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

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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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28 thoughts on “The Tipping Point: Geek Girls, Superheroes, and the DC Comics Reboot

  1. I’m way over my head in this kind of conversation, but I just want to mention that to men, female sexuality *is* power. A woman who can effortlessly toggle between sexy and deadly has an extra superpower that there’s no male equivalent for.

    That doesn’t make it right to turn every female character into a slutty seductress, but it might explain why the guys who do so might not think it’s so wrong.

    1. I love beautiful super heroines, too. But there’s a difference between them being drawn well and them being used as T&A fanwank material.

      There are some artists working now who I love. Cliff Chiang (now on Wonder Woman), Darwyn Cooke, Butch Guice, Steve Epting….to me the T&A is not only eye-rolling but it’s bad storytelling.

      George Perez draws the most beautiful women but there’s a huge difference between his Starfire and the Starfire contorting and posing in Red Hood and the Outlaws.

      As for Catwoman, I suspect Darwyn Cooke is thinking maybe he shouldn’t have put the zipper on that costume at all, since DC unzips in all the way down anyway. 🙂

    2. I’m going to put this as gently as I can because I can tell you want to understand. Men may view female sexuality as our “superpower”, but their are ALSO a select group of men that view female sexuality as a tool that can be used AGAINST ourselves.

      Those men are called rapists.

      And there is not a woman alive today that has not been taught from prepubescence to fear rape above all things, from all quarters. And we are taught how to “avoid” getting raped (Men, otoh, are not taught NOT TO RAPE). And even in this enlightened age we live in, society, the police, and the courts will judge and blame the VICTIM of rape if they decide she was being TOO SEXUAL beforehand. Even if the victim was 11-years-old. Even if a gang-rape is caught on tape and the victim is visibly suffering, and half the rapists confess, a case can be dismissed because the VICTIM is being uncooperative. I did not make up either of those two situations. They both happened in the past few years.

      Women tend to be very guarded about their sexuality (Girls Gone Wild aside) and for very good reason– because society has proven itself over and over again to be utterly indifferent to what we actually want, and instead give preference and approval to what men want.

      Kind of like what the comics industry does.

    3. The problem comes when every woman has to be able to “save the world and look good doing it.” Or “steal stuff/kill people and look good doing it,” for the villainous gals. And “looking good” usually comes with zipped-down, cleavage-out costumes that make those of us with a C-cup and above wince in sympathetic pain, and awkwardly contorted poses for characters that aren’t even designated as “the sexy one” just because over the years a certain set of stock poses have built up, and women are drawn like X.

      The “Sexiness is like it’s own superpower!” argument has been made and is not entirely awful. I can’t speak for every woman, only myself, but I’ll say that when it’s pulled out at the wrong time, it tends to make me feel like crap. Why? Because it serves as a reminder that while men tend to be judged at how well they do things and when it comes to what makes a man attractive, they have a lot more leeway, women have to meet a second expectation–not just how well they do something, but how good they look doing it. Look at American actors vs actresses–there are some fantastic actresses out there, but leading lady roles tend to dry up after they hit thirty, regardless of skill, unless they feel like starring in a tender “Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants/Steel Magnolias” type role. Men can keep playing the lead in action movies, comedy, and drama well into their forties or fifties, and beyond. Women in politics get mocked for their wrinkles and less-than-perfect appearance. Women in sports are expected to look sexy in all photoshoots.

      It’s not something that happens 100% of the time. But it is a prevailing attitude: It’s not good enough for you to be skilled, you must always look good while doing it (and never age).

      Then it gets turned around and treated as a “but see, we menfolk are just putty in your hands when you’re sexy!” I don’t really want putty. I just want to be a human being, interacting with other human beings.

    4. I think it’s incredibly disingenuous, and quite frankly, myopic to say that men have no sexuality apart from what women, by nature of being sexual and sensual creatures (i.e. the “gatekeeper” analogy) grant them. Men and male characters can too “effortlessly toggle between sexy and deadly”, and as soon as we stop viewing men as inherently without sexuality independent from women, we’ll find ourselves in a better place. It’s not just degrading to women, telling us that finding men sexy and nice to look at is shameful or silly, but it’s also degrading to men, telling them that they can only be sexual if they’ve got a chick to bang! Now tell me that isn’t messed up. 😛

    5. Sure there’s a male equivalent. Male Sexuality. Sometimes it’s charm, sometimes it’s a threat. But it’s there and it’s awfully powerful. You just have to pay attention.

