Comics: Get Your Sex Out Of My Violence

The header for this post would make you think that mainstream comics are FULL OF SEX, but look more closely (full image below) and you can see the illustration is barely about sex (I had less chaste kisses in elementary school) and much more about violence. The characters are literally covered in ropes of blood (and she’s holding a massive knife) while they give each other a closed mouth peck. Course, maybe they just don’t want to risk getting any blood in their mouths…but it doesn’t seem like they would care.

Unfortunately, this image is pretty standard when it comes to mainstream American comics and their depiction of sex – especially superhero comics. It’s not surprising I suppose, as we’re known as a puritanical nation that loves our violence like crazy but shuns nudity and sex.

As a feminist comics reader (two things that do not go easily hand in hand) a lot of my critics (which makes me sound way more important than I am) surely think of me as incredibly prudish. It’s true that I talk a lot about things not being equal for male and female superheroes – from costumes down to body types – and I tire quickly of stunningly beautiful femme fatales presented over and over again with little to no variation.

But the hard truth is, I’d love to see more sex in my comics.

That doesn’t mean I need to see more titillating art and hypersexualization designed for maximum fanboy wank factor. It just means that I like sex, and it’s a huge part of life, and I see no reason for that not to be reflected in our comics. It's certainly more a part of life for most Americans than violence is. Especially when the violence we’re seeing in comics is epically disturbing and gory.

As a reader, I don’t have a problem with sex or violence, but what I fail to understand is why the violence knob is dialed all the way to ten (consistently, especially by DC comics in the last two years—see a fairly random selection of covers above) while the sex knob is dialed all the way back. This limits us to a kind of juvenile titillation that isn’t really sex, or anything meaningful or adult or complex. In just the last year, the super popular, critically acclaimed comic book Saga—which has lots of delicious violence—was the subject of controversy primarily for issue #1 having the suggestion of an exposed breast (via a breastfeeding mother) on the cover and for issue #12 showing two (very) small images of graphic gay sex (like postage stamp sized). These were somehow cause for all sorts of handwringing, but violence? Not even a mention.

Contrast some of the covers above with this one on the right — one of the most popular “sex/romance/relationship” images of the last year. Again, like our header image, this is of two characters, fully dressed (and yes, that unfortunately counts as fully dressed for Wonder Woman), engaged in a closed mouth kiss. Where’s the heat, man? It’s SUPERMAN and WONDER WOMAN (even if I don’t care for the pairing, it’s naturally hot, except it’s not). 

And even more common than these chaste romantic visuals is seeing women presented as the most overt sex objects possible, but missing their actual parts – y’know, crazy things like vaginas and nipples and stuff (see left). As if they want to have their cake and also eat it – the illusion of sex and sexuality castrated by “PG-13 levels of acceptable.”

In all of this I’m not talking about porn comics, or advocating for porn/explicit sex in mainstream superhero comics. There’s a place for actual porn in comics and it’s called…well…porn comics…and they’re kind of awesome.  But this is different. This is about sex and relationships, occurring naturally the way they do in life. It doesn't have to be x-rated (or conversely “girly”) to be addressed. Most of us care a great deal about sex and relationships - otherwise we wouldn’t be so damn hung up on those things - so why don’t we want that reflected in our comics? Why instead do we want to see (or are force fed) the same violence over and over again, but ratcheted up to unheard of gory levels, perhaps in the hopes that we won’t get bored of seeing the same thing repeated infinitely?

As I wrote this piece I realized it was turning into more of an essay than an article…and one that reads like a desperate plea for someone to explain things to me, not the other way around. But I’ve thought long and hard (no pun intended) about this issue and I just don’t get it. Do you?

Sure, American comics (and superheroes) are a reflection (or a twisted reflection) of our “American Values,” the same way film and television are, but where did those prudish values really come from? And why are they still so prevalent in 2013? We were supposed to have hover boards by now, and be well on our way to flying cars and jet packs (apparently all I care about is cool transportation), but in 2013 we have none of those things and mainstream comics are still slavishly devoted to some puritanical ideals that include stereotypes about sex but not over the top violence? Can we really blame it all on the Christian roots that this country was built up around? The Judeo-Christian revitalization (and "rebranding") of the 1940’s? The Christian Fundamentalism that still rules so much of the country, especially around our middle? Why haven’t we grown out of this prudishness? We’re smart enough and strong enough to have done that by now, right? And if the Judeo-Christian roots and Christian Fundamentalism are to blame, then where does the obsession with violence come from?  Jesus wasn’t a violent guy…quite the contrary according to my reading of his great adventures.

