Comic Fodder

Marvel and DC's Questionable Girl-Pal Books

I don't particularly love apologizing for the comic industry. There's too much content out there coming too fast, so I never know what's really going on out there when someone asks. Of course, us comic geeks know there's a huge variety of viewpoints, etc... producing comics, but (like it or not) that's still not how much of the world sees our little hobby here.

When a non-comic reading friend sends you a link with a message that can be best summarized as "seriously?", its probably as good a post-fodder as anything else. The item which spurred this particular post was the recent announcement at Robot 6 regarding the upcoming "Marvel Divas" series.

A quick preface before we descend into what always winds up as accusations and counter-accusations in the comments section:

I am a straight male who has read superhero comics for two and a half decades. I do not assume I "know what women readers want". We've already been down that path before, and I'd prefer to just say here that I am aware that women and women comic readers are not a mass of like-minded readers who all lump together.

DC and the Usual Accusations

Despite going on 10 years of accusations of "women in refrigerators", flopped Supergirl relaunches (bless you, Gates, Igle and Idleson for turning that ship around), Wonder Woman's increasingly high thigh line on her pants, a proliferation of female heroes in fishnets, PG's cleavage window, and whatever else the blogosphere takes exception with... you can sort of always count on DC Editorial to not quite know how help themselves.

Sure, there was the "real power behind the DCU" poster effort from last year, but aside from the ability to sell a poster by Hughes, the effort felt a bit hollow. Unless those women are substantial to the DCU in narrative, story pages and (and this is on the fans) sales, then the poster isn't much but a wish for a magazine cover.

As much as I've enjoyed the works and career of Paul Dini (I refuse to believe he had anything to do with "Countdown" no matter what the credits said), his fascination with the female residents of Gotham have always seemed less about developing strong female characters and more about wacky, kind of sexy stuff that appeals to the male contingent. I'm thinking fairly specifically about the Harley and Ivy team-ups, which he more or less pioneered, along with the usual credit for Harley Quinn's creation.

Birds of Prey, which has seemed mostly rudderless since Infinite Crisis, was shut down earlier this year, apparently to make room for Gotham City Sirens, a female buddy book featuring several of Gotham's most prominent female crooks. Not so much of an issue on its face, and the solicitation copy doesn't tell enough to give one much of a reason to either pick up the comic or to find reason to either criticize or celebrate the title. Instead, we're left with our impressions of Dini's prior work and the cover work by Guillem March featuring improbably proportioned action figures.

While I agree that the proportions are unlikely and 2/3rds of the poses seem cribbed from SI's swimsuit issues (as for Catwoman... I've fewer nits to pick... that's one of her default poses), I'd prefer we be careful in regards to some implied belief regarding idealized body types vis-a-vis the audience's read of the characters.

The proof, ultimately, will be in the content pudding. Dini has received a bit more leeway on this series than I was expecting. It's possible that the audience is willing to give him some slack until the book hits the shelf and the stories hit the page, the comic is so low profile, nobody is noticing, that DC Comics has been written off to such an extent that nobody really cares, or that the characters are perceived in a certain way and that a bit of sexiness to a Gotham Sirens cover is part and parcel and welcome.

I've no idea.

I'm also not sure how long such a series will last if not under Dini's careful watch. Dini has done a fairly good job of carving out strong characters, creating new characters, and generally demonstrating that he can handle the subject matter of Gotham Sirens with a certain Bad Grrls fun and avoid turning it into Gotham Girls Gone Wild. If the series outlasts Dini, we'll see.

Marvel

I've never really been certain why Marvel gets such a free ride on the misogyny front when watching DC's every panel has become a particularly engrossing game of "Gotcha". Perhaps its selective perception (although the "Heroes for Hire" henati-ish cover incident still lingers in recent memory).

They've never shied away from using their female characters for cheesecake on covers or elsewhere, design costumes just as questionable as any DC female hero or villain, and haven't had sustained runs on as many female-centric books as DC. Of course, I also don't follow Marvel the way I follow DC, so a lot of my opinion is formed from the casual dipping in and out I do of much of the Marvel Universe.

But I'm not entirely certain that the recent outrage over the new series "Marvel Divas" is entirely well-founded. Before moving forward, I highly suggest taking a look at the Robot6 story for context.

Honestly, I'm not entirely certain either the writer or artist of the series was involved in Joey Q's press release.

Obviously the image is the typical, cheesecake we've come to expect. But its also not by the artist who is listed as drawing the actual book, Tonci Zonjic, whose online art blog suggests a more relaxed style. The cover art shown is by Campbell, most famous for his improbably proportioned action characters in the pages of Danger Girl.

