Comments on a cultural reality between past and future.

This blog describes Metatime in the Posthuman experience, drawn from Sir Isaac Newton's secret work on the future end of times, a tract in which he described Histories of Things to Come. His hidden papers on the occult were auctioned to two private buyers in 1936 at Sotheby's, but were not available for public research until the 1990s.

Friday, May 31, 2013

Gender Reversal Space Comics

Mystery in Space #8 (June-July 1952) © DC/Warner.

Comic Book Resources has run a series of 100 articles on mainly Silver Age comics with mind-bending and gender-bending themes. These comics (see the full list here) reflected how society was changing at the time. In March 2013, CBR focused on Mystery in Space #8 by John Broome, Bob Oksner and Bernard Sach, first published in the summer of 1952. In this issue, gender roles are reversed, and then reversed again - and only space exploration makes it all possible.

You can read several space-themed Golden Age and Silver Age public domain comic series for free online at the Digital Comic Museum:


  1. I was working in a comics retail shop in the early 90's when a customer came in looking for an old issue of Superboy. He didn't know the date or issue number, but he was looking for a particular story in which Superboy says something egregiously sexist (but in keeping with the 1950's) to Lana Lang. That night he has a dream in which he wakes up female and has to relearn social behaviors (both in costume and as a female counterpart to Clark Kent) to conform to cultural expectations of gender-specific behavior. The customer seemed really insistent on finding a copy, telling me that it had a huge impact on his life, but wouldn't elaborate any further than that. (Always a bad move, by the way; it just encourages people to imagine things far more bizarre than "I realized I was gay", or "I started dressing in girls' clothes".) Back then in the days before the web was used so prolifically it would have been even more difficult to find those stories above, which generally have no recurring characters and often no explicit writer or artist credits.

    After reading this it took me less than five minutes to find, in its entirety on Youtube, the 1930 musical comedy s/f film "Just Imagine". It projected a future in 1980 where names replace numbers and the government dictates who you can marry. In a "Sleeper"-like twist, a European immigrant character from 1930 is revived for wacky slapstick purposes, including a trip to Mars where he flirts with both male and female Martians.

    The artist in the story you included here, Bob Oksner, became more famous for doing DC's humor comics, especially licensed properties (Bob Hope, Jerry Lewis, etc.), but also "Angel and the Ape", about a Goldie Hawn lookalike who's a judo-expert and hard-boiled detective, while her partner, a male gorilla, just wants to be a comic book artist. About thirty years later Art Adams created "Monkeyman and O'Brien" about a gorilla scientist from another dimension and his partner, a young woman who became super-strong in a freak accident. Although different genres, both involve a beautiful woman being both feminine and the muscle in a team and their male partner, literally 'a big ape' in both cases, being the sensitive and perceptive thinker. I'm just not certain in either case if the impetus to create these strips came from science fiction's inclination to question assumptions or humor's inclination to exploit assumptions and expectations to elicit surprise.

  2. Thanks for your comment, pblfsda. Did you ever find the issue of Superboy the guy wanted? In the documentary about the life of Robert Crumb, one of the female comics artists and writers who knew him spoke about how comics were often used to convey messages that were 'out there' in the society. Anything that needed to be digested or absorbed by the culture was put in the fringe pulp magazines. Before the code, that included drug addiction and spousal abuse and what we now know as PTSD suffered by soldiers returned from WWII. So I am not surprised by the gender bending in the 1950s and 60s.

  3. No, I never found the comic. There were tons of similar identity alterations throughout the history of the Superman-related comics while Mort Weisinger was editor. In one, Jimmy Olsen goes undercover as a female stage performer and becomes the girlfriend of a mobster, who, presumably, couldn't tell Jimmy was really male...unless...

    The single identifying characteristic of stories in the Weisinger era was that Superman and his supporting cast were constantly staging elaborate and frequently cruel pranks on one another, squandering time, resources and Kal's then ever-expanding panoply of super-powers, often dragging other super-heroes in for cameos (although God help any editor who tried putting a Superman cameo in their titles; Weisinger jealously guarded the use of what he considered "his" characters and was known among the creative staff for loud, obscenity-laden and sometimes violent temper tantrums). There were pranks and deceptions pulled to catch criminals that involved so many Rube-Goldberg-ish components that there was a strong likelihood that any one step in the plan could fail, allowing the criminal to go free, whereas Superman could have easily caught them, with incriminating evidence, using any of the super powers he exhibits every day. Other pranks involved convincing people that friends or relatives believed dead were still alive or that the victim of the prank is convinced that they are legally married to a friend or even a stranger. Why anyone would believe that these characters would remain friends once the 'joke' is revealed is mystifying. Gender alteration, or changing any aspect so central to someone's identity, must be relatively a walk in the park for characters who barely exhibit the behavior of a healthy integrated personality in the first place.

