[Note: Attempts are made to write this as accessible to people who are not familiar with Superman comics, and those who might not be as versed in queer studies.]
[dropcap background=”yes”]1986[/dropcap] marked the year that Superman’s origin story was overhauled for a new generation in John Byrne’s miniseries The Man of Steel. This Superman, the product of a “birthing matrix”, was born on what was depicted as a cold, alien Krypton. This Krypton represented not the spectacular space age civilisation of the Cold War era, but instead was one that had stagnated, and had lost touch with emotions and even love. In Byrne’s Superman, Kryptonians are asexual, incubating children in a device that simulated the womb—physical sex on Krypton was socially taboo. It was in this birthing matrix that the fetus, Kal-El, was sent to Earth, to be “born” once the spaceship carrying the last Kryptonian was opened by Jonathan and Martha Kent. This story had two plot consequences that lasted almost twenty years: 1) Superman was now born on Earth, and 2) was the product of an asexual (ace?) relationship. For the purposes of this article, I’m going to focus on the possibility of Superman as an asexual (ace?) character prior to the 1986 reboot, and asexual reproduction and its consequences in Superman stories after 1986. Side note: Superman, Superboy, and Supergirl have all been members of the Legion of Super-Heroes… adding three more characters to the Legion queer list.
Is Superman Queer?: Asexuality in the 1950s and 60s
Throughout the Golden and Silver Ages of comics (1938-1985), the relationship between Superman and Lois is difficult to define. In Action Comics #1, Clark initially pursues Lois, and Lois rejects Clark outright—essentially saying he wasn’t man enough for her. Later, Lois pursues Superman, and Superman rejects Lois. Lois’ chase of Superman continues monthly when Lois was given her own series in 1958, titled “Superman’s Girlfriend, Lois Lane“. However, it’s never clear that the two of them are, in fact, dating—to say nothing of the problematics of defining Lois’ character by her relationship to Superman. It’s possible that the title of the series might even be aspirational—demonstrating Lois’ own desire to be Superman’s girlfriend, and not her actual status as his girlfriend. More importantly, Lois was not the first supporting character to be given their own series. Superman’s best friend, Jimmy, earned that honour in the comic series “Superman’s Pal Jimmy Olsen” (which premiered four years before the Lois Lane comic series).
The 1950s/60s Lois was written much more heteronormatively when compared to the Lois of the 1930s/40s (and especially when compared to the Lois of the 70s).The Lois Lane of the 50s/60s reflects the uncertain period between first wave and second wave feminism. Nevertheless, there are a feminist elements to Lois’ character still present despite Cold War era censorship and the Leave it to Beaver aesthetic. For one, Lois still has a job and is still an independent woman out in the workforce on her own (she wasn’t relegated to the job of secretary or of columnist—she was still a newspaper reporter for the newspaper of record).
Although this Lois is after what appears to be a heteronormative relationship (Superhusband, Superbaby, Fortress of Solitude), there is a reversal of gender roles. Here, Lois is the one that is chasing after the guy, and Superman is the one playing hard to get (from her perspective). The mid-20th century Lois bounces between hard-nosed, brash reporter who tells her boss to stuff it, and a smitten school girl. Meanwhile, Superman (at times) tries to engage in a relationship with her, even kissing her, but continually pushes away her advances. Lois sexualises Superman, and it makes him uncomfortable. The Silver Age Superman is not looking for a sexual relationship with Lois, and arguably engages in what appears to be an asexual homoromantic/greyromantic relationship (see this nifty queer graphic that talks about asexuality and romantic orientations).
While Superman actively rejects Lois, Superman does the opposite for cub reporter and photographer Jimmy Olsen, giving him a “signal watch” that emits high frequency sound so that Jimmy can call on Superman whenever he needs him. The watch is a promise of more adventures together, mutual trust, and love.
A couple of things to note: there is nothing in the comics that would indicate that Jimmy and Superman have any sort of sexual relationship, but an argument can be made that Jimmy and Superman have a sort of ambiguous homoromantic/greyromantic asexual relationship—Jimmy does have Superman at his beck and call, after all.
