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Women in Comics: An Overview

"Wait... YOU read these comics?!" The idea of a woman being a comic book geek can be quite the shock to the system apparently; that was a genuine outburst I triggered just the other week when I was giving advice on which comics were best for zombie fans.

Originally I found this regular surprise and puzzlement rather bemusing. Why would women not be interested in comics? The answer soon became clear.

Power Girl & Catwoman

Clear enough, even when thinking upon what image to use to illustrate my point. Up popped the above on my feed, a perfect example that no matter how kick ass your female hero is, ultimately she can and will always be reduced to a pair of boobs for men to leer over. Occasional diversions aside, comics are still regarded as a men's domain: no girls allowed.

This is the first in a series of articles that will explore each of the comic book ages, the difficulties encountered by female characters, and a look at the female writers and artists across the history of the industry.

As a beginner to comics, once I had a few of the staples under my belt, I looked for and repeatedly failed to find any female writers, artists and characters that were as well represented as their male counterparts. While I had a long list of favourite male writers I knew to look for, women writers and artists seemed oddly scarce on the ground. My favourite male heroes had stacks of titles to their name, but on comparison the women had little to nothing.

Comics are certainly not alone when it comes to women being shunted aside: in early February The Guardian reported on a study published by VIDA (an organisation for the promotion of women in the arts) which showed that on the whole far more attention within the media is given to male writers than women writers. As a female reader and writer myself, this is no big shock, but what still surprises me is the outright denial from many commentators, and the demands that since there are more women than ever before in the industry, we should be satisfied.

Witchblade #41Witchblade has feminist fans as well as fanboys.

When I look at what comics I want to read, I take story and art into consideration first, which is common enough. But I also make an effort to check out female writers and artists who are often tucked away and less well stocked, as well as reading titles with strong female characters that I might tend to skip over: as a geek, internalised dismissal of female stars and writers can be hard to overcome. It took me a long time to pause in my worshipping of the mighty male writers – Ennis, Miller, Morrison, etc. – and pick up some Wonder Woman, Birds of Prey, and Nemi.

In the early days of the comic industry, female readers were actually the majority of the audience but this was at a time when the stories were pitched towards younger fans, and the romance and career girl stories were all the rage (think Bunty or Betty and Veronica) . The 1950s saw the introduction of the Comic Code, a self regulated form of censorship that both crushed the hugely popular horror comics of the period, and the feminist leanings of a certain Diana Prince, or Wonder Woman as she is more commonly known. The first popular female superhero was seen as a bad role model for young girls, her forceful nature and energy giving them quite the wrong impression of a girls proper place in society. DC had their own code that declared that the “inclusion of females in stories is specifically discouraged... Women, when used in plot structure, should be secondary in importance”. Oh.

Catwoman 1947I think Dick's costume is more revealing actually...

The Comic Code didn't only effect Wonder Woman; between 1954 and 1966 Catwoman disappeared from our comics altogether, due to breaking many of the (often absurd) rules. Catwoman was not "depicted in dress reasonably acceptable to society" and her feline ways didn't gel with the ruling that "suggestive posture is unacceptable". Her enticing of the Bat? "The treatment of love-romance stories shall emphasize the value of the home and the sanctity of marriage." Hmm. Not to mention her glamorous criminal activity being equally at odds with the Code.

By the time the 80s rolled around, the feminist movement had helped readers welcome far more female characters into their comics. But despite promising changes, such as the Invisible Girl becoming the more grown up sounding Invisible Woman and leader of the Fantastic Four, Storm gaining leadership of the X-Men, and Jean Grey gaining great power by becoming Phoenix, the majority of women characters were still generalised stereotypes. The changes for these female heroes might have suggested power, but this was far from the reality as they were still portrayed primarily as titillation for men, or in the case of Jean Grey, as a woman to continually be beaten down.

Dark PhoenixJean Grey: the ultimate example of women with power = evil.

Away from the mainstream, underground comics had allowed publications by women for women (such as the fantastically named Tits and Clits!) to flourish and by the time the 90s rolled round, with the Riot Grrrl feminist movement, comics such as Naughty Bits, Tank Girl, and Dykes to Watch Out For were well enough known that the big publishers started to take note. DC's Karen Berger launched the Vertigo imprint in '93 to focus on more alternative works and brought us Neil Gaiman's terrific The Sandman series, starring many wonderful characters (including the gorgeous Death) who happened to be women.

Tits & ClitsI have a feeling my mum will freak at the title.

But back in the land of superheroes, nothing much had changed. Birds of Prey writer Gail Simone coined the phrase "Women in Refrigerators" in 1999 to describe the common trope of female characters being killed, injured or depowered as a plot device to spur on a male character.

Most notably, Barbara Gordon (aka Batgirl) was permanently injured in Alan Moore's The Killing Joke when the Joker shot and paralysed her before taking photographs of her in various states of undress in order to drive her father, Commissioner Gordon, to madness. Moore told Wizard magazine that when he asked DC for permission for the storyline he was told "Yeah, okay, cripple the bitch." Seriously.

Barbara GordonSooner or later, the refrigerator comes for them all.

While Batman had recovered from his broken back (Knightfall) quite speedily, there was no magic solution for Babs. The Killing Joke ends with Gordon rescued and Batman and the Joker sharing a joke. And Barbara paralysed and degraded, her injury a mere plot device for the male characters. Female fans were far from impressed; Moore later expressed regret.

Sure, there are some strong and sexy female characters in our comics today but very few are presented without the standard idealised body type, often in spine breaking provocative poses; in some Marvel comics for example you can even play "paste the head on the generic body!", while over in DC you can play the same swap job with women's faces. There are now titles that are brilliant for women, like the Barbara Gordon (now Oracle) starring Birds of Prey, but they still account for a tiny percentage of comic book output. The majority of leading roles in comics are given to men, the stories revolve around men, and the women are there to be saved, to be of assistance, or to be stuffed in a refrigerator.

