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Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Tales from the Comic Shop: Feminism and Comics

[The following article is an editorial piece and reflects the opinion of the author and not necessarily GeekRex as a whole.]

Welcome to Tales from the Comic Shop, a new series of editorial articles I will be publishing from time to time about the comics industry as well as the fans surrounding it.  Hopefully you enjoy the read, any feedback would be much appreciated!

Tales from the Comic Shop was an idea I came up with a little while back, but I never really found the right topic to start off with.  I just could not come up with something I was so passionate about that I had to write an entire article on the subject.  Leave it to angry fanboys and their access to the Internet to give me some much needed inspiration.  Today, I'm going to be talking about feminism and its place in the comics industry today, both in the material being produced by comic companies as well as the general behavior of comics fans.  Now, I am sure quite a few of you just read feminism and had some sort of thoughts about this being an extremist anti-male piece (from a male author).  Let's clear something up real quick: being a feminist does not mean you hate men.  Feminism is the belief that women deserve equal treatment to men in terms of rights, privileges, pay, etc.  I consider myself a feminist because I believe that a person's gender should not have any bearing on their value as a human being in society...and if there is one thing comic book fans do excessively, it is treating women like they're not equal.

The Old Days: Sign of the Times or Unacceptable Behavior?

As you can see from the above panel from a 1960's issue of Fantastic Four, sexism is not a new trend in comics by any means.  Sue Storm, who is arguably one of the most powerful members of the Fantastic Four (she certainly spends a lot of her time saving the rest of the team from falling or any other form of peril), is treated as nothing more than a morale booster simply because she isn't a man.  50 years later, this panel is not really something which would trouble most readers.  In fact, it's more likely to make someone laugh than angry.  

The panel does bring up an interesting question about literature.  As a college graduate with a B.A. in English, I am definitely for the author's work being left as he or she meant it.  Huck Finn should not have its frequent use of "nigger" edited as it is a product of its time.  Twain used the term to characterize the people in his work, not to put down a race of people.  Perhaps the panel above should be treated the same way.  The 1960's were not exactly known as a decade of equality for all, so the comic is not being dishonest to its period by any means.  Like all literature, though, comics can open up a dialogue about what is acceptable today and what is not.  That is where we want to make a stand with the way women are treated in comics.  Do we want to be something future generations look back on to laugh at because of our simplistic ignorance, or should we work to produce literature that stands apart?

The 90's: Everyone gets Over-sexualized

Ah, the 1990's.  A rather...interesting time for the comics genre.  Most comic book fans do not look back on that decade as a positive experience for fans, mostly due to horrible stories (Clone Saga) and even more atrocious sales gimmicks from the big two (glossy covers and what not).  What is also telling about the decade, however, is its artwork (you know, that other thing that makes something a comic book).  Just take a second to look at the above piece of art.  Are the pencils, inks, and colors particularly bad?  Not necessarily, but look at the ways the people are drawn.  The men have bulging muscles and the women have frail bodies with bulging chests.  Except for Wolverine and Beast, the men also wear costumes which cover up most of their body.  Psylocke, however, does not have that luxury, as her costume is clearly meant for your eyes to go directly to her chest.  A bit odd considering the character's power set involves more usage of her head and/or hands.  

While certainly the portrayals of both genders are hyperbolic in their use of human anatomy, the 90's give us a perfect look at the way women were seen in comics.  Sure, Rogue, Psylocke, and Jubilee may have powers which prove useful in a fight against Magneto, but the artist would much rather a (usually male) reader fawn over that gorgeous bod.  Some may not see this as a bad thing.  What this image does when it becomes recurring, and it definitely is in comics even today, is it makes the reader forget that the character is a person.  They become nothing more than a sexual object and it does not help when the writers and artist do absolutely nothing to sway that notion.

Today: Power Girl and Signs of Progress

Poor Power Girl.  Did the artist really want us to notice ANYTHING about you aside from your chest?  Okay, your chest AND your glare of longing, perhaps sexual desire for the reader?  Sure!  I'll pick up that book!  

No.  Stop this, comics artists.  Bad comics artists.

Power Girl is a wonderful character, but put her costume on a man and he would look ridiculous.  If her creators really wanted us to enjoy her as a strong, female character they would have given her something a bit more flattering to fly around in.

