San Diego Comic Con was always going to be all about the DC reboot: Superman's new outfits; Barbara Gordon leaving her wheelchair; Wonder Woman's disappearing and reappearing legwear; that Harley Quinn outfit; the new 52. This was the time for DC to win over the fans, attract new readers, and leave us enthused and eager for what September will bring.
Instead, women who have attended the panels or listened to the podcasts have described the experience as uncomfortable at best, offensive at worst. When women pushed their questions about women in comics to the panel, the audience turned against them and the panel responses were flippant or off the mark. Two women have told me they feel like DC sees them as second class readers, and why would an unwanted reader possibly want to spend her money on those comics?
Some of the reporting has been sensationalist, and there were a lot of positive announcements from DC at SDCC too, but the overwhelming feeling for female fans is that this was a missed opportunity and a bit of a PR disaster. The most persistent woman, the Batgirl of San Diego, is meeting with Gail Simone later today.
Typically, questions about women in comics from women in the audience were prefaced with the usual disclaimers - "I mean absolutely no malice", "I don't want this question to come across as confrontational" - in full knowledge of the likely reaction. That the rest of the audience booed and heckled these women is, sadly, no big surprise. You only need turn to any large online comics forum to see a slew of (mostly male but not all) comic fans condescendingly dismissing women's concerns about female diversity in comics. In a society where pop culture is very much dominated still by men, and the male gaze, it is very easy for our concerns to be brushed aside.
In comics, as with most popular media, women not being the stars, women not being half the cast, women not being as complicated characters, women not being about more than their body or outfit choices, women not being about perfectly round breasts and pert butts, women not being half of the talent behind the scenes: all this is seen as completely normal. The status quo. Why, the critics ask, can we not be content with what we have? Can we not be happy that we still have Wonder Woman regardless of her heaving bosoms and bare legs? Can we not be thankful that Gotham has a lesbian superhero (note the lack of plural, Montoya - where are you?), and that the JLA has one woman? Can we not appreciate that one woman is present in the 100 creators on the new 52?
I look at the above art of Catwoman, and I say, no we damn well cannot. I am excited for the new 52; I am enthused. For the first time ever, this trade-waiter is going to be buying single issues. Some of my favourite comics come out of DC, and some of my favourite creators consistently bring great work from that publishing house. None of that means I will stop wishing for and wanting more women in my comic books. More strong female characters, front and centre. More women in the supporting cast of all shapes and sizes. More women behind the scenes, writing my heroes and bringing them to life.
Granted, this is not something that can be achieved over night. The New 52 is more than a continuity shuffle for the sake of fun, this is a gamble for a dying industry: an attempt to attract much needed new readers. The released images and soundbites have been attention grabbing and sensationalist. Women have been put back in outfits that catch the eye and erect the crotch; DC have already said their main target audience is the 18-34 males. The JLA has always been about fully clothed or armoured men with one woman having all her skin on display.
For those of us with an interest in women in comics, the main problem is how to attract more women to superhero comics, how to improve the portrayal of women in superhero comics, and how to get more women behind the creative process of superhero comics, without losing the current audience. All these issues are interlinked: a classic vicious cycle.
Women do not make up the majority of superhero comic buyers, we don't even make up half. The bored and annoyed reaction from the audience at the panel shows how little regard the average comic buyer has for the interests of women readers. For DC to suddenly change everything, there is a real danger that they could in fact lose readers in the short term. In the publishing industry, that's a complete no go. A long term goal of more diversity in comics has to be what we work towards. The number of women reading comics is increasing, but many women will not start picking up superhero comics as long as there are images like Harley on the cover. It's about as subtle as sticking a "no girls allowed" banner across the front.
Women do not make up half the population of the DC Universe. When the San Diego Batgirl asked about viewpoint characters, she was talking about characters that are the centre focus of the story, characters that a book is built around. Many women, from Mera to Lois Lane, are defined by their relationships with male heroes. Catwoman has gone from being an independent sexual woman to a "dirty" "chick" who steals things. A strong sexual woman becomes a festishised sexual object once more.
The sexualisation of women characters goes beyond the issue of costumes. Sure, we're never going to see Batman running around with his manly pecs peeking through strategic tears in his costume, nor is Superman's costume every going to change so drastically as to have a butt window, but more importantly the "ideal" nature of male superhero bodies will always focus on strength and fitness while the "ideal" nature of female superhero bodies will always focus on sexiness and vulnerability. A perfect reflection of most popular media and body portrayal: just look at how male tennis stars are talked about for their talent and skill, while the female players have their clothing choice and body shape discussed and dissected.
If superheroes represent the best that humanity can possibly be, then this is the one media that should be at the front of the current cultural revolution.
At one panel, a female questioner was demanded to answer who the women writers and artists were that DC wasn't hiring. It was said, to applause, that DC hire the best writers and artists they can, no doubt referencing the popular belief that female fans wish to see less talented women writers hired at the cost of more talented men. In actual fact, we want the same thing: for DC to truly hire the best writers and artists they can, to fully open their doors to pitches and submissions. It's no secret that DC are very narrow with their creator choices; the entirety of the new 52 was done without pitches.
