Apollo: The Feminine Superman

Originally published November 14th, 2016

Original link: http://womenwriteaboutcomics.com/2016/11/14/apollo-the-feminine-superman/

Content warning: Discussions of rape.

Not many people can tell you that much about DC Comics’ Apollo. Those that do tend to know him as Midnighter’s boyfriend or husband, the second father to Midnighter’s daughter, or the Superman to his Batman. Created in 1997 by Warren Ellis and Bryan Hitch for Wildstorm Productions’ Stormwatch, he and Midnighter seemed a one-layer joke at first, with murderous tendencies and a dead Justice League in their backstory. After their promotion to the famous and influential The Authority title, established by the same creative team, Midnighter took off as one of Wildstorm’s most popular characters. As for Apollo? Well, he didn’t even get to lead his own comic book, until this year when he co-starred in the first issue of Midnighter & Apollo by Steve Orlando and Fernando Blanco.

One can make several arguments for why this might be the case. Batman is more popular than Superman, so the character that pays homage to Batman instantly garners more fans. Or, Apollo takes influence mainly from Superman while Midnighter comes from a much broader pulp novel legacy, so it’s harder to see where Apollo fits in a larger fictional universe. Or, DC’s editorial hasn’t even known what to do with Superman since the ’90s, so why would they know what to do with Apollo? These arguments are all valid and have truth to them, for sure. But I have another theory why Apollo is much less popular than Midnighter.

It’s because Apollo is less masculine than Midnighter.

From The Authority by Warren Ellis and Bryan Hitch

Going back much further in history, Apollo hails from feminine roots. Although Superman, created as the power fantasy of two 14-year-old boys, initially started out as an ideal of masculinity, the past 75 years have softened him significantly. Under creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, Golden Age Superman represented a cool, older brother-like figure who thwarted corrupt businessmen and politicians before snarking them into shame. As the 1940s became the 1950s and Superman endured trials like editor Mort Weisinger’s oversight and the Comics Code Authority, the character underwent enormous transitions.

Whereas journalism and reporting of crimes motivated Golden Age Superman to get out in the world and defeat evil, Silver Age Superman’s world shrunk around the Daily Planet offices. Things in the Superman title got way more, well, domestic. Superman’s most famous adventures included him eluding Lois Lane’s attempts to marry him and chastising Jimmy for whatever misadventure the young boy found himself in that month. His actual blood family even expanded with Supergirl’s creation in 1958.  The big brother had grown up into a father—long before actually becoming a husband and father in the 1990s—and somehow creators started to more tightly connect him to Jesus instead of the wider idea of a Messianic figure. Jesus, sometimes called the “Lamb of God,” is cited for his compassion, understanding, and wisdom rather than physical strength and sharp wit. And those characteristics are decidedly emotional, soft, and all about interiority—in other words, feminine.

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Apollo is in touch with these qualities, which saves his and Midnighter’s lives in Stormwatch when he asks to talk to their would-be executioners. In fact, although Apollo shares many extraordinary abilities with Superman—including enhanced strength and endurance, flight, eyes that lase, and solar flares—his greatest might be his ability to connect with others. He shows this in The Authority later when talking with Jenny Sparks about her reluctance toward leadership. Indeed, Apollo has more than one openhearted conversations with women throughout The Authority comics; outside of Midnighter, he tends to have his closest relationships with women. This gives him an interesting similarity to Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice’s version of Superman, in that that particular version of the character had his mother and his girlfriend as his closest relationships.

It is undeniably his relationship with Midnighter and the perils of assumed heteronormativity that have enhanced Apollo’s femininity throughout his history, however. Starting from Mark Millar and Frank Quietly’s first The Authority arc, “The Nativity,” the Apollo and Midnighter relationship breaks into imbalance. Because Midnighter is the beloved of straight male writers and the then mostly straight male readers, stories gravitated toward him as the center. Since a protagonist needs an emotional pull, and Apollo is Midnighter’s most obvious intimate investment, Apollo took on the damsel role usually reserved for women in superhero comics. In “The Nativity” he is anally raped, only for the first time, by The Authority’s antagonists so that Midnighter can murder his rapist throughsodomy via power drill. There’s much to unpack about rape culture from there, but to keep this brief, it’s safe to say that Millar’s idea of a “real man” is one that penetrates rather than one who is penetrated.

