DC Comics has been making Masters of the Universe comics for a little over a year now, but their latest preview cover has finally made me take notice of the series. With “He-Man and the Masters of the Universe” #4, He-Man’s undergoing a makeover. The cover by artist Ed Benes shows off the character’s new look… and he’s wearing pants.
Now, I’m not going to pretend to be a big He-Man fan, because I’m not. He-Man was a half-step ahead of my time, as I’m firmly in the G.I. Joe and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles sweet-spot of ’80s kids. But if you think I’m going to overlook the pantsing of one of pop culture’s most iconic bare-legged male heroes, think again.
Yes, I’m about to argue that He-Man’s comic book redesign is evidence that comic books treat male and female sexuality with a glaring inequality, and that both treatments hinder the audience’s progression towards open-mindedness regarding body image. Yes, all because He-Man ditched the furry briefs. You ready for this? Let’s talk pants.
Ever since Wonder Woman debuted, female heroes have been pantsless almost as the default. A lot of the ’60s heroines stayed covered up, but once the ’70s hit, all pants were off. Ms. Marvel, Storm, Star Sapphire, Black Canary, Psylocke, Tigra, Mockingbird, Supergirl, Power Girl, Feral, Huntress, Mystique, White Queen, She-Hulk, Zatanna, Selene, Blink, Raven, Elektra, Valkyrie — the list can keep going. How many bare-legged male heroes have ever populated the big two? Robin, Namor, Hercules and Ka-Zar are the only ones that pop into mind immediately, and that excludes inhuman characters like Beast, Thing and sometimes the Hulk.
Losing He-Man means that there’s one less bare-legged male character on comic book stands And while I recognize that this isn’t a grand tragedy, it does, however, reinforce that male characters and female characters are not equal. All characters should be allowed to show as much skin as their character dictates. Most of the women I listed above have gotten pants-full makeovers (although now there’s a whole zipper problem to address — another time). Even so, it still makes sense that Emma Frost’s latest re-design shows off some skin. That’s inherent to her character. I would argue that a free-wheeling warrior like He-Man should show as much skin as the warriors in classic barbarian and gladiator movies. That makes sense for the character. Pants really don’t.
I get that DC wants to modernize a character, but the fact that “modernize” means “put pants on” when it comes to male characters is indicative of the way the comic book industry treats the male body. Our pop culture, which has been predominantly ruled by and marketed towards straight men, has dictated that bare-legged men look wrong. Even wearing briefs over tights is ridiculous for men. Any costumes that sexualize men to the same degree that women are sexualized, or exposes male skin, is viewed with a certain palpable discomfort. Straight men don’t want to see men with bare legs or briefs, so get ’em outta here! Forget what women or gay men might want to see! But Wonder Woman must always have her legs exposed, lest fan boys freak out.
To illustrate my point, let’s take a look at how comics have treated bare male legs over the past few decades. (I get paid to write the absolute weirdest sentences) Iceman used to just wear briefs under his coat of ice. Up until the mid-’80s, when he de-iced, he was rocking an X-belt and a Speedo. All that changed around the time he joined X-Factor, and even though his ice-form still maintained the outline of a belt and briefs, he always wore a full bodysuit when he de-iced. Around a decade ago Iceman started wearing actual pants over his ice form, which just had to result in some of the mildew-iest laundry ever. Nowadays Iceman wears cargo shorts over his iced up body. Cargo shorts!
When Colossus debuted in 1975, his costume had bare legs between his knee-high boots and briefs. That allowed his super cool metal skin to be shown off, but things looked different when he powered down. Piotr Rasputin’s legs were suddenly covered by blue material so that his bare legs were kept from showing. Instead of just having him have bare legs for the few instances where a powered-down Colossus would be shown in costume, they explained that the cover-up was caused by Reed Richards’ unstable molecule super-fabric. Dave Cockrum said that this decision came from writer Len Wein who didn’t like having male heroes with bare legs. You know what Len Wein didn’t have a problem with? Female heroes with bare legs. Colossus joined the team in the same issue as Storm, whose classic first costume was basically a two piece bathing suit with thigh high boots. Storm’s legs wouldn’t be covered until her punk makeover in 1983, 8 years later.
