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Abstract: The Power of Superheroes and Male Potency

by Jeremy Frank

Far from being the stuff of children, today's graphic novels are full of wholly adult concepts. Sex crops up constantly in both the plot and characterization in many such novels, and it requires a serious examination. Any psychologist will tell you sex often revolves around and/or is a metaphor for power. Where else could sex and power be more intertwined than in the superhero?

Looking only at male heroes, we find a deeper level of complication in studying them. In the male mind, sex and male identity are endlessly dependent on one another. Therefore, I suggest that there is a deep connection between a superhero's power, sexual potency and male identity. In order to confirm this point, I will use Concrete,Watchmen, and the works of psychoanalysts like Sigmund Freud to get a better understanding of the underlying psychological principles governing their actions and emotions.

Specificially, there are two characters of interest: Concrete and Dan Dreiberg. Concrete was once a man, and with the onset of his power (the loss of his human body), he has lost his sexual ability and feels a threat to his identity as a man. This is played out in misplaced agression, denial, and transferrance. It also leads to certain competition with his friend and an urge for the redefinition of manhood. Dreiberg, on the other hand, has lost his potency and only regains it when he once again dons the cowl of Nite Owl II. To him, power and sex must go together because when he feels weak, he does not feel like man.

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  1. Unknown User (jrg13)

    I like your idea of examining the superhero as a symbol of the relationship between sex and male identity. I think that, in particular, your examination of Concrete could be quite interesting since he is the only superhero figure I have ever come across whose discovery of his powers has led to a loss of his virility. I also think that your idea to incorporate Freud would not only give you the opportunity to investigate some interesting points of psychological analysis, but would also add considerable strength to your paper. The only thing I would suggest to add to the argument you're planning would be possibly to include references to some literature that is against your opinion, which you could then attack using the characters and other resources you have suggested. Overall, I think it's a very interesting and worthwhile topic that would definitely benefit from being explored.

  2. First of all, you should know that Felice LaPietrais undertaking a project somewhat comparable to that described here, so you might find it helpful to have a look at her abstract & the related comments.  And I think your connection between comics & Freud makes a lot of sense -- interesting how The Interpretation of Dreams and other writings about the unconscious are contemporary with the emergence of modern comics around the turn of the 20th century.  That in itself would be a fascinating topic.... In any event, the sexual psychodynamics of "superheroes" is only too clear to contemporary eyes; in fact, I feel like we've reached a second- or even third-order commentary upon the sexually repressed guy who turns into an animal.  The two specific characters you mention both would fall under this more self-conscious, post-Marvel category.  Your main challenge will be to theorize the topic a little more -- this needs to become something more than a comparision & contrast essay, supplemented by pop psychology.  I think it's fair to say that just about all superhero comics arrive into a Freudian world, especially by the 1950s.  EC even had a series entitled People Searching for Peace of Mind Through...PSYCHOANALYSIS.  Probably it will be quite easy to delineate the basic paradigm, perhaps with the aid of Taylor's article; you then turn toward a more self-conscious (and post-feminist) re-examination/re-covery of the sexualized superhero.  Looking forward to seeing where you go with this....

    1. Unknown User (jaf10)

      What would you think of the proposition that we (that is, the male reader) accepts the sexually-challenged character better because, even though they are presented as superior beings, sexual setbacks make them less threatening to their audience?