[WARNING: THE FOLLOWING MAY CONTAIN PASSAGES THAT MAY BE FOUND UPSETTING BY READERS WITH DELICATE SENSIBILITIES AND READERS WITH FANATICAL PASSION FOR SUPERHERO COMICS. IT MAY ALSO LEAD TO DISORIENTATION, FRUSTRATION, CONFUSION AND GENERAL DISSATISFACTION.]
“The history of art could be written in terms of a sequence of compulsive subjects that seem to succeed each other for purely internal or artistic reasons. Such, for example, was the succession of apples, harlequins, and guitars that occupied artists in the early years of the present [20th] century. And in Florence, from about 1480 to 1505, the compulsive subject was a battle of naked men." -Kenneth Clark, The Nude, A Study of Ideal Form
The nude, an object of painting and of sculpture for thousands of years, has virtually no history in American art. Or does it? One genre which has been presenting the nude for almost a hundred years now (ever since its inception in the early decades of the twentieth century) is the superhero comic. After all, what are superheroes (graphically) but castrated male nudes body painted. At least that is what they look like in their skin tight costumes (is it not amusing that the great models of male masculinity and male strength and power, men with superpowers, are presented as colorful, castrated nudes? Would it not be more appropriate to express masculinity by a superhero with a gargantuan fifth “limb” which he would use to bludgeon criminals with? (“For his codpiece they took twenty-four and a quarter yards of the same stuff; and its shape was that of a bowed arch, well and gallantly fastened by two fine gold buckles with two enameled clasps, in each of which was set a huge emerald, the size of an orange. For (as Orpheus says, in his Book of Precious Stones, and Pliny, in his final book) this fruit has an erective virtue and is encouraging to the natural member. The bulge of the codpiece was eighty-one inches long, slashed like his hose, with the blue damask puffing out in the same way. But if you had seen the fine gold-thread embroidery, and the charming plaiting in gold, set with rich diamonds, precious rubies, rare turquoises, magnificent emeralds, and Persian pearls, you would have compared it to one of those grand cornucopias that you see on ancient monuments, one such as Rhea gave to the two nymphs Adrastea and Ida, the nurses of Jupiter. For it was always brave, sappy, and moist, always green, always flourishing, always fructifying, full of humors, full of flowers, full of fruit, full of every delight. I swear to God it was a pleasure to look at! But I will tell you a good deal more about it in the book that I have written, On the Dignity of Codpieces. On one point I will inform you now, however, that not only was it long and capacious, but well furnished within and well provisioned, having no resemblance to the fraudulent codpieces of so many young gentlemen which contain nothing but wind, to the great disappointment of the female sex”. -Francois Rabelais, "Gargantua", translated by John Cohen) It is curious that it was only a haircut that was the cause of Samson’s loss of his superpowers, fortuitously allowing him to have many more years of fruitful relations with, if not Delilah, then with other females whom Samson would need not impress with any superpowers. After all, since when has it become a test of man’s mettle in being able to lift buildings?)) The superhero nudes are the American Apollos (like those ancient marble sculptures with missing limbs. Well, with a single missing limb, in this case), not exhibited in the public square or on the friezes of temples or on various vases (the American public associates the nude with pornography and is squeamish (as well as we should be squeamish about pornography in public. Pornography should be safely hidden in the corner of the closet underneath all those old sweaters), squeamish about its presence in the public arena (maybe with the exception of fashion/celebrity magazines which are the other genre where the nude can be found in the American culture). Michelangelo would probably have had a hard time making a living these days as no other great artist’s art depended on the nude more ("he developed an extraordinary power of communicating his feelings through knots of muscles...[and] with a few elements, the muscles of the torso and thighs, above all the junction of the thorax and abdomen, [he] can evoke an immense range of emotional effect." - Clark). Can you imagine Michelangelo drawing superhero comics to eke out a living?), no, not exhibited in public spaces but contained for private perusal within periodicals. The ancient Greek culture lives on. Even the Greek homoeroticism lives on in this genre (or is that a stretch?). The superhero comic book is a Greek gymnasium where naked youths exercised (strutted their stuff like some ancient Chippendales) in front of male viewers (women were not allowed into the gymnasium, women were, generally, not allowed out of the house (except the female servants (who were, of course, not real women) who needed to get to the market to get materials for the days meals). Is it not strange that the main audience for superhero comics is the adolescent male (I use the term loosely, referring not only to the teenager but also those 20 and 30 something adolescents who ravish the genre regularly and which Marvel and DC have made their target market). Strange, considering that it is the American adolescent male that exhibits the most vehement homophobic tendencies. What would Freud say about this? Is it a satisfaction of subconscious homoerotic desires in a culturally acceptable way? (For the record: I have read superhero comics as a teenager and beyond and I am fully, unpendulatingly heterosexual (am I being suspiciously defensive about this? What would Freud say about that?)). In any case, it would be interesting to study the development of the nude in this genre. Maybe someone, somewhere, will write a book about it, The Naked Superhero. This might make an fun companion to Kenneth Clark’s The Nude, A Study in Ideal Form (“The Greeks discovered in the nude two embodiments of energy, which lived on throughout European art almost until our own day. They are the athlete and the hero, and from the beginning they were closely connected with one another...At these games [Olympiads] it was customary to present the winners with large jars, on which were painted representations of the branch of sport at which they had excelled: and from these vase paintings begins the long history of the nude in action...We feel in every line of these purposeful bodies a capacity for endurance and self-sacrifice for which the word moral is not inappropriate. Of this the Greeks themselves were, of course, perfectly conscious; and it was an embodiment of moral energy, triumphing through physical means, that they created the myth of Harakles." -Clark) The Naked Superhero could document the evolution of this ideal form that was created to express energy and vitality. And it could also document the evolution of our culture's moral energy as depicted through the battle of naked men who possess extraordinary powers.
Above: i-man, crimefighter by day and male stripper by night (with occasional modeling gigs on the side, desperately hoping to become the next big Hollywood action star).