On violence and sexism and women in comics

It’ll come as no surprise to regular readers of this blog that I’m a bit of a superhero comics fan. Lately, though, I’ve been finding myself increasingly alienated by the comics being published by the two leaders in the superhero comic market, DC Comics and Marvel Comics. It might just be a factor of getting older, but the work they’re producing, where it once engaged and delighted me, now largely disturbs and frustrates me, particularly with respect to the amount of violence and sexism they demonstrate.

Now, I know it’s kind of oxymoronic to say “hey superhero comics are violent and sexist”, but I have two responses to that:

They don’t have to be – the superhero concept itself isn’t inherently either sexist or violent, and there are many examples throughout the history of the genre of kind, joyful, generous, optimistic comics that are essentially G-rated but that can appeal to all ages.

The problem of violence and sexism feels like it’s been getting worse in the last few years. I’ve lost track of the body-count, especially in DC comics, but it feels like you can’t go long without someone in the comics being graphically murdered or violently killed. 2005’s Infinite Crisis comic series kicked things off with The Blue Beetle, who up until recently had been kind of a light-hearted version of Batman, being shot in the head (the comic depicted this murder in silhouette, but with maximum brain-splatter embellishment) and wrapped things up with Superman (not the “real” Superman – his older parallel-universe counterpart – but still symbolically the same thing) having his head bashed into a bloody pulp, and that series seems to have set the general tone – a tone that’s ably illustrated by the “Dan Didio Loves Death” tag on the Gone and Forgotten comics tumblr (Didio is co-Publisher of DC Comics).

These concerns have all been bubbling away in the background as I have found myself picking up fewer and fewer superhero comics from my local comic shop, simply from lack of interest. They’ve been on my mind a bit more lately in response to DC Comics’s recent editorial decision to cancel almost every comic they publish and then kind of start again with a brand new range of comics – mostly featuring the same characters, admittedly – in September 2011 as a way of applying a consistent design and storytelling approach to all of the comics they publish, that design/narrative approach apparently aimed at attracting non-comics readers to comics in the hopes of expanding DC’s audience.

A lot has been said about this project, but one thing that’s come up a few times is the fact that when you compare what DC has been publishing up until now with what they’ll start publishing in September, the cast of characters who’ll be starring in the new range of comics are (even more) disproportionately white and male. Some of the DC-Comics-reading fanbase on the internet have expressed concerns in the reduced number of female characters in these new comics, and have also remarked upon the low percentage of female creators involved in these comics too.

Today I read an interview with a woman who had gone to San Diego Comic Con (which is pretty much the comic nerd Hajj) dressed as Batgirl, one of the women superheroes who is being “erased” by this line-wide reboot and replaced with an older, more-familiar-to-non-comic-readers version of the hero. This woman attended a range of panels featuring DC Comics staff, including writers and publishers, and asked a few direct questions about the low number of female characters and female creators at DC. Her concerns about the sexism implicit in this were either ignored, sidestepped, mocked or shouted down by panelists and audience members alike. One panelist even implied that if women creators were good enough, they’d have jobs at DC already. And I think this might be the straw that blah blah blah.

DC and Marvel’s comics have been feeling increasingly adolescent for quite a while now, but there’s still been a glimmer of the gee-whiz excitement that I want from my superhero comics in their output here and there. The events in San Diego have convinced me that this trend isn’t an aberration, though – it’s the final destination. So I think I’m just going to jump off here at this stop and walk the rest of the way myself.

I’m still a self-confessed comics junkie though, so I’ve been looking around for stuff to read instead of DC and Marvel’s stuff. In light of the above comments about a lack of talented women in comics, what I’ve been looking for is good comics made by women, and it wasn’t hard to put together a list of absolute corkers.

I present the following (obviously not exhaustive or intended as exemplary) list not as a token “women in comics” gesture, but as evidence that if DC and Marvel ever actually tried to find talented women to make comics for them, they wouldn’t have to look very far at all.