For example, in an imaginary story (sort of like an non-canonical “what if” story set in a possible future) from Jimmy Olsen #38, dated July 1959, Jimmy proposes marriage to his girlfriend. She says “yes”, but stipulates that Jimmy can never see Superman again—apparently concerned about their relationship. Jimmy and Superman, in this imaginary story, do keep their distance at first; however, eventually they decide to rendezvous. Once Jimmy’s wife finds out, she leaves him!
In fact, a 2003 Supergirl story by Peter David played with the idea of Superman’s queerness as a modern Supergirl (Linda Danvers) visits the Silver Age universe and makes reference to Superman being exposed to PINK KRYPTONITE, which presumably allows him to act on his queer emotions (see above image)! Supergirl, being a modern character, being the only one who picks up on the subtext. While Jimmy does respond hesitantly, he isn’t depicted as shocked or displeased. This 2003 scene plays on the queerness depicted in those Silver Age comics, those images of a young man being carried through the skies in the arms of Superman, who everyone in Metropolis (and in Superman’s rogues gallery) knows is Superman’s “pal”.
Moreover, the Silver Age stories featuring Jimmy often focus on the importance of each other in their lives. Sometimes the relationship is written where the two are equals, other times Superman adopts a sort of paternal tone with the young Olsen (there is an age gap between the two in these stories). Why does Superman, the comic book series, need Jimmy Olsen? As a literary device, he’s great. In fact, a casual reader most readily relates to Jimmy’s young adult character—more than Superman himself, or Lois.
Superman is there when Jimmy needs him, and Jimmy is there when Superman needs him. Jimmy rarely plays the “find out Superman’s secret identity game”, he trusts his best friend completely. Many Silver Age stories challenge this trust between the two, their friendship is constantly put to the test by villains, jealousy, and struggles over power (every once in a while Jimmy develops a new power of his own that challenges Superman’s). In 1964, in Superman #166, Jimmy and Superman even adopt a superhero team-up duo partnership when visiting the miniaturised city-in-a-bottle, Kandor (a bottled Kryptonian city that survived destruction where Superman doesn’t have any powers). Jimmy becomes “Flamebird” and Superman becomes “Nightwing”—inspired by Batman and Robin. Although completely fantastic, Superman and Jimmy’s other secret identities mimics many of the queer undertones of the 1960s Batman and Robin. Nevertheless, as Nightwing and Flamebird, the two share in a completely equal partnership. With Jimmy, Kal-El has to be neither Superman or Clark Kent.
Further, in these mid-century stories, Jimmy is also often feminised for his youthfulness, if not for an implicit queerness (much like Robin). Even if Jimmy has a girlfriend, one must consider that this is the 1950s, and many a queer men have had girlfriends. I’m not saying Jimmy and Superman are gay either—I’m saying they have some sort of ambiguous asexual relationship. Superman is only a relatable, fully rounded character because of his asexual relationship with Jimmy.
More obviously, Jimmy has, at the very least, a “man-crush” on the Man of Tomorrow—even moving to Metropolis for Superman (seen above). This is further complicated by the fact that Jimmy Olsen also dates Lucy Lane, Lois’ sister. Problematically, in many of those stories, Lucy polices Jimmy’s masculinity and questions his bravery, constantly trying to mold him into an American mid-twentieth century heteronormative masculine role. One asks, given the period, does Lois Lane, as “Superman’s Girlfriend”, essentially act as “a beard” for Superman, while Superman maintains an asexual (ace?) relationship with his “pal” Jimmy Olsen. If this is true, can the same be said about Lucy Lane? The ambiguity is there—but there are no definitive answers. Sex is not discussed, on inferred.
Queering the Silver Age Superboy’s Childhood
During the 1950s and 60s, Lois’ adventures often find her trying to reveal that Clark Kent is actually Superman. While perhaps not the intention of the writers, this chase can be read as an attempt to “determine” Superman’s sexuality—to find out if Superman is in fact interested in women. In fact, this aggressive tactic is also mirrored in the Superboy comics of the 1950s in the character of Lana Lang, Superman’s childhood friend from Smallville. In the series, Lana tries to find out who Superboy is, but never does, while also chasing after Superboy. As an adult, Lana even occasionally pops up in Metropolis to fight with Lois over Superman (neither one ever end up with him).
