Guys, sometimes I wonder what it’s like not to be a guy.
Because I really don’t know. Despite having grown up as the middle offspring betwixt two sisters, and reading widely and diversely throughout my adulthood, and watching the entirety of the seminal girl-power series Buffy the Vampire Slayer… I stand before you today in full admission that I have more or less zero clue what it’s like to be a female in 2015, in the United States of America.
Par exemplar: if I were to be aggressively hit on by someone of the opposite sex, “cat-called” as I moseyed down the sidewalk, going about my own private business, a businessy briefcase in hand? I would just assume that I was going to be straight up murdered. Like, it so rarely happens to any man— let alone to a 5’7, bespectacled, miniature one like myself— I would imagine that I was nearing a cruel and premeditated slaying by cult fanatics. That some reborn Manson Clan had zeroed in on me and would presently use my fluids to scribe idioms on the walls of a befouled yurt somewhere, Bernie Sanders supporters all of them… and I would accept that fate. It might be a nice way to go.
Yet despite this privileged removal from common female experience, there are nonetheless cultural discussions in which I hear the clarion toot of the modern feminist’s war bugle and say to myself, “Hey— that’s a great sounding toot!” Furthermore, as an intellectual man, and a not-ungenerous patron of Taco Bell and other such meeting halls of our day, I feel it is my duty to stay abreast of the key issues that my fellow citizenry might subject to the fiery hammer and tong of postprandial debate following a Double Decker Taco, or a Gordita Supreme, or even a regular Gordita with a side of Cheesy Fiesta Potatoes, maybe (muy delicioso!)
Lately, as in the last few years, one of those key issues has been the portrayal of the female body— how it is idealized in the media, marketed by corporations, and exploited by both. It is a topic with which I feel a particular engagement and sympathy.
I blame Superboy.
It was the mid-nineties and American comic books were experiencing a major boom—possibly the largest in history. There were shops on every corner, and longboxes under every bed. The Anti-Gravity room was on cable on The Sci-Fi Channel, and Todd McFarlane was spearheading a publishing revolution with his Spawn and Image Comics. I was closing in on junior high and a happy participant in the fad; I recall many an afternoon of sitting in a pool of sunlight on the floor of Comics N’ Things in Virginia Beach, Virginia, flipping through yellowed back issues, gradually building my humble collection.
At the peak of this comic book renaissance, in 1996, the two titans of the industry decided to put aside (or rather, put to market) their differences for the sake of a really big, really cool, really unimaginably-amazing-if-you-were-a-kid mega event: Marvel vs. D.C. Set to comprise four jumbo-sized issues, the crossover storyline would pit the most popular characters from the two competing fictional universes against one another in epic, no-holds-barred, one-on-one contests of strength— winner-take-all the nerdy bragging rights. And to make things even more exciting, the results of five of the eleven main bouts would be determined by popular fan vote: Superman vs. Hulk; Batman vs. Captain America; Wolverine vs. Lobo; Storm vs. Wonder Woman; and Spider-Man vs. Superboy.
To say I was excited for this event would not fully express what it did to my sixth grade existence. Here, in glossy sequential art, would be definitive answers to countless playground debates. What effect might Superman’s heat vision have on the Hulk’s skin? Could Batman’s gadgets overcome Cap’s strength advantage? Was Storm, a mutant, more deadly than Wonder Woman, an Amazon? And so on, and so forth.
I remember preordering the first issue and standing in line to pick it up a few weeks later. Reading it on the drive home— ah, the unappreciated luxuries of childhood!— it proved a promising open to the series, setting the stage for the main players and explaining the (not-at-all-gimmicky!) plotline. As the story went, the universes inhabited by Marvel and D.C. were actually two ancient rivals— brothers, in point of fact— whose avatars looked an awful lot like the Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em robots (as the living avatars of universes often do.) According to prophecy, or tradition, or something, the time had come for the two universe-brothers to do battle— I guess finally duke it out over the toboggan incident back in the winter of ’77— and so their respective superpeople were being teleported here and there and everywhere for just that purpose. Before I knew it, Spider-Man was speaking to the Joker, and Superman was glaring down at Juggernaut, and it all seemed just far too wonderful to be real. I poured over the details of every panel as publishing feats more far-fetched than flight or invincibility were executed before my wide, pre-pubescent eyeballs.
Then, not halfway through the first installment of that incalculably significant volume, I came to the first panel featuring Superboy.
