I’m just spitballing here, but I don’t think DC really presented Dick as sexy until the 1980s in New Teen Titans, and I don’t think he became an icon for sexiness until the 1990s.I agree with the first part of that conclusion, but I also think Dick Grayson was the company’s primary male sex symbol in the mid-1980s because he was the first hero frankly shown to be having sex.
In 1963’s the “Prisoners of Three Worlds” story ended with Robin and Bat-Girl going off hand in hand while Batman blushed and gulped at Batwoman’s advances, but Dick and Betty would surely do nothing but kiss. In contrast, Alfred’s imaginary stories in the same era presented the clear possibility of Bruce and Kathy having a child.
Similarly, while there was a lot of flirtatious banter with Wonder Girl in the early Teen Titans stories, Robin never really connected with her, Harlequin, Batgirl, or other possible partners. In solo stories Dick’s college girlfriend Lori visited his dorm room, but he stayed dressed in his turtleneck sweater.
But then came New Teen Titans, by Marv Wolfman and George Pérez, in 1980. And that was one sexy comic book, from its very first images of Starfire in her barely-legal and completely impractical armor. Cartoonist R. C. Harvey tried to analyze the runaway popularity of that magazine in The Art of the Comic Book:
Upon first looking into issues of Perez’s New Teen Titans, I was struck by two aspects of his drawing style—how pretty his people looked and how copiously his detail abounded. . . . His people were statuesque hunks and glossy glamour girls, hothouse heroes and heroines cavorting in shapely perfection amid uncluttered and tastefully appointed settings.The Titans were often working out in skimpy clothing or lounging around pools. Gar Logan’s jokes always drew attention to the beautiful girls, though they also made clear he wasn’t getting any. Even characters who weren’t supposed to be or think of themselves as physically appealing, like Changeling, Cyborg, and Raven, were gorgeous.
Pérez made no bones about designing sex appeal into the magazine in an interview with The Comic Times in 1980:
Starfire…was definitely created for pure sex. The fact is she’s sexy, she enjoys sex, and she makes no bones about it. She attacks Robin in the second issue. You know, really gives him one right across the mouth. The thing is. Starfire is an alien from another planet, but she can learn the language by touch. That’s just the way she chooses to touch. She likes Robin because he’s one of the few guys who's gutsy enough to show his legs. I hate that damn costume of Robin’s. but at least we’re going to have a little fun with it.In 1983, Pérez repeated to Comics Scene that “Starfire was created as the group’s sex symbol.” Part of the fun of her early aggressiveness came from how Robin was such a straitlaced fellow, both as a character within the story and as a symbol in the larger American culture.
But soon Starfire wasn’t the only Titan to be sexy. In 1983 The Comics Journal’s Dwight R. Decker told Wolfman during an interview: “the Titans aren’t hopping into bed with each other, but there’s still an undercurrent of sexuality.” Wolfman acknowledged that Donna Troy (Wonder Girl) was in a “very healthy sexual relationship” with her boyfriend, Terry Long.
And there was more going on than Wolfman was ready to acknowledge. In New Teen Titans, #28 (dated February 1983), Dick visits Kory’s apartment and on a later page is wearing nothing but his pants while Kory is down to her nightgown. It didn’t take a lot of reading between the panels (or, to put it another way, in the gutters) to figure out what they had been doing. Later Wolfman joked about that scene but at the time he apparently had to be more circumspect.
In the book Focus on George Pérez, published in 1985, the artist said that panel was his idea:
the simple reason that Dick is 19 years old. I was married at 19. . . . they are both consenting adults, and no matter what—the title says Teen Titans—at 19 years old, those two are legally adult. . . .The company received “a few letters,” Pérez said then; “about three or four,” he recalled in 1987. But enough that Wolfman as the magazine’s editor felt he should respond on the letters page:
And, that one panel, which I did as tastefully as I could, there was no nudity involved, nothing was shown of the act, it’s just the fact that she was in what was established as being his bedroom, because I’d drawn the bedroom before. It’s the bedroom set I have. And, make no question about it, they were in bed together...
this has become one of the most controversial panels we’ve ever presented. Many readers wrote in saying “Way to go!” and others said “How could you do that in a book about teenagers?” The question cannot be resolved in a letter column. We didn’t mean to use Dick and Kory as role-models. That’s never been our intention anyway, but we realize by their being printed and portrayed as heroes (which they are) the mantle of being a role-model rests on their shoulders.In 1987 Pérez said:
We acknowledge the problem some of you had with the scene and we apologize if it bothered you. We honestly had no idea there would be any problem. We also acknowledge that premarital sex obviously does exist, end we neither condone nor condemn those who believe or disbelieve in it.
As far as the backlash, it seemed like more only because Marv wanted to deal with the actual question. Even though there were very, very few letters about it, Marv wanted to deal with that and state something about it. I think Marv didn’t go far enough, myself. But again, I have an opinion on that type of thing, or am more vocal in some respects.Indeed, regardless of his denials, Wolfman’s discussion of the characters as “role models” raised the question of what they symbolized. Dick Grayson had been a comic-book role model since his first appearances. He had also symbolized youth, and now the former Boy Wonder was in bed with an alien supermodel. What was America coming to in 1984?! Next we’d be noticing that the President and his wife had gotten married in a secret ceremony eight months before the birth of their first child.
Unfortunately, by doing that, it called attention to it, and I think that it probably got more of a backlash of attention brought on by putting it in the letters page than it ever did appearing in the comic, itself.
Pérez pointed to preceding examples of comics heroes having sex: Bruce Banner in The Hulk and Charles Xavier in X-Men. But those were:
- Marvel magazines, not the more traditional DC titles.
- characters established as adult.
- not a character America had known as a youth since 1940.
Of course there’s a delightful irony in the fact that the original kid sidekick became the first unmarried male DC hero to have a sex life. I think that made Dick Grayson the company’s primary icon of male sexuality all the way back in 1984.
Within a few years, other DC characters followed. Dick came to represent monogamous values while other heroes of his generation were more freewheeling (providing yet another way for Roy Harper to screw things up for himself). But, just as he was always comics’ first and thus leading kid sidekick, Dick Grayson would always be DC’s first sex symbol.