With the new line, DC have dropped from having 12.5% of their creators being women, to only 1.9%. This isn't about artificial quotas or petulant foot stomping, this is about a drastic cut in the number of women behind DC characters and a worry of what this might mean for the future of DC comics.
But are there women out there who want to write for DC? Most assuredly there are, but perhaps not in the numbers we would hope for. And why would there be? A great number of terrific women writers have absolutely no interest in writing superhero stories because of the incredible male focus they demand. Why have your words rendered into exposed flesh and heaving breasts, all most likely for a character that will spin on the spot for a male character's plot point? For DC, and superhero comics as a whole, to achieve a greater diversity behind the scenes, it first needs to show that diversity on the pages themselves.
Batwoman is a fantastic step in the right direction, and I'm eager to support that comic and see what happens. Sadly I will not be picking up Catwoman #1, despite her being my favourite character in any of the superhero universes. Batgirl #1 I am in two minds about, but I can at least understand the commercial reasons behind Babs being back in the suit. I'm excited to see Duane Swierczynski's take on Birds of Prey. From a non woman in comics point of view, I'm hugely enthusiastic about the new Action Comics and Animal Man. If I was able to do digital comics, I'd get far more. Despite appearances to the contrary, I am not a comic hating harpy, but a comic loving bibliophile that wants to get more people excited about sequential art and stories.
Part of my job (the one that pays me!) is to recommend graphic novels to be sold, to entice new readers to the genre, and to talk up the medium as one that is great for all readers, new and old. The independent publishers and lines like Vertigo are often my friend when it comes to getting other women interested in the form, with superhero titles often being met by a rolling of the eyes after they realise the only female characters are those in skin tight latex, cleavage breaking lyrca, or chain mail bikinis. In other comics of course they are just missing entirely. The stories within are just as fantastic, but if the art actually repels the potential reader then it hardly matters.
When Grant Morrison asked whether more women wanted to write for DC, and told those interested to send their stuff in, it may have been more than simply defusing a heated confrontation. If DC are listening to fan feedback at SDCC, despite the weariness some have shown for these determined women questioners, and are truly wanting to diversify then perhaps the doors will be opened for new talent once more.
If DC are serious about wanting new readers, about wanting to diversify, then they have to show they are listening to their fans. Even just telling us you're taking our thoughts on board and are willing to think about it would be great. For female DC fans to come out of SDCC feeling that their contributions, their interest, their money even isn't wanted, is not what I hoped to see.
Why is it so important for DC in particular? Because of their great track record for having so many lead female characters. In the New 52 we have Wonder Woman, Batwoman, Batgirl, Birds of Prey, Catwoman, Voodoo and Supergirl, as well as lead women in many of the other titles. However, as I said in X-Women: First Class?, volume of women does not negate crap usage of them, or in this case, negate criticism of them.
Hackles down. Just take a minute or two to try and see things from a woman's perspective. Pick up a comic and read it, but flip the sexes in your mind. Read a Batman story where all the men are women and the women are men. Read Green Lantern but have all the males female and vice versa. It seems odd, does it not, to read a story where the vast majority of the cast are female?
Change is good, and with comics perhaps slow change is better. When an outcry arises from a character wearing jeans within a huge continuity shake up, it's best to tread gently! But the New 52 is a new opportunity, a time to try and attract those missing readers – men and women alike – to the ageing DC Universe, and to diversify the readers, and to diversify the creators, DC must first diversify its characters. Not just for women, but for everyone. This is a real chance for real change, to listen and experiment and be bold.
And for fans of women in comics, for all fans, to get out there and buy Batwoman #1. And give it to all your friends too. Give them Batwoman Elegy also.
ETA: I've been asked a few times now who my suggestions for women writers and artists for DC and/or superhero comics would be. While I'd mostly like the doors to be opened to entirely new talent of all stripes, I'd also point to the huge number of women creating critically acclaimed comics for other publishers or with webcomics, and the various talented female authors who have expressed an interest in writing comics.
This is by no means an exhaustive list, but some of the names I'd toss out there would be: Marjorie Liu, Pia Guerra, Alex de Campi, G Willow Wilson, Jen Van Meter, Kelly Sue De Connick, Katheryn Immogen, Cat Staggs, Jessica Abel, Hope Larson, Barbara Kessel, Wendy Pini, Phoebe Gloeckner, Lynda Barry, Janet Evanovich, Alexa Kitchen, Naomi Novik, Danielle Corsetto, Carly Monardo, Kate Beaton, Faith Erin Hicks, Meredith Gran, Lucy Knisley, Katie Cook, Erika Moen, Sarah Ellerton, Margaret Atwood, Ann Nocenti, Alison Bechdel, Lee Marrs, Louise Simonson, Posy Simmonds, Colleen Doran, Jill Thompson, Marjane Satrapi, Leah Moore, Devin Grayson, Lea Hernandex, Christina Weir... And of course Greg Rucka and Warren Ellis - honourary women!
I can go on!
Many thanks to Katrina Lehto for being my eyes and ears on the ground!
Women in Comics: Regressive Storytelling and Iconic Characters
Catwoman: The Hyper-Sexualisation of a Sexual Woman
Women in Comics: An Overview
Women in Comics: Red Sonja and Power Girl - A New Hope?
Women in Comics: Women in Trousers
X-Women: First Class?
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