You are on page 1of 18

‘‘He’s Gotta Be Strong, and He’s Gotta Be

Fast, and He’s Gotta Be Larger Than Life’’:

Investigating the Engendered
Superhero Body


theoretical interest surrounding the lived body and pop-
ular representations of the body. Examples include em-
bodied phenomenology (developed from the writings of Marcel
Merleau-Ponty), Foucault’s work on sexuality and institutions, and a
renewed investment in cognitive studies. Adopting Spinoza’s rejection
of the Cartesian cogito (which implicitly divides the subject into mind
and body), contemporary theorists are beginning to embrace a much
more corporeal worldview. The shift of critical foci away from dichot-
omous conceptualizations of the human subject is not a return to
biological determinism. It is a recognition that the subject and his/her
corporeality are not mutually exclusive. One’s somatic existence is not
distinct from one’s psychic existence. Body is no longer that which is
not mind—a mere vessel that houses the brain. Furthermore, the latter
is no longer privileged over the former. Physicality is not base un-
ruliness in need of discipline from a transcendent intelligence; the two
are integral to lived experience and work in tandem. The relocation of
critical attention to issues of corporeality is a major shift for Grand
Theory and signifies an abandonment of archaic epistemologies that do
not credit the inescapable fleshiness of the human subject.
In particular, cultural studies have invested in the corporeal approach
to examining popular representations of the body. A consideration of

The Journal of Popular Culture, Vol. 40, No. 2, 2007

r 2007, Copyright the Authors
Journal compilation r 2007, Blackwell Publishing, Inc.

Investigating the Engendered Superhero Body 345

popular body politics means investigating the myths, ideologies, and

pathologies of the represented body. Proponents of said ‘‘body theory’’
maintain that, ‘‘in the face of social constructionism, the body’s tan-
gibility . . . may be invoked; but in opposition to essentialism, biol-
ogism, and naturalism, it is the body as cultural product that must be
stressed’’ (Grosz 23 – 24, italics mine). I am obviously more than an
animated mass of cells; I am historically, culturally, and socio-polit-
ically specific. My body is contextual. Moreover, citing the Spinozist
account of the body, it is not a stable, definitively knowable physicality,
but a process. According to Moira Gatens, ‘‘its meaning and capacities
will vary according to its context. We do not know the limits of this
body or the powers that it is capable of attaining. These limits and
capacities can only be revealed in the ongoing interactions of the body
and its environment’’ (69). It is from the position of conceiving of the
body as a cultural product and self-constituting process that I would
like to examine the popular representation of a very peculiar physi-
cality: the comic book superhero. Here is a culturally produced body
that could potentially defy all traditional and normalizing readings.
These are bodies beyond limits—perhaps without limits.
Ironically, these peculiar anatomies are often ostensibly contained
within a very traditional dualism. If ‘‘the body is both the personal and
social symbol of our identity, as well as the means whereby that iden-
tity is constituted’’ (Dutton 12), then superhero identities are con-
structed along very gendered lines. Superbodies have always been well
sexed, in both senses of the word. Since their artistic conception in
North America with Superman in 1938, not only have their creators
visually emphasized both their musculature and gender differences, but
super-sexuality has been carefully constructed according to highly vis-
ible binaries. In fact, such anatomical exaggeration and emphasis on
physical sexuality provoked public outcry and industry self-censorship
in the 1950s as a result.
While there has been some noise from concerned parent groups,
superhero comics continue to capitalize on the eroticization of the body
and increasingly violent sexuality. The superbody currently functions
quite near to a pornographic polemic. Interestingly, both the female
and male comic figure continue to be a site of spectacle, if not outright
fetishism. ‘‘Male characters, with their pin-heads and boulder-muscles
and steroid-veins [are] drawn with a deadly earnestness, and with none
of the charm of caricature. Females, perpetually bending over, arching
346 Aaron Taylor

