It's fair to say that DC have dominated the comic headlines in recent months, with their much hyped reboot/relaunch stirring up a great deal of controversy and interest for those with an existing interest in comics. A relaunch of any kind is guaranteed attention, but in assuring fans that this move was about attracting new readers and increasing diversity, DC found themselves firmly in the spotlight.
All the first issues are now out, and you've no doubt seen some of the more vitriolic criticism already. I've been waiting for the last week of #1's to arrive so that I could sit back and look at the comics as a whole as well as individually. Now my mega-review of women in the New 52 is ready... and it may not be what you are expecting.
Firstly, a huge thank you to Red Hot Comics for selling me all the comics I needed and going to great lengths to procure them! Despite being a huge fan of comics, I've previously only bought trade collections and graphic novels due to not living particularly near a comic shop. So I guess in some ways, I'm both an existing fan and a potential newcomer.
One thing that all comics share in common, whether they feature Superman or an autobiographical avatar of the author, is their interactivity. The writer and artist collaborate to produce a piece of entertainment that is consumed and interpreted by the reader. Reading a comic then will always be somewhat of a subjective experience, and sometimes what you get out of a comic is a result of what you went in expecting to find. It's perhaps important to note then that I usually go into a comic with a degree of optimism regardless of any previous experience I have with the character, author or artist. Sometimes that's easier said than done, but it certainly doesn't stop me from comparing and contrasting with previous work, nor from having something critical to say (as you may have noticed!).
Post-release, there were three comics in particular hitting the headlines: Catwoman, Red Hood and the Outlaws, and Voodoo. The one thing these titles had in common was their controversial portrayal of women which was both sexual and sexualised. I've attempted to judge each comic on its own merit, as well as looking at the broader picture of the entire New 52. It's hard to tell at this stage how many of the comics will end up on long term runs, but I feel it is fair to say that the majority (majority - not all!) of women as presented across the titles were not particularly hyper-sexualised.
Birds of Prey #1 for example had plenty of boobage, but little of the gratuitous boob shots comic readers may have come to expect. The team books featured plenty of women with non-exploitative outfits, with the exception perhaps of the cover to Justice League #1 where Wonder Woman's skin revealing outfit stands in remarkable contrast to her male colleagues. Raciest cover is a tie between Catwoman #1, I, Vampire #1, and Suicide Squad #1. Out of 52 covers that ain't bad, though I would like to see a greater number of women heroes in the first place.
Overall though, out of what women are present, the majority are not undermined by their costumes. There is also some amount of variation in body shape. I should note here that I usually look to supporting characters to provide this diversity, as like their male counterparts, most women heroes would perhaps logically be quite toned at the least. I enjoyed Catwoman's pal, Lola, but few other comics seemed to have truly strong female support. The radical makeover given to Amanda Waller in Suicide Squad #1 is disappointing, her formidable old image consigned to history. Unless she balloons in weight suddenly, it's a big step back for diversity.
Ah diversity, the main bug bear of the New 52. At the end of May, DC's Senior Vice President-Sales Bob Wayne stated that "In addition, the new #1s will introduce readers to a more modern, diverse DC Universe, with some character variations in appearance, origin and age", and in July Dan DiDio gave an interview to The Advocate in which he stated "What we really wanted to do was show the diversity of our audience across the line of our books. Right now we have such a wide fan base and we wanted to create characters and stories that really reflected [that] fan base."
Two little statements that got DC far more trouble than they were looking for as everyone took the term "diversity" and applied their own meaning to it. Great! Better racial diversity, better LGBT diversity, better male/female diversity, better body diversity, better abled/disabled diversity, better identity diversity, better class diversity... And yes, all of this would be great. But it also has to be somewhat gradual – firstly to avoid tokenism and forced storytelling, which no one wants, and secondly to avoid a massive decrease in sales as current fans turn away in horror or fear.
All media has a problem with diversity. Hell, all society has a problem with diversity. And when the latter is buying the former, you have to take smaller steps towards the long term goal. When DC said they wanted a more diverse DC Universe, they didn't necessarily mean that they suddenly wanted to attract women readers. But that was certainly something the fans thought they meant and the reaction at San Diego Comic Con ensured that DC knew it too. And listened. (See Women in Comics: The New 52 and the Batgirl of San Diego.)
Of course logically it makes sense. Looking at the books publishing market, women make up a huge percentage of the active buyers; percentages vary but it's almost always said to be at least 50%. So any publisher looking to attract new readers would be silly not to at least try and engage that potential market. DC later assured retailers that while their target audience was 18-54, their buying target audience was 18-34 males.
