Supersex: Sexuality, fantasy, and the superhero, edited by Anna F. Peppard

Francesca Coppa

Muhlenberg College, Allentown, Pennsylvania, United States

[0.1] Keywords—Comic book television and movies; Comic books; Fan cultures; Queer reading; Race and representation

Coppa, Francesca. 2023. Supersex: Sexuality, Fantasy, and the Superhero, edited by Anna F. Peppard [book review]. Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 40.

Anna F. Peppard, editor, Supersex: Sexuality, fantasy, and the superhero. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2020. Hardback $60 (374p) (ISBN 9781477321607).

[1] Supersex: Sexuality, Fantasy, and the Superhero begins in a logical place: with a discussion of Frederick Wertham's 1954 book, Seduction of the Innocent. Fan-studies scholars might have Wertham pigeonholed as a villain—the psychiatrist who claimed that comic books were a danger to children because of their queer sexual subtexts. But this flattens Wertham's arguments, which were concerned not just with sexuality but with how depictions of sexism, violence, racism, and white supremacy hurt children, especially children of color (Beaty 2005, 94). So Wertham's reputation in fan studies illustrates a tension between the advocacy of sexual freedom and the critique of racial representation; to put it another way, it demonstrates a failure of intersectional thinking.

[2] These issues are still at the heart of fandom as well as central to Supersex: Sexuality, Fantasy, and the Superhero. Fandom, like the broader culture, is still trying to work out issues including the relationship between representations and reality, where and how to moderate speech, and the importance and meaning of sexual fantasy, particularly to nondominant groups. Comic books, like many beloved fan texts, have historically been important to queer people for their sexual subtexts; at the same time, such texts are messy and often problematic.

[3] Supersex is at its best when it is showcasing the multiplicity of contradictory readings different audiences have made of comic books over time. A case in point: Wonder Woman's honorary United Nations ambassadorship, which Anna Peppard discusses in her introduction. Days after Wonder Woman was made an ambassador for women and girls, UN employees petitioned to strip her of the title. They argued that "[T]he reality is that the character's current iteration is that of a large-breasted, white woman of impossible proportions, scantily clad in a shimmery, thigh-baring bodysuit with an American flag motif and knee high boots—the epitome of a pin-up girl" (8). Fair enough—except that later in Supersex, Richard Harrison notes that Wonder Woman is the cosplay character that "attracts fans with the greatest diversity of body type; she is also the character I've seen played most by fans regardless of gender" (349). So does Wonder Woman have to be a large-breasted white woman? Peppard points out that the UN's criticism "defin[es] certain types of female bodies and forms of sexual expression as incompatible with heroism" (8) and quotes from a counter-petition that argues that Wonder Woman is a queer woman who should not be judged "on what she chooses to wear or how she looks" (8).

[4] So the question becomes: What are we reading for? As Peppard sums up, "Where a group of multinational UN employees see a misogynistic pin-up, a fourteen year old American girl can see a queer icon" (8–9). And they can both be right. In his essay about the X-Men's Storm, "A Storm of Passion: Sexual Agency and Symbolic Capital in the X-Men's Storm," J. Andrew Deman shows how comics writers gradually moved from depicting Storm as a sexual fantasy to a character who was queerer, more punk, more African, less objectified, and generally more subjectified and desiring. If Storm's presentation can evolve, why not Wonder Woman's?

[5] In "Dazzler, Melodrama, and Shame: Mutant Allegory, Closeted Readers," Brian Johnson approaches the interpretive multiplicity of superhero stories from a different direction. While many have argued that Dazzler, a disco-inspired, roller-skating female superhero, gave queer and questioning fans a sense of belonging, Johnson argues that readers outside of queer or fannish communities, and children in particular, might not have the skills to read the text this way. Johnson argues that for naive readers, the surface readings wherein superheroes such as Dazzler are forced into double lives, experience shame, need to hide, face disapproval from parents, and so forth are louder than the liberating subtextual readings fan scholars typically celebrate. Which brings us back to the contradictions around Wertham: in the 1950s, policymakers feared that children would see their homosexuality reflected in comics and be affirmed. But Johnson reminds us that queer meanings aren't necessarily affirming, and in fact, queer readings might not even be visible to those who need them most.