their backs, and heaving their anti-gravity breasts into readers’ faces,
defy all the laws of physics’’ ( Jones and Jacobs 340). Though read-
ership continues to be dominated by adolescent, heterosexual males, I
would argue that the explicit eroticism in both superhero and super-
heroine points to a potential bisexual reader subjectivity. Certainly, I do
not mean to impose an ahistorical comic reading experience, as popular
representations of sexuality and physicality continually change. How-
ever, the contemporary return of the repressed superbody may shake up
the dominant, moralistic discourses by which it has been surrounded
since Frederic Wertham’s condemnatory study, Seduction of the Innocent,
published in 1954.
I would argue that the superbody constitutes a polymorphous sexu-
ality, or at least a sexuality that dualistic logic cannot constrain. The
categorical fluidity of the superbody and the irresolute subjectivity of
the reading subject disrupt conventional categories of ‘‘man’’ and
‘‘woman.’’ What may be emerging is the ultimate androgyny of the
superbody. Superhero comics continue to be marketed according to
‘‘the old, old moulds, in which women are wenches, bitches, or weepy
blond recreation equipment’’ (Wood 18), and men’s musculature
reaches Schwarzeneggerian proportions. Commercial success is still
measured by the numbers attracted to the hard bodies in tight spandex.
And yet, the sheer otherness of the superbody—its strange powers, its
anatomical exaggerations, its continual reconceptualizations—should
render these antiquated strategies obsolete. The subversive potential of
the popular superbody to undermine the culturally enforced, dualistic
engenderment of the body is great. Whether comic artists and their
publishers can cultivate such subversion is anyone’s guess. As comics
remain largely ghettoised in North America after almost a century—
popularly regarded as infantile subliterature—their ability to impress
upon cultural norms remains quite limited. More likely, their cre-
ations’ bodies are destined to labor under the hegemonic cycle of re-
pression and exploitation.
In order to explore the representations of engendered superbodies,
I will refer to two popular contemporary superhero texts which feature
the same characters, but whose representations of these characters are
drastically different: JLA: New World Order and Kingdom Come. Their
subject matter is ostensibly the same (both feature DC’s sacrosanct
Justice League of America) and the two texts were produced within a
year of each other. However, their stylistic and thematic approaches are
Investigating the Engendered Superhero Body 347

utterly polarized. The former represents the nostalgic playfulness of the

superhero comics of old, while the latter continues the induction of a
gritty realism—which began in the 1980s with Batman: The Dark
Knight Returns and Watchmen—into the genre. Both texts allow for
perturbations of familiar, if not iconic, physicalities and gendered
subject positions.
JLA: New World Order and Kingdom Come, while not quite revisionist
texts, are still committed to reinterpreting old fan favorites. In JLA,
the ‘‘classic’’ Justice League is reintroduced to replace its rather in-
competent successors. Renowned for the wild physical alterations he
visits on established DC heroes, writer Grant Morrison oddly seems to
employ a conventional approach to JLA. Conversely, Kingdom Come
reworks the bodies of the DC heroes, almost to a state of unrecognition
(evidenced by a ‘‘Who’s Who’’ key later provided in the trade magazine
Wizard for the purposes of assisting readers in identifying their much-
altered heroes). The first text is confident in the bodies of its heroes;
however, the title of the comic takes on an ominous tone when the
heroes decide to remove themselves from Earth to a satellite head-
quarters at the end of the narrative. Will their ‘‘New World Order’’
emulate the supremacist and interventionist policies of certain gov-
ernment administrations? Alternatively, in Kingdom Come, the surviv-
ing heroes abandon their traditional roles in the end, reintegrating
their bodies with the world. Superman takes up an enormous plow-
share, and we see a change in the utility of the superbody: a com-
mitment to rebuilding rather than destruction. While Kingdom Come
seems the more superficially progressive of the two titles, close readings
of both texts may reveal that the gender of the superbodies contained
therein are not as polarized as they may appear.
Although superhero comics are still typically associated with an ad-
olescent audience by the general populace, these texts contain some of
the most complex representations of the body to be found anywhere.
Even a cursory glance through a typical title should lead the reader to
recognize the strange otherness of the bodies represented by these funny
books. The superhero comic is a literature that represents a site of
departure for typical ways of thinking about and categorizing the body.
Like other ‘‘adolescent’’ fantastic popular genres (including science fic-
tion, horror, and fantasy) and media (cartoons, video games) uncon-
strained by verisimilitude, the bodies represented in superhero comics
are malleable, plastic, and subject to all kinds of wild reconfigurations
348 Aaron Taylor

and metamorphoses. Flipping through any superhero comic, one can

find bodies that are invulnerable to harm, bodies that are capable of
impossible displays of athleticism and supernatural power, and bodies
that do not age according to conventional standards of time.
Reading the superbody is in many ways an attempt to understand a
physiognomy that continually collapses and reforms itself from panel to
panel, comic to comic, reader to reader. To a certain extent, the medium
itself is conducive to unstable corporeal identities, which can be ex-
tended to the instability of gender construction and reinforcement. Al-
terations to each model of the superbody are achieved through a triadic
relationship between form, fanship, and history. These three categories do
not function in isolation, but are interdependent and inform the varying
strategies by which the bodies of superheroes are produced and received.
Nonetheless, each category deserves a brief, separate elaboration.
While comic form mainly affects the spatial and temporal frame-
work of the narrative, it has a marginal effect on the bodies of the
protagonists that deserves mention. A comic’s sequentiality is meto-
nymical, consisting of interrelated panels depicting isolated, static
moments that must stand in for an entire series of actions. Bodies are
always-already literally objectified by these conditions, represented as
dynamic statues that are only ‘‘activated’’ virtually by the imaginative
eye of the reader. These sculpted figures frozen in impossible time are
only privileged with a modicum of individuality: glimmerings of
character subjectivity are introduced through semiotic insertions in the
form of speech balloons.
Moreover, the fragmentation of the narrative caused by paneling
dictates an equally splintered physicality. Heroes and villains alike are
chopped up by the borders of the panels, their anatomy dissected and
spread across the page. Totalities are rare. When full body shots occur,
they glorify the reassembled body of the character in a magnificent, full
page spread. Such formal strategies of dismemberment seem to resist
organic and holistic conceptions of bodies and identities. Is it any
coincidence that so many superheroes are characterized by a split iden-
tity, one that operates according to the logic of a gendered binary?
Coupled with its objectification by the stasis of the panels, the frac-
tioned, passive superbody is ripe for a multitude of reconfigurations.
Naturally, such reassemblage can also extend to its gender.
Comic book form presents a unique challenge to the reader, who is
not necessarily a passive subject. Her project is not always a projection
Investigating the Engendered Superhero Body 349