From The Authority by Warren Ellis and Bryan Hitch

The damsel role inherently means a loss of agency, but damsel roles nowadays arguably aren’t quite so blatant as Apollo’s. He hands his rapist over to Midnighter, even saying, “I promised you for a friend,” and doesn’t take his own comeuppance. Later on, in Millar’s last arc (with pencillers Arthur Adams, Dustin Nguyen, and Gary Erksine) titled “Transfer of Power,” Apollo is feminized through Millar’s language. He sympathizes with a woman in pain by calling her “sweetheart” shortly before she gives birth to one of the arc’s villains, an event that leads to Apollo almost experiencing rape a second time. Notably, his female teammates, The Engineer and Swift, also endured horrendous rape subplots throughout the “Transfer of Power” arc while fellow male teammates Jack Hawksmoor and The Doctor did not. Eventually, Midnighter saves them all and he and Apollo marry in Millar’s last issue, “The Authority #24.”

Although the worst ended for Apollo as soon as Millar left The Authority, his character continued for the next decade to be neglected in favor of Midnighter. In the two issues of The Authority reboot Grant Morrison undertook with Gene Ha, a weakened Apollo is shot down by tanks in an alternate universe and Midnighter quickly stands over his unconscious body to defend him. Keith Giffen with various artists stepped up years later to finish the run, bringing the team on a journey across the Multiverse. Out of them all, two versions of Apollo from alternate universes were murdered by teammates, leaving Midnighter a grieving widower—often enough for the main version of Apollo to comment on it in the last issue, although Giffen does not examine the implications further.

From The Authority by Warren Ellis and Bryan Hitch

Dan Abnett, Andy Lanning, and Simon Coleby had a slightly different take in the “World’s End” and “Rule Brittania” arcs. In this post-apocalyptic setting, the pollution from nuclear explosives has prevented Apollo from reaching full solar charge while on Earth and thus he can only visit the planet for several minutes. Although, readers get a sweet page layout of his perspective on the matter, it leaves his character once again without agency while Midnighter once again leads the story. Later, in the “Rule Brittania” arc the damsel role kicks back in and Apollo is sickened by a virus. His teammates literally put his infected body in a fridge (fridging him, haha, get it?) and Midnighter goes on a very traditional hero’s journey in order to bring his husband back from near death.

When Apollo is not playing damsel or involved directly in the plot, he works as a piece of domestic set dressing. This happens most notably in Midnighter-led titles, such as 2007’s Grifter and Midnighter by Chuck Dixon and Ryan Benjamin as well as both the 2006 and 2015 Midnighter solo series. In the few glimpses we get of Apollo in these titles, he is almost always shown at home while Midnighter gallivants around, having adventures. The most recent Midnighter title by Steve Orlando and ACO has Apollo on a more elevated version of this role and suggests a rather new angle on Apollo’s feminine traits. Instead of worrying about Midnighter with the rest of The Authority as in Grifter and Midnighter or making art as in Garth Ennis and Chris Sprouse’s Midnighter run, Orlando and ACO opt to first show Apollo (outside of flashbacks) in one of the most domestic settings possible—the kitchen. A room you may have heard referred to by people from older eras as “the woman’s domain.”

So, while Orlando and ACO’s Midnighter in their book experiences perhaps one of the most masculine storylines possible of dating several people (spreading his seed, if I am to be crude) and experiencing the world, Apollo has apparently spent that same amount of time tied to his home and cooking. Orlando’s dialogue highlights this when Midnighter wakes up in Apollo’s bed after a defeat from the Suicide Squad.

“Castile soap. Pierogies. Your footsteps. That damn D’Aramis cologne. I don’t even need to open my eyes. I used to live here…” (Midnighter vol. 2: Hard by Orlando and ACO)

Apollo’s being, through Midnighter’s associations, is tied not just to home, but The Home. Earlier parts of the Midnighter comic established Apollo as Midnighter’s teacher and cook. Here, he is Midnighter’s caretaker and nurse. Wildstorm’s Apollo had a child with Midnighter while DC’s Apollo does not, but DC’s Apollo is still clearly defined by a strong nurturing role.

From The Authority by Warren Ellis and Bryan Hitch

That said, it’s not just story structure and repeat roles that lead to Apollo’s feminization. A number of artists who have drawn Apollo over the years have taken it upon themselves to do so in beautiful, delicate, or flamboyant lights. Apollo’s creator, Hitch, started this trend and therefore established femininity within the character. First, is the well known Bert and Ernie scene in the original The Authority run (which foreshadows Midnighter and Apollo’s orientation and relationship). Although its subtle, Hitch positions Apollo’s hands in one panel in a particular way. His hand doesn’t grip the table strongly, but rather leans on its surface via the fingertips. Hitch also designed Apollo’s outfit to hug all the dips and curves of his body, exposing its musculature and leaving little to the imagination, and drew it ripped in several panels so that it was just as revealing as that of The Engineer’s.

