and I’m mainly talking about the female outfits, male superhero outfits were seldom designed to be ‘sexy’), looking more like something that’d be on the side of a can of Tennent’s or a creepy calendar in your big brother’s room (to compound this, there were ‘swimsuit issues’), a bizarre combination of stretchy and flouncy fabrics that rarely failed to show off breasts and bum, with big, big hair.
PART C: CLAREMONT
I think my first exposure to actual, proper fetishism in comics was when I got hold of a copy of the X-Men Dark Phoenix saga (some years after it was actually released), by Chris Claremont and John Byrne. There already seemed to be a story underway about Jean Grey having ‘flashes’ of her past life as some sort of colonial-era maiden or something.
These images put in her melodramatic brains by eeeevil Jason Wyngarde in order to somehow lead to the capture and enslavement of the X-Men by the Hellfire Club, a secret gang of rich folks who dress in old-style clothes, unless they’re female, in which case they’d dress like this:
(That’s Emma Frost, the White Queen, more of whom later)
Jean Grey’s controlled mind led to her deciding to dress like this:
Claremont fucking loved that 1960s Avengers (the telly show) Hellfire Club episode, eh.
Now, these sort of outfits were really only something I’d previously seen on secretly-watched episodes of Eurotrash or Channel 4’s Red Light Zone (and, oddly, Smith and Jones), and the sexualisation of superhero costumes in such an overt yet kind-of-niche way was all new to me, yet, once I’d noticed them, I’d encounter overt fetishistic themes again and again in comics, especially around about the next time I read a Claremont comic, which was in the late 90’s/early 2000s.
His return to X-Men was a big deal, apparently, though I knew little about comics stuff like that, only recently having gained access to the internet. I thought “hey, maybe I should pick his new comics up, if he is so good!”, having forgotten that the Dark Phoenix Saga was nigh-on unreadably dull (it might have been great in the 80s, when it was fresh, but that is not when I read it). I read his ‘Revolution’ X-Men stuff for a fair few months before finally giving up due to disinterest. During that time, it featured lots of events which I have since learned are Claremontian trademarks. There were countless instances of mind control, people in fetish gear, people being made into slaves or statues or just being forced to wear more revealing, humiliating clothes (there was also the main Claremont trademark of the comics being not very good).
Seems that in his older stuff, this stuff cropped up all the time, too (and still does), obvious instances of kink that I can’t imagine being read so innocently these days, as hyper-aware as we all are, eh? Claremont knew what he was doing, though – working through his many fetishes via the neutered medium of comics. People’d be getting mind controlled into evil-yet-sexy situations all the time (but did they secretly maybe WANT that, he had them wonder), or they’d be wearing second-skin bodysuits that flushed out their waste, or they’d be getting their age regressed, or Rogue’d be a barely-contained ball of frustrato-angst, all “I JUST WANT TO TOUCH PEOPLE but all I can do is wear my form-fitting rubber outfit! Why must I…be…denied…pleasure…”.
Poor old Rogue.
Claremont comics are basically monthly chunks of sexual repression, leaking out for all the world to see – barely constrained implosions of pure submissive lust.
Here, have some overt Claremontian infantilism and petticoat bondage:
He wasn’t exactly shy with portraying the sort of stuff that he’s interested in, and his original period on X-Men was super-popular and influential to what came after in comics. I think it was Paul O’Brien (I could be wrong) who said something along the lines of “Claremont needs to do an Avatar series where he can be as explicit as he wants and get this stuff out of his system”.
And that has sort of happened, though, rather creepily, using X-Men characters again. He recently wrote the ‘X-Women’ comic, drawn by ideal Claremont filth-contributor Milo Manara, which is basically just the women from the X-Men (what a stupid phrase) having slash fiction adventures made by professional creators. It looks both pretty (Manara is a great artist) and pretty loathsome, a comic designed purely for ageing male comics fans to jerk off to. Though maybe younger readers (not YOUNG readers, though, as there arguably hasn’t been any of those in superhero comics for quite some time) will enjoy it and recognise it as a faithful portrayal of THEIR X-Men due to the grotesque porn-faces all the characters have, which is a current hallmark of X-Men comics, and one of the things that makes them utterly unreadable. Let’s have some examples!
ABOVE: Manara and Claremont’s niche-audience X-Women. Jings, their faces barely look recognisable as human, but at least there’s obvious artistic talent there.
ABOVE: Some Greg Land stuff from more mainstream X-Men comics, which it has been alleged is traced from pornography (decide for yourself!).
The X-Women comic features scenes of the characters jetskiing together, having a secret women-only party that they’re not going to to tell the male X-Men about that seems to involve them writhing around one another, and, predictably, a bout of slavery with very overt signs of kink and forced costume-changing:
Superhero comics are pretty kinky in general now, thanks to Claremont’s insertion of BDSM and fetish tropes into them at a time when he was the comics industry’s top-selling guy. Soap opera + overt-but-not-explicit kink = success! It’s a formula superhero comics have traded on ever since.
