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Four Color Issues

meredyd's picture

(This paper is made up of my own thoughts intercepted with the words of various other comics fans.)

“The idea of the female consumer is elusive and mystical. it's like the white unicorn of the comics industry. They're just clueless about what female readers want.”
- L, former assistant editor at Marvel Comics

This story really begins twice. The first time it begins, I’m eleven years old, and in Manhattan. My long-suffering parents have traipsed halfway across midtown with me to find the comic book store I insisted we must go to in order for my life to be complete. It’s my first trip to a comic book store, ever. If this was a movie, it would be a slow-motion, soft-focus scene. I walk in the door, go down the steps into the dingy basement, gaze at the shelves with loving tenderness in my preadolescent eyes. It’s better than I ever imagined it could be. I grab armfuls, turning the thin pages, soaking the bright colors into my brain. They are everywhere. It’s amazing. I’m gleeful.

“I started reading superhero comics around the time that I could walk. I would go into my brother's room every Wednesday and literally climb his dresser to get to his bag of new comics. Once I grew up, I could see so many things wrong in the depictions of women, but as a kid, I didn't think about that part too much. I tended to hone in on the girls that I loved and focus on what they were doing and feeling and being to the extent that I made the stories about them in my mind. Which is why when I was reading comics, just by myself, or even discussing them with my brothers, I never felt weird or odd or like I didn't belong.”
- R

The second time it begins, I’m twenty-one, sitting in a classroom at Bryn Mawr college (also in a basement), as our Gender and Sexuality class goes around in a circle and discusses graphic novels. The situation is different in every possible way, and yet, it is exactly the same. I’m excited, and a little overwhelmed - graphic novels in college, to study! I try not to let it show on my face. The Doll’s House helped me get through my high school years, and to look at it again with fresh eyes is strange and illuminating.

But I’m surprised, when we go around the room, to hear people say they haven’t ever read comics before, or assumed they were a primarily male pastime. And later, when I’m thinking over class after it has ended, I’m surprised at my own surprise.

“I have always assumed that comic books - books that highlight social issues in the world through allegory - were written by socially stunted white men, who still live in their mother's basement.”

- RS

The world of comics, like any world of media now or at any time in history, isn’t kind to people who aren’t male, it isn’t kind to people who aren’t straight or cisgendered or white. But there’s an old guard mentality to it that I think makes it an especially tough nut to crack. There’s a feeling that carving out a niche can be hard if not impossible.

What I didn’t realize when I was a kid in the metaphorical candy store is that in addition to being kid, I was the only girl. There were two men, the proprietor and another customer, and I’m not sure why I remember that particular aspect of the trip so vividly.  What I didn’t realize in class, at least not right away, was that as in depth and valuable as our study of graphic novels was, it was only half of the story. Those comics I was reading as a kid, and the ones I continue to read to this day, are not  comics that academics everywhere are writing dissertations on. They’re about people with superpowers saving the world, and they’ve never stopped being as enjoyable to me as the first day I picked one up.

“I guess the thing that really bothers me about the industry is that when people lodge complaints about women characters being treated poorly, or about characters of color being treated poorly if they exist at all [...] is that the response is often that women/POC/GLBT people should be making our own comic books; and yet the superhero comic industry is such an old boys club, and the conventions are, I understand, kind of a sexual harassment fest. Sometimes it just feels like banging your head against a brick wall.”
- A

We talked a lot about the study of gender as storytelling. This is why we studied comics, dreaming our way into understanding of identity politics through the way words and images combine. Images have been a recurring theme in this class, how they are used in both positive and negative ways. As for words - we all tell our different stories, and suddenly the binary becomes a lot less binary, because every one of us fits somewhere different in the wide spectrum of things.

“I got my gig because one of the associate editors went on maternity leave. So I basically took one of the three female spots on the whole staff. Two associates and one assistant. That was it. And when I got there, it became one associate and two assistants, rather than promoting the other assistant.”

- L

It becomes troublesome when we don’t see those things, the things that we are, that form our identities and our lives, represented in the media we consume. It’s a simple fact but one that’s often overlooked, one we began to delve into over the course of the semester. Comics are just another arena of troubled representation, and superhero comics in particular. They seemed to me like a fascinating intersection of problematic issues of gender, sex, and academic study.

“...going into that shop I always feel as awkward and out of place as I do going into the super hot-pink-and-purple land of Limited Too. In one case, it's because I have the wrong set of bits, and in the other, it's because I'm about a foot too tall and a hundred pounds too heavy.”

- M

Highly sexualized, typically feminine images of women in comics are nearly always the majority. There's no room for anyone without Barbie proportions to be on a cover, if a woman is on a cover at all, and consequently little room for gender expression outside one extreme end of the binary being used to cater to male fantasy. Heroines are stripped of their agency by being looked at, they no longer matter for what they might do when text and image combine, only for their singular image.

