Joe Shuster’s Secret Identity: Fetish and Hypocrisy in Comic Books

This week USA Today reported on the release of a book documenting Joe Shuster’s fetish art. Apparently, it contains his drawings of men and women (who look somewhat like his drawings of Superman and Lois Lane) engaging in vaguely erotic acts, including whipping and bondage. News of this book was divulged in scandalized tones, and in the comments section, people suggested flagging the short article with “suggestive content”.

For everyone who is just terribly shocked and outraged that Joe Shuster would go from drawing a man in skin-tight clothing to drawing similar-looking, scantily clad people engaging in sexually charged situations, I’d like to remind them that these are comics, and this is completely normal. Many mainstream comics consciously create scenarios where the perfectly sculpted people can engage in all sorts of sexually ambiguous behavior; fighting, wrestling, playing… And the “costumes”? Often these are little more than a few strips of color over what is clearly a drawing of a naked person. These strips of fabric are often clearly influenced by the so-called fetish world aesthetic.  People running around in the shadows, men and women engaging in violent battles, wearing skin-tight clothing that is often little more than a paint job over a naked form. These situations are barely disguised sexual fantasy, why then is it such a surprise that one of the creators of America’s primary superhero drew some “fetish” sketches?

Examples of the crossover between the superhero world and the erotic world can be found sprinkled throughout comics history, in the most benign and well-known comics. Here are just a few examples:

Wonder Woman
Moulton envisioned a peaceful world, and to that end, he created a character that would help men become used to being dominated and bound my women. He famously said of his creation “Wonder Woman is psychological propaganda for the new type of woman who should, I believe, rule the world.” and “Only when the control of self by others is more pleasant than the unbound assertion of self in human relationships can we hope for a stable, peaceful human society. Giving to others, being controlled by them, submitting to other people cannot possibly be enjoyable without a strong erotic element.” No matter what we may think of his opinion of peace, this clearly is a character created with a generous nod to an erotic fetish.

 

 

Wolverine
A character created to embody the ideal of a classically muscular, squat, hairy mid 1970’s man. Looking more like a Tom of Finland drawing than something out of mainstream kids comics, this violent and volatile character always had an edge to him, but in recent years this has spiraled out of control, with a widespread acceptance of this wife-beater clad fury, in both comics and film. This is a man on the edge of primal rage, liable at any moment to go entirely out of control and succumb to his animal instincts. In what universe is this not a character based on erotic fetish and fantasy?

Selene – the Black Queen of the Hellfire Club
The Hellfire Club has always had it’s queen, whether black or white, always dressed in some form of corset, cape, teeny-tiny panties and high boots. How could this costume be anything but pure fetish? Selene was the most entirely disposable version of this, and thus the one living purely in the realm of fantasy (having very little else going for her as far as character development goes). The role Black Queen has been held by others, but it was Selene that gave it the purity of form that swung it all the way into the realm of a leather queen. There really is no mistaking the garb of this woman, clearly her “costume” owes a great deal to the classic garb of a dominatrix.

Catwoman
It doesn’t matter what era of Catwoman you examine, what costume, or even whether we look at her character as represented in comics, television, or on film. She is always represented as an expression of a slew of fetishes; she’s the sadistic coquette, a demented feline impersonator, the perfect cat-burglar, the vinyl-clad mistress of hand-to-hand combat, and a powerful heiress. In every incarnation, there is a strong element of sexual intensity to her role. And then we examine her costumes… apart from a short time of wearing a knee length purple dress, she’s always worn very revealingly tight catsuits, often shiny so that her every curve is shown. Nowadays, even if her character weren’t infused with an erotic power, there is no way that a woman wearing a head-to-toe vinyl or leather catsuit, and wielding a whip, could be seen as benign.

Daredevil
This man might not be as kink-friendly in his costume as some of the people already mentioned here, but his proclivities are certainly leaning towards the fetishistic. This man has hardly had a female adversary who he didn’t end up having a passionate affair with. When he’s not engaging in violent battles for his life against them (or alongside them), they’re tearing each others costumes off and discussing how tragically doomed their actions are. It’s a tough life. His entire image is about causing fear and trepidation in his foes, being a figure who inspires a primal fear of evil and the devil, this alone is a little dark, so it’s probably understandable (if a little kinky) that in his private life, he can go to some strange places with the women who he fights.

