I didn’t think I had anything to add to the discussion on the infamous Heroes For Hire #13 cover. (Some of those links possibly NSFW.) Something stuck in my mind, though. Typolad suggested that “you would never, ever see Marvel or DC make a cover like this with a male protagonist. Yes, a male hero may be shown in peril, but his face will be defiant. He won’t be shown as submissive.” Lea Hernandez’ remix of the cover alters the expressions to do just that.
Now, I agree—that cover was way past the line, and I can’t imagine DC or Marvel doing the same thing with male characters, especially when you take into account the sleaze factor. But phrases like “never, ever” tend to read like a challenge. Looking just at the defiant/passive stance, I knew I’d seen at least one cover with the Flash beaten to within an inch of his life, unable to put up a fight or even a glare, so I took a trip through the Grand Comics Database’s cover gallery.
These are the main covers I noticed that fit the criteria: He’s in a hopeless situation, beaten, captured, and passive. There are many more which fit the criteria cited in which he’s still fighting, or at the very least struggling. There aren’t many, and most of them are from the first two years of this version of the character.
And yet, none of these rise (or fall) to the level of that Heroes for Hire cover, for one simple reason: They aren’t sexualized. His body isn’t displayed provocatively. His costume isn’t shredded in strategic places. In several, all you can see is his head and maybe torso. And the peril in all of these is purely physical trauma, without phallic stand-ins or hentai imagery. (I’m afraid to see what this’ll do to the incoming search terms.)
The closest thing I could find, actually, was this:
The cover reverses the trend in sword-and-sorcery book covers and movie posters to show the hero standing defiantly against a ravening horde, with a woman posing at his feet. In this case the woman is standing scared in the center, with the exhausted hero submissively at her feet. Even then, there’s nothing sexual about the threat.
There are other covers where he’s being humiliated. Grodd has him in a dog collar on one cover, and Golden Glider has him on the ground in another, ready to slice him up with her razor-sharp ice skates, for instance.
But they’re all, as Typolad pointed out, situations in which the hero is defiant. He’s down, but he’s not out. There’s no mixing of humiliation and passivity (unless you count the one above where he’s getting beaten to a pulp by someone wearing his own costume), and sexual degradation doesn’t factor into them much, if at all.
Though this cover from a cross-over with Wonder Woman is, on inspection, a little disturbing. Cheeta and Zoom have both heroes tied up in Wonder Woman’s lasso. But while the Flash is glaring at Cheetah, all we can see of Wonder Woman’s expression is her mouth. (She’d recently been blinded, so she wears a blindfold to hide her damaged/missing eyes.) She looks scared, or at least worried. Considering she’s stronger than the Flash, and more-or-less invulnerable, shouldn’t she be less worried than he is?