Content Warning: Discussion and depiction of sexuality.
So I’m just a girl in a comic book store. I’m aimlessly walking around, letting my gaze go from cover to cover, waiting for something to catch my eye. I glance over a shitload of caped crusaders, lots of skintight catsuits, a couple of combat action sequences.
Nothing really catches my eye until I see a happy-faced brunette in a halter top, boy shorts, and thigh-highs, pumping her fist next to a pouty blonde dressed as some kind of sexy nurse. The blonde is wearing latex—or paint?—and holding a giant syringe. While most female superheroes have tight, serious faces or angry-mid-yell-faces, these women look happy—almost giddy. They remind me of the Google image search results for “adult woman Halloween costume.”
I don’t know what to think. I stand in front of the comic for a long while, like I’m viewing art in a museum. I realize that I’m smiling. Before I know it, I’ve grabbed the comic and shoved it under my arm, hiding the cover like it’s a dirty magazine.
Empowered (a “sexy superhero comedy,” as it’s been described by creator Adam Warren) has captured many hearts the same way it has captured mine—with boobs and a bit of ass. But what makes it brilliant is the tongue-in-cheek nature of the writing: the way our titular (no pun intended) heroine Empowered is self-conscious about her figure and hates wearing her revealing “supersuit” (which manages to reveal more and more during every fight scene); the way her sidekick Ninjette (the aforementioned brunette in the booty shorts) is kind of an alcoholic; the way she sighs and rolls her eyes through every damsel-in-distress scene, as if to say “Not again!” Empowered is tired of the tropes, but she’s stuck in this cape-comic universe forever and is maybe trying to fight her way out. Aren’t we all?
Lots of comics maintain the same charm and innocence of Empowered, despite bulging pants and barely-there supersuits. Perhaps their saving grace is that, while showing lots of skin and thinly veiled sexual innuendo, they never venture into the territory of actual sex.
It’s hard enough to find comics that are both well-executed and sexy. It’s even harder to find comics that are well-executed while featuring straight-up sex. Most end up being exploitative or badly written. Sometimes the sex scenes are immature, like fodder for the pre-pubescent male gaze—and I think most people who aren’t looking for p0rn0graphy comics know that showing sex for sex’s sake can be a bad thing.
Sometimes it’s hard to know exactly what you’re looking at. During my teen years, I came across a copy of Guido Crepax’s comic adaptation of Marquis de Sade’s Justine. I immediately felt like I was doing something wrong, like I would be in big trouble if someone caught me. But there it was, stuffed in a bin of innocuous superhero and Archie comics and filled to the brim with explicit nudity, whips, chains, and more. I read it right there in the store, and for the first time visually learned about sadomasochism.
That comic stayed with me throughout the years and not just because I saw naked people doing grown-up things with candles. It was the content—the panels featuring philosophical interludes on social mores and female sexuality, the beautiful artwork and attention to detail in the costumes and settings—that made it stand the test of time. It’s been thirty-six years since Crepax’s Justine, but it is still an interesting example of real sex in comics. It’s definitely not for the squeamish.
Another example would be Julie Maroh’s Blue is the Warmest Color, a coming-of-age story about a young woman’s first girlfriend. It’s a beautiful and heart-wrenching tale. I made the mistake of reading it on the train during morning rush hour.
I’m sure I spiced up the morning commute for everyone who could see what I was reading, because the sex scenes were vivid. Like, really vivid. It was the first time I’d ever seen lesbian sex depicted so honestly, and it worked. The graphic nature of those scenes was absolutely necessary to show the intensity and intimacy between the two lovers. As our narrator Clementine describes the confusion and the rush of her first attraction to a woman, we feel like we’re with her every step of the way. If we didn’t see the two women make love, there would be a gaping void in the story.