of herself into the guise of the superhero through psychological iden-

tification matrices. According to the good Dr. Wertham, ‘‘the stories
instil a wish to be a superman, the advertisements [‘From a SKINNY
WEAKLING to a MIGHTY MAN in just 10 minutes a day!’] promise
to supply the means for becoming one’’ (217). In a welcome change
from popular notions of the superhero comic books as adolescent power
fantasies, the occasional critic cites alternative purposes to reading
comics beyond the level of psychological identification. For example:
‘‘It can be demonstrated that the heroes of the adventure comics are not
characters . . . They are equipped with only a bare minimum of psy-
chological particularity. Evidently the comics’ aim is not to bring about
identification of the reader with the hero’’ (Faust and Shuman 200).
Even the mighty Superman is, ‘‘despite his awesome powers, rather
ordinary’’ (Berger 151).
Such ordinariness does not necessitate personality displacement and
appropriation by a glossy-eyed fanboy. Instead, fans are active partic-
ipants in constructing the superhero body, both phenomenologically
(through the reading process) and literally (through fan forums, letter
pages, and conventions). In reading the superhero comic, s/he is en-
gaged in the reassemblage of the fractured, objectified body mentioned
above—reunifying the panels (and the bodies) into their personal to-
talities. Reunification will be particularly subjective as the reading
subject will imaginatively interact with comic corporeality according
to the subject’s relation to her own body schema: ‘‘the field in which
the subject’s cohesion and identity as a subject and its intimate in-
carnation in and as a particular body take place’’ (Grosz 95). Simply
put, gendered reading subjects will read these gendered bodies ac-
cording to their own material identity.
On a more empirical level, reading subjects also enjoy a unique
authorial status as fans: ‘‘the audience takes an active role in the dir-
ection and maintenance of the product. Through the letter pages and
fan-produced magazines, the fan is in a position to determine the
direction of plot and who will write or draw specific titles’’ (Murphy
and Tankel 62). Their authorial power should not be underestimated,
as evidenced by the ‘‘Death of Robin’’ fiasco of 1988. The results of a
vote conducted through 1 – 900 telephone numbers (5,343 for, 5,271
against) led to the new Robin’s demise in Batman #427 (Cotta Vaz
196). In a profit-driven industry, fans ultimately decide the look of
superbodies, and when one considers that 91.5% of the superhero
350 Aaron Taylor

audience consists of white, middle class, adolescent males (Murphy and

Tankel 60), it is not difficult to deduce why heroines often appear like
inflatable dolls in a hormonal playground.
While teenage fans age and inevitably outgrow such hormonally
driven taste (one hopes), superheroes are more-or-less immune to his-
tory. Time rarely invades these narratives, and so the perkiness of these
bodies is generally kept in a state of late-twentysomething suspended
animation. Profit is largely the reason that temporalities are absent
from these narratives. Publishers cannot (permanently) kill off their
means of securing capital, so ‘‘the pressure to produce means that comic
book heroes must have eternal life and eternal youth and that basically
unchanging situations must appear in endless modification’’ (Faust and
Shuman 196). Economics therefore denies any ‘‘definitive’’ take on a
hero. For example, ‘‘unlike some fictional characters the Batman has no
primary urtext set in a specific period, but has rather existed in a
plethora of equally valid texts constantly appearing for more than five
decades. This has freed him from temporal specificity. The Batman
remains untouched by the ravages of time’’ (Pearson and Uricchio 185).
‘‘Realism’’ in comics inevitably means the introduction of ‘‘real time.’’
If the bodies represented in JLA are just part of DC’s buff, beautiful,
and ageless body ethic, Kingdom Come features aging, and therefore,
fallible bodies. The gray hairs, occasional potbelly, and (rare) drooping
bosoms in Kingdom Come are indicative of a new vulnerability. Most
tellingly, the wrinkled countenance of Power Girl (a former Justice
Society of America bombshell) proves that not every Beauty Queen
lasts forever.
Time mainly impinges on the superhero comic at the level of ma-
terial praxes. Historically contingent art styles and body ideals will
play a major role in determining the body of the superhero. As bodies
are contextual and different times will obviously call for different he-
roes, each decade will receive a unique artistic incarnation of the same
figure. In JLA, the relatively clean lines and kaleidoscopic palette are
typical of a relatively new retroactive aesthetic that represents an at-
tempt to restore the verve and fun of the early Silver Age. Ross’s
watercolors in Kingdom Come recall the aesthetics of the 1980s, when
painted comics gained prominence and grittiness and moral grays were
generally all the rage. Positing a generalizing aesthetic based on the
cultural and social climate of its moment is problematic, especially
within the broad graphic dynamic of comics, but it is still tempting to
Investigating the Engendered Superhero Body 351