The Thing and the Beast are maybe two of the biggest examples of how stupid this gender bias is. Both of them wore briefs for most of their publication history, and not for sex appeal or as an expression of their personalities. They wore briefs because both of their bodies are mutated to a point where pants don’t make any logical sense. But now both of them have to wear pants, even though their bare legs don’t resemble human legs at all. Just imagine Ben Grimm trying to put on tight pants over his thick rock hide with those big clumsy rock hands. And how hot must Beast get wearing pants over his thick coat of fur? While these two now sport super Dockers, the fur-covered Tigra still runs around in maybe the tiniest bikini ever seen in comics.
This even comes up in our non-comic book reading lives every summer, any time we venture out in public to the beach or a pool. In America, women are expected to wear swimsuits that show off their entire legs, regardless of their age or body type. They have next to no other options when it comes to bathing suits. Men, on the other hand, get stared at or laughed at if they wear a swimsuit that dares to go even an inch above their knees. Outside of comic books we’re told that women have to show their legs and men have to keep them hidden, and any deviation from that is worthy of ridicule. This doesn’t even take into account the entire culture of body shaming that comes into play should a woman want to wear shorts in the pool, or an average sized man want to wear anything other than baggy board shorts.
Things are changing though, and how we define and explore the physical appearance of both male and female heroes is evolving. Writers like Rick Remender and Kelly Sue DeConnick requested that notorious leg show-ers Psylocke and Captain Marvel cover up for practical, story-driven and character-driven purposes. Both characters redesigns, by Jerome Opeña and Jamie McKelvie, respectively, have been met with approval. This proves that these characters have more to them than just the ability to appear naked when viewed from the side (eye roll, ’90s artists). Kris Anka’s latest redesign for Psylocke also manages to keep the characters inherent sex appeal intact while still giving the character a look fitting of a stealthy warrior.
But even nowadays, pantslessness still pops up in awkward places for female characters. When Carrie Kelley showed up recently in “Batman & Red Robin” #19, she’s shown wearing a store bought, pantsless Robin costume. I know that this is a call back to both her original uniform and the Jamie Hernandez drawing that inspired Frank Miller to create a female Robin in the first place. But look at it logically within the men-wear-pants and men-don’t-wear-briefs-over-tights world of the New 52. The Robin of the New 52 has always worn pants, yet she gets a Halloween costume that inexplicably doesn’t? Or she decides to take the pants off? Or it’s a Sexy Robin costume marketed towards women (sidenote: there aren’t “sexy ____” Halloween costumes for men)? It’s almost an unconscious choice at this point; female heroes are pantless and no one really notices how weird that is. But for Heaven’s sake, put some pants on He-Man!
I’m not arguing for unsexy comics, and I’m also not arguing for a gay utopia where all female heroes wear pants and all men run around in short shorts (wait…maybe I am? No…!). I also don’t want to seem like I’m equating showing skin with sexiness, because the two are often unfairly linked. I’m arguing that comics look at characters logically and decide whether or not they would choose to show skin, or wear briefs over tights, based on what the character would actually do, and not based on the rigid gender roles our society has forced on us. Captain America would most certainly wear pants on the battle field. I’m not entirely sure He-Man would.
Pants-wearing He-Man aside, comics are slowly starting to write moments specifically for readers who are not straight men. Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie kicked off “Young Avengers” by subjecting Marvel Boy to the female gaze, as opposed to having Kate Bishop be subjected to Marvel Boy’s male one. McKelvie gave the non-straight-male crowd a rare instance of story-driven and gratuitous male cheesecake (beefcake?) by having Noh-Varr dance around in his underwear. Greg Pak also played with mainstream comics’ portrayal of male sexuality and physicality in his sadly departed “X-Treme X-Men.” The book depicted Hercules and Wolverine as a loving, masculine and gay couple who notably took the focus of issue #9’s cover. Kalman Andrasofszky’s cover stands out because it depicts two characters in exactly the amount of clothing they would choose to wear, in a picture packed with a level of sex appeal for gay readers usually reserved for ’90s “Witchblade” covers.
Thanks to comics like “Captain Marvel” and “Young Avengers,” mainstream comics are finally edging closer towards gender equality. Fans are starting to see that female characters can be as covered up as their character demands, and it’s about time that comics allowed male characters to show the same amount of skin.
Because seriously, there’s no way Namor really likes swimming around in that big collar and those boots.
Brett White is a comedian living in New York City. He co-hosts the podcast Matt & Brett Love Comics and is a writer for the comedy podcast Left Handed Radio. His opinions can be consumed in bite-sized morsels on Twitter (@brettwhite).