  • Carla Speed McNeil writes the most amazing anthropological science fiction out there as part of her ongoing Finder series. It’s an amazing allegory for contemporary Indigenous identity. It’s also very clever and sexy too. She’s actually having a sale at the moment, all paperback story collections ten bucks each.
  • Kate Beaton is the genius behind the Hark, A Vagrant! webcomic that retells all of history as a kind of sitcom-style farce. Piss funny stuff. There’s also a print collection of the strip for sale. And T-shirts too!
  • Mandy Ord’s latest graphic album, Sensitive Creatures, was recently released by Allen & Unwin, one of Australia’s main players in the graphic novel stakes. Her solid black inks and stark caricatures are a real nod to the independent US-based art-comic crowd of the 1980s.
  • Nicki Greenberg is responsible for two breathtaking graphic adaptations of literary classics: The Great Gatsby and Hamlet. There’s something muppetlike about Greenberg’s work, a blend of comedy and seriousness that really invites the reader in.
  • Polly Guo is responsible for Houdini & Holmes, a comic that teams the two archetypes together, and has a new comic about Lucifer coming out soon. Delicate and deft artwork, fluid lines and amazingly expressive faces on all her characters. Beautiful stuff.
  • Colleen Coover is a prolific artist and writer (and to be fair, she’s actually worked at Marvel a bit). Her most recent comic is Gingerbread Girl, illustrated by her and written by Paul Tobin, about a delusional but adorable girl with an imaginary identical twin.
  • Rebecca Clements’s kinokofry website is host to her sweetly funny and self-deprecating diary comic, as well as comics about ways to make the world a better/nicer place that tie directly into ways to get active and get involved with what she writes and draws about. Her art is cute, fluid and expressive and her ideas are genuinely engaging and inspirational. What more could you want from a webcomic?

All of these people have books and original art for sale. You should buy some. They’re frickin’ excellent.

Edit: As if to prove my point about how easy it would be to recruit stellar female talent, I keep literally bumping into the most amazing artists, so here’s a few more to add to the list:

  • Jemma Salume is someone I’ve only just discovered, but ooh her art makes my heart beat fastfastfast. Her recent reinterpretations of the baddies from the Doctor Strange comics is jaw-dropping, as is her sweet reimagining of other Marvel Comics characters as Doctor Strange’s replacement. More!
  • Nicola Scott doesn’t seem to have an actual online presence in terms of a portfolio or anything, but she’s come up a couple of times in the discussion re: people DC (or Marvel) should be giving more work to (especially since DC WAS giving her work up until recently) – her recent luxurious work on DC’s Secret Six title is some of the most beautiful supercomic art I’ve seen in a long time. (Plus she’s an Aussie! Oi! Oi! Oi!)
  • Stephanie Hans is the current cover artist for Marvel’s Journey into Mystery, featuring stories about Loki, the Norse god of mischief. Not sure if she’s ever done interior pages, but damn those cover paintings are lovely stuff.

It’s also worth mentioning that DC’s co-publishers Jim Lee and Dan Didio have posted a response to all of the recent discussion about women creators, which is heartening. It’ll be interesting to see how things develop.

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Poet. Author. Beard. Husband. Dad. Four chickens. Dog. Cat. I can sometimes fix my lawnmower.

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3 comments on “On violence and sexism and women in comics
  1. […] hiring as writers or artists, because publishers and editors only hire the best in the business, and you’re apparently not it. Smart-mouthed bloggers and pop culture news hosts ignore you, claiming that you don’t exist one […]

  2. ladygeekgirl says:

    I don’t mind the violence so much. I understand that comics tend to have some blood and even some of the best that I read do, but it isn’t so much that people die anymore. but that they are graphically tortured on the page. Even in the Batman comic, “A Death in the Family” where the Joker beats Jason Todd with a crowbar the panels only ever showed the Joker with the crowbar. They never actually showed him hitting Jason, at least not that much. The violence also seems more targeted at women. I have heard so many scenes in comics be describe basically as torture porn, which is really upsetting to me as female reader.

    The sexism in DC and Marvel has been a huge problem. The tired old excuse is simply that more men read comics so women should just put up with the sexism. If more men really read more comics then technically, I think it’s more important for the comics to not be sexist, so as not to spread negative stereotypes of women. Furthermore, plenty of women read comics. I just tend to feel like an ignored demographic.

    Basically, what I’m saying is that I totally agree with you and I want to thank you for posting this. Also thanks for this awesome list of great female creators! It really made my day.

    • Adam Ford says:

      Thanks, LadyGeekGirl. You’re right about the violence. If I’m being specific, it’s the gore-porn that’s been bugging me of late. And you make a great point about that “it’s for guys” excuse. I think that excuse is a real problem, because it just assumes that all men enjoy this kind of violent and objectifying entertainment, when clearly it’s not the case. It’s kind of insulting to men to even say so.

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About Adam

I'm the author of the poetry collections The Third Fruit is a Bird and Not Quite the Man for the Job, the novel Man Bites Dog and the short story collection Heroes and Civilians.
contact: adamatsya@gmail.com
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