The other topic of choice is women creators in comics, and although that is very much a separate issue from portrayals of women in comics, it does intersect. Everyone knows there are less women working on superhero comics than there are men, and everyone insists it isn't deliberate. Except, that's not how institutional sexism works. This isn't about saying "Dan DiDio is sexist, omg", it's about recognising that society is sexist, that mass media is sexist, and for me at least it's about having a belief that comics are one of the best formats to incite change. Comics are immediate, they're easily consumed, and they have the ability to translate political ideas and social change into stories about flying aliens and exploding buildings. Comics are awesome like that.
Having two women writers out of 52 isn't so much biased as just plain daft. Especially as the two women are in fact one women: Gail Simone. Without knocking how awesome Gail is, the fact that at no point someone sat back and thought "wait... two out of fifty-two? This might look kinda bad..." is quite remarkable. Or not, depending how much sexism rage you like to read about every day. Working with more existing female creators while opening doors to new creators from all backgrounds is something I think is hugely important, but that's a topic for another day.
The New 52. Overall, I think a success for women in comics. Lots of kick-ass ladies and I hope to see that trend continue. Plenty of comics I wasn't so keen on but I expected that from such a large range. As a first time comics buyer though (if not first time tpb buyer) there are plenty I'll be keeping up with. More than my bank balance is happy with. I had to remind myself a lot that these are essentially first chapters of stories, and so the ones where I was left feeling like I had to find out more were my winners.
I'll start with the comics I liked best, then move to those that have proved more controversial, before talking about the rest of the list.
Writer: Grant Morrison
Artist: Rags Morales
This book is the highlight title of the New 52 for me. I love the clean art, the energy of the plot, and the constant movement. The first page says it all, in a sequence of panels that introduce how damn fast Superman is, his signature cape complete with symbol, his front showing that he is wearing a t-shirt and jeans rather than spandex, and the bottom panel finally showing his face with glowing eyes and a hint of that ol' curl falling down.
Comic geekery aside, it's just plain fun and it's great to see Superman actually having fun using his powers to help the little guy. And the fact he can get hurt and doesn't have all his powers is really appealing; previously I've had trouble getting into Superman stories as he's, well, invincible.
Issue one also makes sure to introduce Lex, Jimmy and Lois, with the latter in full bold journalist mode and not a hint of heaving bosoms in sight. I quite liked the Lois in the Superman #1 comic too though I felt less of her personality shone through despite her being on more pages.
The action is non-stop from beginning to end, and this is a comic I'll be sticking with for the long run.
Writer: Jeff Lemire
Artist: Travel Foreman
I'm a big fan of Morrison's run on Animal Man, and of Jeff Lemire's previous work, and as an AR vegan hippie person myself, this was a must grab title. The first interview page is an interesting way to start a comic, and a good way of getting inside Buddy's head. I must admit, the art at first was not to my liking – very sparse and empty feeling. But when the action starts to take up more of the panel space, I could appreciate how much more detail faces seemed to have in comparison. And when things start getting weird, the art is absolutely stunning.
Buddy's daughter Maxine is there from the first page so it's not too surprising that she seems set to be a major character in this series, but it is a nice touch having a more grown up comic with such a fiery little girl in a starring role.
I like Buddy well enough, but I'll be picking up this one in the hope of seeing more of Maxine and that fabulous art.
Writer: Judd Winick
Artist: Guillem March
So, Catwoman as one of my favourites – surprised? Me too. I've written a lot on Catwoman previously, particularly in my articles Catwoman: The Hyper Sexualisation of a Sexual Woman and Women in Comics: Women in Trousers. The gist of both those articles is that liking Catwoman is not the same as defending her, and that sexy outfits and sexual women in comics are fine if they are part of a diverse cast of different women across the publisher (because obviously sex and revealing outfits aren't inherently bad, but having nothing but is just pure exploitation and also quite boring).
Hearing about how the new Catwoman was going to be "dirty" and "sexy" was not terribly encouraging. The front cover alone would have been enough for me to pass by the book in the shop and I know several people have boycotted the book for that reason. But once inside the book, that reader subjectivity comes into play. We don't see Selina's face until page 3, instead seeing her boobs, lips, more boobs, butt, and the costume at various stages of being on. I should perhaps read this as exploitative, but to be honest, I read it as part of Catwoman's cheeky, teasing persona. The comic expressions of her pet cats being squeezed into that box, flown through the air and then staring with Selina wide eyed at her apartment exploding, probably helped.
