2008 was an interesting year for superheroes in pop culture. At the time, Marvel Studies was busy launching its cinematic universe with Iron Man and The Incredible Hulk. Christopher Nolan was classing up DC’s previously campy Batman mythos with The Dark Knight. Hellboy continued to dazzle audiences in its critically acclaimed sequel, while Punisher fans suffered a decisive blow from its adaptation. Complaints of superhero fatigue also slowly emerged to counterbalance all the fun, typically in the form of critical essays, deconstructions, and parodies.
It was a simpler time back then, before the stranglehold superhero movies currently have on our cultural zeitgeist. Their formulaic framework was in its infancy, which left room for bold interpretations of these fictional origins and motivations; however, it’s interesting to note that these new, non-comic book canon stories felt rather limited in imagination.
We could talk about the obvious Straight White Male problem these early superhero films had. Or we could talk about their increasing overreliance on the military-industrial complex to both plump up their plots and fill their coffers. But there’s one topic of particular importance in this case, one often overlooked by less courageous outlets…
Plainly: do superheroes fuck?
I’m not talking about mildly promiscuous playboy antics or the sweetly sterile off-screen seductions between longtime lovers. I’m not even talking about some benign self-love, despite how controversial this topic seems to be. Rather, I’m talking about the strange. The magical. The extreme. The disturbing. The dangerous. The fun. All these adjectives and more to describe the fictional sex lives of the most captivating characters to ever exist.
Where all other previous creative media faltered, in 2008, one man was brave enough to publicly share his superhero sexcanons with the world. That man was Italian journalist and award-winning author Marco Mancassola. And his strange, magical, extreme, disturbing, dangerous, and fun literary headcanons were collected in the Erotic Lives of the Superheroes.
Despite the title, Mancassola’s novel is more than a PWP you might find on Ao3. Erotic Lives of the Superheroes takes its readers on an emotionally intimate and intruding adventure about former famous superheroes. The likes of Mister Fantastic, Namor, Batman, Superman, and other superheroes distributed across Marvel and DC canon are in the twilight of their lives and careers. At first, their daily trials and tribulations deal with personal regrets, strained relationships, and the physical realities of their aging super bodies. But a superhero serial killer soon interrupts their quietly desperate lives. If that weren’t bad enough, this killer seems to be part of a wider conspiracy against Earth’s former greatest heroes.
First, I’m sure you have a few questions about this novel. Like, how the hell do Reed Richards and Batman know each other? Does no one care about the integrity of comic book canon these days? Mancassola’s answer, I’m afraid, is a resounding no.
Moving on, the next set of questions are much thornier. How was Mancassola able to blatantly use existing comic book characters for his incredibly horny existential novel? Where were Marvel and DC’s lawyers in all this? Why did they fail to stop the multiple publications of Mancassola’s novel around the world? Does this mean that you, a humble fan, can finally publish your epic Booster Gold/Blue Beetle fanfic and not change the names like E.L. James and Cassandra Clare had to do?
Maybe, so long as you live outside of the continental United States.* While Marvel and DC’s copyright protections are arguably iron-clad, they are only national in scope. In other words, there is technically no international copyright that would protect an author’s work through just one copyright registration. Instead, countries have entered various treaties and conventions to ensure “minimal standards” of copyright protection. The most important of these global agreements is the Berne Convention, which is a curious little mandate. For one thing, it does not require additional registration. If so desired, one’s copyright in the U.S. would also apply to another convention member; however, the copyright protection one would receive would be the protections of the other convention member, not those of the U.S.
Essentially, this means that as a U.S. copyright holder, you’re at the mercy of the copyright laws of other countries. It’s the reason why so many different international interpretations of Spider-Man exist, from the Japanese TV show to the Mexican AU comic book series about the married life of Peter Parker and Gwen Stacy. If the countries where these works originated don’t have a problem with the work, then they likely will not be removed unless their policies legally align with American copyrights.
As an Italian author, Mancassola’s usage of American comic book characters would thus be subject to Italian copyright laws. And, unfortunately for Marvel and DC, Italian copyright strongly supports domestic authors’ rights above all else. Further, Italy does not have “fair use” or “exclusive right” laws in effect like the U.S. does. Together, these doctrines allow for very limited use of copyrighted material without needing permission. Without them in place, all bets are off. So, Mancassola would not have been required to ask American comic book publishers for their permission at all. He could just go for it, as he did in 2008.
Distribution of Erotic Lives was small but critically successful at first, isolated to Italy and then France in its publication infancy. A much wider and scandalized reception did not greet the author until the novel was translated into English for British distribution in 2013. At the time, news outlets specifically focused their shock and outrage on the novel’s depiction of Batman’s sex life. Inspired by the character’s infamously dark persona, Mancassola interpreted that dark side as stemming from a narcissistic obsession with youth, “weird” fetishes, and extreme sex. Erotic Lives’ Batman thus matured into a horribly vain bisexual man interested in kinky sexcapades with his many Boy Wonders.
Compared to today’s fandom circles, it’s a decidedly tame sexual interpretation, let’s say. Even by fanfiction.net standards. Further, it’s one that, at times, dangerously caresses harmful queer stereotypes rather than rely on ample existing subtext about the character. Either way, it was just enough to get a rise out of certain comic book fans and entertainment rags. And it definitely made Dr. Fredric Wertham dance happily in his grave.
Still, there are other interesting sexual encounters in the book to consider, besides wondering exactly which Robin has the honor of fisting Batman’s ass. For example, after her latest jail stint, Mystique throws herself into the world of late-night talk shows. While she enthralls crowds with her celebrity shapeshifting, she saves her personal transformations for self-pleasure and hookups with strangers. In this latter case, many of her midnight partners are especially interested in, quite literally, fucking themselves, and she is more than happy to oblige.
Meanwhile, a depressed, divorced Reed Richards enters a tumultuous affair with a much younger woman. For some reason, this relationship sparks within him an uncharacteristically desperate desire to impress. To achieve this goal, Richards undergoes such sexually excessive measures as inflating his penis within his partner (known as knotting among A/B/O and werewolf enthusiasts); wrapping his penis around her body like a boa constrictor so he can cum on her face; and pleasuring her in an Edward Penishands reenactment**.
Buried within the pages of all this smut are themes about aging masculinity, existential fears of deterioration, and love, rather beautifully communicated through Mancassola’s lyrical writing style. And as mentioned, there are also some less-than-savory elements to the narrative that betray the early Aughts’ extremely casual racism, misogyny, and homophobia. These negatives are especially egregious for readers to encounter given the overall dignity and compassion Mancassola displays in writing these characters.
In the end, for good or for ill, potential legal consequences be damned, Mancassola proudly ushered Erotic Lives of the Superheroes into the literary world. At the very least, we can praise him for helping make mainstream superhero properties just a little bit hornier for us all.