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Women in Comics: Regressive Storytelling and Iconic Characters

Superheroes are an iconic bunch. Most of them are older than the majority of their readers, and all of them have experienced numerous deaths, rebirths and reboots within their lifetime. As our pop culture immortals, it matters little what happens to each character within a span of a decade: to the greater public, Bruce Wayne will always be Batman, Peter Parker will always be Spider-Man, and Barbara Gordon will always be Batgirl.

To the fans, it's a different story entirely. These are characters that we follow, that we love, and they have a continuity that is as real as the story of any other hero. We often equally love their replacements: the newer generations of heroes. The difficulty in reconciling the story of the superhero who grows and matures, and the fact that a superhero is immortal and can never die, has led to rejuvenation and regression, disappointment and outrage.

With DC storming the headlines with the announcement of their planned relaunch across the board this autumn, and the subsequent reinstatement of Barbara Gordon as Batgirl – as well as the apparent cull in female creators – I have been asked my opinion on the matter with increasing frequency. Rebooting is often an enemy of the women in comics, but it doesn't have to be that way, and rebooting in itself need not be a terrible thing; in fact it may be just what comics need right now.

Action Comics #1 and Batgirl #1

Regressive storytelling, as defined by Chris Sims at Comics Alliance, is the recycling of old plots and characters from the “good old days” at the expense of the marginally more progressive contemporary days. Superman is rejuvenated, Wonder Woman becomes a girl, and the supergroups are made to be once again mostly white, mostly straight, and mostly male.

“These are stories that look to the past instead of the future, setting things back to the way they were rather than progressing them to what they should be next, rendering huge swaths of their fictional universe irrelevant because they didn't star the One True Version of a character.” [1]

This nostalgic love of a childhood past regresses storylines to a time when society was even more male dominated, when non-white people were rarely seen in comics, and when newer and equally loved characters simply didn't exist. Newer and more progressive characters often haven't had the same time in which to build up a core following, and so their attempts are cut. In this sense, DC's upcoming continuity reboot is just one more turn of the never-ending cycle of retromania.

JLA #1JLA #1 showing only one woman member.

But who's childhood love is the driving force here, that of the writer or that of the fan? The allegations usually fall at the feet of the writer, which is perfectly unfair. Charges could be levelled at the publisher, but demand always drives production, and anticipating demand in a declining industry is a tricky business. Perhaps the general public is to blame, never reading comics but insisting that characters remain unchanged in their mass-market appeal. Or perhaps there is no blame at all, only a failure to adequately balance a natural phenomenon.

The problem lies with having characters that are truly iconic in our pop culture, who can never absolutely die. The fictional universe they reside in has rules that can be bent, broken or completely rewritten at any time; things don't have to make sense, but fans demand that they do. They demand to know why Superman can fly, how Batman could fall through time, whether Thor is an alien rather than a God, and how Spider-Man can shoot sticky fluid over his enemies. Fans have a love affair with continuity, in a universe where nothing is continuous and everything is temporary. The continuity of comics is simply that “nothing stays the same and everything stays the same” [2].

Nightwing #1Nightwing is back as Dick ditches the Bat-cape.

A relaunch of 52 titles at DC and a rejuvenation of key heroes has not only got the internet talking, it's got the mainstream press interested as well. Historically snooty about comic books, literary newspapers have been giving headline space to Barbara Gordon and Clark Kent for the first time in years. A bold digital plan could hook DC many more readers, and some clues suggest that trade collections will finally be coming out faster than ever before – at a time when in the UK at least, graphic novel sales are showing growth. It's a publicity coup in a year where the superhero is already dominating the cinema, and when fantasy is continuing its colonization of the mainstream.

Rebooting back to an earlier time, to ensure the immortality of our icons, is nothing new. It has been done before, repeatedly, across our fictional universes. It is as cyclical as the seasons, and an inherent part of how these realities work. The heroes will never be allowed to age or die, always made young and beautiful and resurrected once more.

However, compensation must be paid. The rejuvenation of these universes to a time before societal advances must be done carefully. Regenerating a line up from the Silver Age leaves us with very few female characters, very few non-White characters, very few gay characters, and zero disabled characters. None of these are out of place in the fictional universes, and all must continue to thrive to better reflect our own reality.

Batwoman #1The return of Batwoman is an excellent sign.

The problem then isn't that the same characters keep getting re-set, but that the newer characters are lost. The characters who aren't white, male, straight, or abled, are in short supply as it is, and stripping them out of the cast is dangerous indeed. When a genre becomes known for replacing new non-white characters with the original white counterparts for example, many fans will walk away. When our female characters disappear or are turned back into girls, women will give up on comics. Rebooting to a time when women were more subservient, less well populated, and more in the shadows than ever, does not endear comics well to the modern comic book grrrl.

Barbara Gordon turns up in her Batgirl role in just about every TV series and animated Batman show that has ever existed. If you buy a Batgirl toy, or a shirt with Batgirl on it, chances are the red hair gives her away as being Babs. She even inspired a different, blonde, Barbara in the disastrous Batman & Robin movie of 1997. It's understandable that this is the case: the original Batgirl was a real triumph for women in comics back in '66 when she first appeared. Only 10 years before, the downtrodden and bullied Batwoman had pursued Batman relentlessly in order to prove to comic book readers that Bruce was most definitely not gay: an allegation pinned on him by Fredric Wertham's infamous Seduction of the Innocent in '54 that damned comic books as immoral claptrap.

