“Have you ever actually seen the ‘Marvel Swimsuit Specials?'”
This is a question that I, possibly unsurprisingly, ask people with a fair amount of frequency. My general curiosity for all things ’90s, Marvel, and/or ridiculous led me to track down the four specials a while ago, and they completely surprised me. I’ve been thinking about them more lately because of the whole “Spider-Woman” #1/Milo Manara/Sexy Male Variants thing. Who knew that taking pin-ups from the “Swimsuit Specials” and adding All-New Marvel NOW! trade dress to them would be that popular?
Listen, I’ve done a lot of weird stuff during my tenure at CBR. I decreed Foggy Nelson the sexiest character in comics — a fact that is now proudly listed in the intro of his Wikipedia entry! But this Male Superheroes Sexy Variants thing is by far the most popular thing I’ve ever written, and I’ve seen a lot of comments come my way about it via Twitter and Tumblr, where it was originally posted. One person wanted to know if I was selling the mock-ups as prints, and I had to figure out how to begin explaining how illegal that would be. So yes, I’ve been thinking about those ridiculous specials a lot lately — and I feel compelled to tell everyone about how they aren’t at all what you expect them to be, while still being exactly what you expect them to be.
I have no real idea why they exist, but if I remember one thing about the early ’90s, it’s that America was swimsuit crazy. Between “Baywatch,” MTV beach house parties, music videos, and the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue, the pervasiveness of bikini bodies in American culture was apparent to everyone, including seven year old me. I know that my own memories are not empirical evidence, and swimsuits are probably as omnipresent now in the summer as they’ve ever been — but man, swimsuits were really popular back then, I just know it! Marvel capitalized on this by publishing the first “Marvel Swimsuit Special” in 1991.
The first issue is exactly what you would think it would be. She-Hulk’s on the cover, showing off what a brokeback pose would look like from the side. The rest of the issue focuses heavily on the ladies — which is what you would expect. Patriarchy, objectification of women — all that stuff. The men show up in group shots: the Avengers playing tug of war, Thor standing proudly behind Sif in a Kirby-esque pair of swim shorts, and a quartet of dudes — Wolverine, Thing, Beast, and Hulk — posing in bulky trunks. There’s nothing all that subversive or sexy about these dude images — well, maybe the shot of Wonder Man in a bikini with a giant purple prehistoric snake draped around his shoulders? See, weird.
The points I really want to stress manifest in the next three issues, which were published between 1993 and 1995. First: the issues become noticeably gender equal in these three issues. Okay, not totally fifty-fifty, but definitely sixty-forty. The number of group “photos” increases heavily as well. That means that every one of these issues — specifically 1994’s “Marvel Swimsuit Special” — features nearly as many dudes in Speedos as it does women in bikinis. Remember, this was the early ’90s, the era defined by the objectification of female characters. Remember Psylocke’s thong-tastic makeover? Invisible Woman’s 4-shaped boob window? Witchblade? The fact that these issues include any scantily clad men at all seems surprising, and they devote nearly half of their pages to them!
The audience for comics at this time was presumably male-heavy. That may not be factually true, as I do believe that women have always been avid super hero fans, but it’s definitely what comic book companies believed. In a recent journey through Marvel back issues, I ran across an op-ed by legendary Marvel editor Mark Gruenwald, originally published in “Avengers” #297 from November 1988, that supports this notion. The opening line reads, “Don’t know if you ever noticed it, but it seems to me that more men and boys read comic books than women and girls.” That’s basically the entire piece. Marvel had decided that their target audience was male — and then they put a picture of a muscled-up Hellstrom wearing a satiny bikini in between sexually suggestive images of Spider-Woman and Silver Sable.