 

 

Scarlet Witch (and The Vision)
It’s not enough that the Scarlet Witch’s costume is essentially fetish gear, (red strapless one piece, a cape, and of course the obligatory knee-high boots), but the love of her life was a robot. Robot/witch love; This is object fetishism at it’s height. Forget the Real doll, Wanda Maximoff fell madly in love with an artificial intelligence, they were married, and even found a way to make little magic/robot children together (kind of). As a couple, their relationship was vanilla in the extreme, but at it’s core, a situation where a woman is in love with a man-made object can’t be anything but a very strange fetish.

. . .


This is all just the tip of the iceberg, many many of the most mundane, mainstream, so-called children’s comics could be said to be influenced by the standards of the erotic fetish world. Ultimately it’s all “good clean fun”, none of these characters are inherently creepy, depraved, or even offensive (by most standards). But they could be easily be interpreted as the product of a fetish-friendly aesthetic, or even having been created to appeal to people’s hidden erotic desires.

With that in mind, isn’t it perfectly understandable that an artist or a writer might choose to explore these areas of his/her psyche in more depth, outside of the comic world? By the same extension, rather than being horrified or decrying such forays, it would seem that we ought to thank these intrepid explorers of our psychic underbelly. It is their curiosity which has brought the readers of comics so much lighthearted superhero fun over the years.

 


Sonia Harris hails from London, but writes and lives in San Francisco. She’s been so focused on writing this article that she’s now ready to go back to ignoring this aspect of comics, like everyone else usually does, and pretend to be surprised by it all. You can send your mail to sonia@ifanboy.com.

Comments

  1. I feel less weird 🙂

  2. Paul Montgomery (@fuzzytypewriter) says:

    With great power comes great sexual tension.  Thoroughly agree with your conclusion.  

    I love that we’re covering the taboos of both sex and violence this week. America is weird.  

    Oh, Lady Liberty, you big green prude.   

  3. Sexual tension and fetish in comics?!!?  How dare you?  Next you’ll tell me that it can be found in professional wrestling as well!  😉

  4. You know, I’ve always thought that Wertham’s biggest mistake was placing asserting that sexual ubndertones in comics were bad. (He made many others, but this was the critical flaw in his arguement.  Fantastic article

  5. @ Simmons- I feel more weird:/ In fact I think I creep myself out a little bit now.

  6. This article is complete (titillating) bollocks.

  7. I feel funny after reading this….

  8. I hope we can put an end to criticizing comics for being "Cheesecake" or too sexual as some say.  Of course they’re sexual, they always have been.  It’s not a good critique on the comics.  The sexual aspect is part of the fun, not a problem.

  9. Great article Sonia. In addition to the fetishistic implications of mainstream characters, I’ve discovered through sites like comicbookdb.com and wikipedia that many mainstream artists had done fetish comics and even hardcore adult comics before they began working for major companies, and sometimes concurrently with their mainstream work. Christian Zanier, an artist that worked on Rising Stars has his own series called Banana Games that features transgendered fetishism at its most hardcore. Moebius, Giger, and Milo Manara are also known beyond their PG-13 works to readers of Heavy Metal Magazine.

    Also, nice job writing this without mentioning Greg Land.

  10. @KickAss: People often confuse cheesecake and sexiness. It’s not the same thing.

  11. All good points, though I gotta disagree with you on Wolverine; short guys aren’t on *anyone’s* fantasy or fetish list. 🙂

    At least the USAToday article mentions that Shuster was basically broke. Artists do what they gotta do to make money, after all.

     

  12. I’m not sure if it’s directly related, but I’d like to mention Jacob Pander’s film The Operation.  Um, cuz it’s really hot.   😛