Screw you guys, I'm not going home.One of the first genuine strong women in comics!

Barbara was feisty, incredibly intelligent, independent, and importantly chose to fight crime simply because she could and it would be a good thing to do. There was no traumatic past to spur her on, no tortured soul to wrestle with. Barbara was a normal woman, in her own job, with her own story to tell. It was inspirational stuff.

So when DC announced that Barbara Gordon would be returning as Batgirl, surely fans would be pleased? Well, no. Not at all. Babs hasn't been Batgirl for a long time, and in the meantime her character has moved in a whole new direction, a direction that a lot of fans hold dear. In fact, Barbara's last run as Batgirl was in 1988, over 20 years ago, before she was cruelly and famously shot by the Joker in Alan Moore's The Killing Joke. Since then two other women have held the role full time, and Huntress had a stint in the costume too. Stephanie Brown, the newest Batgirl, has held the role for 2 years only to have her title cancelled in preparation for the upcoming reboot.

A Killing JokeAlan Moore was told "Yeah, okay, cripple the bitch." Seriously.

Barbara became Oracle, one of the very few characters in a wheelchair, and integral to the collection of heroes operating in Gotham City; super-intelligent and as independent as ever. Whether to take her out of the wheelchair as other heroes had always managed, or to leave her in to be more realistic was always going to be a contentious issue with no seemingly correct answer. To disabled fans she is an icon, to others a sad reminder that women heroes are always more punished than the men. Damned if you do, damned if you don't.

Many fans are understandably distraught that Barbara is to be taken out of her wheelchair and reinstated as Batgirl. Would this be nearly so problematic if she wasn't the only disabled character? If she wasn't one of the minority of strong women characters? If she wasn't one of the only nearly non-sexualised women in comics? I doubt it.

BatgirlsOther Batgirls have been cast aside.

A reboot, relaunch, whatever you like to call it, hits the minorities hardest because they are already so under-represented. Fix the representation issues, on whichever continuity you like, and the immortal youth of the main superheroes becomes much less contentious.

In my view, the issue is not the reboot itself: the DC Universe has always existed in a perpetual state of flux, ready to be re-set and rejuvenated at any time. Cyclical in nature, we go through dark cynical ages followed by fresh optimistic ages, in keeping with the culture around us and the mood of the day. Fresh readers should be encouraged at all costs: an audience left behind by the move to the direct market is waiting to be reclaimed.

But diversity is important: real diversity. More female characters that aren't just there to serve as plot points. More women behind the pen and new blood welcomed at the big publishers. A greater number of real female characters will encourage female writers: few women creators can be tempted to write in a genre dominated by the threat of the refrigerator and a demand for heaving bosoms at the expense of character development.

Suicide Squad #1 and Catwoman #1Um, no. Not like this.

The gender breakdown of credits on DC titles in May showed female creators having a 12.5% stake, while Marvel in the same month had 8.4%. In contrast, the new DC reboot line-up only has 1.9% given to female creators [3]. This is immensely disappointing. Female creators do not guarantee good female characters – that is entirely down to the quality of writing, not the gender of the writer – but diversity does breed diversity, and this is a huge step backwards.

I'm excited for the DC reboot and what the writers can bring to this newest turn of the superhero wheel, but I am more excited about what the future could hold if change is really in the air and DC takes the opportunity to really revitalise comics for all fans.


[1] Chris Sims, Comics Alliance
[2] Grant Morrison, Supergods
[3] Tim Hanley, via Bleeding Cool

Comments (10) Trackbacks (4)
  1. I was keen when I first heard about the DC reboot! Like you say, it could have been so exciting and an explosion of improvement.

    But.. nope.

  2. For all the teeth-gnashing that is coming about as a result of the re-boot I would hope that most people will finally understand that it is not the intention or the prerogative of corporate owned comic book companies to in any way cater to the minority demographic of their reader base. Is it unfortunate? Yes. But complaining about DC mistreating minority characters of any kind at this point is like complaining about crooked politicians. Things are not going to change.

    Instead of complaining about these changes that DC are making. Show them how wrong it is. Go elsewhere. Buy comics written and produced by companies that DO care about their fans. I’m hoping that this final death-gasp by DC will see a rise in creator-owned titles where the characters therein are written with the degree of care and respect that they aren’t getting in the mainstream. I understand the attachment to these characters by those who are lamenting their misuse in the upcoming reboot. But from my perspective DC has forced itself into a state of perpetual regression. They’re regressing to an amalgam of the silver-edge blended with Jim Lee’s 90’s Image sensibilities for this re-launch and when it inevitably fails they will regress once more, trying to find something safe and familiar that will offend nobody and keep them coming back for more.

