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Silver Metal Lovers:
Sexuality, Romance and Relationships in SF Comics
by David Sivier

One of the most profound changes of the 20th century, beyond the obviously technological, has been in Western society's attitude to sex. While the Victorians were not nearly so prudish as has so often been claimed - Herman Melville's statement that they were so sexually repressed that they put skirts round table and piano legs wasn't cold journalistic description, but a jocular exaggeration - the moral codes about sex were considerably stricter than today, and persisted well into the 1960s. In high art, as opposed to pornography, nudity was only acceptable if nobly based in classical art and themes, the pubic area modestly covered or obscured, and naturalistic colouring avoided. Nudes were supposed to have the same austere ivory whiteness as the antique statues that set the standard of artistic taste and decorum. Like their antique predecessors, the moral watchdogs also outlawed pubic hair. The nude's gaze was also subject to strict censure. In order to avoid accusations of salacity and comparisons with the forward attitudes of contemporary streetwalkers, the subject could not direct her gaze towards the picture's spectator, but elsewhere. Usually they were demurely looking at their feet, or otherwise studiously avoiding the gaze of the picture's admirers. A mere infraction of these rules could result in a spate of angry denunciations, scandal and resignations, even to those at the very apex of the Victorian artistic establishment. Such a reaction greeted Burne-Jones' Phyllis and Demophoon in the 1870s. The chief objection to this, apart from the fact that the barely clad model for Phyllis was notoriously Burne-Jones' mistress, rather than his wife, was that it was the man in the painting who was nude and pursued by an enraptured, and clothed, female. "The notion of a female follower," The Spectator's art critic wrote, "is disgusting." Victorian high art attempted, or pretended to attempt to divorce nudity from sex, and men especially were rigorously barred from appearing as sex objects.
   Despite the existence of a massive pornographic underground, and the visceral delights of the 'Bloods' and 'Penny Dreadfuls', the funny papers when they appeared were explicitly intended to be without any hint of such impropriety. The newspaper magnate Alfred Harmsworth brought out Comic Cuts in the 1880s as an attempt to provide a wholesome alternative to the Dreadfuls. The uprightly moral Religious Tract Society for the same reasons also produced the Boys' Own Paper, now viewed as one of the more camp examples of Victoriana, subject to the same innuendo and sniggering as Baden-Powell's Scouting For Boys. Despite the efforts of Lytton Strachey and the Bloomsbury group to consign the Victorian era to the dustbin of history, the 20th century produced a similar moral panic recapitulating almost exactly Victorian fears over the Penny Dreadfuls, and with the same solutions during the gore-crazed heyday of the horror comics. These too, like the Bloods, were seen as a serious threat to children's morals. Organised religion also played a major part. One of the leading campaigners to have horror comics banned in Britain was the Reverend Marcus Morris, who founded Eagle, Girl, Swift and Robin as a deliberate attempt to provide wholesome entertainment informed by Christian values for comics readers. Originally, Dan Dare was to be called 'Lex Christian'. It's one of the ironies of comic book history that the Mekon, a symbol of cosmic evil, slightly overshadows his nemesis Dare as an enduring icon for readers of the four-colour funnies.
   As far as sex went, Victorian morality was rigorous: it was permitted solely between husband and wife. Despite the ubiquity of prostitution, premarital sex was strongly discouraged. Divorce, although possible for the wealthy, was acrimonious, and homosexuality was explicitly forbidden under the law. Even at the beginning of the 20th century it was not unknown for adulterous couples that had abandoned their spouses to live with each other, to be drummed out of the street in a demonstration of mass anger. As late as the 1950s sober, academic books on criminology treated premarital sex as a form of 'delinquency'.
   Since the 1960s, all this has changed to the point where adultery and graphic sex is a staple of much adult fiction, both literary and televisual, and premarital sex is the norm, rather than a socially dangerous aberration. Comics have reflected this change in social attitudes, though there are still conventions in Britain and America against the blatant treatment of sexuality permitted on the continent. Now that even the august BBC has wheeled in Joan Bakewell to explore issues of censorship and sexuality on their Wednesday night programme Taboo, it's time to explore the progress of sexuality at the level of the comic book.