  13. What about Owly?

  14. I disagree with you a bit on Wolverine, but I see where you’re coming from. With all of the other characters, the fetish angle is definitely there, and you could assert that the (understated) sexual aspect was there just under the surface, but with Wolverine the animalistic angle that you seem to want to equate very directly with some sort of sordid or sneaky sexuality…well, that animalistic element kind of did have a would-be romantic outlet anyway, which I feel precludes any dark sexual underside. Witness how bold Wolverine was in expressing his desire for Jean in the early Claremont days. Besides that, he’s "just" a gruff fighter. Does every (or any) ounce of gruffness demand to have representation as a hairy ’70s pornstar? Why can’t the guy "just" be a hairy, backwoods, feral fighter? I feel like you’d have much more of a point if, alongside that gruffness, Wolverine was never shown to have any sexual dimension…but while the character was being fleshed out (NO PUN) he was shown a) to long for Jean in a somewhat gruff manner, and b) to fight for many women’s honor. So I don’t see the "gotcha!" moment, in contrast to the (somewhat) interesting "gotcha!"-style treatises against the erotic undertones of Batman and Robin, for instance.

  15. Paul Montgomery (@fuzzytypewriter) says:

    She’s dead on about Wolverine, guys.  Just because you’re not familiar with the fetish doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. Just because Danny DeVito didn’t make any Tiger Beat covers doesn’t mean he wasn’t a sex symbol during his TAXI days.  

  16. Heh, not long ago I got in an argument with somebody who said he’d dropped ‘Uncanny X-Men’ because the current creative team was writing ‘too much kinky sex.’  And, my reaction was basically, "Do you REMEMBER Inferno?  The Hellfire Club?  What did you think was going on there exactly?"

    Which is not to say that anybody has to like those books, or approve of the fetish element, but to talk about the recent comics like they’re adding something new and unacceptable to the mix strikes me as odd. 

    Thanks for the perspective!  (What’s sad about the Shuster story is that, if I recall, he was doing some of that art when his health and eyesight were failing, in order to pay his bills, while DC was getting rich off Superman — but that’s another story).

  17. Yeah, gotta go with Paul here. Do you know many Wolverine/Cyclops pairings I’ve seen holding hands during the NYC Halloween Parade? Or making out in bars afterwards? It’s mind-staggeringly high. Wolverine, though depicted as straight in comics, is very much a gay symbol/fetish. Indeed, flapjaxx, his animal nature would also seem to equate him with the Bear/Cub fetish of the gay community as well. As well, the wolf in literature is often depicted as being sexual. If you doubt this, look at the depiction of Bigby Wolf in Fables. He’s essentially Wolverine with better writers. (Waits for both the Fables and X-Men fans to get mad.) And your argument also seems to place emphasis on the fact that Wolverine’s "fetish" status rests in his depicted sexual nature. How many times have you seen art online of overtly Lesbian renderings of Wonder Woman or Batgirl? Various gender and fetish communities will often take popular "straight" icons and "subvert" them to mean something for their community. This can be found throughout history and culture. To say Wolverine can’t be seen in this regard just because he’s depicted in a certain way would be narrowminded.

    Also, I also enjoyed Quitely’s tip of the hat to Tom of Finland in having Wolverine wear a leather jacket with no shirt on so you could see Wolverine’s hairy chest. Frank Quitely spent many a year doing erotic art for a magazine whose name escapes right now. (Possibly Drawn & Quarterly?) 

  18. Regarding Wolverine (and I’m shocked that this is the only character analysis anyone is questioning): In Alpha Flight, when he was relearning how to be a human, he had a sexual relationship with Guardian’s wife (and in the weirdest/kinkiest sense, it was implied that Gaurdian might have purposely left them alone in order to create that dynamic so that Wolverine could regain his humanity), at that time it was pretty raw. In X-Men over the years, he’s often depicted as a victim of his own, out-of-control animal passions, implying a certain inability to control himself. You may not see this as sexually exciting, but plenty of people do.

  19. Paul Montgomery (@fuzzytypewriter) says:

    Did you expect anyone to question one of the other character profiles?  

    The Vision/Scarlet Witch things was always something I found unusual and interesting, of course.  But you broke it down in a way I’d never really thought of before.  He’s essentially something you’d discover hidden in a nightstand drawer.  

  20. Didn’t Wanda screw her brother in Ultimate?

  21. @sonia Don’t ask me why, but I completely forgot to say before: Great article.

  22. This is a fantastic article. I was really hoping someone would write about the Shuster fetish release. I paged through it in my comic shop 2 or 3 weeks ago and thought it was really interesting. I didn’t really know any of the history behind it, but my LCS owner pretty much shoved it in my face, which is a bit odd since I’m only a couple of months into my 18th year and he wouldn’t hire me 6 months ago because of my lack of adult status.

