28 October 2012

Dick Grayson as DC Comics’s First Overt Male Sex Symbol

Earlier this month Thoughts About Dick Grayson considered when DC Comics began to present Dick Grayson as sexy:

I’m just spitballing here, but I don’t think DC really presented Dick as sexy until the 1980s in New Teen Titans, and I don’t think he became an icon for sexiness until the 1990s.
I agree with the first part of that conclusion, but I also think Dick Grayson was the company’s primary male sex symbol in the mid-1980s because he was the first hero frankly shown to be having sex.

That was a big change from the early days, of course. For the first thirty years of his existence, as the most prominent minor in a genre with strict rules about sex and everything else, Dick Grayson was kept far away from sexual feelings. In fact, Batman, #1, ended by showing how Robin was immune to the Cat[woman]’s charms even as Batman succumbed.

In 1963’s the “Prisoners of Three Worlds” story ended with Robin and Bat-Girl going off hand in hand while Batman blushed and gulped at Batwoman’s advances, but Dick and Betty would surely do nothing but kiss. In contrast, Alfred’s imaginary stories in the same era presented the clear possibility of Bruce and Kathy having a child.

Similarly, while there was a lot of flirtatious banter with Wonder Girl in the early Teen Titans stories, Robin never really connected with her, Harlequin, Batgirl, or other possible partners. In solo stories Dick’s college girlfriend Lori visited his dorm room, but he stayed dressed in his turtleneck sweater.

But then came New Teen Titans, by Marv Wolfman and George Pérez, in 1980. And that was one sexy comic book, from its very first images of Starfire in her barely-legal and completely impractical armor. Cartoonist R. C. Harvey tried to analyze the runaway popularity of that magazine in The Art of the Comic Book:
Upon first looking into issues of Perez’s New Teen Titans, I was struck by two aspects of his drawing style—how pretty his people looked and how copiously his detail abounded. . . . His people were statuesque hunks and glossy glamour girls, hothouse heroes and heroines cavorting in shapely perfection amid uncluttered and tastefully appointed settings.
The Titans were often working out in skimpy clothing or lounging around pools. Gar Logan’s jokes always drew attention to the beautiful girls, though they also made clear he wasn’t getting any. Even characters who weren’t supposed to be or think of themselves as physically appealing, like Changeling, Cyborg, and Raven, were gorgeous.

Pérez made no bones about designing sex appeal into the magazine in an interview with The Comic Times in 1980:
Starfire…was definitely created for pure sex. The fact is she’s sexy, she enjoys sex, and she makes no bones about it. She attacks Robin in the second issue. You know, really gives him one right across the mouth. The thing is. Starfire is an alien from another planet, but she can learn the language by touch. That’s just the way she chooses to touch. She likes Robin because he’s one of the few guys who's gutsy enough to show his legs. I hate that damn costume of Robin’s. but at least we’re going to have a little fun with it.
In 1983, Pérez repeated to Comics Scene that “Starfire was created as the group’s sex symbol.” Part of the fun of her early aggressiveness came from how Robin was such a straitlaced fellow, both as a character within the story and as a symbol in the larger American culture.

But soon Starfire wasn’t the only Titan to be sexy. In 1983 The Comics Journal’s Dwight R. Decker told Wolfman during an interview: “the Titans aren’t hopping into bed with each other, but there’s still an undercurrent of sexuality.” Wolfman acknowledged that Donna Troy (Wonder Girl) was in a “very healthy sexual relationship” with her boyfriend, Terry Long.

And there was more going on than Wolfman was ready to acknowledge. In New Teen Titans, #28 (dated February 1983), Dick visits Kory’s apartment and on a later page is wearing nothing but his pants while Kory is down to her nightgown. It didn’t take a lot of reading between the panels (or, to put it another way, in the gutters) to figure out what they had been doing. Later Wolfman joked about that scene but at the time he apparently had to be more circumspect.

In 1984, DC Comics launched a new New Teen Titans magazine with better printing and a higher price. This was sold only through comics shops, not newsstands, relieving the creators of worry about what innocent children might stumble across. And in the first issue of that magazine, one panel showed that Dick Grayson and Kory have been sleeping together. (As if we didn’t know.)

In the book Focus on George Pérez, published in 1985, the artist said that panel was his idea:
the simple reason that Dick is 19 years old. I was married at 19. . . . they are both consenting adults, and no matter what—the title says Teen Titans—at 19 years old, those two are legally adult. . . .