   Sex and violence, as the cult fantasy artist Chris Achilleos once said, is the foundation of all literature, whether explicitly, or simply as romance and adventure. It was certainly present in the novels of Edgar Rice Burroughs, which provided the subjects for many illustrated books. While Tarzan, at least in film and comic book sported a leopard skin loincloth, John Carter and his friends on Mars lacked even that. Battling their way nude across a Mars of wonder and terror, Carter was frequently called upon to save his Martian princess from violation at the vile hands of Red Planet villainy. Despite having been described as being a plaything of one tyrant, the Princess still manages to retain her maidenhead despite all assaults on her person. Nudity and romance were permitted, but sex, at least in the books, was rigorously outlawed. Nevertheless, the book's perennial appeal to a largely adolescent readership probably rested as much on the first two elements as it did on the enduring power of Burroughs' images of Barsoom.
   Despite their popularity, it was only much later in the 1970s that the John Carter stories received the attention, at least in comics, which had much earlier been given to his Tarzan. The two great pioneering SF strips, Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers both featured strong women amongst their protagonists, but their attitudes to romance, at least for their heroes, differed considerably. Flash Gordon and Dale Arden were sweethearts, but the relationship between Buck, and Wilma Deering, was much more platonic. As a colonel in Earth's space force, she was a pal, not a girlfriend, no doubt reflecting contemporary views on future relations between the sexes as modern, liberated women increasingly entered previously male domains.
John Carter & Princess of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs, 1917 Flash Gordon's 1936 serial on DVD Lynda Carter as Wonder Woman, 1976 TV series artwork by Virgil Finlay
Despite the innocence of these early strips, sexuality and censorship were never very far away. Although deliberately created by the psychiatrist Graham Marsden as a healthy alternative to the aggressively male violence of most of the superhero books, Wonder Woman's sexuality was a cause of real concern to DC's editorial staff. They were particularly vexed by the amount of bondage in the comic, as month by month, Wonder Woman and her fellows were bound or, with her lasso of truth, escaped to do the binding. Marsden's own comment that the comic's themes of domination and subordination accounted for much of her popularity with the male readership was hardly reassuring. In one famous interview he stated quite plainly that, if subjected to a beautiful, glamorous woman who was stronger than them, most men "would be glad to be her slaves." The DC editorial team spent much of their time trying to cut down the scenes of bondage in Marsden's scripts - in one story they counted at least 147 separate images. After Marsden's death control of Wonder Woman passed to Julius Schwartz, who took the opportunity to effectively suppress the comic's smouldering sexuality.
   Although innocuous today, one of the comic's problems could have been the amount of flesh Wonder Woman displayed. While Superman, Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers roamed the space ways either protected by a bulky space suit, or in form-hugging spandex suits which emphasised their musculature while making sure that the only bare flesh on show was that of their hands and feet, their female counterparts faced the universe clad only in a one-piece bathing suit and knee-length boots. Often on the covers of the pulp SF magazines, they lacked even that. Artists such as Weird Tales' Virgil Finlay and Thrilling Wonder Stories' Earle K. Bergey often depicted women exposed to the vicissitudes of space clad only in a few bandages, or imprisoned completely naked in threatening alien devices with only a few well-placed meters preserving decency. Initially, these covers were not well received. Bergey was the subject of much adverse mail complaining about the sensuality of his covers. This later subsided, though a perennial complaint of the magazine's younger readers was that their mothers tore them off before allowing them to read them.