Meanwhile, there is one character that does know that Superman is Clark Kent, his childhood friend Pete Ross—who looks a lot like a blond Jimmy Olsen. Pete finds out Clark’s secret when Superboy comes back from saving the day and sneaks back into their shared tent. Pete does eventually confirm young Clark Kent’s secret, but never tells Clark that he knows. In the series, Pete constantly makes excuses for Clark, helping him hide his secret, without letting Clark know that he knows. (Pete also is an “honorary member of the Legion of Super-Heroes”). Pete covers for Clark, allowing for Clark to operate as Superboy—never outing his best friend. This protective characteristic is present from the introduction of the character in 1961, as he comes to the rescue of Clark from school bullying—sticking up for the school nerd. Pete continues to protect his friend even once he discovers his nerdy friend can benchpress a mountain.
Jumping forward a few years in the life of the Silver Age Superboy, once Clark Kent leaves Smallville for Metropolis, he falls for a girl: Lori Lemaris (introduced in “The Girl in Superman’s Past” in Superman #129 (May 1959). Lori and Clark meet while he is at university in Metropolis. When Clark first encounters Lori she is wearing an orange blouse, is using a wheelchair to get around campus, and is covering herself her lower half with a blanket (the blanket is key here). The two share what might be the most straight-forward relationship Superman has had.
The two fall in love, and Clark even proposes marriage! Lori, who has the ability to read minds, tells Clark that the two of them can never be together, and reveals herself as a mermaid when she pulls away the blankets uncovering her mermaid fins. Lori then admits to knowing all along that Clark is Superman, and that she now must return to her people in Atlantis. The two share quite an intimate goodbye kiss, and she disappears into the ocean. Being the 1950s, there is no mention about the mechanics of sex between a Kryptonian and a mermaid.
In a follow-up story, Superman and Lori create a hoax in which Superman adopts a merman tail, and the two conspire to make Lois think Superman is leaving to be with Lori, his one true love. Meanwhile, Lois is heartbroken, and then rejects a marriage proposal from a potential love interest, Brent Rand. When all seems lost, Lois almost collides with a truck (a “lorry”—haha!) when headed home. Superman swoops in to save her, sans fins. He then admits to the charade, telling Lois that he didn’t want her to waste her youth waiting for him to marry her, so he and Lori concocted a scheme to take himself out of the picture so that Lois would marry Brent, and forget about him. Superman’s plan to once and for all end Lois’ chase fails, and Lois promises to continue trying to pursue him. The sexual ambiguity of the Last Son of Krypton practically drips off the page!
To top it off, there is a lingering question as to whether or not Superman can have a child, or even safe sex (i.e., without killing the person). In fact, Larry Niven’s classic essay from 1971, “Man of Steel, Woman of Kleenex”, delves into the problems Superman would face in having sexual intercourse and reproducing with a human woman. This is never resolved in the comics of the Golden and Silver Age. Why does Superman reject Lois Lane so? What is his relationship to Jimmy Olsen? Why does Lori, a mind-reading mermaid, who Clark once had a romance with, help him to keep Lois away? Why does Pete Ross keep Clark’s secret? Does Clark feel sexual attraction for men? Women? Merpersons? Specific types of people? At all?
Sexualising Superman: Krypton becomes Asexual
As Superman’s story would have it, before John Byrne’s 1986 Modern Age reboot, Superman’s Golden and Silver Age biological parents would have probably have had him through sexual reproductive processes. Nevertheless, before the Byrne era, the Last Son of Krypton was effectively rendered asexual in the comics because of an inability to have sex with an Earth woman—though he did maintain what could be described as intimate relationships with mermaids and young boys with freckles (Jimmy and Pete). As Superman’s story starts anew, DC Comics effectively introduces an entirely remodelled Superman.