In not even the most risqué sex scene in Blue, we see Clementine have one of her first orgasms. A loud, thrashing, screaming, crying orgasm. At first reading, the only things I felt were embarrassment (I was on the train at morning rush hour, remember?) and a bit of jealousy. As the comic moved forward, however, I remembered the intensity of this scene. Every lover’s quarrel, every bump in the road of Clementine’s relationship felt all the more real. Because the reader is invited to play voyeur and sit in on the couple’s most intimate moments, we understand everything that happens on a deeper level. Plus, it’s kind of nice to see a different side of sex, from the perspective of two women in love.
In that same vein, cartoonists like Alison Bechdel and Erika Moen use their comics to challenge hyper-masculine depictions of sex in comics. Their autobiographical comics deal with not only gender and sexuality, but sex itself—in all its awkward, confusing, and lusty glory.
Moen’s webcomic Oh Joy, Sex Toy (which you will probably not be able to open at work) reviews sex toys and offers her thoughts on everything from the sex industry to body image. It’s a brave celebration of authentic sexuality with a distinctly sex-positive feel and really fun pics, like a mini-caricature of Moen riding a giant vibrator.
For everything artists and writers get right about depicting sex in comics, there’s also a few that I think get it wrong (or at least, not as right as the others).
Long-running webcomic Ménage à 3, created by Gisele Lagace & Dave Lumsdon, is not a favorite. I find the stories disjointed and shallow, even though the art is awesome. It could also be just me: I’m over Archie and Three’s-Company-style hi-jinks (unless I’m actually watching Archie or Three’s Company).
My biggest pet peeve, however, is the amount of female nudity compared to male nudity. Sometimes I think the female characters are made to do things just for the sake of naked bouncing boobs, while the comic actually goes out of its way to prevent showing man-butt or even a hint of penis.
In the panels below, we are deliberately tossed half a man-ass cheek or a little implied nudity, as if this risqué enough to equal the thousands of naked boobs and girl-butts we’ve seen throughout Ménage over the years. This is a disturbing pattern and represents a lack of equal-opportunity nudity.
Another “sex” comic I’m just not that into is Least I Could Do, a strip the deals mostly with sex and promiscuity. Created by Ryan Sohmer and Lar deSouza, this semi-autobiographical comic follows Rayne Summers, a 24-year-old with a superiority complex who seems to mostly be driven only by sex.
Most (if not all) of the women in this comic have the same disproportionately large breasts. All of the (kind of unfunny) jokes can be organized in the “guy humor” category. There is a condom over the “I” in the title of the comic—I think that’s supposed to be sexy and edgy. The characters are all one-dimensional, making the sex scenes flat. It all reads like a really, really bad rom com or like a Judd Apatow p0rn movie, if one could imagine such a thing. The main character is completely arrogant and preachy, so it’s no surprise that watching him have sex may make you want to barf.
Another bad sex scene in a comic is between Batman and Catwoman in their infamous rooftop rendezvous in Catwoman #1 by Judd Winick and Guillem March. For the record, I think the artwork itself is awesome here. What I’m confused about is exactly what’s happening? And why? And how?
In one of the opening sex scene panels, Catwoman fondles Batman’s ear and lets us know that Bruce doesn’t take too long in the sack. This makes me feel sad.
She also looks pained and a bit like he’s squeezing her too hard. Maybe she’s tugging on his ear to get him to soften up the grip?
The actual sex scene itself is really confusing. We discover that one of our favorite superheroes can do it with his cape on (which is kind of cool), but we also find out he likes his nipples tweaked (which is kind of awkward). I don’t understand the sexual position they are in—if her catsuit is still on, does that mean there’s a hole in the front that we’ve just never seen? A flap?
So many questions.
Bottom line: don’t just throw sex in comics. Weave it into the storyline, into the very essence of your character. As with any good story, nothing should just happen just to happen. It’s tempting to bring in sex and nudity for no reason—we are all human, after all, and we all have a fascination with the human body. But just like with real-life sex, it’s so much better when it actually means something.