This article first appeared in The Frontiersman #6, © Broken Frontier 2010.
Let’s be mature about this. And let’s be honest.
For some time now, Superman has been more than simply a superhero comic book character. That’s not a slight to the medium or a slam to the genre; it’s just a fact. Superman is an icon, an identity, a cash cow, a cottage industry, a brand, and an ideal all in one. What he’s not, what he’s never been, is a sex symbol nor a sexual being. Superman lacks libido.
Maybe *somewhere* there’s a stray issue that a mylar-bag Geek-keeper can cite to point out Supes giving a rare leer at a lady — not a hoax, not a dream, not an imaginary story! Perhaps Superman has shown fleeting glimpses of hypothesis-shattering lust. To which, I say two things:
First, the words “stray” and “fleeting” are key; these are by no means general traits of the character. Second, how many devoted readers have read or think fondly of a “sexy Superman” story? At best, such a tale is a trivia-winner; at worst, it’s a back-in-the-bin forgotten day for the Man of Steel.
This sexless Superman, this chaste strange visitor, is far more a function of his comic book adventures than, say, his film or television personae. Christopher Reeve had a subtle swagger to his portrayal of Superman, particularly when slyly commenting on the color of Lois’s underwear. In fact, during the filming of Superman: The Movie, rumor has it that a particular grip was assigned to carefully monitor Reeve’s crotch while in costume: if his package jostled too much as to upset a shot, this keen-eyed professional voyeur would halt the action and call for the scene to be redone. (Better fixed now, logic would have it, than have a super-member ruin opportunities for the editors later.)
Whether or not actors like Tom Welling, Brandon Routh, or Dean Cain had to suffer similar indignities, they each have engaged in far more physical episodes with their Loises, Lanas, and Kats than their two-dimensional counterpart. In fact, only Cain’s Superman on Lois & Clark has the distinction of sharing Superman’s in-comics marital status: he is married (and that only lasted 19 episodes for Cain before the show was axed). Now, within the bonds of holy wedlock, one might think Superman has license to yearn openly for Lane flesh. However, even this expression of healthy spousal sexuality is rarely shown, with the pair more often longing to hold each other than, frankly, fornicate.
One argument for Superman’s restraint with his own wife could be Larry Niven’s sensational “Man of Steel, Women of Kleenex” explanation: If Superman had sex with Lois, he’d likely kill her, “simultaneously ripping her open from crotch to sternum, gutting her like a trout. Lastly, he’d blow off her head. […] Kal-El’s semen would emerge with the muzzle velocity of a machine gun bullet.” Garth Ennis and Amanda Conner played this for good laughs with the Superman parody the Saint and his inaurgural orgasm in The Pro.
Yet, Superman’s in-continuity encounters with other, shall we say, more durable females has yielded little carnal result. For Action Comics #600, writer/artist John Byrne had Wonder Woman and Superman exchange an entwined, mid-flight, full-mouth kiss with each other… that left the two friends rather cold. (Mark Waid and Alex Ross would have their Elseworlds Kingdom Come peck be even colder, though it leads eventually to a procreative result; Frank Miller would remain outside continuity but fully deliver the aeronautic goods in The Dark Knight Strikes Back and All-Star Batman.)
The scholarly, Ivory Tower academic explanation for this is twofold (so pay attention, students). First, Superman, fashioned in the late 1930s American sensibility, has a strong streak of Puritanism woven into his DNA: Sex is sinful, lust is bad, and love should only be agapic, not erotic. John Byrne tried to breed it right out the Kryptonians in his 1980s reboot, standing for approximately 20 years! John Shelton Lawrence and Robert Jewett say that it is this removal from society, this state of isolation, that characterizes most American heroes from those of the Campellian monomyth. The Lone Ranger must only shoot the guns out of outlaws hands – not shoot the outlaws – and he must keep himself apart (socially, sexually) from the civilization he protects. The same goes for Natty Bumpo, Mary Poppins, and Rambo – do not think of them ever getting a sex scene (separately or together).
The second collegiate explanation for a sexless Superman would likely reference the go-to essay for all superhero scholarship, Umberto Eco’s “The Myth of Superman.” In short, Superman must never age (for a whole litany of reasons, making the essay required reading rather than easily summarized here). And, if Superman were to reproduce, then that would be a very concrete, very Oedipal passage of time; a Superman Jr. would consume Kal-El in a way that fantasy stories like the “Saga of the Super-Sons” or “Son of Superman” do not by admitting to their oneiric haze outside continuity.
But, regardless of those two points, we don’t live in the Ivory Tower, and that’s certainly not where Superman is written and sold. America is continually growing out of its Puritanism (though, some days, it feels like one step forward and two steps back). Even if it weren’t, one could fight fire with fire and accuse Superman’s marriage of being suspect for its lack of reproduction, as the good Lord of Plymouth Rock intended, naturally. To the second point, the rewriting of time (or undoing of time) is now so easy in the superhero genre that a begetting Superman could maintain his never-ending status with a plot loophole as easily as you could say, “Brightest Day,” frankly.
Today, in an era where sexuality need not be the same as lust and our heroes can have fully human lives (whether it’s as Tony Stark playboys or as Matrix-esque monogamous passions), this is the one corner of Superman that has not escaped its origin as juvenile literature. And it’s simply a matter of story and storytelling that prevents it currently – yes, DC Comics, I have a pitch right here on my laptop – not some inherent prohibition in the character. Find the comics creator who can handle it with panache, sensitivity, maturity, and some levity, and we can have a red-blooded Superman equipped to handle adulthood and the twenty-first century along with Lois in a negligee.
For a character with an emphatically phallic origin story, a bevy of L.L. suitoresses, and the most archetypically skin-tight costume, sex is conspicuously absent. Stop teasing Superman for wearing his underwear on the outside and, instead, grow up by putting a little more weight in that package.
A. David Lewis is a national lecturer on comics, currently receiving his Ph.D. from Boston University. In addition to co-editing Graven Images: Religion in Comic Books and Graphic Novels and serving as an Editorial Board Member for the International Journal of Comic Art, he is also the co-creator of The Lone and Level Sands and Some New Kind of Slaughter graphic novels.