[Mildly NSFW]

I spent part of my New Years weekend at my brother’s house, digging through his big box o’ comics and trying to determine which ones were mine. As it turns out, my adolescent self bought every X-Men comic ever published. And I mean all of them, even the Gambit series (and I don’t even like Gambit!). Fortunately, my embarrassment was somewhat diminished when I realized that my brother had even worst taste (lots of early Image Comics). The great find of that evening was the Marvel Swimsuit Special from 1992. Neither of us admits to buying it (I accused him, he accused me, so things go) and I don’t remember ever reading it.

Cover by Marc Silvestri

And I’m surprised I don’t remember it, because it sticks in the mind, though not for the reasons you might think. There’s plenty of poorly-drawn cheesecake of course, and there’s more than a few unintentionally hilarious pin-ups, such as Psylocke in a swimsuit that’s near identical to her “work” clothes.

By Jim Lee

And since this is the early 90s, big guns were a mandatory accessory, even at the beach.

By Brian Stelfreeze

But what makes this comic so memorable is how amazingly gay it is. Most of the time, homoeroticism in superhero comics is buried in the subtext. But in a swimsuit special, subtext is only wearing a speedo.

By John Romita, Jr.

By Jae Lee

By Joe Jusko

And the best of the lot…

By June Brigman and Tom Palmer

To put it bluntly, the swimsuit specials were spank material for nerdy teenage boys (I doubt this comes as a surprise to anyone). But Marvel has generally marketed its superhero material towards straight boys, so why all the beefcake?

Was the swimsuit special throwing a bone – forgive the pun – to  gay readers and straight female fans? Or was the inclusion of half-naked men simply meant to counter the complaints that this book blatantly objectifies women (as if the rest of Marvel’s titles didn’t).

There’s a third possibility: the (mostly) straight, male artists wanted to draw pictures of idealized young men, and their (mostly) straight, male audience wanted to look at those pictures. There’s a homoerotic appeal, but it has less to do with a desire for men than the wish to become a desirable man. Superheroes are a fantasy of physical perfection, as straight men define perfection. But most nerdy guys fall far short of the ideal, being either too skinny or too fat. They’d rather be Nick Fury, a mountain of muscle and chest hair who casually smokes a cigar while the girls oogle his ass. Or they’d like to be Colossus, the embodiment of raw power (in leopard skin underwear). The juxtaposition of beefcake and cheesecake allowed the reader to shift from the fantasy of being the perfect male to the fantasy of acquiring the type of hottie that only perfect males can acquire.

There’s no debate that this comic was puerile, but it’s a smart puerile that understood it’s target audience. Superhero comics are empowerment fantasies, and excluding males from the swimsuit spreads would actually exclude them from the fantasy altogether.

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