   While it was Wonder Woman's sexuality and physical dominance which the moral watchdogs found questionable, rather than her choice of attire, she was part of a general trend, set by the pulps, to show science fictional heroines wearing as little as possible. Sweetheart, the treacherous heroine of Pete Mangan's 1953 British comic strip, similarly braved the cold wastes of space naked to the stars except for a swimsuit, knee-length sandals and space helmet. Mary, the heroine of the 1948 comic strip, The Mighty Atom, was another casualty of cosmic bondage, bound to a stake wearing only a very ripped, short dress while awaiting assault by the villainous frogmen under Thor, master of evil. Although drawn by Philip Mendoza, the comic strip was written and edited by Stephen Frances, who went on to spawn a legion of crime and sex paperbacks under the pseudonym, Hank Janson. The Pete Mangan comic strip also featured its hero watching the gyrations of an alien female dancer in an off-world bar, showing that at least its writers were no strangers to sleaze. Other heroines who also faced mortal danger clad only in a one-piece swimsuit included Swift Morgan's girlfriend Silver. Blonde and voluptuous, her modesty was preserved by an exotic collar-cum-shoulder piece, which obscured her cleavage. This was an important fashion item sported by a number of other heroines, such as the aforementioned Sweetheart, though hers had a middle section missing allowing a tantalising, though decorous glimpse of upper bust. Morgan, however, wore pretty much the same costume as Silver. As did hero other half, the hero, Pat Peril, who eschewed the upper part of the costume and battled the denizens of an angry cosmos clad only swimming trunks and a space helmet. There did seem to be some kind of sexual equality in the amount of flesh on display.
   Some of the more glamorous space heroines, such as the galactic criminal Satin Astro of 1948's Burt Steele And Satin Astro: In The Year 3000 AD comic strip were fully covered up in the same kind of one-piece costume sported by the male heroes. Similar strong, beautiful women were popular on both sides of the Atlantic. EC, never one to shirk a trend, published a comic strip devoted to the adventures of a squad of female space pilots. Although this contained little that would cause any offence, part of its undoubted popularity amongst male readers was due to the characters' figure-hugging costumes. Aside from EC female fighter pilots, these comic strips approached the problem of sexuality in much the same way as Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers. The female characters tended to be the long-term girlfriends of the heroes, though Stella, the heroine of Captain Sciento, was the good captain's daughter rather than wife or girlfriend. Perhaps because, even at the time, married women were not expected to have a career outside the home, Sciento's wife is never shown. The absence of Mrs Sciento presents a problem similar, though not identical to, the absence of any direct relationship between the Disney characters and their relatives. Huey, Louey and Duey are Donald Duck's nephews, not sons. To the author of a Marxist critique of Disney comics, published in Chile just before the CIA-sponsored coup against Allende, this represented the capitalist repression of the forces of biological reproduction, just as the forces of capitalist industrial production were similarly obscured. That was Marxist explanation for why you never saw just how Scrooge McDuck, another uncle, made his money, just that he had enough of it to fill a swimming pool. Like Huey, Louey and Duey's parents, Scrooge McDuck's business is never shown. It was an influential thesis, and is still discussed in cultural studies of comic books today. It does, however, miss the point. There are other reasons for the apparent absence of parents in Disney's comic strips than an apparent connection with obfuscation and the dark workings of Western capitalism. Comics, especially the Disney oeuvre, are by and large written for children. As a rule, children aren't particularly interested in industrial production, except when it's something particularly glamorous like a chocolate factory run by a philanthropic showman with a time and space travelling elevator and a gang of loyal pygmies. Socialist Realist stories about worker heroes tend not to be well-received, and even in China there has been a tendency to move away from such explicitly ideological themes to more traditional heroics, such as the mythological cycle of Monkey. Also, the real reason for the presence of avuncular figures, like Donald Duck, in the Disney cartoons probably lies in contemporary notions of family values. Most children want a degree of independence from their parents, at least in their fantasies. This is reflected in fairytales, in which the hero leaves his home and family to seek adventure abroad, or in more moralistic versions comes to grief after defying parental injunctions against the performance of certain actions, like venturing into the deep, dark wood. Uncles, rather than aunts, are family, and so can offer protection in lieu of children's actual parents, while having a degree of indulgence and adventure about them beyond that usually permitted to parents. Uncles can therefore offer children a degree of indulgent freedom and escape from parental supervision - the chance to be a bit 'naughty' - that would otherwise be denied them. The relationship also allows the triplets to test Donald Duck's patience in a way that avoids direct criticisms from the censorious about poor parenting skills. With his explosive temper and manic blustering, it's a fair bet that if the Duck was presented as their father rather than uncle, someone might claim that he's a bad parent and his three offspring are going to grow up to be dysfunctional juvenile delinquents. By standing a step away as their uncle, rather than father, Donald Duck can offer his three charges, and by extension his juvenile readership, fun and suitably supervised adventure and social subversion without damaging notions of family values.