    The ultimate science fiction example of stepping into someone else's shoes would have to be the TV series "Quantum Leap" (I guess it would be stepping into someone's actual feet, let alone shoes). But in comics, other examples of unconventional sexuality include Marvel's Starhawk or DC's Doctor Occult, who are each really a husband and wife sharing a body; an alien race in DC's Legion of Super-Heroes that changes gender at a certain stage of life; the occasional cross-species relationship such as Howard the Duck and Bev Switzler; and of course anything involving Barbarella. Speaking of which, outside of comics, I would look to French or Russian science fiction in print for stories that put questions of sexuality in the context of societal expectations at the core of the plot.

  4. As always, your background knowledge on these topics amazes me, pblfsda. I haven't read that era of Superman stories, although whole collections appear on ebay every other week. It sounds alien (cough) to our understanding of Superman as a spotless hero. What do you make of the Dark Knight treatment of Superman coming up in the movie this summer? DC claims that audiences did not like the too-good Superman presented in the last film (2006, I think it was), although I liked that depiction fine.

    It's odd that editors in the comics industry have become weirdly PC about themes such as the ones you mention above, while going in for death and gore. They put villains in title spots in comics series when they can't do enough damage to the heroes' heroic qualities. They make heroes commit murder, etc.

  5. When Julius Schwartz took over the Superman-related titles c.1970 he did an excellent job of emphasizing Kal's virtue's and quietly discontinuing the cruel pranks (as well as the imaginary death and marriage stories) without drawing attention to the fact that they had been a problem. (He apparently remembered the 1950's: the debut of the CCA stamp meant to reassure parents that comics were wholesome was followed by large numbers of participating publishers going out of business; they would have been better off relying on the public's short memories instead of reminding them of past witch hunts with every new cover.) Instead of announcing that "From now on, Superman will be emotionally well adjusted", he instead approved the red herring of the 'elimination' of kryptonite, which may have been a perennial touchstone by which the public recognized the character but it had also become a bit of a crutch for writers. What actually happened is that the kryptonite that had made its way to Earth years ago had oxidized; anything still in space was probably still potent. But the prospect of a massive change to the clichés of the past brought in enough curious readers to compensate for the few hard-case fans upset that they could no longer read the same stories over and over. The new readers either stayed with the new, grown-up Superman or didn't, but their decisions would be based on what the character was at the moment and not the public perception of what he once was.

    That really can't be done with movies because the past incarnations keep playing on basic cable and movie channels, whereas while Schwartz was editing new scripts by younger writers they didn't have to sit on the shelves next to the Weisinger version. Few towns in 1970 had stores that sold back issues and even fewer trade collections had ever existed. The previous Superman movie, if I remember correctly, takes place after the second Christopher Reeve movie, as though the third and fourth had never happened (if only). Should have worked, but how could it? How can you tell an audience, within a film, to draw on memories of two movies with these characters, but not two others? The bigger problem is how do you convince today's audiences that the ultimate illegal alien is America's greatest hero? In 1978 that was just a question of filmmaking skills. Today it also involves experience as a deprogrammer to counteract billions of dollars and over a decade of opportunistic propaganda. As for Kal rolling up his sleeves and embracing "any means possible" against Zod, that isn't the usual Superman scenario. He's facing one of his own, not the Toyman; the human race is at risk, not just Metropolis. Ideally, it shouldn't change his basic personality or values, but war usually does. It's reclaiming those values when the war is over, rather than continuing to be claimed by the war ourselves, that eventually leads us to see soldiers as heroic rather than casualties who just haven't stopped walking around yet.

    The optimum we could expect from an adventure hero would be that, in a desperate no-win situation, they acknowledge the legitimacy of murdering a threatening villain as an option and then go on to find a better, equally legitimate option. That is often impossible for us mere mortals but it would be far from the only time our heroes did things that would be impossible for us. "Of course he can fly and shoot beams of heat out of his eyes, but you don't honestly expect people to believe he could get out of this without killing anybody?" Well, yes I do. The Punisher, no. Superman? Yes. And let's face it, if Frank Castle had Superman's powers his family would still be alive, so let's give him some slack.