Catwoman is a sexual and sexy character, and it's always difficult to spot the line between what is character appropriate for her, and what is just tits and ass fodder, and even more difficult, what is a blend of both. The scenes of Selina in the red wig in the club are intriguing: she's almost completely covered up until she spots an ogre from her past that she wants to hurt. She has him cornered in a room, doesn't need to strip to get his attention, and yet... there is a symmetry here with the flashback, with her powerless in the corner. It makes poetic sense, for her to have him in her power before brutally, really brutally, putting him down.
Catwoman has long been my favourite character, and I've been frustrated over the years by comics that don't do her justice. Believe me, I went into this with low expectations and my rage-meter set to go. But for me, this title works. And the infamous sex scene at the end? I liked it. It seems like it's a regular thing for them, and I'm curious to see how that plays out. Costumes on doesn't really bother me, it's pretty clear this is hard and fast and while that's not everyone's thing, it's quite subjective. I'm curious to see if she'll discover who he is – if she wants to. I've seen a few arguments that Selina "isn't a woman" for enjoying anonymous sex, and that if you like this comic then neither are you. Um, no. That's why I'm being pretty clear that this is my opinion rather than some mythical all-women opinion. The latter doesn't exist.
Mostly I like the expressive faces, both human and cat, and if my enjoyment continues I'll be picking this one up regularly.
(My non-comics reading partner said he enjoyed the story and that it was involving but that he felt a lot of the sexualisation and the sex scene were unneccesary and would put him off reading it.)
Writer: Tony S Daniel
Artist: Ryan Winn
Batman was the character that first got me into comics, and I still love Gotham and all the residents more loyally than other comics. But I got quite attached to having Dick as Batman and I wasn't too sure how I'd take to having Bruce back in the role. In Detective Comics at least I needn't have worried (although I did have to boggle a little at the bulging man muscles in #2 – so strange to see a male chest instead of female!) as it pretty much had me from that first splashpage. It's classic Batman, gritty and grim and totally gripping. This is another continuing title for me.
I'll invoke my newbie comics buyer status here and confess I was a little confused by all the different Batman titles. The Dark Knight #1 didn't really grab me so much and the full page of the lady with the legs (Jaina) and the bunny lady wagging her butt didn't really do it for me.
Batman #1 was quite fun with Dick was the Joker, though the scene with Bruce standing with all his Robins was a little odd – doesn't Dick look a little small there when he's Nightwing in his own title? I may keep going with that one though, it had a good energy about it.
Batman and Robin #1 I'm genuinely not sure about. I loved this title when it was Dick and Damian as it inverted the common cynical Batman and jovial Robin team. I'm not sure I like it so much when both are surly. Unsure.
Writer: Joshua Hale Fialkov
Artist: Andrea Sorrentino
Having only seen the cover I wasn't too sure about this one. "Oh great, another woman with no clothes on. Huzzah." Firstly, the art is gorgeous – really, just ridiculously good. This is the kind of comic I want to open and show people who look down on comics as a lower art form. Secondly, the story is wonderfully executed. Broken down, it's very much your standard intro chapter, setting up the rest of the series nicely. But the fractured timeline is inspired, and while I admit I never see twists or reveals coming ever, this played brilliant for me. Ah, such adulation I know, but this was just wonderful.
Definitely continuing to pick this one up!
With my favourites including Catwoman aside, let's move on to the other controversial titles.
Writer: Gail Simone
Artist: Ardian Syaf
Remember this one? Everyone was terribly outraged about this before it actually came out. Levity aside, there was good reason for that as I detailed in Women in Comics: Barbara's Not Broken. Still, in light of what comics have actually caused outrage, it's worth remembering that this one could have caused a lot of offence and the fact that it hasn't is testament to the talent of the team behind the book. Here's where I confess, I've never been much of a Babs fan. And the Batgirl I liked was Cassandra Cain. With that in mind, this was always going to be a bit of a hard sell for me.
The first page however had me hooked: a genuinely horrible murder, and an assailant that scares without you ever actually seeing his face. I'm intrigued. There's a lot of text to get through but I'm liking the fun loving Babs, the slightly doubtful Babs, the not completely goodie-two-shoes Babs. The art is good, the scene with Gordon is really sweet, and the action is fun though in some ways I prefer the little scenes at home and with her new roommate.