Let's face it; comic books are about to go the way of the newspaper if the industry doesn't find a way to grow (and I'm not talking more variant covers and 3D lenticular covers).  There needs to be a serious paradigm shift in this industry which offers books for ALL readers, which means bringing in more girls.  The best way to do that?  Offer more books like Velvet, and less like the ones above.  Us guys have plenty of hero figures to look up to in cape comics, but it's slim-pickings for a girl who wants to be seen as something more than an object of desire.  With books like Wonder Woman, Captain Marvel, Ms. Marvel, and She-Hulk leading the fray in female-centric comics that are critical successes, it gives one a lot of hope that perhaps our sexist days may be finally behinds us.  But then this had to happen....

Rape Culture and Fan Culture: Janelle Asselin v.s. Brett Booth

Imagine this.  You're looking around the Internet and see a review of a comic book cover.  Not an unusual type of article by any means.  The author makes some legitimate criticism which you may or may not agree with, but you cannot deny that some truth is told.  Now imagine that the writer of that article is female.  If that angers you in any way...I'm so glad you are reading this.  

This is the situation Janelle Asselin found herself in recently, and it has created a tidal wave of reactions from both sides.  For having the gall to suggest that maybe, just maybe we shouldn't hope to bring in readers to DC's relaunch of Teen Titans with a cover prominently featuring a character with enlarged breasts, Asselin has been met with an outrageous amount of ire from fans.  Admittedly, Asselin's article may not have gained so much attention had it not been for Flash artist Brett Booth joining the debate, throwing out put downs against the writer for being a woman and having the incredible opinion that woman aren't objects.  Mind, this is boiling down what I'm sure Booth felt was a well-informed argument to some essential points, but the fact remains that the artist seemed to be more offended that Asselin was a woman more than any of her actual thoughts on the cover itself.  

Then things just got worse.  Asselin was met with a barrage of hate from fans, ones whose emotions were so tied into a stranger's opinion of a comic cover that doesn't come out until July that they somehow felt it was okay to threaten her with rape.  Now we come to the impetus for this editorial.

Fake Geek Girl is a term which has become quite popular on the Internet over the past few years.  If you spend any time in geek culture, you're probably familiar with the term, which is applied incessantly to any girl who admits to enjoying aspects of nerd culture (such as comics) that are typically seen as being only for boys.  But what happened with Janelle speaks to something much more serious than having one's underwear in a wad over a woman joining your debate on Superior Spider-man or the New 52.  Not all guys who consider themselves nerds are the sort of vile people who would find rape an acceptable threat to one who dares disagree with them, but the fact that those of us who AREN'T like that do nothing to curb that behavior is a silent approval of the problem.

It is deliciously ironic that so many men who claim to adore and look up to superheroes behave in such a way.  Certainly they must admire these characters, or else why bother calling yourself a fan?  Undoubtedly many of these people are also the ones who constantly have "true fan" competitions in every comment section on the Net.  How can someone find rape, perhaps the most terrible thing you could do to a person aside from murder, acceptable as a form of punishment and then turn around and read about Superman or Spider-man fighting for justice and equality every Wednesday.  Anonymity definitely plays a role in all of this as I can attest that many comic fans are too nervous to even speak to a girl who walks into a comic shop.  Nevertheless, even if none of these men act on their threats against Asselin, it in no way makes it more acceptable.  

The sexism of the comics industry and the sexism of comics fans are not disparate problems.  They stem from the same tree.  We may have less comic fans threatening to rape women for having opinions on their precious comics if comics would treat their female characters as well as they do the men.

You can read Janelle's own thoughts on her story here.


Apologies for this being such a long read, but I promise I'm almost done.  Sexism in comics is a real problem, even if it may not be nearly as prevalent as it was even 20 years ago.  Sexism in comics leads to sexism among fans.  Male fans gain this sense of entitlement that, because comics are more marketed towards them, that means they are the only ones who can enjoy it.  This leads to female superheroes getting revealing costumes and boob jobs as well as making many local comic shops absolutely acidic places for a woman to visit.  The comic fans which believe in this over-sexualization of women in comics or find it acceptable as well as the ones who believe in discluding real women from the fandom are a detriment to the fandom as a whole.  It is up to those of us who are NOT like this to call out our brethren on their wrong doing, but also to reach out to those women who are genuinely interested in comics.

As mentioned, there is definitely progress being made in the right direction.  Both DC and Marvel are doing a MUCH better job than even 5 years ago at creating female-centric comics which allow the characters to be more than their bodies.  And guess what?  Most people who have read those comics find they actually enjoy those characters!  It seems a no-brainer that developing your female characters beyond appearance helps them to feel more human, but comics are only just now beginning to catch on.

This is by no means meant to be a complete discussion on this topic, and I am definitely hoping some of you will respond below.  Perhaps if we made our comic shops more inviting to the opposite sex, we just may be able to save an industry that is ever on the verge of collapse.
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