    If you think that DC is anything more than a property farm at this stage in the game, you’re kidding yourself. It’s a sad fact. I’m as attached to these characters as anyone. I absolutely love Batman and Superman. I grew up with these characters. A good deal of my sensibilities as a writer have come from the tone set by my favorite Superman and Batman stories. I’m very apprehensive about what will be happening to these characters. But I won’t be around to see it happen, because this reboot is a predestined failure. They want to snare new readers with these streamlined characters? Problem is they’re working with an out-dated and overpriced business model that will entice absolutely nobody. They want to rejuvenate interest in their current readership? They have alienated a good chunk of that, myself included, with their little stunt.

    75% of what I read now comes from publishers outside of DC and Marvel. I think that number will jump to around 90% around December, because when these relaunches come around I do believe I will be saying good-bye to the DC universe. It’s been a nice run but they are completely out of touch with their current readership and even more so with the audience they’re hoping to reach.

  3. As a long-time advocate of gender and racial diversity in comics, the reboot to me is mostly a step backwards. One wonders how long this has been planned. Did they kill Ryan Choi just so Ray Palmer could fill the Atom’s boots again? Where’s Power Girl? While she’s one of the most notoriously sexualized characters in comics, she had incredibly entertaining stories and was holding a solo book together for over two years. They replace Cass Cain with a white Batgirl, only to have that same Batgirl replaced by Babs barely two years later. And there’s no word of where they’ll go? Have they been left in Grant Morrison’s hands, who, let’s face it, while he’s a great writer, he’s not known for female character development due to his sweeping stories and huge casts. And DC’s ignoring female creators isn’t encouraging either.

    I understand the reasons for DC wanting to refresh its lineup, but cutting away so much of the good stuff feels painful to this particular fan. I’m hopeful that DC is gradually building up to this, and that time will make the richness of the DCU and those characters and creators reemerge, but it’s still very very worrisome.

  4. I think you’re overlooking a key issue with Barbara and that is the regressiveness of returning her to a a role that she had already given up. There are really two separate issues with Oracle. The first has to do with taking one of the few disabled characters in comics and erasing her disability. The second is about taking a mature female character and putting her back into a role that she has outgrown. Dick Grayson is not being returned to Robin a role he portrayed for many years past adolescence including as a peer to Barbara Gordon. In fact Dick was a mature young man who, while still Robin, who was having a physical relationship on page in New Teen Titans. But in this reboot, Dick is returning to the role of Nightwing, his more mature incarnation. And his two successors are not returning to the role of Robin either. Each is continuing on in their mature roles that of Red Robin and Red Hood/Jason Todd. Yet Barbara is returning to the role of Batgirl while Robin is now a 10 year old boy. This despite the fact that there have been two other Batgirls since Barbara Gordon chose to hang up her cowl. Apparently that’s too confusing to new readers unlike, say, four different former Robins. The excuse that DC gives is that Barbara is iconic in the role. But this is selective iconism. Ask the average person on the street who is Batgirl and they will say Barbara Gordon. Ask them who Robin is and they will say Dick Grayson.

    If DC really felt that the issue was “fixing” Barbara’s disability there is no reason why Barbara couldn’t stay in her valuable role of Oracle. But what they seem to really want is to revert one of the few strong, intelligent and mature women in comics back into being a “girl”. And I find that problematic.

  5. I only want to add that the whitening of DC Comics has been occurring for a while now. This list is quite troubling:

  6. As succinctly as I can, I will try to explain why ethnic superheroes are so poorly represented in comics:
    (1) RESISTANCE TO CHANGE. This is the foremost reason for regressive storytelling. People who believe X is X aren’t always so accommodating when others come along claiming that A is now X.
    (2) LIMITED CULTURAL KNOWLEDGE. Writers don’t want to write the unfamiliar any more than readers want to see the familiar bastardized.
    (3) DISINGENUOUS DIVERSITY aka DIVERSITY FOR DIVERSITY’S SAKE. So much could be said about this one alone. Basically, any attempt to force a minority character onto readers without proper transition, proper characterization, proper visibility and proper ‘time’ to establish a visible/vocal fanbase. Not only will these characters be hated, they will be doomed to fail. 75-90% of Marvel and DC’s recent attempts at diversity fall into this category.
    (4) THE ‘WHITE PEOPLE ARE UNDER ATTACK’ MYTH. As if making a few WASP characters an ethnic/religious/sexual minority means that White people run the risk of becoming minorities themselves.

    Now I will try to explain why ethnic superheroes need better representation in comics:
    (1) WE LIVE IN A MULTICULTURAL WORLD. White kids have Black friends, Asian friends, homosexual friends. Some of their coworkers are Muslim. Some of their bosses are women. And some of them… are pretty cool. Some of them would like to at least see some semblance of that reality represented in fantasy.
    (2) PROGRESSIVENESS. The WASP perspective is so assumed and dominant that simply being anything else is more interesting by default.

    * Before I end I would just like to add this last point:
    Regardless of whether an ethnic superhero is an original or a so-called affirmative-action legacy, what matters is the FANBASE. Even Bruce LeRoy could replace Bruce Wayne as Batman if he was written well enough, visible enough, and was given the ‘time’ to establish an equivalent fanbase.

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