She Has No Head! - Your Context Is Showing

One of the things I’ve been wanting to talk about ever since Brian first offered me a chance to write a column for CSBG, was in essence, Marvel versus DC when it comes to women.  Because I think for good or ill, Marvel and DC

pretty much run the table (if you’re in doubt look at the comments on my two posts about Marvel and DC versus the less mainstream posts – no contest – even when we’re talking about something as seemingly silly as costumes).  And this week I came across an article on Savage Critic by Abhay Khosla that got me thinking about what’s really working or not working and who is doing better with the issue of women in comics – Marvel or DC, because let’s face it, neither of them are knocking it out of the park.

Much like I discussed before in the Jen Van Meter/Power Girl post, for me, the problem largely comes down to context.

Khosla’s article on Savage Critic, and you really should go read it because whether you agree or disagree it’s an interesting piece, is essentially about Marvel’s recent history on portraying women as evil emasculating tyrants i.e. The Dark Reign story in which Namor’s ex-wife Marrina is a constantly sexually aroused version of a vagina dentata myth who is ultimately defeated by her middle aged ex-husband and Secret Invasions’ alien queen trying to turn our world’s patriarchal system into a matriarchy for which she is punished by her head being utterly destroyed by men.  And then io9’s Graeme McMillian jumped in and added House of M and Avengers Disassembled which were both about a woman (the same woman in point of fact) with WAY too much power.  Can’t have that, now can we?

Now, before you get all crazy devoted fanboy on me and stop reading, I want to make a couple things clear.  First, I don’t entirely agree with the specific interpretations offered up by Khosla and I didn’t go rip up every Marvel comic I own because that’s what any feminazi in her right mind would do.  HOWEVER, Khosla (and McMillian) have some

serious points.  And for me it all comes back to context. Because while I’m not one to start stifling creativity - I mean what can we do if we can’t have a ball busting gorgeous super villainess that should be taught a lesson (amirite?!)…we can’t just start taking everything off the table or we’re going to end up with no stories.  Hell, I’m even up for a vagina dentata story, it’s a fascinating fable with a long history attached to it.  But you can’t have all of these, all on the heels of each other AND not have any female marquee books the equivalent of Wonder Woman; AND have every character from Rogue to Black Widow with a crazy unzipped to her stomach costume; AND pretend that the most interesting thing going on with the “divas” of Marvel are their ex-boyfriends, current boyfriends, and future boyfriends…well, you can do all that (because Marvel has), but you can’t do it without raising eyebrows and having people call bullshit on you when you try to say it’s all innocent fun…and coincidence.

So here’s the thing, and I can’t believe I’m about to make this confession on CSBG of all places, but I discovered comics through that god damn X-Men cartoon from 1992.  That’s right, sitting on the sofa in my pajamas on a Saturday morning, looking for a decent cartoon, my brother stopped on X-Men and both our heads almost exploded with the awesome.  Honestly, if you could have opened up my head at that moment I feel like you would have been able to see all new synapses firing for the first time.  I was changed.  Rogue was flying through a mall beating up a Sentinel.  And I had discovered superheroes.  And nothing would be the same again (much to my parents’ chagrin).

Two weeks later my brother came home from the mall with Uncanny X-Men #290, having recognized Storm from the

cartoon, and suddenly I had discovered comics, or rather my brother had discovered comics and brought them to me.  And now for certain nothing would ever be the same again.

The first year or so of reading comics, I don’t think I actually knew there were comics beyond X-books.  I was reading everything X related, and my focus (and my meager funds) really allowed me to see nothing else.  But once I’d devoured every back issue I could find (or afford) I finally looked up and noticed that there were other comic books.  Batman was the first non Marvel book I noticed, ‘natch.  And I did end up fully exploring the comics world from Marvel to DC to an unfortunate and possibly damaging relationship with 90’s Image to finally dangling my feet into the independent world.  Eventually, years later, I went to the Savannah College of Art and Design to study comics and of course my tastes have evolved like anyone else’s, but I say all this to make it clear that I was an X girl, and a Marvel girl through and through.