    [Comment continued]

  6. [Continued from previous comment]

    So, if this Superman is going to send Zod into his Waterloo Sunset (oops, wrong Zod) instead of the Phantom Zone then it's a question of Kryptonian morality, not mine. His father already gave Zod a reprieve and he got a third chance at the end of the second movie. If Zod doesn't have the sense to turn his megalomania on some other hapless planet then killing him might just be doing him a favor. He just
    doesn't want to be happy. But this excessive threat may be an avenue, as it was in the "Smallville" TV series, introduce Darkseid into the movie franchise. Barring murder and a Phantom Zone projector, how could Superman possibly get rid of a homicidal Kryptonian? A bridge to the Fourth World perhaps. Something more powerful than Zod.

    Oh wow. I should write this much on my own blogs once as a while. My laundry must be done by now. Ciao.

  7. Yeah, pblfsda, this would have been a post in itself over on your blog! Thank you for commenting as always. I think there's a difference between DCnU's gratuitous exploration of heroes killing opponents and stories which look at that problem in a more considered way, and not just for shock value.

    I guess we will have to wait for the latest film to see what they are doing.

    I wondered what you thought of the nu Superman's ship with WW, his newish personality. Do you equate these tropes more or less with the unfortunate storylines in the 60s that you described? In other words, just a passing set of experimentations with the character and nothing that will be set in stone over the long term when a decent editor finally comes in?

  8. In a way, they are like the old "a dream, a hoax, an imaginary story" of the old days in that they are sensationalist but ultimately will amount to nothing. I mean, think of all the writers storming out (or being pushed) from DC in the past year; it's not a stretch to posit that most if not all grew up reading comics. Beyond that, consider their median age. I don't know for certain, but I would put money on the likelihood that they grew up reading many comics written and drawn by creators who were themselves in that first generation of comics creators who were fans as children: Roy Thomas, Barry Smith, Frank Miller, Alan Moore, John Byrne, etc. Many of those people had the good fortune to work alongside their idols, people famous in a field for which there were no examples during childhood. Their idols' references were from newspaper strips and animation. Yet, you can always tell a Roy Thomas super-hero script because it involves WWII somehow. That was when he fell in love with comics. He was constantly reviving Golden Age characters both at Marvel and DC. The others were a bit more subtle, but there was always something they brought with them to their work which they retained from the comics that inspired them, whether it was a character, an art style or a plot meme. Nowadays the only way they could be allowed to revive a beloved obscure character is if they make them a hooker and have their skull crushed after three appearances. Even if there are any children out there allowed to read these titles, they won't be reading them for long. Who's going to grow up wanting to revive this period of comics? Nobody. It hardly matters if it's the current management's intention that these New52 stories be ephemeral and transient or not; they're just going to be.

    1. I've rarely seen such a succinct yet definitive dismissal of this era. Everything about it screams 'gimmick.' Why would they revive the Silver Age, but with 90s' gimmicks other than editorial preference? I know they must have marketing teams and focus groups, MBAs who sit around a table and tell Didio what he wants to hear. But there is just no soul in these stories. Even the ones that are OK, like Animal Man, are echoes of what has come before. I don't see anything that is breaking the mold, that is brand new and riveting the way DKR was in its time.

      I don't know why TPTB will not listen to what a noticeable contingent of fandom is saying. They have their target group, i.e. young males 4-34, and I think that's about all they understand. It is a really low point in the medium, because the story-telling capacity of the creators has been limited to almost nothing. Oddly, their argument for imposing the DCnU was so they could tell brand new stories that would have been impossible in the old continuity. For example, in the quasi-Titans books, they have paired Koriand'r and Roy. I don't really see how this is all that ground-breaking. Shipping musical chairs? Really?

      In fact there were a lot of things that could have been done with the old continuity that would have shaken things up. But there Didio-era editors were limited by **their** prejudices about what could and could not be done with characters. They insisted more than ever that the JLA were the alpha heroes and that there was a hierarchy to the heroic pantheon. I much preferred Kahn's period as President / EIC. There seemed to be much more openness to new ideas. Now they have dismantled or mucked up their legacy concept in the DCU (even where Bats is concerned, it is a shambles), hired 90s' Marvel staff, and turned the DCU into a Marvel-lite fanficked universe.

      Honestly I think what they will do is have a big crossover and remerge the old DCU with the DCnU bits that they think work.

  9. @pblfsda: It's 1960's Superboy #78: " Claire Kent, Alias Super-Sister".