Why is what’s good for the goose, not good for the gander?  Why is one a staple and one a rare bird, seemingly on the verge of extinction?

Currently, I can’t think of a monthly title I’m reading at the big two (Marvel or DC) that deals with sexuality/sexual situations regularly. Some books are much better than others (hell, some are great), but most just skirt around these things. Which is okay, I guess, but it seems odd since those same big two comics religiously deal with violence on a panel-by-panel basis.

And listen, they’re superhero comics, they should be filled with action…*I* LOVE action (seriously, just read my book if you doubt me – editor's note: shameless plug). This isn't a plea for there to be no action in comics, or even less for that matter. But it seems like there should be more of a balance in both the extremeness and frequency of said violence when sexuality is almost shut out. 

There’s a book from Image out right now and it has explicit sex in it and it's literally called SEX. Because largely, in mainstream comics (or “popular indie,” as I would call Image), you have to actually call a book something like SEX if you're going to have sex in it. Yet you certainly don’t have to call a book VIOLENCE in order to put characters literally bathing in blood on the cover. But why not?

I guess I'll never understand the disconnect between those two.

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Kelly Thompson

Column by Kelly Thompson

Kelly Thompson is the author of two crowdfunded self-published novels. The Girl Who Would be King (2012), was funded at over $26,000, was an Amazon Best Seller, and has been optioned by fancy Hollywood types. Her second novel, Storykiller (2014), was funded at nearly $58,000 and remains in the Top 10 most funded Kickstarter novels of all time. She also wrote and co-created the graphic novel Heart In A Box (2015) for Dark Horse Comics.

Kelly lives in Portland Oregon and writes the comics A-Force, Hawkeye, Jem & The Holograms, Misfits, and Power Rangers: Pink. She's also the writer and co-creator of Mega Princess, a creator-owned middle grade comic book series. Prior to writing comics Kelly created the column She Has No Head! for Comics Should Be Good.

She's currently managed by Susan Solomon-Shapiro of Circle of Confusion.

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postpomo's picture
postpomo from Canada is reading words words words May 24, 2013 - 11:26am

thanks for that - it's true enough - I'm not much one for superhero comics in general (depends on who's writing/drawing them of course), but the lack of decent sexuality amidst the bone-breaking (ahem) is getting old.

Even strong writers manage to drop the ball when it comes to sex.

I guess we're still a revolution or two shy of hitting our stride. Maybe we're still culturally adolescent boys, and have the wrestling with each other all figured out, but not the how to talk to girls part.

jyh's picture
jyh from VA is reading whatever he feels like May 24, 2013 - 10:11pm

The number of people who will have sex but never kill anyone far outweighs the number of people who will kill someone but never have sex. Therefore, fantasy has lots more killing than sex.

postpomo's picture
postpomo from Canada is reading words words words May 25, 2013 - 8:03am

jyh - you have a valid point.

maybe all that porn on the Internet has peed in the hot tub of pipe dreams

jyh's picture
jyh from VA is reading whatever he feels like May 25, 2013 - 6:30pm

I imagined a "hot tub of pipe dreams" and got a laugh.

"Fantasy" as a broad genre of fiction and the fantasies purportedly entertained by pornography are two very distinct things. I don't think a sexual revolution has anything to do with it. Look at old pre-Christian or recent non-Christian societies and you'll find that stories (real and fantastic) mostly don't dwell on sex, while they very often feature violence (sometimes quite wanton if not graphically depicted). It is simply not a matter of "puritanism" or "prudishness."

Dwayne's picture
Dwayne from Cincinnati, Ohio (suburbs) is reading books that rotate to often to keep this updated May 29, 2013 - 6:29am

Double post.

Dwayne's picture
Dwayne from Cincinnati, Ohio (suburbs) is reading books that rotate to often to keep this updated May 29, 2013 - 4:39pm

EDIT: I think authors might be worried about encouraging various types of bad behavior, and sex is much more common then violence. 50 Shades of Gray inspired a lot more sexual experimentation then Fight Club caused underground boxing kind of thing. 

jyh's picture
jyh from VA is reading whatever he feels like May 29, 2013 - 9:44am