do so. Bodies certainly take on new meanings according to their new

illustrative designs, but one must be cautious of essentialist historical
The continual changes in bodily representations should instead be
related to the historical mutability of body ideals. Artist Wayne Bor-
ing, for example, is credited for devising the model of Superman,
whose ‘‘granite features and muscled body’’ typifies an idealized post-
war masculinity and is the paradigm ‘‘on which today’s Man of Steel is
based’’ (Sassiene 23). One need only chart the aesthetic development
of Wonder Woman from 1940s cheesecake wholesomeness to the
va-va-voom of 1990s ‘‘Good Girl Art’’ to illustrate the changing
(patriarchal and andocentric) ideals of femininity. Superheroes are the
ultimate paragons for the late twentieth-century cult of fitness. Their
ultra-hard bodies, muscled beyond all hope of anatomical verisimili-
tude, enact wild displays of impossible physical prowess. Batman, the
self-made hero, is an early prototype. Way back in Batman #1, he
‘‘trains his body to physical perfection until he is able to perform
amazing athletic feats’’ (Finger and Kane 2). But Bob Kane’s Bruce
Wayne, who hefts a barbell above his head with one hand in panel five,
is a pantywaist compared with Howard Porter’s Batman, whose biceps
are bigger than his head in JLA. Granted, most of the charm of
the superheroes is in their spectacular physicality, but their colossal
anatomies are moving toward unconscious self-parody.
By the 1990s then, when cultural pressure on the individual to
achieve the elusive, idealized physical fitness is at its most pronounced,
the comics announce a schism. Perhaps as a reaction to the fitness craze,
a dualistic superhero body emerges. On the one hand, there are the
bodies typified in JLA: chiselled brutes and buxom babes in vibrant
motion; on the other are the passive, contemplative bodies in Kingdom
Come, preferring discourse to action and looking the worse for wear
(issue three transpires with nary a fight scene to be seen). The latter is
surprisingly tolerant of a variety of body types, strikingly evidenced by
the aged and corpulent bodies of the formerly svelte Lex Luthor and the
previously pin-uppable Black Canary. An expansion in the range of
‘‘acceptable’’ bodies may be normalized under the auspices of Kingdom’s
realism, but the ‘‘softening’’ of the superbody may indicate the arrival
of a new corporeal subjectivity.
Morrison himself posits a theory in an issue of his zany tribute to
superheroes, Flex Mentallo:
352 Aaron Taylor

It was all pretty simple in the 30’s and 40’s—musclemen in cos-

tumes, idealized masculine figures. The Charles Atlas hard body.
Homoerotic wish fulfilment . . . Then came the Silver Age, when
superheroes were reinvented and that’s when it started to go a bit
weird . . . Strange transformations, multiple realities, dreams, hoaxes
. . . It was like the hard body began to turn soft, the masculine
heroes becoming fluid and feminine, always changing shape . . .
The comic writers intuited the social transformation in their work.
(Flex 2.16)

The paradigm shift suggested by Morrison—hard to soft, masculine to

feminine—can be integrated into the body politics of comics in the
1990s as a perpetually unstable polarity. JLA and Kingdom Come may
not be at opposing ends of a body polemic. According to Donna
Haraway, ‘‘there is nothing about being ‘female’ that naturally binds
women. There is not even such a state as ‘being’ female, itself a highly
complex category constructed in contested sexual scientific discourses
and other social practices’’ (155). Giving credence to the radical, post-
structuralist implication of Haraway’s feminist theory means that
within every construction of a particular gender may lie the seeds of its
Other. Stable boundaries of sexualized identities are always-already
Comics are certainly not exempt from the collapse of binaries. The
transition from the masculine to the feminine body that Morrison
indicates is not necessarily a product of the late 1950s; in fact, it may
not be a transition at all. Within the exclusionary codes of a Western
masculinity, it is possible to tease out a repressed opposition. Women’s
bodies are not the only objectified physiques. In fact, ‘‘the male super-
heroes embody a correspondingly exaggerated and kinky form of
macho sex appeal, which puts them, in the fetish stakes, on a par with
many of the superheroines’’ (Reynolds 81). Their glistening muscu-
lature, their glorious, anguished contortions, their endless posing—
these are preening bodybuilders in capes and spandex. Comic mach-
ismo is undermined upon recognizing that, like bodybuilding, it is a
form of spectacle, and like the participants in the sport (or should I say
exhibition?), the superhero’s ‘‘performance lies in being looked at,
ogled, appraised . . . It’s a reversal of sex roles, with the [hero] taking a
traditionally female role: body as object’’ (Fussell 44).
Another anatomical inexactitude further undermines the virility of
the male superheroes. ‘‘Super-heroes . . . seem to have absolutely nothing
Investigating the Engendered Superhero Body 353