Okay, I'm sold - you win again Gail! I definitely need to get the next one at least. And if Nightwing becomes a recurring feature I'll be in for the long haul. Ahem.
Writer: Scott Lobdell
Artist: Kenenth Rocafort
First things first – I like the art style on this one. The colliding and sliding panels go nicely with all the straight lines in the opening sequence and almost distracted me from the fact Red Hood is still standing in his fat suit trousers during the rescue (hee!).
I also think it's important to distinguish between a writer being sexist, and a writer writing characters that are sexist. Jason is a jerk, and as an existing comics reader (trades remember) I know that although a newer reader may not. It does become fairly apparent later on but I do wonder if it will be more obvious in later issues.
Jason being an idiot about Starfire is one thing, but in the images Kori isn't being seen by him. She's not even really being seen by anyone in the comic – almost always presented at an angle only the reader can see. The gratuitous boob shots, the whipping hair shots, the ridiculous (and near impossible) pin-up girl poses, those are all for the reader. Okay, so how is this different from Catwoman you may ask? Two things. Cover aside, most of the nudity in Catwoman #1 comes from action: Selina grabbing her costume while flying out a window, luring a creep before she mauls him, and um, having sex. It's all somewhat plausible as she isn't just standing around posing for sports calendar shots. Secondly, Catwoman is more of a known character – pretty much anyone who's heard of Catwoman knows she's a sexy criminal. But I've never read Teen Titans and had no clue who Starfire was. I've sort of half remembered some things now, but at the time – nada.
Two explanations came to mind: either this comic is in some way attempting to show the reader just what kind of cheesecake T&A imagery is present in comics in a "shame on you!" type way, or it's just actual cheesecake T&A imagery.
Sigh. And that's before you get to the major complaint – Kori's seemingly vacuous personality which is apparently a long way away from her original characterisation. So now not only is she appearing as an alien with large orange beach balls in her bra, but she also apparently doesn't differentiate between human lovers (making her previous relationship with Dick Grayson meaningless), leading some readers to question whether she can truly consent if she can't actually remember the difference between people.
As someone who wasn't so familiar with Starfire that isn't exactly how I read it. My naturally suspicious mind suggested that she was playing a game, feigning lesser intelligence than she really had, and that she'd have a much bigger part to play than either of the two male characters expected.
But the overly gratuitous T&A scenes (and her costume) have pretty much put me off finding out. Incidentally, I do not think it is a bad thing in itself to have a female character that enjoys casual sex and I found it disturbing how many leapt to accuse the comic of "sexism" while simultaneously denouncing the writer for making Kori a "slut". That's really not how it works.
Writer: Adam Glass
Artist: Federico Dallocchio
The cover on this one attracted a lot of attention for turning the previous cute and fun loving Harley Quinn into a barely dressed busty pin up. Because clearly there weren't enough women in comics busting out of their tops already. As for the comic itself, it didn't have much of an impact on me I'm afraid. It went through the introductions well enough, but I wasn't left feeling like I knew – or cared – terribly much about any of the characters.
The art changed style a lot, and I did like the darker "torture" look. But overall, there wasn't much to tempt me back to this one, and the new Amanda Waller was a bit of a slap in the face.
Writer: Ron Marz
Artist: Sam Basri
Ah Voodoo, the comic starring a stripper that made every sexism-apologist out there triumphantly spit "so what's wrong with strippers then?". What a way to miss the point. Comics have, unsurprisingly, had plenty of strippers throughout the years, but I can't remember ever before having a stripper actually strip for 10 out of 20 pages with another three having women in underwear everywhere. The fact that the reader learns nearly nothing about Voodoo herself doesn't help.
I felt a tiny bit of intrigue towards the end but mostly I just felt very bored. The story didn't need to be set where it was, it didn't need to have her stripping for the entirety of it... really, it just seemed weird and a bit outdated to go down that route.
I won't be picking this one up.
And now to the rest of the list. I'm not going to list every single one, and if it's not listed it doesn't mean the comic isn't good – just that it isn't to my taste. I've never been a big Green Lantern or Green Arrow fan for example, and although I gave them all a shot none of them really lit my fire – though there are a few I might be interested in when it comes to the trade collections. I enjoyed the #1's of Aquaman, Deadman, Firestorm, Flash, Green Lantern: New Guardians, Nightwing, Resurrection Man, Stormwatch, and Superboy, enough to either look into their tpbs or have a quick look at the #2 to see if I fancy it if I see it in a shop.