   Of course, to more cynical eyes grown jaded with recent reports of child molestation and abuse, the idea of a bachelor uncle taking such a deep interest in his preteen nephews is incredibly suspicious. Disney created the characters in a more innocent time, for a more innocent audience, though jokes about the Duck's suspect sexuality have appeared, particularly in Private Eye. Never one to miss a sick joke, the Eye suggested that Donald's questionable relationship with his nephews mirrors Disney's own sexuality. The true subject of the joke, however, was a documentary screened by Channel 4 taking Disney to task for his right-wing political stance and appalling treatment of his staff. The salacious confusion between Donald's suspect sexuality and Disney's own was part of the larger joke against Channel 4. Although made in jest, the comments did, however, reflect real concerns over Batman's sexuality. To the Austrian psychiatrist Frederick Wertham, 'Batman and Robin' were an idealised homosexual fantasy. He came to this conclusion through the entirely scientific method of asking a New York gay what he thought of the Batman comics. The man replied that he wouldn't mind being Robin. It's not hard to see how Wertham came to his conclusion, however. Classical antiquity saw homosexuality in terms of a relationship between 'lover' and 'beloved'. The lover was an older man who took the active role in the relationship, while the beloved was a boy who took the passive, 'feminine' role. One of the definitions of 'punk' is American hobo slang for a young boy travelling with an older man in what could be a homosexual relationship. Given this historical dimension to gay relationships, it's not hard to see Robin as Batman's catamite. Wertham missed the point, however. Robin, like most of the teen sidekicks, was probably included as a deliberate attempt to appeal to teenage and younger readers. Batman himself was an ersatz father figure, although removed from the censorious, supervisory role of real fathers. The relationship between Batman and Robin was probably intended, if anything, to be an idealised father-son relationship rather than anything that would give the Lord Chamberlain a heart attack or frighten the horses. Robin was, like Batman himself, an orphan and so the Caped Crusader was indeed acting in loco parentis, as a surrogate father. Wertham's jaundiced gaze was not confined to Gotham's Dark Knight, however: he hated all of the superheroes. Wonder Woman, of course, was a lesbian feminist dominatrix into bondage, and Aquaman, of course, represented aquatic sexual fantasies. Superman escaped accusations of sexual deviancy only to be denounced as a Nazi because of the origin of the character's name in Nietzschean philosophy.
   Although now the subject of some decidedly postmodern laughs in comic fandom, Wertham's accusations did have an effect at the time, and were taken extremely seriously. They led to the virtual decimation of the comics industry in the late 1950s and 1960s as worried parents refused to allow their children access to such deviant and corrupting influences, or else demanded their complete ban. The accusations of homosexuality have been particularly damaging. It is possible to see something narcissistic, even homoerotic in the hyper-masculinity and bare male flesh of some of the space hero comic strips of the 1950s, particularly as several had links with bodybuilding organizations. Thor Steel: Chief of the Interplanetary Police was a staple of the 1950s' British Super Sonic Comic, published by Sports Cartoons, a division of the Body Sculpture Club of Worcester Park. When Marshal Law lifted his ugly, fetishistic head in the late 1980s, the comic strip's creators, Mills and O'Neill, explicitly included a homosexual undercurrent to many of the characters as part of their bile directed against the industry. Outside the bitter cynicism of Marshal Law, DC were still very wary about accusations of homosexuality regarding Robin when they decided to reintroduce the character into the Batman comic at about the same time. Robin, they announced, was not in love with Batman. He just thought he was the greatest hero of all time. To many people, this amounted to the same thing. Robin, however, singularly failed to inspire any popularity among the readership, and the character was eventually dropped. In attempting to revive the character, DC had mistaken the mood of their audience. Most of the comic's juvenile readers identified with and wanted to be Batman himself, rather than Robin, who was more likely to be viewed as an irritating and unnecessary encumbrance rather than role model. And role models are, after all, what superheroes are, first and foremost: attempts to provide ersatz father figures of glamorous masculinity with whom children can identify. Their perfect physique is in line, and of a type with the general pursuit of physical beauty in much escapist fiction generally. Most people want to be good-looking, and boys especially are required to be strong and athletic. The superhero comic strips merely reflect these desires.