First let me address some common misconceptions about the character: Superboy was neither Superman’s son, nor Superman as a kid… at least not in his mid-nineties iteration. In 1996, at the time of Marvel vs. D.C.’s printing, Superboy was a metahuman clone of Superman created for— well, the story arc of why Superman had a clone is a longish one. From a publishing perspective, however, ‘90s Superboy came about as part of a rollout of several alternate Supermen following 1992’s seminal The Death of Superman series. In addition to Superboy, the sledgehammer-wielding neighborhood hero John Henry aka “Steel” was introduced (and later played to eternal acclaim by Shaquille O’Neil in the film adaptation), along with a couple of other wannabes who ended up being Superman villains in disguise. Both Steel and Superboy received ongoing monthly series, and for a time during the Clinton Administration, Superboy proved a breakout star.
But Superboy was very different from the Kryptonian whose genetic code had sired him. Superboy, who was cocksure and rebellious, who wore earrings, a leather jacket, and John Lennon sunglasses, was cool. And not just cool in the way that Superman was cool, like as a square-jawed embodiment of indomitable strength and Midwestern uprightness, but cool in the way that Kurt Cobain had been cool, or Mick Jagger. Superman would rescue you from a rampaging behemoth… but ‘90s Superboy? Everything about him told you that he could do that too, sure… but afterwards he might steal your girlfriend.
Superboy was also different in the sense that he was always Superboy. He was a clone, permanently sixteen years old, with no mild-mannered, workaday identity to dutifully maintain. He was a superhuman 24/7, 365, and although Superman and others would eventually come to refer to him by the Kryptonian name Kon-El, and later Connor Kent (though this latter moniker would arise sometime after my time as a superhero book enthusiast), he was not at heart a character who cared, as Clark Kent obviously did, about earthbound things.
… which brings us to a final preamble about Superboy, specifically, and also superheroes in general. Much has been said over the years about the concept of the alter-ego/ secret identity— which is really which, for this or that costumed individual. For instance some would say (and I tend to agree), that the character of Superman requires equal amounts Kent the farmboy and Kal-El the all-powerful demigod from another world. Lose one, and you lose the character. This juxtaposition, existing on the borderland betwixt Kansas and Krypton, is what lends compelling inner conflict to the best-told explorations of the Man of Steel.
Superboy, as I have said, is beholden to no such complex interplay of dual personages. Like Peter Pan, he is eternally youthful and, aside from a basic genetic connection to Superman, more or less unaccountable to anyone. He dresses how he wants and talks how he wants, and if someone doesn’t like it, Superboy can fly away to somewhere more fun. He’s not worried about missing a deadline at a Daily Planet (or Bugle), because why would he even need a job? He can just be Superboy— cool and impervious, zipping around the sky forever and ever.
And that is fine, I guess, like from a moral perspective. Superboy isn’t a villain. And yet, somehow, he just isn’t relatable. Somehow when Clark Kent tries awkwardly to gain Lois Lane’s attention, or Peter Parker endures J. Jonah Jameson’s jeers, we can see that their larger-than-life abilities have not elevated them above our own more quotidian struggles. We feel a connection to them. With Superboy, we feel something more akin to the simultaneous awe and envy we have for a high school prom king… who was often precisely the type of person that comic book readers were hoping to elude within their slim books of fantasy.
Or that’s how it felt in 1996, anyway, as my mother’s station wagon clunked its way through the suburbs, and I scrutinized bright pages whereon my most thrilling daydreams had been made manifest.
The setting is a tropical beach, with Superboy dressed in his leather-jacketed punk regalia amidst a gaggle of four laughing, ludicrously-proportioned females in string bikinis. Superboy is balancing aloft two of the women, one with each arm, his unseen, red-gloved hands presumably holding their buttocks. As he performs this feat he is bragging, his speech bubble reading: “And this isn’t all. I can fly, I had these x-ray specs… which I’m really wishing I still had right now…” As he boasts, and flirts, and hoists, the two women respond to the hero by posing sexily, the redhead gazing shyly down at her volleyball-sized bosoms, while the blonde hugs herself as though she had just put on a warm sweater. Meanwhile in the background, a brunette sunbather and an additional blonde bear witness to it all, the latter clapping her hands to her cheeks in an exaggerated gesture of amazed delight.