    6. Yes, I’ve often heard the claim that female sexuality is power, specifically power over men. But it’s not real power because men can also take it away from a woman at any time they deem she’s stepping out of line.
      How often have you heard the insult “ugly” leveled at women to try and shut them up? Insulting a womans appearance is usually the first thing people go for when trying to knock a woman down a peg or two because people think that a womans worth is mainly in her looks.
      When women age and lose their ability to use their sexuality as power (and if they try, risk ridicule). Does men’s power diminish with age like this? Does their age stop them being seen as sexy in the same way it does for women?
      Also, if a woman uses her sexuality to gain power then she runs the risk of being called a “slut” or any number of other names.
      When a woman uses her sexuality for power it can work to an extent, but she also runs the risk of being demeaned, ridiculed and insulted for it. It’s success is entirely dependent on the people around her. That’s not real power and it never will be until we can live without sexism.

  2. I’m a 40something man who grew up on comics (my mom handed down a batch of golden age wonder woman and blue beetles), but moved on to fiction other than an occasional drive through the comic section in the bookstore to grab some of the better graphic novel treatments. My son was never that into them, though now that he’s 14 he’s taken some interest in those same graphic novels (my bound sandman, for instance).

    So this blog and geekdad are the only places that I pay any attention to comics and I can say that I’m appalled and turned off by the pornification of comics. I think it’s somewhat fair to point out the big muscles and codpieces on the guys. But the important part is the personality behind it. In the 70s the female characters had big boobs and short skirts, but they were still super heros. Diana Prince started as an army nurse but had become an intelligence officer by my youth.

    I’m totally turned off by most of the reboot stuff I’ve seen and the egregious stuff you’ve pointed out is just embarrassing. If I want porn I’ll just buy porn, but I wouldn’t have wanted my 10 year old son or my 12 year old god daughter anywhere near this crap.

    1. DC did tweet that parents should “pay attention to the ratings systems” as Red Hood, for example is rated T for Teen.

      But I wouldn’t let me teenage son read that. I’d far rather give him Sandman or Brubaker’s Catwoman run, both filled with mature content. The difference is that the mature content has a point beyond “hehehe, boobies, butts!”

  3. Speaking out helps, but money is the only way to change anything. DON’T BUY THE COMICS. If women make up a good chunk of change for the companies and women put their money on lesser-known comics, DC and Marvel will listen. Don’t buy the comics for your husbands, boyfriends and sons either. Better yet, ask them to stop buying the comics too, if they care enough.

    1. I think buying the comics that do it right is also a good idea.

      It’s telling that of the new reboot titles, it was Batgirl, which did it right insofar as artwork and story, that was the highest seller starring a female character (in the top 15 overall, I believe.) Wonder Woman wasn’t far behind.

  4. Thank you for writing this, and for continuing to “beat the dead horse” until something changes. I admit that comic books were never really my thing, BUT my 15 year old daughter is HOOKED. I would like to be able to buy them for her now and then without feeling dirty.

    We watched every episode of The Teen Titans cartoon back in the day, and it kills me what they have done to Stargire. I knew she wouldn’t be that wide eyed teen age girl from the show, but now there is nothing interesting about the character at all!

    Batgirl is a favorite, though, and is my daughters Halloween costume. So there’s one (out of 52).

    As a side note, if I had sons, I would not want them reading Starfire or most of the other titles either!!

  5. Add me to the _Vote with your Wallet_ set.

    I’m also a 40ish male who’s been buying comics since I was a kid. There were a bunch of DC titles that I had been buying, but the “internet firestorm” over the way female characters are presented in the DCnU (and the company’s dearth of female writers) got me upset enough to simply drop DC comics entirely. Sexist treatment of female characters has been growing over the last decade, but Corrina is dead on with calling this a “Tipping Point.” DC Comics has lost my money.

  6. I completely agree, with one tiny geeky quibble. As I recall, and granted, the last time I read a comic book was just after my 10 year old was born (comics or college fund?). Anyway, Voodoo has always been a stripper, way back in her introduction in WildC.A.T.S. #1. Yep, they could have changed it, made her a different kind of dancer (ballet, modern, etc.) but with how D.C. has dealt with the rest of their female characters with the reboot, are you surprised they kept that one piece of continuity?

  7. Sadly, I must agree. While I could tolerate the exaggerated physical atributes, without good writing to support them, it’s pretty clear this is just a pathetic last ditch attempt by DC to save it’s business from obsolesence. A failed last ditch tasteless attempt.

    I look forward to condemning the industry and DC in particular to the dustbin of history.

    Speak up with the only thing that matters to such a company, stop buying their books and steal them digitized from torrent.

  8. Yes to all of this. I was surprised at how betrayed I felt when I read about what was done to the Starfire character, and I wasn’t even a Starfire fan (I was always a Wonder Girl kind of girl). I too will keep beating on this particular dead horse, and register my displeasure with my wallet.

  9. My husband doesn’t like the reboot at all! He has not found one title to continue to buy. Great article by the way! Now I know to make sure to check the comic before I buy it. I do that with books anyway, but now I know to do that with comics as well.

  10. Agree with the above posters’ remarks re: don’t buy this stuff. The DCNU titles I’m buying are Superman, Action Comics, Static Shock, and Mister Terrific (yeah, I know…).