Batman - uninvited guest, Detective Comics #475, Feb 1979 lover goodbye? - death of Robin, in Batman #428 (writer: Jim Starlin) DC Comics, 1988
The heightened tension over the perceived corrupting influences in superhero comics was part of a wider moral panic concerning comics in general, and the horror comics in particular. EC was particularly vulnerable to these accusations as, with the exception of Mad, much of its stable was horror titles like Tales From The Crypt and Vault Of Horror, while its straightforward science fiction did come dangerously near to the taboo, with an explicit treatment of sexuality. In one story, a woman marries a man only to shoot him dead after seeing him naked on their wedding night. Why? Because he didn't have a navel, thus indicating he was a reptile. While the comic strip preserved propriety in having the couple married before going to bed, the sexual theme is explicit and part of the horror. Another tale was a metaphor for racial inter-marriage; again largely taboo at the time it was written. In this tale Earth was importing large numbers of humanoid alien creatures called Ganymedes for degrading, menial labour. These creatures were profusely covered in body hair, but could pass for humans if they shaved it off, in the same way that light-skinned Blacks could 'pass' for Whites. A woman has a relationship with such a shaved Ganymede before she discovers his secret. She does not reject him, however, but is determined to stick by him, even requesting him to make a statement about his identity and grow his hair back. Depiction of interracial relationships in comics was strongly forbidden, and there could be considerable pressure on comic creators to exclude Black characters entirely, or present them as White. Joe Robertson, one of the characters in Marvel/Timely's Sergeant Fury commando comic strip, was given a White colouring, even though his features were definitely 'Black'. Comics did, however, in their way attempt to preach interracial toleration largely by using similar metaphors to the above: in one Superman story, the Man of Steel is called upon to stop the persecution of a Scandinavian blonde by the people of Smallville. While it's unlikely that northern Europeans have ever seen much racial prejudice, read in more general terms about the racial tensions in segregation America it does make a valid, if necessarily veiled point. EC's more explicit treatment of racial and sexual issues no doubt contributed to the publisher's eventual collapse, though not all the sexuality in the comics was quite so benign. There have been allegations that some of the material published under the EC imprint was explicitly sadistic and misogynist, including an SF tale in which one of the female characters has her vagina sewn up. In the comics' world, it's often difficult to tell truth from rumour, and although it sounds unlikely some of the material in the EC horror stable was quite nasty. The comic that finally brought the industry down, and provoked questions in the Houses of Parliament, was EC's Foul Play, in which a cheating baseball player is dismembered and his body parts used as sporting equipment by his dead teammates. Given the extreme content of such comic strips, it's not surprising that such concerns arose, or that in the paranoid climate of the time they should expand to cover the entire industry.
   The result of this was the establishment of the Comics Code, designed to reassure parents that the comics under its supervision were suitable for a child of seven. Most comics were, however, written for older children, mainly adolescents around 14-years-old. Romance was a part of this, though often with a touch of naïve innocence or saccharine sentimentality. Robin, for example, was not particularly fond of Batgirl, because she insisted on kissing him and making him blush. The Code's stringent provisions outlawed nudity, frank discussion of sexuality and most linguistic expressions of profanity, even to the point of banning the word 'flick' in case the ink ran to spell an entirely different four letter word. As time went on, however, the Code's rules became slightly less rigorous and society generally became more permissive. There were also liberalising forces counterbalancing the repressive tendencies introduced by the scare.
   One of these was the growth in the 1960s and 1970s of a large comic fandom and the development of an underground comics scene linked to the counterculture. While most of these had little direct science fictional material, largely featuring instead the adventures of strange hippy types looking for easy sex and plentiful booze and drugs, like the Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers, they did demonstrate a demand for comics with a more adult orientation. The result of this on the SF scene was the hugely influential French comic, Metal Hurlant. Created in 1975 by Bernard Farkas, Jean-Pierre Dionnet, Jean 'Moebius' Giraud and Philippe Druillet, Metal Hurlant led the way in creating adult-orientated SF comics. Initially this expressed itself in an American version, Heavy Metal, which introduced - amongst others - the superb illustrative skills of Roger Corben. The French publishing industry generally permits a far more explicit treatment of sexuality than is possible in the Anglo-Saxon world, and many continental science fiction comics do include graphic sex and nudity amongst their contents. Moebius' The Inkal, for example, published in the 1980s, contained blatantly erotic scenes, which were largely unacceptable in contemporary American and British comics.