While Byrne’s origin story does, in effect, introduce a whole planet of Kryptonians who culturally are asexual, the story does, at the same time, portray asexuality with a sort of frigidity and alienation. However, this is belied by Lara’s farewell, lamenting never being able to touch her baby’s hand, and Jor-El’s love for Lara. Most importantly, the two decide to save their son from certain death, demonstrating a parent’s love of child. Moreover, Superman’s new asexual origin is further complicated by the fact that Kal-El is then raised by a couple of Earthling parents who, despite having sex, cannot have children. Thus, Clark Kent becomes the child of a very queer set of circumstances: his biological parents don’t have sex, but can have a child, and his adoptive parents can’t have biological children, but can have sex. They all love him.
While Superman’s origin was rebooted in 1986, becoming the product of an asexual relationship, Clark only first has sex some ten years into the reboot, after learning to manipulate/control his body in a way so that he can have sex, and only after marrying Lois, becoming the first Kryptonian in millennia to have sex. This sex act is significant when one considers the visceral reaction Lara is met with disgust and fear when Jor-El shows her an image from earth, of a shirtless sexualised man. In Byrne’s world, Kryptonians do not have sex. Her reaction to sexuality only underlines the differences between Kryptonians and Terrans. One might even suggest that this sort of depiction of Byrne’s problematically creates a binary that others asexual people from humanity. Is Byrne asserting that asexuality is inhuman?
Despite all this, Byrne’s Superman never identifies as asexual, straight, or queer. He does have a multiple identities: Kal-El, Clark Kent and Superman. In the reboot Superman leaves Lana (and Smallville), never pursuing a relationship with her, goes on a failed date with Wonder Woman, has an ambiguous relationship with Lori (again), but ultimately never has sex with any of them. He continues his close friendship with Jimmy.
However, there is one important change, in the rebooted Byrne, Clark Kent does successfully date Lois, and she finds out that Superman is Clark Kent after accepting a marriage proposal. In the Modern Age, Superman has sex with one person: Lois Lane. This leaves reason to suspect that the post-1986 Superman might fall somewhere on the asexual spectrum, perhaps as demi-sexual. I underline, there is room for speculation, but no instance where this is addressed in the comics.
Generally, the ’90s represented a particularly sexualised period in comic books, with the creation of impossibly drawn female bodies, more muscled male bodies, and sexual exploration found in comics. All these changes occurred as the “Comics Code Authority” faded into obscurity [FYI: The Comics Code Authority was an industry self-censorship initiative created in the ’50s in reaction to psychiatrist Fredric Wertham’s Seduction of the Innocent (1954), which resulted in sanitised romance, horror, and physical combat in comic books].
This ’90s return to sexuality began the shift that would later allow writers to depict Superman as a sexualised character, instead of a de facto asexual (ace?) character. By 1996, Superman had sex for the first time in both the comic books and the camp television series Lois and Clark: The New Adventures of Superman (which was all about Lois and Clark’s romance). Presumably, by this point in his career, Superman had learned to control his strength, and thus would not kill an earthling while having sex. Later in the 2000s, in the television series Smallville, the Teen of Steel and Lana Lang, Clark’s childhood best friend, have (pre-marital!) sex for the first time once Lana herself develops superpowers—again emphasising the need for Superman to be careful when he does have sex—unless he has a partner of his own strength (side note: in the 2011 reboot, the New 52, Superman and Wonder Woman are in a relationship, and Lois is a trusted friend, a role reversal from Byrne’s Superman).
Byrne’s 1986 origin story effectively shows Superman’s story as that of an asexual Kryptonian who becomes more human, and relatable through his sexuality—depicting asexuality as non-human. However, as comics tend to do, Superman’s origin story would be re-imagined and rebooted through writer Mark Waid’s re-establishment of a mythos that Superman was born “the old-fashioned way”, on Krypton, sans birthing matrix, in 2003’s 12-issue maxiseries Superman: Birthright (aptly titled to indicate a reestablishment of Kal-El’s birth on Krypton). In Waid’s new origin story, Kal is clearly shown as having been born on Krypton. Moreover, this origin shows Kryptonians embracing each other, completely changing Byrne’s asexual, frigid depiction of Superman’s origin story. This origin (re)adjustment would occur in September of 2003 (make note of the cover date), but fear not, dear reader, asexuality did not completely disappear from Superman’s world. The 2003 reboot cascaded into high volatility and another reboot of the origin story in 2009 AND 2011. Markedly, all these reboots changed primarily issues of gender and sexuality in Superman—primarily affecting the relationships between Jor-El and Lara, Martha and Jonathan Kent, and Lois and Clark.