“There's sort of this line, I think, where it's not "everybody's sexy" or "this particular female character is sexy" but becomes "all the women are sexy and all the men are beefcakes or nerds." Where was my fatty, nerdy lady telepath? I guess the issue is that when it's a sort of aware cheesecake or sexy fantasy it's cool; when I get the impression that the characters still have agency about it? But when it was Supergirl wearing a belt instead of a skirt, it was kind of creepy.”

- A
“Even for well-meaning guys, stuff slips by. And I'd end up being the person to go, you know, I think we need to deal with the fact that Valkyrie's thong is too narrow. Or, like, oh hey -- that's an upskirt shot of She-Hulk. Maybe we don't want to run that?”

- L

But it’s what’s inside the books that matters, and what’s inside is unsatisfying to the majority of female consumers. Writers are telling stories obstinately about women, but ones  written while blinded by a sense of privilege. What ends up being created is a distorted idea of what is, with no real patience for women themselves (or queer people, or people of color) to be represented in this particular pop cultural space.

“At conventions, I've had some bad run ins. Just with people treating me oddly or making fun of my interests, like I'll buy an issue of the Avengers and mention Scarlet Witch is my favorite character and people will say, 'well of course you like the female character of the team' or I'll go to panels where I'm on of the few young women and people will look at me oddly.
I hate the way women in mainstream comics especially superhero comics are drawn. Not only are the proportions insulting and sexualizing a crime fighting costume would logically have epic sports bra powers. None of this two bouncing breasts nonsense, that would get in the way, fuck with your balance, and hurt.”

- C

And it’s an important space. We need superheroes and superheroines. The US is the only country in the world where they experience the popularity that they do - where saying “comic book” automatically brings to mind the image of Batman or Superman. There’s a kind of holy grail of iconic status that is forbidden to female characters and female creators, and to an equal extent those who are queer and those of color. If we are to recognize that comics are an important medium for study, which I think we have at least begun to do in academic circles, we also need to recognize the elephant in the room of their enormous, and in many ways unique, issues of representation.

“When you have people with a variety of experiences in the room together, coming up with ideas, I think it's unavoidable that those ideas become richer and honestly more progressive.”

- L

Consumers outside the typical bracket have carved out a place for conversation - online. On blogs and websites and zines, conversations are happening that reflect a growing discontent and an awareness of these issues. I took advantage of this by asking a variety of female consumers to share their stories, which are similar in so many ways despite their widely varying backgrounds.

But discourse needs to be happening in more arenas than just the internet, and that’s where education comes in. With “graphic novels” and intellectually approved comics becoming a more popular tool in the college classroom, we need to also make room for popular media and what it has to teach us. We grow up with Superman and Clark Kent as a part of our collective American consciousness, but few people you would go up to on the street could tell you Supergirl’s real name.
There’s a chance with comics to do new and exciting things constantly, to tell stories that couldn’t be told in any other way, and that’s what they should be utilized for, not stagnating in portrayals that by now should have died out.

“It seems like the comic industry guys don't really know what they want. I've been to my local comic book shop twice and really have no desire to go back. You see, both times the guys seemed to have no clue what to do with me, and seemed puzzled by my visit. Is it because I'm a girl? Maybe I should have asked.”

- M

Personally, I feel a keen awareness of my own identity when I’m in a comic book store, a sense of separateness. It’s an interesting juxtaposition to sitting in that first class on the Sandman, surrounded by classmates I felt comfortable with, exploring with the safety of academia. The pop and color of the world of comic books, the escapist fantasy they provide, is a cover for something else entirely. Ironic, for a genre that counts among its most popular stories those about outsiders looking for a place to belong.

“Would Marvel make more female-centric books, or books with female characters written by women (Which -- shit, there was only ONE female author in the whole team, writing on any of the eighty or so books) for women, if more women bought comics? Yes. Absolutely they would.
But would more women buy comics by and for women if Marvel had a stronger product? I would say yes.
Marvel would say, probably not.”

- L
“For years, I got used to that moment, right after I walked into the shop, when the little bell on the door rang and all activity and conversation completely ceased as all the guys looked and saw who had arrived. I tried various methods of dealing with it. Early on, I would feel embarrassed because everyone was staring at me--completely clear about the fact that I was an interloper--slink to the shelves, get what I wanted and go. Later, I went with false bravado, trying to cover my self-consciousness with a swagger that said I Belong Here.

But it didn't matter that I was there every single week without fail, that I was buying obscene amounts of comics, that I had a pullbox that was constantly overflowing, or that I would voraciously read some of my favorites before I'd even walked out of the store. They never stopped giving me the "Why are you here and why won't you leave?" look. Ultimately, the comic shops near my house closed down and instead of going farther and farther away, I started buying online exclusively, until I had no idea where the nearest comic shop was. My brothers felt like an era was ending or some institution was slowly fading away. I just felt relieved.”

- R