   Although not nearly as permissive as the French, British comics were rather more liberal than their American counterparts, often to their creators' surprise. Unlike America, Britain did not have a Comics Code authority, and so otherwise risqué material could get through. For example, the nipples of a female character can clearly be seen beneath her tight-fighting costume in the 1953 Captain Future comic strip. While this is in itself ridiculously trivial, hints of nipples on both men and women were one of the biological details prohibited under the Comics Code, and which resulted in the so-called 'Great Nipple Famine of 1968' when every character in official comicdom appeared minus their papillae. Later in the 1970s an early 2000 AD script featured a scene set in an alien carnival. The illustrator, Jesus Redondo, drawing presumably on his own experience of Latin festivities, included in the scene a topless woman. To the editor's surprise, this got through the publishers' moral guardians and passed uncensored.
   Elsewhere in America there were attempts to produce more adult comics like Heavy Metal by the mainstream comics industry. These failed, not because of censorship, but because faced with the freedom to pursue more mature issues, the comics' creators, in their publishers' view, carried on producing the same kind of comic strips they did anyway, with the exception that the women by and large wore fewer clothes. Most of the books produced folded, though the envelope by then had been pushed so far that cracks were certainly appearing. It was in the next decade, the 1980s, that comics would finally permit the explicit handling of material which 30 years previously would have been unthinkable or illegal.
Tales From The Crypt, EC Comics Disney Comics, June 1948, published by Dell. Cover art (uncredited) by Floyd Gottfredson Superman #30, Sept-Oct 1944, DC Comics (Superman, Lois Lane and Clark Kent - the first schizoid love triangle?) Camelot 3000, DC Comics even Swampy had a girlfriend! - detail from cover of Swamp Thing #34, writer: Alan Moore, art: Steve Bissette & John Totleben (DC Comics, March 1985)
The first of these taboos to be challenged was, obviously, nudity. With the establishment of DC's Piranha Press and Marvel's Epic Illustrated as conscious attempts by the two giants to cater for the adult market, came an increasingly frank depiction of the human body. Characters, particularly if they were female, were shown nude. Camelot 3000, a science fictional treatment of the Arthurian myth in which Arthur and his knights are reincarnated to fight alien invaders, included a scene in which Guinevere is naturally discovered naked about to have sex with Lancelot. This tolerance towards nudity extended downwards towards the more mainstream, 'juvenile' end of the market. Merlin was shown bathing with his daughter Roma in the Captain Britain comic strip, although the water covered everything bar their heads and shoulders. Lovers or couples were, however, shown showering together in a Judge Dredd story as part of a Justice Department health campaign to give the population immunity against a rampant fungus then attacking the population in the aftermath of the Apocalypse War. One of the occult strips in the Marvel monthly anthology magazines then being published in the UK featured a tale of two sisters, possessed of occult powers, who performed their unhallowed rites naked. Full frontal nudity was, as a whole, eschewed. While the publishing rules permitted bare breasts in adult comics like Six From Sirius, the genital areas were still covered or otherwise obscured. Most nude scenes were drawn from the back and sides, or else, in the case of the Slaine comic strip, wherein nude female druids were shown sacrificing the Fomorian villains, in deep shadow to preserve some modesty.
