Sunday, June 15, 2008

Jules Feiffer's Superheroes Week: On the Superman love triangle

“Love is really the pursuit of a desired object, not pursuit by it. Once you’ve caught the object there is no longer any reason to love it, to have it hanging around. There must be other desireable objects out there, somewhere…What Kent wanted was just that which Superman didn’t want to be bothered with. Kent wanted Lois, Superman didn’t—thus marking the difference between a sissy and a man. A sissy wanted girls who scorned him; a man scorned girls who wanted him. Our cultural opposite of the man who didn’t make out with women has never been the man who did—but rather the man who could if he wanted to, but still didn’t. The ideal of masculine strength, whether Gary Cooper’s, Lil Abner’s, or Superman’s, was for one to be so virile and handsome, to be in such a position of strength, that he need never go near girls. Except to help them. And then get the hell out.”

—Jules Feiffer, The Great Comic Book Heroes


Anonymous said...

Jules Feiffer is clearly gay.

Anonymous said...

His wife would be surprised to find out. ;)

Jacob T. Levy said...

I wonder whether there hasn't been a massive generational-cultural shift here, with the end of the Superman love triangle as just one symptom. The Gary Cooper/ John Wayne/ Humphrey Bogart-in-Casablanca manly-man hero who didn't end up with a girl because he couldn't be bothered to seems archaic to me now. I think of the McClane from the first two Die Hard movies as more typical now-- the heartfelt reunion with the pre-existing girlfriend or wife also seen in Con Air. Keanu gets the girl in the Matrix and in Speed. Even Clint Eastwood goes from old-style Dirty Harry to new-style ending up with Renee Russo.

I also kind of think Jeff's (joking) reaction has something to do with the shift. Post-late 60s/ early 70s, pop culture seems to need a public affirmation of its action heroes' straightness-- the manly man who never kisses a woman gets shuffled offscreen when middle America starts to realize that there could be more than one reason *why* he never kisses a girl.

Caleb said...

You make some good points, Jacob. In addition to the way pop culture has evolved over the years, I imagine the aging of Superman's comic book audience had a lot to do with it too.

Back when he and his ilk were for kids, they were all in these weird relationships where women liked them but they couldn't really hook up for superhero reasons (Not just the dudes; Wonder Woman's Silver Age adventures are all about her telling Steve she can't marry him until she's defeated all evil forever or whatever).

Kissing, dating, marriage and all that mushy stuff might prove unappealing to a seven-year-old in 1952, but as the average comics readers age got older and older, those weird secret identity love triangles seemed a lot less natural.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for bringing up Wonder Woman and Steve Trevor, Caleb. The effective removal of Steve Trevor from Wonder Woman's life post-Crisis (the one on Infinite Earths, not the one that turned Doctor Light into Doctor Rapist, nor the one that gave birth to the current, 52 alternative universes, nor the upcoming "final" one - you know what I mean...) has always bothered me.

In the first place, Steve Trevor wasn't just Wonder Woman's love interest, he was also her boss and - as Diana Prince - a fellow adventurer. Marrying him off to Etta Candy is, in my mind, a lot like marrying-off Lois Lane to one of Superman's supporting cast.

Sure, marriage is respectable, but you can't get away from the fact that at the end of the day one half of an iconic pair of star-crossed lovers is knocking boots with someone else.

The other thing that always bothered me about it was that with the emphasis on Wonder Woman's mythological roots for the past 20 years, the sexual tension and Diana's refusal to indulge her attraction to Steve not only made a lot more sense than they did during her Silver Age run (a defining aspect of an Amazon's identity is to not get involved with men), but with the more "realistic"/less prudish take on the sexuality of modern comic book characters, all the "kinky" aspects of Wonder Woman that her creator baked into the character could finally be explored openly. For example:

1) Are Amazons lesbians? Bisexual? Extremely repressed heterosexual women?
2) How does the average Amazon reproduce, anyway? Do they rape men? Are they the dominant ones in the relationship? How would all-American, red-blooded Steve Trevor react to this?
3) How would Diana's perpetually virgin divine patrons react to her feelings of attraction to Steve?
4) Despite Diana's immortality and actual age, how would the apparent "daddy-daughter" thing between Steve Trevor and Diana Prince play out (this was hinted at, but never really explored in the TV series, especially the first half-dozen or so episodes of the second season).
5) Knowing that she'd outlive Steve and that their time together would be an infinitely small percentage of her overall existence, what sort of internal struggle would Wonder Woman have, losing her (assumed) virginity after centuries of celibacy and chastity, only to know that her lover would be incapable of physically maintaining the relationship in a relatively short period of time (the Aragorn/Arwen Complex)?
6) Steve's "Captain Wonder" complex is really fascinating, but has never been brought up post-Crisis. What's the deal with a man whose idealized version of *himself* is essentially to *be* Wonder Woman in drag? Why is it that so many male characters have female counterparts (BatGIRL, SuperGIRL, Mary Marvel, PowerGIRL), but no female characters have male counterparts?

Clearly, a lot of this could be played as camp, but I'm being totally serious. The comics have dealt with Batman and Superman's sexuality, and at the end of the day they're two grown men who run around in spandex and capes; one of whom has a penchant for taking in orphaned pre-pubescent boys. If they can get a serious psychoanalytical treatment in the comics, why can't/didn't Wonder Woman?

Jacob T. Levy said...

I'm not under the impression that Diana's immortal when living in patriarch's world, nor that she's already centuries old. She's not part of the founding generation of Amazons, and I have no particular memory of how long before the plane crash Hippolyta started playing with sand castles and clay princesses. Could have been less than 20 years, no?

Anonymous said...


I am not sure, to be honest. Before Infinite Crisis, it was established that Herakles had raped Diana's mother during the Golden Age of Greece (500 B.C.) and that Diana thought Herakles might be her father. This proves two things:

1) Wonder Woman is not totally certain of her own origin/parentage (or wasn't at the time), and

2) Assuming Amazons have a normal, human gestation period, Wonder Woman would have believed herself to have been alive since sometime around 499 B.C.

Post-Infinite Crisis, who knows? They're still trying to sort out how New Earth is different from Post-Zero Hour Earth from Earth Sigma...

Jacob T. Levy said...

Ack. Really? I believe you that that story appeared on the printed page, but it doesn't gel at all with my impression of Wonder Woman's age. I prefer to think of Diana as much, much younger than the founding generation of Amazons. The millennia-old Amazons should be kind of otherworldly and pretty much keep to themselves on their island. Diana was the young scamp who put on a mask to enter the contest, and who can relate to ordinary humans partly because she's so much closer in age to us. Someone who has Athenan wisdom *and* twenty-five centuries of life is effectively a god, and should have real difficulty interacting with or listening to ordinary mortals.

I'm pretty sure that in the immediate post-Crisis Perez reboot, Diana didn't exist during World War II. She had to learn the tale of Diana Trevor second-hand. That seems much better to me-- she might be a generation older than the other super-heroes, but not more than that.