So then why today does my pull list look like this?

DC Titles:  16

Marvel Titles:  4

Other: 10

I think this is a pretty solid example of Marvel literally driving fans away.  I mean forget about capturing new ones…they have driven away a born and bred fan that didn’t know DC from a hole in the wall.

That’s a problem.

And a huge part of the problem in my case, is the handling of their female characters.  Where is Marvel’s equivalent to Wonder Woman?  It doesn’t exist.  Where is Marvel’s equivalent to arguably the best mainstream female writer in comics – Gail Simone?  Doesn’t exist.  Best mainstream female artist – Amanda Conner?  Nope.  What do they have that matches Batgirl?  Maybe Spider-Woman.  Supergirl?  Maybe Ms. Marvel (which is about to end).  Detective Comics?  Nothing.  Power Girl?  Nothing.  Madame Xanadu?  Nothing.  And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.  What about an attempt at a line of comics specifically geared towards girls like DC’s sadly defunct Minx?  No sir.  DC’s Minx line may have failed (more on that in a later post) but at least they tried – and I hope will try again.

Marvel has announced that starting in March 2010 it will launch a year of “Marvel Women” – and I want to applaud that – I really do – but quite frankly if you have to single something out as “special” you’re already doing something wrong.  It indicates that you’re aware that there’s something fundamentally flawed in your ideology and that you hope to correct that by throwing the masses (and critics) a bone – but it’s like an amendment being passed to make everyone equal – when we all should have been equal all along. I think the difference between Minx and Mavel’s attempt at a ‘year of women’ is that DC actually put their force behind an entire new line of books, and fail though it did, it was an aggressive and considered approach that makes a year of one shots and minis looks paltry in comparison.  And the one thing Marvel should have learned from DC’s Minx failure is that a year is not enough.  A year is not going to be enough to change some sixty years of history.  A handful of mini’s and one shots (and let’s hope they’re of better quality than what Marvel is shoveling now, because if it’s more Psylocke and Marvel Divas bullshit my head may explode) are not going to drastically change the face of the way Marvel deals with female characters, writers, and artists. You have to make a permanent change, and it has to be a change in your entire philosophy, not just a handful of books with no lasting power that kind of pay lip service to a marketing campaign.

If I’ve learned anything from watching Marvel in action it’s that the bottom-line when the books don’t do well will be ‘women don’t read comics’ instead of ‘hey, maybe we’re still not getting it’.

Sometimes I feel like Marvel is trying.  There are two Black Widow minis’ out right now, and even if I ignore the fact that that is more a blatant attempt to capitalize on The Black Widow’s upcoming appearance in Iron Man 2 than it is about trying to feature great female characters, I can admit that one of the books isn't half bad.  Black Widow: Deadly Origin, is by no stretch of the imagination a great book but the story is interesting enough and there is no sexism to be found in either the writing or art and yet this book has some pretty ridiculous sexist covers (see above)…so I end up feeling like even when they’re trying to get it right, they’re falling well short of the mark.  And Marvel Divas was the same story, because while it was never likely to be a book that I was terribly interested in, Robert Aguirre-Sacasa is a talented writer and Tonci Zonjic’s art is pretty much the opposite of sexist, yet they slapped a horribly sexist J. Scott Campbell cover on it and then proceeded to dig themselves into a ridiculous hole as they tried to explain their reasoning when people naturally raised questions.

But is this just not knowing how to do it correctly or some nefarious plan?  On a bad day (like one in which I watch the Marvel Divas/Joe Quesada PR nightmare unfold) I do start to think it’s some massive ignorant conspiracy of men with misogynistic tendencies.  On a more normal day, I think of a book like Runaways, a critically acclaimed bestseller, and I think that Marvel is more than open to female characters being done right and that they just don’t quite know how to do it…or at least not with any kind of consistency.