   This was accompanied by a far more explicit depiction of the sexual act itself. Previous comic strips had hinted that the characters had, or were about to have sex, such as in a 1970s X-Men story in which Jean Grey, Phoenix, took off Cyclops' ruby glasses preparatory to a reclining clinch. The comics could also bowdlerise traditional erotic material to suggest a close romantic association between the characters without them having sex. For example, in one Dr Strange story, Marvel's resident occultist was shown flying fully clothed across the astral planes with Thea in what was described as a Tantric exercise. Tantrism is a form of Hindu and Buddhist mysticism stressing the union of Shiva and Shakti, in which sex plays an important part. Much Tantric iconography is explicitly sexual, showing the gods in erotic embrace. The rather more modest exercise Strange performed with Thea suggested that their relationship was far deeper than one of master and acolyte while nullifying the defining sexuality of the ritual. As the decade wore on, sex was treated far more graphically. At first this was in the adult and underground comics, such as Heavy Metal, and Quality Communications' Laser Eraser And Pressbutton comic strip, a spin-off from the defunct British magazine, Warrior. Warrior had shown Miracleman's wife walking naked about their bedroom after a night of passion with her husband, and the later Laser Eraser similarly did not shy from sexuality. One of the backup comic strips, set in a future intergalactic matriarchy, showed a female protagonist in bed making love to passive, male sex object, in a way which would have made the Victorian Spectator critic spit teeth. At the same time, Slaine included a scene in which the Celtic hero made love to Niamh, the young wife of Slaine's ageing king. The comic also showed Niamh in the travails of childbirth, bearing the hero's son, Kai.
   Nor did comics stop at exploring heterosexual relationships. Homosexuality and lesbianism similarly supplied the subtext for a number of strips. Laser Eraser was shown giving a very warm greeting, albeit clothed, to a former gay lover who tells her that she is now married to a 14-year-old 'minx'; the graphic novel Arkham Asylum explored the undercurrents of sadomasochism and repressed homosexuality in the character of Batman, and his relationship with Robin, a development which no doubt would have simultaneously delighted and appalled Wertham. DC's Sandman covered stories featuring rent boys and male prostitution, a serial killer called 'the Connoisseur' who only murdered pre-operative transsexuals, with an image of an androgynous male figure lying dead, sprawled across the sheets of a darkened room, and the gay landlord of a boarding house, for example. The sexuality of this particular character was made even more ambiguous in his membership of a transvestite revue show, to the point where the character would occasionally appear in drag after a performance. That particular story, A Doll's House, ended with the eventual abandonment of the boarding house after the inmates' dreams began to coalesce in a manner reminiscent of Emma Tennant's novel, The White Hotel. At the end of the story, the landlord leaves to seek a former lover, and the two are shown kissing. The publishers of the comic book adaptation of the Clive Barker short story, In The Hills, The Cities went one step further: they showed the two male gay protagonists actively making love.
   In all of this, comics did observe some proprieties. Couples were rarely shown completely naked in the throes of passion. They were either shown in bed, or else the panel was drawn to show only their head and shoulders. Niamh was shown fully clothed during labour with close-ups on her head and face, so that there was very little of any obstetrical interest. The scene of gay sex followed these conventions too, despite the previously taboo nature of the material: the panel simply showed another enraptured male face behind the naked head and shoulders of his prone lover. It was a discrete, subtle treatment of a controversial subject. At the time, homosexual sex was banned on British television, although explicitly gay characters were permitted and dramas, such as the controversial Portrait Of A Marriage, about Vita Sackville-West, had shown lesbian sex. Issues of the increasing sexual content of many comics, and the graphic treatment of alternative sexualities, were the subjects of intense controversy, particularly in America. One adult comic folded after retailers in the Midwest refused to stock it because of the lesbian overtones in the relationship between the two heroines. Swamp Thing too was the target of a similar campaign by the 'Moral Majority' because of its supposed bestiality in a story in which the Swamp Thing makes love to his human wife/girlfriend. Despite this, the treatment of sex has become even more explicit. Couples' whole bodies are now shown together naked while having sex, without restrictions to head and shoulders shots, or the preservation of modesty by a few intervening sheets. The aptly entitled Wet Dreams by the continental artist Carizzi, containing three SF/fantasy stories explicitly, if not graphically, displays the characters' sexuality. There's a similar album of horror art by the veteran comic artist John Bolton. An exploration of mostly predatory female sexuality, the book contains full frontal nudity and scenes of lesbianism and carnage - one naked woman is seen crouched on her bloodied bed over the decapitated corpse of her female lover - in a way which would have been unthinkable 20 or 30 years ago. As for costumes, aggressive, predatory female characters such as the vampire Avengelyne now wear much less than the galactic bikini babes of mid-century. Like the fantasy women of Boris Vallejo, she seems to go through life, or rather un-death, wearing only a few pieces of jewellery, a sword, and strategically placed strands of long hair.