There is a difference between the male and female pin-ups, and anyone that wants a crash course in pop culture’s unequal treatment of the male and female body should really check these issues out. Let’s use the pin-up of Cable and Domino (you know me!) from the 1993 issue as an example. Both characters have ridiculous anatomy, and even more ridiculous swimsuits. Cable would definitely be showing more skin if half of his body wasn’t techno-organic. Where the two differ is in body language. Domino’s up front, because she’s most likely what the target audience has spent $4.50 of their allowance on. Her arms are placed behind her head, her lips are pursed, and her body is relaxed. She’s posing for you, she’s there to be ogled. Behind her, Cable is doing the ogling. He’s wearing a ridiculous bikini, sure, but he’s standing upright and with confidence. His hand is on his hip, he has a sly smile on his face. He’s powerful. He’s undoubtedly who the reader is supposed to relate to — and I guess you’re also supposed to want to wear belts of pouches on your bare skin, too? And if you somehow don’t think Domino’s being objectified, just check out the caption accompanying the image. You read it? You did? WTF, right?! This image is canonically creepy and a perfect example of how the guys — even when shoved in teeny weeny bikinis — are still in control
That’s the biggest critique my Sexy Male Variants have gotten, and it’s one hundred million percent valid. The men are there to act as male power fantasies. They’re not there to titillate, even if they’re in the image alone. Bullseye may be wearing nothing but a snorkel and a ridiculously high-waisted swim brief, but he’s still in charge of the picture. It’s still a big deal that these men are portrayed this way at all. Male heroes almost never show skin — remember my He-Man article? Most of the drawings of men in these specials seem to me like the first step — and we’ve still not taken the second one. These swimsuit issues shove a lot of nearly naked dude bodies in your face, but very few of them take the next step and actually make them sexualized. These guys aren’t rolling around in the sand or being held up in the air by their romantic partners.
I will say this to defend the majority of the dude pin-ups in these specials, though: I really don’t know who the target audience is. No, most of them are not there for straight women, or gay men, or anyone that fancies guys. Punisher wearing a cardboard skull loincloth and holding a beach ball over his head while aliens frolic behind him? Nova — and all of his dozen abs — getting his tiny bathing suit pulled off by Namorita? A totally ‘roided out Thor calling down the lightning while wearing the tiniest swimsuit I’ve ever seen? Namor’s teeny weeny seashell?! These images are weird! And you know, they also play up the idea that men wearing tiny bathing suits are just kinda funny and not sexy.
There is one image that strikes me as being ridiculously progressive. The 1995 “Swimsuit Special” — the final one — features a pin-up by female artist Jan Duursema of Northstar and “Incredible Hulk” supporting cast member Hector lounging on some concrete slabs, like ya do. Here’s the thing: these were the two most prominent canonically gay Marvel characters in 1995. These two never crossed paths in the comics as far as I know, and yet here they are, wearing their respective teams’ custom Speedos (who makes these bathing suits?), just lounging around. They’re not overly sexualized, but they’re also not being played for comedy. I’m surprised that Marvel, in 1995, published a sexy pin-up featuring two gay men in a comic ostensibly aimed at straight guys. I find that subversive and delightful.
The “Marvel Swimsuit Specials” aren’t what you think they are — in that they’re not one hundred percent gratuitous objectification of women. They’re, you know, sixty percent that, and then forty percent pictures of guys’ favorite male heroes drawn in ridiculously skimpy bathing suits. That’s forty percent more than we have of that nowadays. I’d actually like to see Marvel to do another round of these specials. Sexiness is not a bad thing, there should just be equal sexiness for characters of every body type, orientation, and gender — and that sexiness should be rooted in confidence, positivity, and fun. Sexiness should never come at the expense of agency or personhood, y’all. An all-new “Marvel Swimsuit Special” with a fifty-fifty gender split, and drawn by artists that can actually illustrate sexy men and women without objectification (Kevin Wada, Kris Anka, Sara Pichelli, Clay Mann, Olivier Coipel, Fiona Staples, Chris Samnee — sorry, my Foggy Nelson crush is coming into play again). The overwhelming response I’ve gotten from that Sexy Male Variants piece tells me that there’s definitely an audience for that type of book.
And now, for making it to the end of this week’s column, here are more male heroes in swimsuits!
Brett White is a comedian living in New York City. He co-hosts Matt & Brett Love Comics, writes for the sketch comedy podcast Left Handed Radio, and makes videos for the Upright Citizens Brigade as a member of UCB1. His opinions can be consumed in bite-sized morsels on Twitter (@brettwhite).