Writer: JH Williams III
Artist: W Haden Blackman
This is probably the title I was most looking forward to as I loved Greg Rucka and JH Williams III's Batwoman: Elegy. The art is as lovely as before, the dreamy pages and splashes of red still having that great impact. I particularly liked the panel where Kate is looking at Renee's photo and all but that picture are colourless.
But in the middle, in two places, there is just this random changing in and out of costume that has Kate and Bette in their underwear with a bit of boobage. I've read Batman for a long time, and I don't ever remember seeing Bruce and whichever Robin stripping down to their undies while putting on their costumes and chatting, while perhaps showing a bit of crotch.
This comic is far too graceful and stylish and clever to need to pull something like that, and it just didn't sit right with me at all. It pulled me out of the story completely and left me feeling less than happy with my long awaited Batwoman comic. The art is stunning and the story is good, and while the civilian scenes were less interesting, I was mostly just left feeling disappointed.
I'll pick up #2 at least but I've somewhat lost my enthusiasm for this title.
Writer: Duane Swierczynski
Artist: Jesus Saiz
Despite not being a big Babs fan, I loved Birds of Prey. Mostly due to my love for Huntress admittedly, but I have huge respect for Swierczynski as a writer so gave this one a go. And actually, I really liked this one. The atmospheric set up and quick pace are definitely what I was hoping for from a crime writer, and again we have young women in tight costumes but not being portrayed in an exploitative manner.
The art is good and crisp, characters are introduced in a more roundabout way, and the ending is killer.
I'll almost certainly pick up the #2.
Writer: Paul Cornell
Artist: Diogenes Neves
I almost missed this one as I didn't realise this was an Etrigan title. He's popped up in a few of my favourite comics, and despite me not really being into sword and sorcery type stories, I really loved this. Quite the unexpected treat!
The art is incredibly detailed and well presented, and the story completely grabbed me. Madame Xanadu is in this one and although she's a bit over the top on the heaving bosoms, it's offset a little by her fun language, "my arse".
I'll be picking up the next one of this, possibly for the long haul.
Writer: Michael Green
Artist: Mike Johnson
Ah, this is a difficult one. I enjoyed the story, a good introduction to a character that I feel has been given short shrift over the years and the emotion portrayed was genuinely well done. I really liked the art, particularly the facial expressions, and there were some nice touches like hearing dialogue from many of the other New 52 comics.
But the costume really unsettles me. Kara is meant to be a girl or a young woman at least, and it's not that her costume reveals her legs, I don't mind that, but that the bottoms of it ride up really high showing the crease where her leg meets her pelvic area (does that have a name?). It looks a) really uncomfortable, and b) rather skeevy. There's no reason her costume would be like that, and it looks odd when her upper body is so completely covered.
I'm not saying it makes sense, but it does make me uncomfortable.
Writer: Brian Azzarello
Artist: Cliff Chiang
Another one I was really looking forward to. The art is good, in fact some of the visuals are amazing, but I'm at a little bit of a loss as to how best to review it. I think this is one I'll definitely be picking up the trade on as I like so much about it – but I confess, I have no idea what's happening in it.
I can't really figure out whether it's going to be a series that suits me or not, but if I see the #2 I'll definitely have a look.
I certainly recommend it to Wonder Woman fans.
Well, I haven't totalled up the number I'll be picking up the next issue of – mostly because I don't want to frighten my boyfriend, ahem. But suffice to say, the New 52 has certainly ensnared me as a new monthly comics buyer and I've been really pleasantly surprised by how many of the comics I've enjoyed as a fan, and more importantly for this piece, as a female fan.
As a new monthly buyer, what I did find really frustrating was how hard it was to actually find the comics I wanted. I don't live near any comic book shops, and I rather naively thought it would be easy enough to order online. I placed an order with a large company here in the UK, but they only came through on two(!) of the titles. Other places were charging a fortune, and when I made the trip to a city to look there they were of course sold out of everything anyway. If it hadn't been for Red Hot Comics I would have given up.
The direct market seems by far the biggest barrier to attracting any new readers. My non-comics reading partner read Action Comics #1 and Catwoman #1 and while he enjoyed both of them he said that he wouldn't buy any single comics due to the adverts - he'd much rather wait and read the trade paperback.
I'll continue to write and criticise and support all kinds of comics, and I hope that DC, who are responsible for a large percentage of my comics reading, continue to listen to their fans and increase diversity in their Universe and in their creator pool.