   This sexual freedom and frankness is now not nearly so controversial as it once was, and although the nudity and sexual content are clearly not acceptable to everyone, there doesn't seem to be quite the same vocal opposition to the inclusion of such material in comics. The Comics Code has collapsed, and creators now have much more freedom over the sexual content of their books. Despite this, the division between mainstream and adult comics seems to have persisted, at least in the Bristol branch of the Forbidden Planet merchandising chain. The comics section there has a sharp, though not always clear division between the two categories, with the latter gradually edging onto the space reserved for the fetish magazines. The dichotomy is not distinct - the section on graphic novels obviously includes both mainstream and more mature books, but it persists nevertheless. This may be possibly less due to political pressure from pro-censorship groups, such as the Organization of Senators' Wives, who went around slapping labels warning about offensive lyrics on record sleeves, as to purely commercial pressures. After the boom years of the mid-1980s, during which the demand for grim 'n' gritty material was at its height, the comics industry went into a long, slow demand until it seemed by the early 1990s that the industry would not survive. This was partly due to the problem faced by all iconoclasts: what do you do after you have pulled down every taboo? Some of the creators felt that the increasingly amoral stance taken by some of the characters had been a blind alley. Although this was mostly about the violence and brutality permeating comics, it also covered some of the issues involving sexuality. There have also been concerns expressed about comics' lack of appeal to younger readers through the concentration on an older readership. One of the first to raise this issue publicly was one of the translators of the Asterix books into English at the UKCAC 90 comic convention. Discussing the then new trend towards mature comics in the Anglophone world, she stated that French comics had experienced a similar phase 10 years previously, but had lost a sizable readership because of it. Children no longer read comics because that was what their parents did. It's a reasonable argument, especially when you consider that the market for jeans, that most indispensable signal of teen cool, declined when they began to be associated with middle-aged fashion victims like Jeremy Clarkson. A number of commentators and comic book creators have also drawn attention to the lack of books suitable for the pre-teen market, and it's true that there have been a dearth of books that would interest junior school children, usually viewed as the traditional backbone of the comics industry. The result has been a return to some of the innocence of previous generations of comic books. The sexually explicit, dark material still persists, but many of the traditional staples of the American comic book industry like the Fantastic Four continue in a narrative style not so dissimilar from that of the early 1980s before the trend towards gritty realism. Meanwhile, the heroes of the Judge Dredd Megazine remain as violently anarchic as ever.
   Possibly as a result of this the industry is recovering to the point where, I hope, we can be optimistic about the industry's future. The problem was not necessarily the inclusion of such explicit material, but the way in which graphic sex and violence often supported weak narratives and clichéd scripts. The Sandman attained its cult status, and in the form of The Dreaming survived the departure of its creator, Neil Gaiman, not just because of its exploration of dark and taboo subjects, but also because it was underpinned by a literate, indeed literary sensibility and a genuine love of storytelling. Conversely, the strictures placed on comics' creators under the Code's direction did act to produce some good storytelling. As the books had to be suitable for a child of seven, the writers and illustrators had to produce writing of quite a high quality, and subtlety, to maintain the interest of both the preteens and their mature fans. It's often the case that because of the pressures of writing for children, children's literature is often better-written, and more imaginative, than more explicit, permissive adult literature. The concentration on darkness, and disturbing sexuality, such as child abuse, overshadowed the traditional super-heroic tropes of nobility and heroism, and drove away that section of the readership seeking the type of innocent entertainment that first drew them to the comics.
   People should, however, be allowed to choose the type of material they wish to read, and while the content of many comics may still cause concern, people should still have the option of whether or not they want to read it. The return to a more traditional narrative content for many comics does, however, bode well for the future. Comics shouldn't be the sole preserve of jaded, cynical twenty-somethings, and above. Now, faced with a televisual diet of increasing banality, more than ever, children as well as adults need an element of innocent escapism to feed their imaginations. Comics seem set to return to doing just that.

[Editor's note: many thanks to Steven Hampton and Jeff Young for picture research]
Related pages
tZ  Phantasms & Magics: Witchcraft and the Occult in SF Comics
tZ  Mutants Season: Mutants in SF and Comics
tZ  The Peculiar Genius of Alan Moore - author profile
tZ  Heavy Metal - review of the animated film

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