underneath their tight fitting tights; they all appear to be androgynous

beings—hermaphrodites who lack the primary sexual organs’’ (Reit-
berger and Fuchs 120). Although the rippling physiques represent an
absurdly exaggerated ideal of Western anatomical perfection, they are
underwritten in ‘‘a sterile, ‘clean’ world . . . in which all the heroes are
. . . androgynes’’ (Reitberger and Fuchs 122). In a fictional universe in
which any part of the anatomy has the potential to be super-powered,
the superpenis is still strictly taboo.
Conversely, and unsurprisingly, artists are adamant about containing
women’s gender within highly sexed bodies. Consider the wisdom of
Bart Sears, pro artist, vis-à-vis drawing women: ‘‘You have to be careful
not to draw them bloopy or dumpy, but at the same time, if you draw
them too hard and chiselled, they start to look masculine, which is
definitely not good’’ (38). Because the binary logic of a masculinist
Western society has always employed women as a signifier of ‘‘other’’ in
order to define male subjectivity, transgressions that threaten the es-
tablished order are impermissible. Voluptuousness is the standard by
which superheroines are measured and musculature is avoided at all
costs because muscled female bodies ‘‘can drift out of difference, ceasing
to be a radically different female body, into an unsettling sameness, a
body that seems no different from a ‘male’ body’’ (Schulze 78).
Comics’ almost hysterical determination to perpetuate visible sexual
difference indirectly reveals the artificiality of its endeavours. If ‘‘gender
is a construction that regularly conceals its genesis’’ (Butler 405), the
more sexualized the exaggerated female anatomies become, the more the
factitiousness of their origins is revealed. It is possible, then, to speak of
the enforced curvaceousness of the superheroine as ‘‘masquerade’’: ‘‘flaunt-
ing femininity holds it at a distance . . . The masquerade’s resistance to
patriarchal positioning lie[s] in its denial of the production of femininity
as closeness, as presence-to-itself, as, precisely, imagistic’’ (Doane 49,
italics mine). Accoutrements of femininity are put on and rigorously
policed. Nevertheless the undeniable surfeit of ‘‘imagistic’’ engenderment
unconsciously exposes its own patriarchal synthesis and penetrates the
illusion of incommensurable difference. Such deconstruction should not
be construed as anatomical erasure. ‘‘The existence of the material or
natural dimensions of the body are not denied, but reconceived as dis-
tinct from the process by which the body comes to bear cultural mean-
ings’’ (Butler 403). One might say that a superheroine’s femininity is just
as ‘‘put on,’’ and thus, ‘‘revealing’’ as her skimpy costume.
354 Aaron Taylor

Although the anatomical exaggeration of the superheroine can be

discussed as a form of revelatory masquerade, one should not make
the mistake of attempting to graft the corporeal subjectivity of
the female hero onto a male template. In a psychoanalytic mode, per-
haps the absence of the literal phallus in the world of the male superhero
accounts for the relentless struggles for domination of the symbolic one.
Although superheroines are caught up in the same grandiose melodra-
mas of control as their male contemporaries, their participation in the
action does not necessitate a pursuit of the elusive phallus. A super-
heroine is not a superhero with an extreme hormonal imbalance, for ‘‘the
critical suggestion that the action heroine is ‘really a man’ represents an
attempt to secure the logic of a gendered binary in which the terms
‘male’ and ‘masculine’, ‘female’ and ‘feminine’ are locked together’’
(Tasker 132). As in all cases, essentialism must be strictly avoided.
If gender is revealed to be artificial, and the superhero is an an-
drogyne, then it is possible to overwrite the ostensibly strict corporeal
boundaries of the comics. In considering JLA and Kingdom Come, their
contrasting art styles seem to announce an equally appositional ap-
proach to representations of the body. On the surface, the former seems
to perpetuate the singular fetishism of the hero’s body, while the
latter embraces the previously suppressed corporeal heterogeneity of
‘‘realism.’’ However, the differences between the two may only be
Both comics, for example, employ conventional methods of body
framing. Men are privileged with the majority of close-ups, and
although paneling serves to isolate parts of the body from their whole
as mentioned earlier, a close-up of the face has a secondary purpose.
Functioning in the same manner in comics as it often does in classical
film, the facial close-up is usually an invitation into the emotional
interiority of a character. Following the nuclear strike in Kingdom Come,
Superman’s murderous, literally red-eyed rage is depicted in a close-up
(4.31/2), whereas the frame’s perspective usually pulls back to allow for
an extremely embodied articulation of Wonder Woman’s fury (2.21/3).
In fact, in both comics, women are rarely depicted from a perspective
closer than a medium close-up. The general rule of thumb seems to be
that any panel featuring a female character must always depict her from
the bust up.
Interestingly, the absence of close-ups featuring female characters is
compensated for by the abundance of full-page spreads and large panels
Investigating the Engendered Superhero Body 355