[6] The second half of Supersex focuses on the contradictions and multiple readings of the superhero in comics-inspired movies, television shows, and fan culture. In a standout essay, "X-Men Films and the Domestication of Dissent: Sexuality, Race, and Respectability," Christopher B. Zeichmann discusses how the X-Men's gay politics are defined both against more defiantly queer politics as well as against rhetoric and actions associated with Black liberation. Zeichmann claims that Charles Xavier's respectability politics are endorsed at the expense of Magneto's more revolutionary rhetoric and actions, which articulate not only a more defiant queerness but also evoke Black history: Magneto's group is the Brotherhood; Magneto encourages mutants to use their real (rather than slave) names; Magneto vows to fight by "any means necessary," a direct quotation from Malcolm X. Zeichmann argues that "[t]he first two X-Men films are emphatically anti-intersectional, in that queer liberation and Black liberation are placed in an antagonistic and ultimately irreconcilable relationship."

[7] So what does it mean to be a fan of such messy and contradictory works? Richard Harrison closes the book with this question in a poetic epilogue wherein he meditates on the overdetermined, exaggeratedly masculine, notably white body of the traditional superhero. Harrison muses about what this idealized body meant to him as a child, growing up with a mother who'd been a victim of sexual abuse and who therefore feared the male body (as many women do). Harrison constructs various layers of meaning: the superheroic male body is one that can survive punishment; it is a body whose penis is suppressed, invisible, or irrelevant; it incarnates a fantasy of having a body that is "powerful, beautiful, and loved." Now Harrison looks at the superhero body and asks: "What is the answer to loving what you used to love when you thought it was perfect, when now, instead, you see its limitations, its reversal of what you thought it told you?" (358).

[8] How to deal with the multiplicities and limitations of the things we love is a thorny question, but both fans and fan-studies scholars are likely to find some useful direction in this broad collection, which features essays on a range of characters and universes. Other essays include Richard Reynolds on Miss Fury, Sarah M. Panuska on how comics can depict gay community, Keith Friedlander on the Young Avengers' attempt to live out in public, Samantha Langsdale on the women of the Thor-verse, Anna Peppard on Lois & Clark, Jeffrey A. Brown on the superhero as phallus, Joseph Brennan on gay superhero porn, Olivia Hicks on SuperCorp, and Anne Kustritz on the many ways that fans genderbend Steve Rogers. Everyone who ever tied on a cape or spun around hoping to become Wonder Woman will find something of interest here.

[9] What you won't find is consistency, uniformity, settled law. If there's one thing to be learned from the Wertham-inspired attempts to regulate comics, it's that sexual interpretations are hard to eliminate, because they're so clearly in the eye of the beholder. If the Comics Code was an attempt to legislate the deviant sexuality out of comics, Supersex shows that it didn't do so well. You can try to stop Batman from being queer but—*closes eyes and fantasizes*—nope, still queer! As Andy Medhurst puts it, "What is at stake here is the question of reading, of what readers do with the raw material they are given. Readers are at liberty to construct whatever fantasy lives they like with the characters of the fiction they read" (1991, 152). And that, at its heart, is what Supersex is about.


Beaty, Bart. 2005. Fredric Wertham and the Critique of Mass Culture. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi.

Medhurst, Andy. 1991. "Batman, Deviance, and Camp." In The Many Lives of the Batman: Critical Approaches to a Superhero and His Media, edited by Roberta E. Pearson and William Uricchio, 149–63. New York: Routledge.

Wertham, Frederic. 1954. Seduction of the Innocent. New York: Rinehart & Company.