The Tipping Point: Geek Girls, Superheroes, and the DC Comics Reboot

Reading Time: 7 minutes

Want to attract women? Publish good material that doesn’t actively chase them away.–Kurt Busiek, on Twitter, 10/24/2011

I have been a reader of superhero comics since I could read, buying them off the spinner rack for a quarter.

My love for them was sealed when I watched (in reruns) the first appearance of Batgirl on the Batman Television show. A girl could fight crime like the guys? She had a cool motorcycle? And she was smart?

Sign me up for that.

But back then, Batgirl was somewhat alone. It was hard to find strong female characters to follow. Of course, there was always also Supergirl and Black Canary in Justice League of America, though neither had their own title. Mostly, I gravitated to the team titles or followed the male superheroes that I always loved. (Batman, Captain America, Iron Man, forever, yes.) Superman, not so much, but the great extra-size Superman Family had both Lois Lane and Supergirl.

Then I got supremely and utterly hooked on the two comic series that exploded onto the scene in the early 1980s: The New Uncanny X-Men and The New Teen Titans. I still have my copy of Uncanny X-Men #137 of the original run. Quite possibly my choice for favorite comic ever.

These comics were also the two sales powerhouses for Marvel and DC–X-Men so much so that it spawned an industry.

Best of all, both titles featured women in prominent roles, with cool powers. Most importantly, they were also friends with each other. I stayed hooked for a long time, until my twins were born about a decade ago and I ran out of money and time to read superhero comics on a regular basis.

But I came back, as I still love superheroes, hooked by the original run of Birds of Prey, first by Chuck Dixon and then by Gail Simone. Slowly but surely, I got pulled back in.

But one thing made no sense to me.  While the rest of the world had discovered strong females characters who sometimes carried the lead in movies and television shows, superhero comics seemed to have flat-out regressed.

I dare you to find me a male superhero posed with that hip thrust! (Image of Black Canary copyright DC comics)

You think I’m off base or exaggerating? Here’s a cover by the late Michael Turner featuring Black Canary and Power Girl. I liked that Power Girl’s breasts are as big as her head.

And here’s the cover of issue #2 of Black Canary’s solo series in 2007, also to the left.

The artwork has taken a turn into cheesecake alley and never come out. Even Simone’s run on Birds of Prey featured some of the most pin-up girl artwork I’d ever seen. (Ed Benes has never met a thong he didn’t like.)

And not powerful poses.

Come hither, I will seduce you poses straight out of porn. Yes, the men all look sexy too, but the sexiness is a result of their looking powerful. With the women, it was hips out, butts prominent, show that cleavage lady and make goo-goo eyes at the reader. Male heroes are drawn as idealized, as someone men want to be. Women are invariably drawn as people they’d like to have sex with. Even Amanda Waller, full-sized in Justice League Unlimited, got the sexed-up treatment in the new Suicide Squad #1. Make sure she has cleavage, that’s the message I receive.

Neal Adams, Marshall Rogers, Dick Dillin, Dave Cockrum, George Perez, John Byrne…all drew extremely good-looking women whose primary characteristic wasn’t that the male readers considered them bedtime companions. They were sexy because they were strong and competent. But the current artwork isn’t about that. It is, to be blunt, about women as fan wank material to a great degree. It’s not all artists and all artwork but it was enough that when I took my daughter into a comic shop several years ago, she said “Mom, why do all the girls have so few clothes on? And why do they stand that weird way?” (And she was looking at DC and Marvel titles, not Image!)

I more or less accepted the situation because the primary source of comics is the direct market, meaning the books are sold mostly in local comic shops which tend to have a heavily male clientele. Some are great and welcoming to women and kids, a good chunk are not and are far too much like the comic shop on The Simpsons.

And then DC announced its “New 52″ with the reboot of its entire universe that would also be available same day digitally.

DC stated that they wanted to appeal to a wider audience than the current direct market. While I was bummed to see the end of several titles I was enjoying that were canceled to make way for this new thing, I thought this was a great step. Get comics out of the shop and into the hands of a wider audience. And that wider audience should include more female-friendly titles or, better stated, non-fanwank material. DC had most likely noticed that 40 percent of the audience this year at San Diego Comic Con were female. They must know that 40 percent of the 12 million registered World of Warcraft players are women. They had to see the planning of the first ever Geek Girl Convention. What a chance to reach a wider audience.

Um, not so much.

It’s clear after sampling 10 of the new 52 books, checking out a larger sample in the comic shops and talking to other readers that what DC really did with their reboot was try to nail down the current audience–straight white males ages 18-35.

In the past few months:

1. DC officials were so dismissive of question from a female Batgirl cosoplayer at SDCC about the lack of female creators on the new 52 that the company felt compelled to later issue an apology after an internet firestorm.

