A buff shirtless man cosplays as Wolverine wearing dog tags on a chain and fake claws
Image Credit: Getty Images

With temperatures rising, spring breaks in full swing, and Pride season just around the corner, it’s the perfect time to revisit a small but significant sliver of warm-weather nostalgia: The Marvel Swimsuit Special.

Whether or not you were a devoted comics reader, chances are the mere mention of “Marvel” and “Swimsuit” conjures up evocative images of superheroes, stripped over their usual capes and cowls, enjoying some time poolside in barely-there swimwear.

The early ’90s was an era of exaggerated masculinity and femininity, especially in comics where heroes and villains were drawn like gods chiseled from marble, every possible muscle rippling and every curve curving.

On one hand, these overblown portrayals of impossible physiques no doubt contributed to harmful body image issues for Gen X-ers and Millennials who came of age at the time. On the other, the bold, bulging, overtly thirsty images provided an avenue for readers of all ages to explore desire—not to mention a safe space for burgeoning queer folks to look, admire, and… find some things out about themselves!

The trend got started in 1991 with the official re-launch of X-Men comics—who, let’s be honest, have always been a metaphor for the queer experience—a successful re-brand that inspired a trend, including the popular animated series, video games, and all sorts of merchandise.

Within that first issue was a cheeky (in more ways than one) photo-spread, featuring the bulk of the X-Men in revealing bathing suits as they lounged by the X-Mansion’s pool. As drawn by Jim Lee, it’s said the pinup was meant to capitalize on the growing popularity of “beach culture,” depicting the heroes like we’d never seen them before.

Needless to say, it was a big hit.

That spread then inspired the one-off Marvel Illustrated: The Swimsuit Issue, clearly riffing on Sports Illustrated and other glossy mags of the time. Heroes from the X-Men, the Avengers, and more all showed some skin in lightly erotic editorial spreads, featuring fun magazine-style features and even fakes ads.

From there, the comics publisher had a new seasonal tradition, releasing a Marvel Swimsuit Special every year through 1995. Each issue centered on a unique loose “story,” which was ultimately just an excuse to get a bunch of characters together in one place and take their clothes off.

Of course, the swimsuit specials received their fair share of criticism at the time, with some decrying their overtly prurient nature. But they’ve had their defenders, too. In 2011, comics critic Richard Cook noted that the decision to include female and male heroes was a way to be inclusive to all audiences, regardless of gender or sexuality:

“There’s no debate that this comic was puerile, but it’s a smart puerile that understood its target audience,” Cook wrote.

But you don’t have to just take his word for it. One quick search on Twitter pulls up hundreds of results, with users fondly remembering the special issues and their eye-popping original illustrations.

And, yes, an overwhelming number of those people identify as queer! Maybe that says something about the ridiculously lofty body image standards in the LGBTQ+ community—especially among gay men—but that’s another question for another time.

For now, here are a few of our favorite nostalgic/thirsty tweets about Marvel’s Swimsuit Specials:

https://twitter.com/ElenGog/status/1416414000229847046
https://twitter.com/Neekhil/status/1534227220645916674
https://twitter.com/chrisarrant/status/1412139227664596996

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