whose central subject is the body of the male hero. Porter delights in
drawing the massive bodies of the men in dynamic totality and Ross
elevates his personal favorites, Superman and Captain Marvel, to god-
hood in larger-than-life splash pages. Both artists occasionally reveal a
penchant for uniting the fragmented bodies for the reader in moments
of glorious, hypermasculine spectacle. Thus, the reader is invited to
ogle the bodies of these men in much the same way as the bodies of the
women. In both books, the same three characters receive a dispropor-
tionate amount of ‘‘objectification’’ when compared with other heroes,
and so, it is at this point that I turn to the bodies of Superman, Wonder
Woman, and Batman for a few final observations.
The Superman of JLA has a body that matches the one described by
Camille Paglia: ‘‘very phallic, glossy, gleamingly hard-edged, hyper-
masculine’’ (Kipniss 150). A subtle (and probably unintended) eroti-
cism is evident in Porter’s exhibitionist stylizations—a whiff of sex
that is not lost on many critics. For Mark Kipniss, many of Superman’s
battles are rendered ‘‘in violently homoerotic terms’’ (157). JLA is no
exception: witness the struggle/coupling between the Man of Steel and
the villainous alien Protex on page 84, panel four. In light of Kipniss’
assertions, Protex’s earlier question to his adversary, ‘‘Can you feel me
filling you up?’’ takes on an entirely different level of meaning (79/3).
Kingdom Come also feminizes the ‘‘phallic’’ body of Superman. Ross’
painting softens the hard edges of his body, and his figure takes on
more recognizably ‘‘human’’ proportions. Partly due to Ross’ use of live
models for his work and his ‘‘realist’’ aesthetic, partly due to the nature
of the narrative, the Superman in Kingdom is fallible, rather than phal-
lic. At the story’s end, the restoration of his glasses signifies a return of
the repressed Clark Kent, his long-ignored, effeminate alter ego, and
thus, an emerging femininity. Superman is dead. Long live Superman.
Wonder Woman has had many incarnations: Amazon princess,
fashion designer, Gloria Steinem’s model feminist, among others. A
cursory glance at JLA might confirm the suspicions of many comic
cynics that she has become just one more bubble-breasted supertramp.
Upon closer inspection, one discovers a muscular physique that would
put Demi Moore (ca. G. I. Jane) to shame. Here, her athleticism def-
initely takes precedence over her attractiveness; ‘‘she no longer looks
like a fugitive from Penthouse . . . [but has] a strong, well-defined chin,
and the slim muscular body of an Olympic swimming champion.
William Moulton Marston [her creator] would approve’’ (Robbins
356 Aaron Taylor

188). The disguised Martian women of the Hyperclan also demonstrate

the new primacy of fitness. Primaid has the physical capacity to level
Superman (46/1), and the tone of Tronix’s thighs rivals that of the
Flash. Porter is certainly not afraid of violating the Bart Sears school of
‘‘Good Girl Art.’’ These are very ‘‘masculine’’ women, indeed.
Kingdom Come features a ‘‘masculinized’’ Wonder Woman as well,
but here she is slightly more androgynous then Porter’s version. Her
sexuality is rarely put on display; indeed, she is a much more regal
figure, every inch the Amazonian princess of old. She eschews her
trademark hot pants and two-piece bodysuit for a more chaste costume
design (although her new starred loincloth reveals a rather generous
portion of thigh). As the narrative progresses and she is revealed to be
the avenging eagle that Norman envisions in his first dream, her self-
righteous fury is housed within battle armor that all but negates her
sex. In the comic’s final pages, she is outfitted in crimson ceremonial
garb, her old revealing costume nowhere to be seen. By underplaying
her previous fleshiness, however, Ross pushes her toward an opposing
bodily type, that of transcendence. While Superman has been brought
down to Earth, Diana has been elevated to the mythological status of a
Recalling Donna Haraway’s credo, ‘‘I would rather be a cyborg than
a goddess,’’ Wonder Woman is therefore clearly not the figure to realize
‘‘the utopian dream of a monstrous world without gender’’ (181). Must
we then turn toward the shadow of the Bat? Fear of the unknown has
always been central to the Batman’s mythos. More than any other
superhero, he represents a monstrous other: emotionless, sexless, and
utterly alien. Unlike his rival, ‘‘the Big Blue Schoolboy,’’ he has no
stable Lois Lane to legitimize his sexuality to the raised eyebrows of the
heterosexist Frederic Werthams of the world (recall his public allega-
tions in the mid-1950s that Batman’s relationship with his ward,
Robin, signaled sexual ‘‘deviance’’). Frank Miller, celebrated author of a
few revisionist Batman stories, suggests that the hero’s ‘‘sexual urges are
so sublimated into crime-fighting that there’s no room for any other
emotional activity . . . It’s not because he’s gay, but because he’s bor-
derline pathological’’ (qtd. in Sharrett 38). Batman’s body is attuned to
a private universe where ‘‘sex equals death’’ (37), and where he is
content to drift like a specter. One must acknowledge the vague
maleness of his body, but his constitution is nearly ephemeral, mostly
consisting of shadow.
Investigating the Engendered Superhero Body 357