However the fun is not to last, as Tana Moon, Superboy’s girlfriend, appears on the scene, causing Superboy to dump his attractive burdens onto the sand. Superboy stammers to explain himself as Tana affects a tone of jealousy and childish petulance and turns on her heel, telling Superboy that she sometimes wished he would “disappear.” Her wish is granted as Superboy is bathed in golden light and promptly teleported away.
Yet there is a sixth party in that brief one-pager of seaside shenanigans. Set further away in the background than the cheek-clapping blonde, standing alone, there is a dude. The dude is shirtless and in swim trunks— dressed far more appropriately than Superboy for an afternoon of fun in the summer sun (pretty sure in the dark ages, they punished heretics by forcing them to wear leather jackets to the beach.) With his hands on his hips, the dude is watching Superboy lift the gals up. Of the dude’s face we are provided but the barest details, though we can discern what appears to be a frown.
The dude’s body is oriented away from Superboy and the girls, toward the ocean, so that we see him in profile. This simultaneously accomplishes two things: 1) we get a sense that he is not attached to any of the girls— that he is a mere onlooker, an outsider not directly connected to the unfolding events. He does not have the confrontational offense of a cuckold, of a man whose girlfriend has been hijacked by a be-spandexed superhuman; his is the uncomfortable, not-sure-what-to-do-with-his-hands posture of recent defeat. He stands like the soccer player does after the opposition has kicked the winning goal. And 2) we are better able to examine his physique than if he were facing us. What we can see is that he has a scrawnier-than- average body, not unmuscular but far from what one would call built, or even ripped. He is just a regular, skinny Joe.
I remember coming to that panel and looking at Superboy, then at the dude, then back at Superboy. It was easily done because the dude stands directly past Superboy’s torso and beneath one of the babe-wielding arms. Later, after I arrived home, I remember walking into the bathroom, removing my shirt, clambering up onto the sink, and staring at myself in the mirror for a long time.
Some superheroes gradually develop their identity, while others come to their powers in a bizarre accident or flash of transformative energy. My recognition that I was not, and never could be, a superhero, was more along the lines of the latter— it happened all at once. I had spent countless hours lost in this world of geniuses and mutants and strongmen but I had never fully appreciated, until that moment and that one panel, the vast chasm between our world and theirs, or the contrast between the bodies my heroes inhabited, and my own. The dude on the beach gave scale to what I had spent years looking at but had never consciously compared myself to; I realized I too was a wimpy onlooker, watching an omnipotent coolguy perform wonders.
It would be a few more years yet until I fully appreciated the other pretty depressing thing about that panel, and much of superhero books in general— namely, its dismally limiting portrayal of women as either 1) beautiful props, or 2) beautiful love interests in some alpha male’s narrative. It is a situation that has begun to improve in comics, finally, as represented in titles such as Captain Marvel and Silk and Spider-Gwen, while seemingly getting worse just about everywhere else. (I’m looking at you, video games) At the time, of the eleven main bouts in Marvel vs. D.C., only one was between female competitors: Wonder Woman vs. Storm (which Storm managed to win, somehow.)
Anyway, that drawing was not only the first time I ever paid attention to my body, but the first time I disliked it. But I don’t hate Superboy— any more than Spider-Man could hate the spider who fatefully bit him. Superboy was simply living his life and enjoying it with some newfound pals; physical self-consciousness eventually was going to knock on my door, one way or another. Besides, the superhero world is nothing if not a realm dictated by karmic cycles, and Superboy got plenty of comeuppance when Ben Reilly’s Spider-Man royally whooped his ass in their brawl atop a New York City rooftop in Issue #3.
And although in the years since then I have never really cared for Superman, neither do I dislike him. Nor do I hate the artistic direction that D.C. seems to be taking with their connected-universe film adaptations. If Man of Steel is any indication, they wish to elevate their heroes to a point of spectacle more than ground them in the reality we inhabit. For a certain kind of fan, that’s needed escape.
It’s not for me, though. Physically I may never look like Spider-Man, but seeing him try to hold down a pointless job delivering pizzas is at least something to which I can relate. And Steve Rogers getting bullied in the years before the supersoldier serum helps me to better “get” Captain America. In their movies, Marvel’s dialogue and humor and pathos place their far-fetched stories in a place that I recognize, and daresay love, because I reside there too.
But to each their own! Ultimately storytelling of any kind should inspire us to better challenge the evils and injustices in our own tales, in our own world, rather than fritter away our conversations feeling upset over the portrayal of made-up people.
… however satisfying it may be, every so often, to watch some Superboy get knocked the heck out.