    Note to DC: my own blog rant about Starfire’s mistreatment’s been (by my count) my most-visited blog post ever. Not saying much, but…

    Doesn’t anyone at DC know any women? Or watch movies/TV/other media? Do they even *care* that they get criticized/ridiculed for writing stuff like this, or that such stuff just lives up to media stereotypes about comic readers/comics in general (“Comic Book Guy”, 30-year-olds who’ve never dated, etc)?!

  11. I know that after one of my articles about the DC Reboot, Jim Lee started following me on Twitter. Maybe it’s just to curse me, I don’t know, but I know they’re hearing what’s being said. Whether they’re listening, I don’t know yet. Right now, the new 52 sales are looking extremely strong, so maybe not right this second.

    In a few months, if the drop-off is huge, yes. Money talks, as was said.

    Oh, and there’s a nice report on this Women in Comics panel at NYCC here:
    http://www.comicbookresources.com/?page=article&id=35096

  12. One of the more troubling decisions made in the relaunch that I think has been overlooked because it’s not as blatant as the issues raised above is what DC has done to Lois Lane, quite literally the first woman from Action #1 and the only woman who has been around since #1.

    Lois Lane, for decades Clark Kent’s partner and equal, has been reduced to her worst 1930s caricature in Grant Morrison’s new vision for Superman: a dismissive rival who won’t give Clark the time of day, and clearly readers are expected to feel bad for Superman – because Lois is the object of Clark’s affections, and as the hero of the story it’s supposed to be his right to possess that object. We’ve heard that straight from Grant Morrison and Jim Lee’s mouths.

    The choice to dissolve the Supermarriage was clearly made for one reason and one reason alone: so that Clark could sleep with other women. There is a great deal of sexism that underlies that entire approach that DC has taken to dissolve that marriage and the kind of message that sends to readers about men, women, sex, commitment, marriage and everything that goes along with it.

    It’s a different kind of issue than the kind of exploitation that you are talking about above but it is worth talking about and being aware of here because it is a different but equally real kind of sexism in the genre.

    I wish this kind of thing would be mentioned in articles like this. It’s one of those things that is easier to overlook because it’s not as blatant as a woman being drawn in a bikini. But it’s still deeply rooted in sexism and it’s still DC making a conscious choice to lessen the overall role of one of the most famous women in the entire genre and remove her status as the equal in the narrative. Sadly, out of all the women in the genre, I think Lois is going to be one of the women that suffers the most from the choices made in this relaunch. It’s a damn shame particularly when one considers how many women came to love the character through movies and television.

  13. I too still have my classic Xmen comics along with some Battlestar Galactica and Star Wars and some Sandman. I haven’t seen the new comics you talk about here, and now I’m glad.

    Personally, I’ll take the Ladies of Chaos any day and wait for the rest of Michelle Rodriguez’s characters to be brought back.

  14. I’m a male who has been buying comics for 30 years now and for over 2 decades I’ve had a simple rule when it comes to superheroines and the like… I don’t buy the comic if their breasts are bigger than their heads.
    It seems so stupid when written down, but you would be amazed how many comics it rules out.. during the 1st days of Image comics I don’t think there was a title I could actually buy.
    I love looking at beautiful women but these distorted “barbies” of human beings are just sad. They are not idealized ( as the males supposedly are – though I actually have issues with the proportions of some of them), they are caricatures, and not joyous ones.

    Still, if there was a good story I might accept the fact that these women often stood and moved in impossible ways, but I had that simple line…. and isn’t it sad and stupid that I could have that rule and be able to act on it.

    I do not believe that the general audience out there could not accept an action woman that would better represent a realistic view of what they would look like, even if that meant a more athletic appearance – I do believe that the marketing and management somehow still see their audience as somehow immature – that the male buyers are socially-inept losers living in their parent’s basement and giggling over the boobies on Black Canary.
    Women readers should be offended at the depiction of women in comics, but frankly, so should male readers because of what it says about how the industry views us.

  15. I asked a friend of mine about this thought you’ve been hammering for a while, Corrina (since I have never spent money on comics consistently).

    Comparing what he said to your argument seemed like a “which came first, the chicken or the egg?” question. Paraphrasing his thought was “money first, then content will follow”. In other words, he said that because women aren’t spending the money, the content isn’t there. (I think he might be biased from observing the comic book purchases of his financeé; she seems firmly planted in manga, mostly.)

    I interpret your argument as “content first, then the money will follow.”

    Hmm. Y’know, why not a grassroots campaign for women to build business from the ground up? There seems to be enough talent out there with women doing webcomics, for starters.

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

    Clearly the problem. And I don’t get it AT ALL. Just a few good female editors/writers and all of their stories would be far better. And there are so many great female writers/editors too.

    With this single fact, I can better understand the more heated reaction – it seems deserving and hopefully can wake up some of the brass at DC.

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