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Sex in graphic novels

From the ripped shirts of Doc Savage to Adam Hughes’ Wonder Woman to gay marriage in Astonishing X-Men, sex and sexuality have been represented in comics in increasingly subversive ways.

Words by Stephen Lowtheraverage reading time 5 minutes

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Cover of Astonishing X-Men featuring two male characters in the foreground getting married

The humble comic book has evolved since its early days as a cheap, throwaway entertainment medium aimed squarely at children, whose images helped them to learn to read. Just as books, films and television cater to a wide audience and age ranges, so do 21st century comic books and graphic novels, as diverse today as they have ever been.

The American comic book has conquered the world of entertainment through films, television, the original comics and endless collections reprinting them as books. The Avengers, X-Men, Batman, Superman, Guardians of the Galaxy, and The Walking Dead are all famous across the globe, and they feature their fair share of sexuality.

Comics and graphic novels also enjoy healthy industries in France, Italy, Japan and South America, with the UK quietly also continuing what was once a major part of its publishing industry. The medium is no longer confined to print either: a lot of work is being done digitally, the internet giving creative freedom to anybody with a computer and the necessary skills.

The history of graphic novels is fascinating, as trends come and go, with comics reflecting and commenting on changes in society; attitudes to sex being a prime example. Pornography has been around for a long time historically, and small, eight-paged ‘Tijuana bible’ comics were very popular with soldiers between the 1920s and 1960s, but sex as part of mainstream entertainment is a relatively recent thing. Perhaps the 1960 Penguin edition of D H Lawrence’s ‘Lady Chatterley’s Lover’ is one of the starting points for this change?

Image of comic book cover. Dark haired woman looking at jewellery on red background with the text: My Desire as the heading in white capital letters

My Desire: Intimate Confessions #4, 1950

Erotic comics

Eroticism was already prevalent in early pulp magazines, such as in Doc Savage, with ripped shirts (or a complete lack thereof) revealing a toned and taut torso, as well as Conan the Barbarian or Tarzan and Jane with lithe, athletic bodies wearing very little in the 1930s.

Image of cover of Doc Savage magazine with topless man on a boat in the foreground and white text in the background

Doc Savage cover: ‘The Angry Ghost’

Similarly, Phantom Lady from the 1940s was erotic in much the same way as Tomb Raider, Witchblade or Cavewoman are in today’s market. All have exaggerated physical attributes and very revealing outfits. Did, and do, these pulps and comics provide fairly innocent erotica for teenage boys unable to buy real pornography?

Looking back, primarily at American comics, sex covers a wide array of subjects. The medium was aimed largely at teenage boys, offering heroes, desirable women, power fantasies (imagine you’re Superman) and excitement. Most of the creators were male, and the attitudes portrayed tend to reflect this ‘maleness’ as well as male/female roles in society at the time. Even Wonder Woman, one of the most powerful characters in comic history and widely considered a feminist icon, was initially introduced as the secretary to the Justice Society of America.

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Image of three Wonder Woman covers

Selection of Wonder Woman comics from the 1940s

Superhero sex

LGBT characters didn’t feature at all for a long time (unless you chose to read between the lines). American psychologist, Fredric Wertham, in his 1954 book ‘Seduction of the Innocent’, denounced Batman and Robin as being lovers and Wonder Woman as living on an island populated entirely by lesbians (and being repeatedly tied up – something undeniably present on the comic covers). Violence, gore, vampires and zombies were also objected to by Wertham. His book took America by storm and almost overnight the industry was forced to change to a sanitised, simpler, more ‘innocent’ product, with many publishers going out of business as result.

Image of poster in the style of a comic book featuring yellow title ('Seduction of the Innocent') on a black background. In the foreground is a man taking a comic away from a young boy

Poster for an exhibit at the Marjorie Barrick Museum, a visual exploration of comic book censorship, using the title of Wertham’s book.

Slowly things began to change. DC and Marvel vied for market share in the 1960s, Marvel’s soap opera approach to superheroes becoming ever more popular with large groups of readers taking them to heart. This more adult audience enabled them to produce more adult material. Underground comics featured drugs and sex. The Stonewall riots in 1969 gave rise to gay liberation while women’s liberation was challenging traditional views of what a woman’s role should be. Society was changing.

GayComix #1 cover art by Rand Holmes

Exploring sexuality in graphic novels

The feminist Valkyrie debuted in The Incredible Hulk #142 (1971); Ms. Marvel in 1977; Gay Comix #1 (1980); and Northstar came out in Alpha Flight #106 (1992). Lesbians featured in Love & Rockets (1982–96) and the current Batwoman is gay (although was ‘not allowed’ to marry her partner). Bisexuality was explored in Strangers in Paradise (1993–2007); unstable gender in Legion of Superheroes #31 (1992).

Gay characters are fairly commonplace in comics these days: Apollo and Midnighter in Stormwatch (1998); teenage lovers Hulkling and Wiccan in Young Avengers (2005); Kevin Keller in the bastion of teenage heterosexuality, Archie Comics (2010). Northstar finally married his lover in mainstream comics’ first gay wedding in 2012.

In Europe, Milo Manara and Guido Crepax published highly regarded erotic graphic novels in Italy from the 1960s to the 1980s. Nudity, both male and female, and sexuality featured heavily in Metal Hurlant in France (1974–87), while in Germany, Ralf Konig’s Der bewegte Mann celebrated gay sexuality (1987).

Alan Moore and Frank Miller’s more sophisticated work at DC throughout the 1980s (Watchmen, The Dark Knight Returns, Swamp Thing) was a move by DC to engage a more mature audience. The medium has continued to expand. Comics are no longer ‘just for children’. People can tell their stories of battles with cancer, mental illness or AIDS through a graphic novel.

Cover of Spider-Man

Spider-Man and Power Pack cover

It’s this type of material we have been adding to the Wellcome Library’s collections for a while now. The raised funds for London Lighthouse in 1987. AARGH! by Alan Moore (1988) served as a counterpoint to Margaret Thatcher’s Section 28, forbidding the promotion of homosexuality by councils. Health education in comic form, such as Death Talks About Life (AIDS, 1993), Spider-Man and Power Pack (child abuse, 1984), Ninja High School talks about Sexually Transmitted diseases (1992) and Teen Titans (drug abuse, 1983), have also been added.

Nowadays, sex is often treated in an intelligent way in graphic novels: one part of a complex whole. Women are resourceful, intelligent, powerful and independent. Male characters are more nuanced; they aren’t simply musclebound heroes. LGBT characters are commonplace role models not defined purely by their sexuality.

Things have indeed changed since the 1950s.

About the author

Stephen Lowther

Stephen is a Cataloguing Librarian at Wellcome Library.