24 September 2011

On Comic Books, Feminism and Sexuality

Much has been made recently of the relationship between women and comic books, specifically in the context of DC Comics's New 52 relaunch.  A fretfully low number of creators are women, and even fewer female characters are anything beyond fantasy fodder for young male readers.  Before we even discuss women, though, I'd just like to point out that the slam really ought to be that female characters in comics are portrayed as fantasy fodder for young straight male readers.  It seems in the course of our demographic sensitivity, we forget that not every young male reader is straight.  But, I digress; the nature of LGBT readers, creators and characters will have to wait for another post.  [Note: Bunker, a new openly gay character, will debut in Teen Titans #3.]

The most blatant offenses of The New 52 appear to be Catwoman #1 and Red Hood and the Outsiders #1 in which Catwoman and Starfire, respectively, are both unapologetic sluts, for lack of better term.  Incensed readers have asserted that there is a pointed difference between a woman with a healthy sense of her sexuality and this kind of vapid fantasy girl--disposable, offering her lovers the act itself without seeming to actually value it for herself. It's a fair argument to make, and to appreciate the nuances of this, one must spend some serious time thinking about, and studying, sexuality.  (And, no, just thinking about sex a lot doesn't cut it.)

"What about Samantha in Sex and the City?" you might be tempted to ask, thinking you've got an unapologetic slut from a show loved by lots of women as your ultimate retort.  Firstly, not every woman who reads comic books is a fan of that show in the first place; believe it or not, not all women have the same taste or values.  Secondly, even among those who are fans of Sex and the City, it doesn't follow that they're particularly big fans of that specific character.  Lastly, there is a difference between Samantha and Starfire.  Samantha makes it clear that she has frequent, meaningless sex because she enjoys it.  Starfire, however, appears to offer herself to her male teammates in much the same fashion that you might offer a magazine you've finished reading to someone else in a waiting room.
Do these look like women who read comic books?
Photo: Benjamin Norman for The New York Times
Nelson Blake makes a solid argument amid this outrage that not every New 52 title has been so egregious; Wonder Woman, for instance, doesn't appear to have offended anyone.  The only New 52 issue I've read so far, Batgirl #1, featured a strong, respectable female lead character and nothing that ought to have rankled anyone's sense of gender.  Of course, Batgirl was written by Gail Simone but Wonder Woman came from the pen of Brian Azzarello, so there's that.

Another offending title appears to be Voodoo #1, written by Ron Marz.  Voodoo is a former stripper, as portrayed in the first issue.  I'm going to refrain from commenting on this one until I read it for myself.  I follow Marz on Twitter and he seems a pretty progressive-minded guy so I'd be surprised to discover that he's outright insensitive to feminism.  I suspect, instead, that this background is merely meant to titillate readers into reading the series, in a sort of "come for the former stripper, stay for the thoughtful character" plan.  Marz did write that terrific stuff with Kyle Rayner and Jade rooming together in the 90s, so I'm giving him the benefit of the doubt at present over Voodoo.  (I, personally, am pro-stripper as outlined elsewhere in this blog.)

I had originally planned to blog about the proliferation in the first four months of the new DCU of crossovers and guest-appearances, until I kept encountering tweets and blog posts dedicated to debating the women in comics topic.  Both, however, occasion me to point to the same culprit and the one inherent flaw with The New 52, and that is that Dan DiDio is still at the helm of DC Comics as co-publisher.  I'm sure he's a terrific guy, pays his taxes and helps little old ladies cross the street, but I am convinced the guy is clinging to editorial concepts that the industry should have already outgrown.

Unlike a lot of people, I didn't hate this summer's Green Lantern movie; I'd say I liked it, only just so.  Most of my problems were story-specific, and at first I chalked it up to the fact it was a movie with five credited screenwriters--never a good sign.  But then I got hold of the direct-to-video animated feature, Green Lantern: Emerald Knights and I watched the bonus content.  As I listened to Dan DiDio and Geoff Johns discuss what has taken place in the GL mythology in recent years, it became painfully obvious to me that 99% of the problems I had with the live action movie were things in which the movie had tried to hew closely to what Johns had done in the comics.  No wonder: Johns was a story supervisor for the film.
[Among the troublesome story points: Hal "overcoming fear" instead of being fearless; Parallax as an emotion-based creature and emotions divided along the color spectrum.  Maybe that stuff makes sense in a 20-issue long comic book story, but it just seems stupid in a movie.]
For once, a comic-based movie would have been better off ignoring the comics.
It's clearly DiDio who values massive, sprawling crossovers that "affect" every tertiary character who ever appeared in a DC publication.  It's been on his watch that that kind of "epic" story has become the default for DC, in which readers must buy 20+ issues in the span of eight weeks to follow one story that, really, should have had its fat trimmed and been told in five issues.  That was the business model that chased away readers like me a decade ago--and apparently there were a lot of us who bailed around the same time.  Yet, there's DiDio, the co-publisher of DC Comics speaking on camera at a time when the company couldn't give away 3/4 of what it published about how "exciting" and "great" things like "Blackest Night" were.

It'd be different if sales had been monstrous in recent years, but the truth is they haven't been.  Sure, Green Lantern has been one of DC's best sellers.  But a decade ago, it would have been a candidate for cancellation with its recent era sales figures.  I understand times change and businesses must readjust their expectations as the market changes, but there's just no way around the fact that DiDio has bought into his own sales pitch about his big fish in a small pond.  I give him credit for being part of The New 52; at the very least, he didn't quash it when he clearly had the power to do so, and I'm given to understand he had an active role in developing the scheme in the first place, so I do applaud him for this act of boldness.
I like to think in this photograph, Dan DiDio was
reading an "apology" e-mail from Reed Hastings.
But when you take stock of The New 52, it becomes clear that it's not as bold as the marketing sheet told us.  I've already lamented the fact that they've been selective about continuity; Superman is starting over from scratch almost entirely, but Green Lantern--written by Johns--is trudging right along, paying no heed to the reset issue numbering on the covers.  Another problem is that if you look at the DC roster, there are a lot of familiar names and most of them are working on at least two books.  I don't begrudge anyone getting the work, but it seems that if you really want to break free from 75 years of storytelling, you make a pronounced effort to bring in new storytellers.

Right now, DC and the entire industry are just basking in the unqualified success that The New 52 has been over the last three weeks; shops are busy again, and even selling out of new books--many even after dramatically jacking up the prices.  But I've seen the solicitation texts for the first four issues of all fifty-two titles, and guest-appearances and crossovers abound in the immediate future.  Not because Nightwing needs to have a guest appearance by Batgirl in its fourth issue to ensure readers are interested, or that writer Kyle Higgins is already bored and needs to liven up that book, but because Dan DiDio gets excited about that kind of thing.  When this initial buzz subsides, don't be surprised to hear DiDio replace Reed Hastings atop the "What Are You Doing with Your Otherwise Successful Company?" list.