His costumed body breaks down other binaries as well. Distinctions

between the animal and human are short circuited by his very nomen-
clature. The anthropomorphic evocations of his cape and cowl are rather
disturbing and other aspects of his physiognomy are exaggerated to
emphasize his potential inhumanness. Batman’s eyes lack pupils (no
windows to the soul here) and in JLA, his fingers are sharpened into
points resembling claws (28). Man and machine are mingled within his
personage, as well. Ross’ representation of the Dark Knight in Kingdom
Come further connects him to Haraway’s idealized cyborg. Giant bat-
droids patrol Gotham City, and in the futuristic ‘‘Elseworld’’ of the
narrative, Batman has refined his spandex jumpsuit into elaborate battle
armor. Even out of costume, Bruce Wayne’s body is mechanized, his
neck and arms supported and encased by steel braces: the inevitable
result of years of physical punishment. In Batman, we have the epitome
of the fluid superhero body molded by plastics and steel. Although he is
the most human of the trio narratively speaking (Superman is an alien,
Wonder Woman is a goddess), he is simultaneously the most inhuman
on a corporeal level. Part animal, part machine, Batman’s body edges
toward the literal freakery of his more ‘‘specially abled’’ team mates,
such as Martian Manhunter ( JLA) and Plastic Man (Kingdom Come).
At first glance, superfreaks such as Batman seem to be random
elements whose bodies disrupt the pristine orderliness of the super-
jock’s world, causing their pristine, hard-edged body boundaries to
become fuzzy. They are anomalies in the universe of brawny brutes and
buxom babes. Even these prototypically muscular men and women,
however, are not representatives of a peak athleticism; their hypervir-
ility is excessive and disruptive to the acceptable physiological norm.
Like professional bodybuilders, their physiques are spectacular, nearly
impossible, even a little strange. In fact, ‘‘to this day ‘freaky’ is the
highest compliment one bodybuilder can pay another. But the body-
builder is less in the tradition of circus strong man than the bearded
lady’’ (Fussell 44). Any superfreak could thus feel a certain kinship
with the equally freakish, balloon-muscled supermen and superwomen
populating these comic books.
The remarkable physiques of the superheroes, however, are rarely
represented as the result of self-determination, but materialize through
birth (Aquaman), accidents of science (the Flash), or technological
manipulations (Green Lantern), or may be attributed to their nonhu-
man status (Superman). Yet, they share the same carnal and specular
358 Aaron Taylor

attractiveness of the bodybuilder’s physique. The attraction of such un-

bridled displays of physicality and the positioning of these outrageous
bodies as objects of desire can be conceived of as a strategy of resistance.
Admiration for the excessive body is a refusal to credit the hegemonies
that construct the desirability of ‘‘normal’’ body boundaries, and may
even be a means of empowerment for readers who seek to deny such
normalizing discourses. Muscle-bound heroes and bodybuilders can be
read against the grain as bodies that satirize and critique our contem-
porary culture’s obsession with an ever-changing ideal of ‘‘fitness.’’ In this
sense, they are the reflection of physical perfection in the funhouse mir-
ror, playful distortions of idealized physiques. The progressive superhero
body is a glimpse of manifold corporeal possibilities. Batman is one such
figure who embodies multiple elements of signification: an imaginative
agglomerate of animalism, musculature, and cybernetic transgression.
Superheroes were probably the last thing Haraway had on her mind
while composing her manifesto; however, their polymorphous and an-
drogynous bodies are well suited to her utopian ideals. They are strange
farragoes of science and the arcane, individual will and artistic inven-
tion, subject to authorial whimsy and socio-political inconstancy.
Construing them as being mere brawny, hyperbolic reflections of a
culture obsessed with fitness and the pursuit of idealized body types is
to ignore the ways in which superheroes’ unique physiognomies may be
used to expose and underwrite this mania. Moreover, their corporeal
irresolution encompasses their gender, which denies fixity and exposes
the artificiality of enforced male/female differentiations. Superbodies
continually transform, continually surprise, and are ever vigilant
against the threat of normalizing tyrannies.