The modern version of Superboy, first appeared in the aftermath of 1993’s “Death of Superman” story. Prior to the 1986 reboot, known as Crisis on Infinite Earths, the character of Superboy had always just been a younger version of Superman. However, this ’90s Superboy was different. After the 1986 reboot, Clark Kent never had operated as Superboy, and instead made his first appearance as a fully grown Superman. This new Superboy, however, was created in a laboratory as a genetic clone of a Paul Westfield, the director of Cadmus Labs, and was given powers that mimicked Superman’s own. He was a hot, young, sexually active superhero who was asexually produced.
This would be slightly modified in September 2003, just as Superman’s origin story had been modified to no longer be the product of asexual parents. In this 2003 “revelation” of the Boy of Steels origins (Teen Titans #1, vol. 3), Superboy (now adopted by the Kents and named Kon-El/Connor Kent), discovers (with his best friend, Robin), that Westfield was not the donor of Superboy’s genetic material. Instead, Superboy was created from Superman’s stolen genetic material and that of a human. The two young heroes then find out that Lex Luthor had managed to sneak his DNA into the batch—thus making Connor Kent the genetic child of Superman and his arch nemesis.
In this 2003 retcon, Connor is still the product of an asexual birth, but instead seems to have adopted a modified version of the 1986 origin story of Superman. In fact, Superboy’s already queer story becomes even more queer, as he is created out of the genetic material of two men. For the rest of the 2000s, much of Superboy’s teenage angst in the Teen Titans and other media is a reaction to the ambiguity of his origins and being the child of the two men. This formula was also depicted in the Smallville television series in its last season—the revelation of Connor as Superboy was aptly titled “Scion”. A version of Connor’s origin was also used in the Young Justice cartoon series, in which Connor is particularly angsty.
A Trans* Supergirl: Sometimes erased, sometimes an androgenous artificial life form created in a lab, sometimes an angel empowered by a child-God (named Wally)…
When Kara Zor-El, Superman’s paternal cousin, was first introduced in Action Comics #252 (May 1959) she was born of two parents on Krypton, presumably through normal sexual relations. As with most comics of the Silver Age, Supergirl was never depicted as particularly sexual, but did date numerous men throughout the period in the ’70s, even being drawn in a more sexualised way than in the previous decade.
With the 1986 reboot, Kara was completely erased from Superman’s story. Superman was now the only survivor of Krypton. When a “Supergirl” did reappear in Byrne’s Superman, she was depicted not as Kryptonian, but instead as an androgynous sentient artificial life-form “protoplasmic matrix”, the product of science and not a biological birth, that had the ability to change form, most often into a female body. Matrix was from an alternate universe, created by a good Lex Luthor, who modeled her after his lost love, an alternate Lana Lang, to fight against three Kryptonian criminals, General Zod, Faora and Quex-Ul. Matrix eventually slips into the time stream to recruit Superman for help. After defeating the criminals, Matrix returns with Superman to the primary DCU, and becomes Supergirl—at first adopting an androgynous form, and being adopted by Martha and Jonathan Kent, Superman’s adoptive parents. While living with the Kents, Mae becomes confused and starts to believe that she is Clark, and transforms into a Clark Doppelgänger—which one could read as a questioning of her gender. Once confronted by Clark, Mae decides she is unstable, and must leave Earth to decide her path. After leaving, and returning, Matrix more or less adopts the form of a young blonde woman, and falls for Lex Luthor II (who actually is first Lex Luthor, claiming to be his own son, surviving in the body of clone he made that was genetically modified to be his ideal physical self). Essentially, Luthor births his new self using Kryptonian science.