Heroes for Hire #13Can you picture a male Marvel team in this scenario?

I've seen comic fans argue that there is nothing wrong with the images of Power Girl and Catwoman at the top of this article (despite Catwoman looking nothing like Selina Kyle for starters), and that it's all just a bit of fun. But the fact is, male characters would never be shown in such poses in a non-absurd way, nor would they appear draped in phallic tentacles as in the above cover (drawn by a woman for what it's worth). Portrayals like this don't just objectify the female characters in a way that male characters never experience (well defined muscles are a symbol of strength rather than the lack of power that exposed female skin suggests), they stop women from wanting to pick up those comics. Catwoman is sexy as hell, I love her more than any other character, but the picture of her licking milk out of a bowl while being dominated by Batman makes me want to hurl.

I like sexy women, but there's a big difference between women being sexy, and women being overly sexualised for a male audience.

It's also easy enough to see at a glance that there are still very few female writers and artists getting their work out there, and those that have been successful have been vocal about the difficulties they encountered because of the predominantly male environment.

She-HulkShe-Hulk knows the score.

Every few months a bigwig at one of the big publishing houses will announce the current "trend" of women being fans of comics, of a drive to encourage this, to give more female characters their own series, and welcome more female writers into the fold, and gradually more female creators and characters are shining through.

Really though, women have been reading comics all along, because despite them being aimed at men, despite the idealised body types and mandatory skimpy clothing, and despite the strange looks we get at cons, the comics are good! The storylines are great, the art is fantastic, and I like them for all the same reasons my dude friends do. The bias against women in the industry is a reflection of the bias against women in most geek circles; it's been a boys club for so long that many fans just don't see what all the fuss is about.

BatwomanThe newest Batwoman is utterly amazing.

When it comes to picking out comics for women then, I'd say it's not about picking those with romance, relationships or any other chick-lit trend, but choosing those comics that are great with characters you can really invest in and that half of them maybe happen to be written or illustrated by a woman, that pass the Bechdel test, or just have a realistic proportion of women within. As well as, y'know, all the other great comics out there.

My favourites? I adore Warren Ellis' Transmetropolitan with my hero Spider Jerusalem and his awesome Filthy Assistants Yelena and Channon, The Sandman with my favourite characters Death and Delirium (based partly on Kathy Acker), Greg Rucka's ass kicking Batwoman: Elegy, and my goth icon Nemi by Lise Myhre. And of course, my original vice, Batman (the good bits).

In other words, I'm a normal comics fan.

Comments (11) Trackbacks (3)
  1. Luckily the web has picked up on the vacuum existent on the comic medium. It’s thriving with great female writers – and great female characters, for all ages and publics.

    One of my favorite webcomics, Gunnerkrigg Court, has two young (and strong) girls as protagonists and it manages to have the most diversified public, proving that it is possible to make interesting gender-neutral comics (and, especially, have great female leads that aren’t either Mary Sues or Damsel-In-Distress’s). You can read it here:

    Hopefully this momentum created on the web-space will end up moving the mainstream comics somehow.

    • Thanks, I’ll look into Gunnerkrigg Court – looks good!

      I’m a huge fan of webcomics, I’ll definitely be covering how webcomics and the internet in general has helped woman writers && artists get their work out there.

  2. Awesome article – I’m looking forward to the others in the series. Have you read the book “The Supergirls: Fashion, Feminism, Fantasy andthe History of Comic Book Heroines”? It deals with a lot of the same problems with women in comic books you brought up, and it’s a really informative read.

    • Thank you very much. It’s actually on my wishlist, I think I might have to move it up my list of priorities!

  3. Thank you for writing this true and even-handed article! Sometimes, despite all evidence, things so totally off are accepted as so normal and fine that it seems hardly worth an out-loud sigh. This is so much more than that and presented so well. Thanks.

  4. Lovely article and excellent blog! I’m a Brazilian fan of Ellis, his RT on twitter made me curious about your blog and, good news: Is awesome and I agree with every single word! I always told my friends who read too: “Dude, why they have to do these covers? why dont make some regular stuff? Bikini girls, sexy poses and things like this are the reasons that most of the people thinks that comics are for teenages and kids and avoid the women readers”.
    Well, enough said. Keep the good job, gal. I’ll be following the updates on the blog, c’ya

    • Thank you! I’m very grateful to Warren Ellis for retweeting, I couldn’t have imagined this great reaction to my little article!

      I don’t know many other women in my day to day life who read comics for exactly these reasons.

  5. Delighted to find this blog, recommended by chipsnopotatos. Thanks for the nod to the great 70s backlash against horrific male underground comix. Trina is still a favorite (just in case you missed “Trots & Bonnie” in the old National Lampoon). Lee Marrs did fine work with the “Pudge” trilogy. All among many others not well known but appreciated by their fans.

  6. I think what many fanboys hear when they hear fangirls complaining about sexism in comics or the negative portrayal of women is something like: “Now that I’ve kicked in the door of your little clubhouse, I want you to change everything around to suit me. And I’ve going to yell at you about it until you do, or until you leave. And then I’m going to follow you to your new clubhouse and do the same thing there.”

  7. I was doing research for a paper and I stumbled upon this. I totally love it. It reminds me of Jean Kilbourne’s work, but with comics. I run a nerdy fan page on Facebook and have had my nerdy cred questioned. The people who have Liked my page are very aware I am a woman and admin with another, yet we are still questioned about our understanding and love of these characters. Thanks for the great read!

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