PART C: MODERN FUN
“How do you know you’ve become a superhero and not just a crazy fetish person with a death wish?”, says The Whip in oustanding superhero romp Seven Soldiers, by Grant Morrison and a variety of artists. How indeed?
Superhero comics these days have an odd need to appear passably ‘realistic’ in order to gain some sort of ludicrous credibility with that all-important non-comics crowd who’ve seen some comic book movies, so this means the outfits are less circus costumes, and more functional outward-bound body condoms with seams and zips and padding for the men, and painstakingly-rendered real-world fetish outfits for the women.
Warren Ellis famously described them as ‘pervert suits’, and that’s fair enough, by real world standards. And don’t get me wrong and think I see being a ‘pervert’ as being bad. Warren Ellis certainly doesn’t, either – his comics are quite the proponent of characters drawn in plausibly-real fetish-clothing-as-superhero-outfit, and his Rose Tattoo character in Stormwatch could be seen as one of the catalysts of the trend for this. Don’t know if it was meant as progressive at the time, or if it was just because Ellis loves women in fetish clothing, though.
Face-value portrayals of things considered ‘perverse’ by ‘everyday’ people have long been a staple of superhero comics, and are a normalised part of the characters’ universe.
In a world where all the characters run around in rubber bodysuits, you’d think that fetish clothes’d lose the taboo nature that makes ita sexual signifier in the real world. Sadly, though, when a writer needs shorthand for “this character’s turned evil!!!” their behaviour’ll turn a bit ‘sexier’, a bit more bisexual (only the females, obviously – bisexual men’d confuse and scare predominantly male superhero comic readers), and their outfit’ll invariably turn a bit darker and a bit shinier.
The only example I can think of off-hand of a decent evil-fetish-shorthand is Mary Marvel in Final Crisis (written, again, by Grant Morrison), where the fetish-clothes evil-transformation is supposed to be sort of ludicrous and over the top, and she at least has the decency to have a pretty stylish bit of Jack Kirby-influenced corsetry, unlike the non-Morrison evil Mary Marvel who just has the same outfit as usual, in black, plus fishnets.
I guess since Catwoman appeared in Batman Returns in her explicitly fetishistic fully-polished black outfit, changing the image of the female superhero in the public consciousness to one that was sexy instead of silly, comics have mimicked this, adding a safe, low-level surface kink to even the non-Claremontian comics by making the female characters wear slightly more fetishistic outfits. But these days, when a BDSM-influenced costume is rolled out again in an attempt to shock, it just seems silly, as comics readers are positively raised on kink (and that’s not even including ‘mature readers’ Vertigo comics, where BDSM clubs and fetish crossdressing are required to feature at least once per series, by law).
Anyway, it’s good that people are still channeling Claremont in mainstream comics (see the Dollatrons in Morrison’s Batman and Robin for some full-on forced-femme stuff) and the X-Men are no exception. It’s traditional for them, more than any other characters. Here’s a recent cover for Warren Ellis and Kaare Andrews‘ Astonishing X-Men, featuring old skool X-Domme, Emma Frost:
There’s a reason why Forbidden Planet sells Skin Two, folks, and it’s all because of that poor little subbie, Chris Claremont.
PART E: A SORT OF CONCLUSION, ALMOST
It’s odd that in the real world, even though fetish shoes and shiny PVC leggings are sold in high street shops, Rihanna can make a song about S+M, and Britney Spears (YEARS AGO! And how long ago was bloody Madonna?!) can wear a shitty ill-fitting red catsuit, and it still gets seen as ‘edgy’ and ‘dangerous’ by the media. This means, in a bid to reflect the real world and thus feign relevance, ‘kink equals edgy’ is a trope that gets wheeled out in comics all the fucking time, despite being an integral part of superhero comics for quite some time now, to the extent that it’s left creeps like me entirely jaded.
One thing, though. When you’re reading your X-Men comic with a picture of a woman on the front in a skintight costume, back arched and breasts out, it may seem a normal everyday comic to you, but to a non-comics reader, it looks like this:
It’s great that different forms of kink and sexuality are represented in mainstream superhero comics – I’m pretty sure young, confused teenage me would agree as he grasped his way towards some sort of sexual identity (cor/urgh!) – but it’s a total fucking shame that when they need a cheap ‘edginess’, they tend to pander towards the lazy idea that ‘alternative’ forms of sex (though kink is pretty fucking common) equals EEEVILLLLLL. And scantily-clad women are hardly an ‘out there’ idea in our current cultural climate, are they?
Comics want to have their kink AND eat it, so they do (whatever that means).
And it’s just a shame that superhero comics don’t sexualise the men a lot more. I’d like to see Wolverine, corseted and chokered, pasties over his nipples, and just going about his business as if it’s his everyday costume.
Wait, what? AW YEAH!
You’re damn right I’ll be getting into that in part three, provisionally titled: “FLEXING AND GROANING“…