2. Only two female creators are so far involved in the DC reboot. That’s less than one percent.

3. DC kept describing the new Catwoman as “dirty, dirty, sexy, sexy.” And, indeed, that turned out to be accurate, as the first panels of Catwoman #1 featured her breasts having an adventure and ended in an abrupt sexytime with Batman that was just … eww … I’ve written published erotica. This is not the way to write a hot sex scene, one, and two, the art on that scene was so distractingly bad  (how did Batman grow extra abs?) that any impact was lost. Was no one looking at the sex scenes in the previous Catwoman volume by Ed Brubaker between Selina and Slam Bradley?

4. Starfire, a character on a popular Cartoon Network program marketed to kids, while previously full of sex appeal in the comics but also warm and engaging with a personality, was turned into an emotionless sex doll in Red Hood & the Outlaws. I wrote about that in an article for GeekDad. That comic also spawned a great article by Laura Hudson at Comics Alliance and later a follow-up delving into why the art is this way.

5. The Catwoman short that accompanies the excellent Batman: Year One direct-to-DVD release has her using a stripper pole, unzipping her costume to the navel to “distract” the bad guys, and then she pulled two things out of the skin-tight catsuit.

One, Catwoman is a sneaky thief. Why would she announce herself on a stripper pole instead of sneaking up on these guys? Two, hello, boobs do NOT work that way. I’m guessing Selina Kyle has magic boobs that somehow stay inside her catsuit even when it’s unzipped to the navel and she’s clearly not wearing a bra.

DC has so far refused to make any more female-centric direct-to-DVD films because they said sales of the Wonder Woman DVD were disappointing. In fact, they were on par with the Green Lantern: First Flight DVD. But, apparently, DC has decided its audience is the people who love clearly gratuitous stripper scenes with magic boobs.

6. The entire first issue of the new book, Voodoo, which features the first African-American female lead, features her as a stripper as well.

7. Power Girl, who had her own title before the reboot, is now a supporting cast member in Mister Terrific, primarily serving as the friend-with-benefits of the lead character and an antagonist for another women who’s hot for Mister T. (Thus not even passing the Bechdel Test.)

There’s more but these will do as a list. Separately, one can explain away one or two of these things. Taken together, with the past history of women in superhero comics, the lack of female creators especially, it’s disturbing.It’s not mustache-twirling sitting in the backroom cackling sexist–no one’s doing that right now–but it’s functionally sexist. (And I say right now because, according to this report by a former DC Editor, it was decided that “we need a rape!” when the Identity Crisis was planned back in 2005.)

But this time something fascinating happened with the DC reboot.

There was an explosion of criticism on the internet, a lot of it from women. Intelligent, articulate, superhero-loving women. Women with platforms to reach a large audience, like Laura Hudson.

Along with Hudson, there’s The Mary Sue, DC Women Kicking Ass, The Geek Girls Network, the Nerdy Bird, myself over at GeekDad on Wired.com, Sequential Tart, and a number of others.  That they are too many to keep track of them all warms my heart and proves my point. We’ve reached a tipping point where this idea of “superheroes are only male adolescent power fantasies” is going to be challenged and, eventually, proven a myth. It wasn’t always so and there’s no reason it should be that way. Superheroes are a mythic fantasy about taking control to do the right thing. There’s nothing inherently male about that.

DC said with the reboot that they wanted to push past the boundaries of their current audience, yet the majority of their content so far says otherwise. It was a perfect storm in which many of these women, myself included, said “enough is enough.”

And they’ve kept on saying it, despite the vast internet cries of “beating a dead horse,” and “comics are not for girls,” and “they’re just not the target market.” And my favorite, the “men are idealized too, so stop complaining about the female artwork.” That one is so prevalent that a professor at Bowling Green University repeated it in an article for CNN on Monday. Really? Are we still having that discussion? It is so hard to see that point? Apparently so.

But I object to the idea that somehow, well-written and well-drawn female characters who look beautiful and powerful at the same time will suddenly make the male audience run for the hills. Women read a ton. They love male characters. They’re not asking for a radical changeover. They”re just asking, as Busiek said and Hudson said in her article, that the two major superhero companies stop actively trying to drive them away. The movies, especially Marvel’s movies, do a great job also appealing to the female audience.

I don’t see why that’s so hard to replicate in comics.

If there was a major corporation that said “you know, our audience is just white people, we don’t have to listen to any concern of minorities because they just don’t buy our comics, we want the white consumer” I don’t think that would go over well at all. But because it’s women, it’s somehow more accepted. It shouldn’t be.

DC has done some things right. I’m enjoying the new Batgirl. What I’ve seen of Supergirl looks good and Batwoman, featuring a lesbian superhero, looks fantastic.  DC also provided several titles featuring multi-cultural characters, such as Batwing, the aforementioned Mister Terrific and Voodoo, and Blue Beetle.

Greg Rucka at a panel at Geek Girl Con said that the only way to effect change is to speak out, not only about the things that are done well but the things that are done badly.

I take that to heart. I’m going to continue to speak out.

And I won’t be alone.

I won’t even be the loudest voice.

And that’s what makes me optimistic about change actually happening.

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