The focus on Marvel here should not suggest that DC should be entirely let off the hook for their screw ups either and

I have plenty of problems with some of the stuff they’re doing, hell the title of this column, ‘She Has No Head!’ is inspired at least in part by their horrible Cry For Justice promo this past summer in which Supergirl didn’t have a freaking head.  And they suffer from context problems too (as touched on in my Jen Van Meter/Powergirl article two weeks ago) but I at least get the sense that they’re trying to slowly change that context.  Unwilling to change Wonder Woman’s silly costume?  Well, they at least tried to put a strong female writer on the book in the form of bestselling author Jodi Picoult.  And when that failed they didn’t give up and say “women can’t write Wonder Woman” rather they put phenom Gail Simone on the book when the opportunity presented itself.  A good move.  A smart move.

They behaved similarly with Power Girl. Perhaps recognizing that some people were still going to have problems with Power Girl’s imagery they loaded the book with a talented high profile creative team that includes Amanda Conner who tends to draw things cute, and funny, and strong instead of posing heroines like pliant pornstars.  Again, a good move.  The kind of move that ends with me actually buying (and enjoying) that book as opposed to rolling my eyes and moving on in the racks.  So I feel like they’re trying.  And that goes pretty far with me.  I didn’t wake up yesterday and decide to read comics.  I know how it works and that it takes time for real change to take hold.  And I come to the table understanding that at a basic level comics are primarily marketed to boys, and that many boys like boobs.  Boobs it is then!  But as audiences grow up…and as the world changes (not that boobs aren’t always going to pretty awesome) you have to change with it.  And I feel like DC is at least making attempts - some fail and some succeed, that’s the nature of the game - but in comparison Marvel feels like that old out of touch pervy dude in the back of the room with his arms crossed insisting that he doesn’t want to change and doesn’t have to.

You have to force that dude to change.  In this case, by not buying his comics.

I watched this past week a show called Genre Film, a television documentary series that features different film genres in each episode.  I was watching the Science Fiction episode and they interviewed all sorts of creators, writers, and artists that over the years worked in Sci-Fi.  At one point they spoke to Dan O’Bannon, the writer of Alien and he spoke about the scene in which the alien “impregnates” a human host (i.e. by jamming itself down the human’s throat and then nesting inside and eventually hatching through the human’s chest) and O’Bannon said something to the effect of, Well, I wasn’t about to have that thing jammed down one of my female protagonist’s throats… And all I could think was, “WHERE THE HELL IS THIS GUY IN COMICS?!”  Where is this guy to stand up at a Marvel meeting and go, “Y’know guys…I’m not so wild about us turning Namor’s ex-wife into a giant vagina dentata and also saying that we’re keeping her in a state of estrus in order to make her a horny weapon of mass destruction… especially since we don’t have any marquee female books to combat that negative portrayal of women.”  Where is THAT guy?!

Because we really need him, and I’m not trying to be a bitch, but I fear he’s often hiding out in a costume called ‘common sense’.  And I’m not sure why Marvel can’t see this unless there is in fact some deep seated misogyny going on.

But it all comes back to context.  The vagina dentata metaphor in and of itself is not the problem, this is comics and we’re telling grand stories here that are fables and metaphors, and real world examples extrapolated wildly into an un-real world.  I don’t want our stories to be watered down and ineffective just so that we never do anything to upset anyone. There are evil women in this world just like there are evil men, and that can and should be explored.  But I take umbrage at the Dark Reign evil ex-wife vagina dentata villainess, and the Secret Invasion alien queen villainess, and the House of M Scarlet Witch is a crazy bitch that must be stopped, and the Avengers Assemble Scarlet Witch is a crazy bitch that must be stopped…and I take umbrage at all these portrayals because Marvel doesn’t really have any great women books and women creators to balance that scale.

Marvel?  Your context is showing.

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