    @Prax, gotta say it again, love pretty much everything you add to the conversations on this site. You seem to put more thought into each sentence than most users do into their entire post. 

    @JumpingJupiter. – It was originally hinted at in Ultimates 1 and 2 and had almost become a running joke/ gag. In the first issue of Ultimates 3, Loeb blew it wide open and it became a main plot point. The odd thing about this was that people on the Marvel boards were raging over it, saying Loeb had totally ruined those characters by adding an incest angle. It’s sad… some people just can’t read into anything. Millar put some overt incest jokes in the first two volumes, but alas, he must not have been trying hard enough. That’s probably a much longer answer than you were looking for. Sorry!

  23. @Anson Wow, thank you. That really means a lot! It’s funny, you’re having this book shoved in your face, while I’ve heard boo about it until I read Sonia’s article. Also, on Jupiter’s point, I think the problem is that Millar’s approach was subtler. Veiled inferences and implied action, whereas Loeb was in your face with it. Millar presented a "Are they/aren’t they" version of it and Loeb presented the "They are! Look! No grey area!" And I know it was one of the many, many problems with Ultimates 3.

  24. @JumpingJupiter – what’s wrong with some brotherly love?

    Also which superheroes are part of the "barely 18" club? Is Robin a twink?

    @PraxJarvin – the wolf’s sexuality in fables was done in The Company of Wolves movie: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0087075/

    And I imagine that in the book it was based on as well. Interesting movie.

     

  25. @Chlop, as they say, "Incest is best."

  26. All I have to say is look at the way Supergirl is drawn and she’s seventeen.  My god I can’t wait for here birthday!

  27. @Bebop – Why?  What will you do then?

  28. Paul Montgomery (@fuzzytypewriter) says:

    Am I alone in not wanting to know the answer to that question? 

  29. @Josh- Publish my fan fictions of course!

  30. @Bebop – we have enough fan fiction about tea parties, thank you very much. If I ever read another Harry and Albus dialog around a table sipping camomile I will kick J.K. Rowling in the crotch.

  31. It’s threads like this that make my non-comic reading friends think that I’m a bloody pervert.

  32. Perhaps this will be a discussion of sexual mores that is more up your alley (so to speak):

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4Kwh3R0YjuQ

     

  33. The silent use of metaphors is better:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FXnT5NnHYEQ 

  34. Do you know if the Shuster fetish stuff was done to pay the bills or just for fun?

    Wonder Woman was based on a woman who lived with him and his wife in a polyamorous relationship.  

     http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wonder_Woman

     

  35. Excellent article, Sonia, especially the Wolverine bit.

    I’d also like to nominate Warren Worthington III for the list.  The amount of times he gets tied up and/or stuck in bondage gear and forced to do someone else’s bidding are… excessive.  I wrote a whole article about it:  http://fantasticfangirls.org/?p=433

  36. There is a Joe Shuster Festish Art Book!

    How do things like this get past me?

     Great article by the way.

  37. Thanks. Here is a link to buy the book on Amazon.

    http://www.amazon.com/dp/0810996340/?tag=ifanboycom-20

  38. @soniaharris – fetish books loose their appeal after the first manga photo of a teen chained to the wall with her guts all over the place. It makes it look like soft porn.

    It gets totally ruined after that documentary about those old and secretive books that people collect that place jewish men – very much like a Tom of Finland look according to the covers, in some situation during the second world war, and they basically have sex with female nazis – the ones that tortured them and abused them – a sort of total "fuck you" to the nazis according to the interviewees.

    It all sort of looses its luster after a while on planet earth 🙂 Can’t remember the name of the books or the documentary, sadly. They’re short textual books, but I guess it can be adaptad.

  39. @chlop: I just wrote an entire article explaining that fetish influences ever aspect of comicc, no matter how innocuous they may seem. I purposely avoided mentioning any actual so-called fetish comics, because this is NOT what I’m talking about here.

    For god’s sake man, get a fucking grip, you do this too often.

  40. Another engaging and thoughtful peice from the snarky Brit!

  41. Joe Casey’s comments on Sonia’s articles = Comedy Gold

  42. that article was really kool think im falling in love with sonia harris