Comics Are For Lovers: A Grown-Up’s Guide to Sex in Comics

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It’s hard to talk about comic books without talking about—or dancing around the subject of—sex. For what’s often dismissed as a medium designed for kids, it’s easy to find a whole bunch of scantily-dressed females with ample bosoms, everywhere you might look in superhero comics. It’s almost as if this were a whole genre designed for adolescent boys. Hmm…

The problem comes in that sex in comics is rarely handled in a way that’s healthy from any perspective. It’s often played for a joke in the PG-rated set—where girls from the age of 14 and up seem to have impossibly large breasts, as pointed out in the recent reboot of DC’s Teen Titans—and then it gets a little scary and creepy from there.

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It’s for this reason that I stay away from the work of Alan Moore. Yes, he’s smart. Yes, he’s a talented storyteller. Yes, his works get cruddy film adaptations. And yes, he finds rape both cheap and funny—in almost every one of his books, a female character is sexually assaulted in a way that cheapens that character and gives us further information about a male in the story—and often, that assault or rape is either played for a joke, excused, or out and out forgiven before story’s end. He refuses to give his women agency; they’re playthings, a four-color version of blow-up dolls capable of speaking in some gorgeous prose—but still, blow-up dolls. Don’t kid yourselves, people—he’s smarter than Rob Liefeld, but his women are just as warped and plastic, just in word instead of picture.

This brings us to the third sin of sex in comics—if you’ve got a tough female, odds are, at some point in her career, one of her writers—usually, almost always a male—is going to “toughen her up” through sexual assault, bondage or violation. It’s happened to Ms. Marvel/Captain Marvel, Rogue, Storm, Black Widow, Huntress, Black Canary, Wonder Woman—if you can name the character, there’s a moment of sexual exploitation. And the worst of these is perhaps what happened to Barbara Gordon, aka Batgirl, in Alan Moore’s The Killing Joke. The Joker shows up at the Gordons’ front door and shoots Barbara in the spine, paralyzing her. He then strips her and takes a series of nude photos of her, as demonstrated in the graphic novel’s art, and it’s implied, through art and dialogue, that he sexually assaults her. The purpose of this heinous act is to rile Batman and attempt to drive Commissioner Gordon insane; again, a female character is brutally and casually violated to increase tension and raise the stakes for our male protagonists. It’s not okay. One could make a case that this horrific development led to years of further character growth as Barbara became Oracle, Batman’s intelligence source and one of the only disabled heroes in comics—but you don’t have to use sexual violence of this sort to get here.

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Robert Kirkman, creator of The Walking Dead, chose to hammer home the point of how sex and rape affect female characters by flipping the script in his OTHER hit book, Invincible. In last month’s #110, a superpowered female character raped, brutally and on-panel, the male title character, leaving him in a catatonic and crumpled ball at the bottom of a pit. It’s shocking both because of its viciousness and how the story changes when a male character is used in this way instead of a female. Food for thought.

The bottom line is that sex is often misused or given an unhealthy portrayal in comics. So, today, we’re going to balance that out with a few graphic novels that portray sex in healthy, fun, and functional ways, for both men and women. As always, all of these are available at your local comic shop, via Amazon, or on the Comixology app on your computer and smartphone.

SAGA, by Brian K. Vaughn and Fiona Staples.
This is probably my favorite comic out on stands today, and it’s Image Comics’ new darling. Mark my words, five years from now this will be a movie or TV show or both. It’s the story of two worlds at war—one a science-fiction-y population of winged militants, and the other a fantasy-styled race of horned magic users—and the woman and man from each who say “screw this” and run off, fall in love, and have a baby daughter…and then what happens when both armies decide they want this new family dead. It’s narrated by the baby daughter in the future, all grown up. It’s sort of like what would happen if Romeo and Juliet and Enemy Mine and How I Met Your Mother had an angry baby, and it totally works. And the best part of it is that sex is a part of these characters’ lives in a way that’s touching and normal and cool and also sort of hot. It’s mature and sweet and sexy all at once—and you don’t doubt that our two leads love one another, even for a moment, even amidst the ghosts and spaceships that grow on trees and weird robots with television heads and topless half-woman spider-bounty hunters. The book comes out in issue form every month, and every six months takes a month or two off for the collected graphic novel of the previous six issues to come out. It’s just great. Check it out.

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SEX CRIMINALS, by Matt Fraction and Chip Zdarsky
I’m going to be brief with this one, because the surprises are part of the fun. Suzie has a unique power: when she orgasms, time stops. She uses this power to mine all sorts of information, including a stint reading books between seconds in the local library. Well, she grows up, and the library is in danger of closing — and at a fundraiser, she meets Jon, who has the same power. It’s fate — the two of them come together (no pun intend) to rob banks using their special abilities, making them LITERALLY sex criminals. It’s a fun, sex-positive book, and it’s worth your time.

Beyond this, I’d like to recommend creators who consistently put forth sex-positive and respectful stories in their work—check out Gail Simone, Alex Robinson, and Terry Moore. Simone writes Batgirl and a whole slew of strong female characters for DC, including a long run on Wonder Woman. Robinson’s work includes Tricked! and Box Office Poison, novel-length works in which young people have sex in clumsy, lifelike, and real fashion. And Terry Moore created the breathtaking Strangers in Paradise, which might be the first realistic depiction of lesbian sexuality in comics — it’s the story of three friends and what happens when love falls in directions that are unexpected. There’s also a lot of really beautiful art, some mafia killings, and some of the funniest one-liners you’ll find anywhere in comics.

So, that’s my $.02 about sex in comics. The bottom line: seek out books that treat their characters right, and don’t use rape and violent sex as an excuse for character development.

THIS WEEK’S RECOMMENDATIONS:

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COMIC OF THE WEEK: The Woods #1 by James Tynion IV, Michael Dialynas, and Ramon K. Perez

On October 16, 2013, 437 students, 52 teachers, and 24 additional staff from Bay Point Preparatory High School in suburban Milwaukee, WI vanished without a trace. Countless light years away, far outside the bounds of the charted universe, 513 people find themselves in the middle of an ancient, primordial wilderness. Where are they? Why are they there? The answers will prove stranger than anyone could possibly imagine.

Tynion is DC’s new go-to guy for all things Batman-related, and he’s going to be a superstar. And the art in this book is just unreal. This is going to be a big flippin’ deal.

GRAPHIC NOVEL OF THE WEEK: FIRE by Brian Michael Bendis

Imagine that you are a shy, quiet college student. Just an average guy trying to get through each day as best he can. Then your government contacts you. They want you to be part of an experiment in the art of human covert operations. Instead of creating an agent from someone within their own ranks, they want to create an agent from nobody, from scratch, from you! Loosely based on events in the American intelligence community during the Reagan administration, Fire tells the unique and powerful story of a young man’s journey through the complex world of international intelligence. Fire was Bendis’ first major work and helped him attract and develop a new audience for crime graphic novels that he would further challenge in later works such as Jinx, Goldfish, Torso, and Powers.

Bendis created this at the beginning of his career, and it’s been long out of print. Over the last fifteen years, he’s become a Marvel Comics superstar and is one of the driving forces of the ongoing Marvel stories in all media. It’s a cool exercise to see that, even way back when, the guy had chops.

Once again, all of these are available at your local comic shop, via Amazon, or on the Comixology app on your computer and smartphone.

That’s it for now, friends. See you next time.

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