I would like to thank Mark Langer at Carleton University for his contributions to the
development of this article.

Works Cited

Berger, Arthur Asa. The Comic Stripped American. New York: Walker
and Company, 1973.
Investigating the Engendered Superhero Body 359

Butler, Judith. ‘‘Performative Acts and Gender Constitution.’’ Writing

on the Body. Eds. K. Medina, N. Conboy, and S. Stanbury. New
York: Columbia UP, 1997. 401 – 17.
Cotta Vaz, Mark. Tales of the Dark Knight: Batman’s First Fifty Years:
1939 – 1989. New York: Ballantine Books, 1989.
Doane, Mary Ann. ‘‘Film and the Masquerade: Theorizing the Female
Spectator 1982.’’ Issues in Feminist Film Criticism. Ed. Patricia Er-
ens. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1990. 41 – 57.
Dutton, Kenneth R. The Perfectible Body: The Western Ideal of Male
Physical Development. London: Cassell, 1995.
Faust, Wolfgang Max, and R. Baird Shuman. ‘‘Comics and How to
Read Them.’’ Journal of Popular Culture 5.1 (1971): 223 – 34.
Finger, Bill (w), and (a) Bob Kane. Batman #1 (Spring). New York:
National Periodical Publications, 1940.
Fussell, Sam. ‘‘Bodybuilder Americanus.’’ The Male Body: Features,
Destinies, Exposures. Ed. Laurence Goldstein. Ann Arbor: U of Mi-
chigan P, 1994. 43 – 60.
Gatens, Moira. ‘‘Towards a Feminist Philosophy of the Body.’’ Crossing
Boundaries: Feminism and the Critique of Knowledges. Eds. Barbara
Caine, E. A. Grosz, and Marie de Lepervanche. Sydney: Allen and
Unwin, 1988. 59 – 70.
Grosz, Elizabeth. Volatile Bodies. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1994.
Haraway, Donna. ‘‘A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and
Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century.’’ Simians,
Cyborgs, and Women. Ed. Donna Haraway. New York: Routledge,
1989. 149 – 81.
Jones, Gerard, and Will Jacobs. The Comic Book Heroes. Rocklin: Prima
Publishing, 1997.
Kipniss, Marc. ‘‘The Death and Rebirth of Superman.’’ Discourse 16.3
(1994): 144 – 67.
Morrison, Grant (w), Howard Porter (p), and John Dell (i). JLA: New
World Order. Ed. Bob Kahan. New York: DC Comics, 1997.
Morrison, Grant (w), and Frank Quietly (a). ‘‘My Beautiful Head.’’ Flex
Mentallo #2 ( July). New York: DC Comics, 1996.
Murphy, Keith, and Jonathan David Tankel. ‘‘Collecting Comic Books:
A Study of the Fan and Curatorial Consumption.’’ Theorizing
Fandom: Fans Subculture and Identity. Eds. Cheryl Harris and Alison
Alexander. Cresskill: Hampton, 1998. 55 – 68.
Pearson, Roberta A., and William Uricchio. ‘‘I’m Not Fooled By That
Cheap Disguise.’’ The Many Lives of Batman: Critical Approaches to a
Superhero and his Media. Eds. Roberta A. Pearson and William
Uricchio. London: Routledge, 1991. 182 – 213.
360 Aaron Taylor

Reitberger, Reinhold, and Wolfgang Fuchs. Comics: Anatomy of a Mass

Medium. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1972.
Reynolds, Richard. Superheroes: A Modern Mythology. Jackson: UP of
Mississippi, 1994.
Robbins, Trina. The Great Women Superheroes. Northampton: Kitchen
Sink, 1996.
Sassiene, Paul. The Comic Book. Toronto: SmithBooks, 1994.
Schulze, Laurie. ‘‘On the Muscle.’’ Fabrications: Costume and the Female
Body. Eds. Jane Gaines and Charlotte Herzog. London: Routledge,
1990. 59 – 78.
Sears, Bart. ‘‘Brutes and Babes.’’ Wizard 1.13 (1992): 38 – 39.
Sharrett, Christopher. ‘‘Batman and the Twilight of the Idols: An
Interview with Frank Miller.’’ Pearson and Uricchio, 33 – 46.
Tasker, Yvonne. Spectacular Bodies: Gender, Genre and the Action Cinema.
New York: Routledge, 1993.
Waid, Mark (w), and Alex Ross (a). Kingdom Come #1 – 4. New York:
DC Comics, 1996.
Wertham, Frederic. Seduction of the Innocent. New York: Rinehart, 1954.
Wood, Susan. The Poison Maiden and the Great Bitch. San Bernardino:
Borgo, 1989.

Aaron Taylor is a Limited Term Assistant Professor in the Department of

Communications, Popular Culture and Film at Brock University.