And, that one panel, which I did as tastefully as I could, there was no nudity involved, nothing was shown of the act, it’s just the fact that she was in what was established as being his bedroom, because I’d drawn the bedroom before. It’s the bedroom set I have. And, make no question about it, they were in bed together...
The company received “a few letters,” Pérez said then; “about three or four,” he recalled in 1987. But enough that Wolfman as the magazine’s editor felt he should respond on the letters page:
this has become one of the most controversial panels we’ve ever presented. Many readers wrote in saying “Way to go!” and others said “How could you do that in a book about teenagers?” The question cannot be resolved in a letter column. We didn’t mean to use Dick and Kory as role-models. That’s never been our intention anyway, but we realize by their being printed and portrayed as heroes (which they are) the mantle of being a role-model rests on their shoulders.

We acknowledge the problem some of you had with the scene and we apologize if it bothered you. We honestly had no idea there would be any problem. We also acknowledge that premarital sex obviously does exist, end we neither condone nor condemn those who believe or disbelieve in it.
In 1987 Pérez said:
As far as the backlash, it seemed like more only because Marv wanted to deal with the actual question. Even though there were very, very few letters about it, Marv wanted to deal with that and state something about it. I think Marv didn’t go far enough, myself. But again, I have an opinion on that type of thing, or am more vocal in some respects.

Unfortunately, by doing that, it called attention to it, and I think that it probably got more of a backlash of attention brought on by putting it in the letters page than it ever did appearing in the comic, itself.
Indeed, regardless of his denials, Wolfman’s discussion of the characters as “role models” raised the question of what they symbolized. Dick Grayson had been a comic-book role model since his first appearances. He had also symbolized youth, and now the former Boy Wonder was in bed with an alien supermodel. What was America coming to in 1984?! Next we’d be noticing that the President and his wife had gotten married in a secret ceremony eight months before the birth of their first child.

Pérez pointed to preceding examples of comics heroes having sex: Bruce Banner in The Hulk and Charles Xavier in X-Men. But those were:
  • Marvel magazines, not the more traditional DC titles.
  • characters established as adult.
  • not a character America had known as a youth since 1940.
Sex meant more when it involved Dick Grayson. As Wolfman and Pérez had planned, that character’s growth to independence, soon to culminate in taking the new name of Nightwing, was intimately tied up in his leadership of the Titans and his relationship with Kory. And that relationship included sex, even if it wasn’t yet a marriage. As an original reader of those magazines, I can attest that the characters’ behavior didn’t seem scandalous; it seemed natural.

Of course there’s a delightful irony in the fact that the original kid sidekick became the first unmarried male DC hero to have a sex life. I think that made Dick Grayson the company’s primary icon of male sexuality all the way back in 1984.

Within a few years, other DC characters followed. Dick came to represent monogamous values while other heroes of his generation were more freewheeling (providing yet another way for Roy Harper to screw things up for himself). But, just as he was always comics’ first and thus leading kid sidekick, Dick Grayson would always be DC’s first sex symbol.


Thoughts said...

Thanks for mentioning my blog! I feel so honored. I really love your stuff. I have learned so much from you.

It's really great to hear your opinion. I wasn't alive in 1984, so my ideas might be a tad skewed. For me, the 1990s comics seemed so much more sexual, but that is probably a sign of the times. Maybe Dick's sexual icon status became more overt (more sex with more women?)in the 1990s?

Did DC never show Bruce having sex in the 1970s? That's funny that "playboy" Bruce was beaten to the visual punch by his "youthful ward."

J. L. Bell said...

I agree that comics became much more overt about sex in the 1990s—and even the late 1980s. In 1984 Marv Wolfman wrote what came close to an apology for that one small panel showing Dick and Kory in bed. Within a couple of years the magazine featured big, juicy panels of the same subject and storylines built around the Titans seducing each other. In 1983 Wolfman had to be pressed into acknowledging his characters had sex lives. By 1989 Pérez was discussing Jericho’s sex life at length in an interview.

Once Dick Grayson and Koriand’r broke up, he was free to be made into a more freewheeling sex symbol. He had the affair with Helena Bertinelli and the long relationship with Barbara Gordon. Dick remained monogamous at heart (with the odd retroactive exception of Nightwing Annual, #2). But it’s a sign that the company wanted to push him as a sex symbol for fans that characters discussed him as much more romantically active than he really was. In Nightwing, #25, Tim Drake reels off a list of girlfriends, and Dick never even had a date with a couple of them.

Of course, it’s all relative. By 1970s standards it was pretty clear that Bruce Wayne and Silver St. Cloud were having a sexual affair—but DC Comics couldn’t show them in bed together or otherwise confirm that suggestion, lest us kids be morally scarred. By the late 1980s the company could publish the Son of the Demon, showing Batman and Talia having an out-of-continuity child together (inspiration for Damian). Dick and Kory had broken down the barriers.