In one story, Lex Luthor II clones Matrix, creating an army of Supergirls. These asexually produced Supergirls all eventually die, marking a sort of prejudice for asexual reproduction, as the story seemed to indicate that it was “for the better”. In 1996, Matrix (or Mae as her friends called her), merged with the human Linda Danvers once comic book writer Peter David takes the reigns of the character.
While this seems to erase Mae’s asexual origin, as Linda was birthed through the sexual acts of her parents, Linda’s mother does magically have a child given to her by a boy, named Wally, who also claimed to by God—à la Virgin Mary (he also makes Supergirl into an angel, but that’s another story)… But do look for a later post in which I will get into Supergirl/Linda Danvers’ relationship with Comet, who Supergirl reads initially as a male superhero, and then finds out that Comet’s secret identity is Andrea Martinez, a lesbian stand-up comic, who had been merged with the original Comet, who was a horse jockey named Andrew Jones who had been genetically rebuilt as a centaur-like superhero.
Mae would eventually be written out of the mainstream DCU to make room for the return of Kara (a modern version of Superman’s Silver Age cousin) into the post-Crisis universe. This would happen in 2004—just after Superman’s asexual origins were erased, and Superboy’s asexual origins were modified. The return of Kara Zor-El to the DCU marks the reinstatement of the status quo of a Superman that is the product of a sexualised Krypton. A “cold”, asexual planet as depicted in the Byrne story could not have produced a “Superman family” that DC’s editorial board wanted to create.
Privileging sexual relationships as “authentic”, both Byrne’s Superman of asexual origins and Waid’s version demonstrate a marked valoration of sexuality over asexuality. In Byrne’s world, Superman reaches humanity by rejecting the asexual world of Krypton. In Waid’s Superman, the erasure of an asexual Krypton allows for the entrance of Connor Kent who is both the son of Lex and Clark, and a cousin who is a blood relative not from a “cold, dead” planet. Waid’s Superman is predicated on an idea that for Kal-El to have a family, he can’t be from an asexual planet. Curiously, Waid’s origin story also marks the reintroduction of Silver Age characters such as Krypto the Superdog, the House of El’s pet dog.
2013’s film, The Man of Steel, reintroduced a version of John Byrne’s asexual Krypton. In the film, Kal-El is the product of the first “natural birth” in centuries—and considered an abonination by Kryptonians. Again, this interpretation privileges reproductive sex over that of asexual reproduction. Kal-El is made exceptional from birth because he is the product of a sexual relationship between Lara and Jor-El. Moreover, prior to becoming Superman, Clark seemingly doesn’t have any connection to any person—he wanders the Earth with no lovers or purpose. It is only once he becomes Superman that he falls for Lois Lane, and engages with humanity. In essence, this Superman only becomes a part of the human race once he embraces sexuality.
In the New 52, DC’s 2011 reboot, Superman currently is dating, and having sex with Wonder Woman (whose own asexual origin is also erased). Supergirl is again Superman’s cousin from a sexual Krypton. Superboy is the only character left with an asexual origin—a clone of the son of Lois and Clark from an alternate future. In the New 52, “Kon-El”, Superboy is given a Kryptonian name by Supergirl ( who harbours a Kryptonian prejudice against clones), which has been retconned to mean “an abomination in the House of El”. While this can be read as highly problematic, Kon-El’s story is also one that shows him validating himself as more than just a clone. His asexual origins do not define him—and in a way he is constantly fighting against the labels other put on him, and even reappropriates the name “Kon-El” for himself.
Slowly, the DCU has moved away from the asexual constructions of the characters in Superman family—perhaps, because of a lack of nuanced understanding the asexuality spectrum, and how queerness is subjective and varied. Nevertheless, Superboy, continues the tradition of a subtextual representation of asexuality in the comic books. Kon-El, an abomination in the House of El, continues to fight for self-validation, despite his asexual origins, a message that implicitly, if not actively, promotes representation of asexuality in Superman comics—though, DC could be wise to not write asexual origins as something to “overcome”, but instead should discuss asexuality as something that adds to the character. Once Kon-El (and DC Comics) can embrace his asexual origins, we might see a genuinely positive move in the right direction.