From The Authority: Kev by Garth Ennis and Glenn Fabry

Most of the following artists on The Authority and related comics didn’t follow up on the femininity angles, with the exception of one of my favorites: Glenn Fabry. In The Authority: Kev, Fabry refused to shy away from depicting Apollo with feminine body language. In several moments across the book, Apollo is shown with his hands on his hips, leaning against furniture in particularly provocative ways, and pouting. It’s exactly the kind of body language straight people like to gasp at and call “stereotypical” without taking into consideration that there are gay men who express themselves in similar feminine terms. Fabry’s take on Apollo’s costume perhaps takes Hitch’s design a step further too, deeply inking all of Apollo’s anatomy.

And Brian Stelfreeze made quite an impression on The Authority fandom with one page in “Midnighter #9: The Hercules Virus.” Near the end of the issue, Stelfreeze draws a close-up on Apollo’s face while he floats above the Earth’s atmosphere. The standout part of the first panel are Apollo’s closed eyes, which show off his very heavy lashes, a normally feminine feature. Starting at the eyes draws the reader’s gaze downward, to then take in the gently penciled curves of Apollo’s face and his full, partially open lips. In the next panel, Stelfreze pulls back to reveal Apollo’s full body and we see two things: his long, white hair tussled around his haloed head as if the character deliberately styled it, and the ballerina-like pose complete with slender legs and toes pointing downward. This page of Apollo may be the favorite of female fans.

From Midnighter #9 by Jimmy Palmiotti, Justin Gray, and Brian Stelfreeze

Female fans, by the way, have always taken up a significant presence if not a majority in Apollo’s—not necessarily Apollo and Midnighter’s, which has a slightly different demographic—fanbase. This is because, as I have also argued for the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s version of Bucky Barnes, female fans in their thirst for representation are drawn to male characters who are feminine-coded. Apollo’s female fans have developed his character through fanart and fanfiction when the original official The Authority books repeatedly failed to turn focus on him. Female fans love Apollo’s loyalty, his gentleness, his kindness, and his hair—while, although one of the most iconic parts of his appearance, is also notably a feature DC has failed to reinstall onto the character since Wildstorm’s end in 2010.

From Midnighter by Steve Orlando and ACO

You could call Apollo’s now closely cropped hair a symptom of DC and the larger comic book industry’s ignorance of femme readership priorities. DC’s editorial probably isn’t even aware that Apollo is feminine, because the context clues from all I have delved into come so far apart in The Authority and related comics. It takes women to find these clues on the page, relate to them, and then point them out to the rest of the world—even sometimes to queer male readers, which is an awkward conversation, to say the least. At any rate, femininity in all of its forms needs more representation in the comic book world. And, you have to admit, it’s pretty cool if you’re a feminine person to be able to say that there’s a Supergirl, a Superwoman, and a femme queer Superman.

DC’s neglect of Apollo due to femininity sources more from unconscious bias, and the paths of which their male-er readership from 15 years ago led them. While the company’s editorial has made a few strives in the last year, such as avoiding new costumes for female characters that unnecessarily reveal their bodies, keeping some female-reader friendly books in circulation despite ongoing sales numbers, and letting writer Greg Rucka have his way on the current Wonder Woman title, its business leaders barely understand ciswomen, never mind all the forms femininity can take. Progress for the company means continuing to make decisions along the same vein in order to continue reaching different kinds of readers and this is without taking into account that Midnighter fans on social media excitedly wondered what kind of story Apollo would have in Midnighter & Apollo before the first issue’s release (answer: Midnighter has to rescue him again).

Relatively recently, much to my scorn, a prominent writer in the industry tweeted that he couldn’t imagine a world where Apollo was more interesting than Superman. Granted, he could have had bias due to being a former Superman writer, but it’s much more likely that years of masculine privilege in a patriarchal world have blinded him to Apollo’s potential. Some women and queer readers are already more interested in Apollo than they are in Superman. In his overt femininity and queerness, Apollo represents them in ways Superman never has. But in order for Apollo to succeed in the future, he needs proper backing from his publisher, creatively, editorial-wise, and marketing-wise. Let’s just hope DC might one day gain some interest in investing in him to make the feminine Superman that queer readers would like to see.

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