As so often occurs, by substituting a "name" artist (who may or may not have any feel for the interior work), Marvel has done the series a disservice before it could even make it into the Previews Catalog.

I'm also not as suspicious of the series as some. While I do find comparisons to Sex in the City a bit tiresome (and probably counter-productive in attracting the average customer of Marvel comics), using the stereotyped roles of Carrie Bradshaw and Co. as templates for four different perspectives embraced by millions of people, then applying to the Marvel U.... probably sounded less goofy when the pitch hit Joey Q's desk. As long as you assume that the female comic reading populace is into SitC, which is going to land you a wide range of opinions, I'm sure.

But I'm not sure you can ever forgive them for giving the series a name as deeply entrenched in what I'm guessing is the modern pro-wrestling world as "Marvel Divas". That name makes "Gotham Sirens" sound downright reasonable.

As a side-note, I'm also guessing that, just as Marvel tried to hop on the "Identity Crisis" with their announcement of "Identity Disk", they're probably playing hardball with DC with what they view as competition in an untapped portion of the marketplace with Gotham Sirens.

Given the Boys Club mentality which seems endemic to comics, asking editors who are far more versed in how to manage a multi-verse and the @#$%ing X-Universe to expand out to appealing to female readers or to capture either the female-interested comic reading public (who is too chicken to pick up an issue of Maxim, I guess), or to court the elusive female superhero fan. Sadly, I'm not sure this is going to do much to entice either to drop their paycheck on this one.

Or if it should.

What I've read by writer Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, which has been admittedly little, I've enjoyed (I liked his series "4", and a few other things). I want to give the guy a chance, but aside from Tonci Zonjic's artwork, not much looks terribly interesting.

Not "sudsy fun" or "hot fun". And I retain deep, deep reservations regarding whether or not Marvel will actually have a book on the stands under their own imprint that goes "to a deeper place, asking question about what it means…truly means…to be a woman in an industry dominated by testosterone and guns. (And I mean both the super hero industry and the comic book industry.)"

Oh, DC. No.

And then this week, this came out.

So, so many times you could have made the decision not to go this direction.


Questions? Comments? Hate mail?

Come on, I can take it.

=======


Ryan is an Op/Ed columnist for Comic Fodder. He keeps his comics and himself in Austin, Texas where he manages the long running blog League of Melbotis.

He likes Superman.

You can reach Ryan (aka: The League) at theleague.cf@gmail.com

As a female comic book reader who first came to superhero comics via Civil War, here's the conclusion I've come to WRT the reaction to sexism in Marvel vs. DC:

A woman reading Marvel is likely to be reading either a) X-books, or b) something funny like Deadpool or Nextwave. While X-fans may occasionally bitch about how Emma Frost needs to put on more clothes or how Storm has been completely Stepfordized since marrying Black Panther, for the most part, X-fans have a solid set of competent female characters to rely on, so the anger simmers more than boils. Funny books tend to poke fun at cheesecake (see Deadpool) or treat all characters as equally "zany," requiring few other tropes (as in Nextwave); this is probably due to the fact that for some reason sexist jokes are easier to see than sexist images (paradox of paradoxes!) and writers/editors probably clamp down on that quicker. Ironically, it is probably the dearth of very prominent female characters that lets Marvel off the hook a lot of the time. So Misty Knight and Colleen Wing are getting tentacle raped? Most people, even comics readers, answer "who?"

DC, on the other hand, has enough major female characters that mistreatment of them gets roughly the same response as the mistreatment of a male character would. Batgirl got shot in the spine and had torture porn photos taken of her? "Aw hell no!" Supergirl's book is half upskirt shots? "WTF?!" Even Stephanie Brown, who was only Robin for a few months, by being attached to the Robin legacy provoked more outcry than any female Marvel character ever would.

It's a fucked up double-standard, I agree, but the hard truth is, it's hard to get angry about something you're not thinking about, and nobody ever really thinks about the Marvel women.

-- Posted by: Alexa at April 21, 2009 9:23 AM

I should have addressed what I think you're alluding to, and that is that many of the DC characters are either reflections of icons or the icons themselves. I'm dating myself here, but hanks to Yvonne Craig, most people know that Batgirl exists and is a part of the Batman world. When Alan Moore's Joker take sthings up to a level that is perceived as a horrendous depravity, it is shocking.

While a fan of DC and DC's female characters, I am constantly disappointed that editorial hasn't put a moratorium on upskirt shots of Supergirl, or suggested to artists that maybe Wonder Woman's outfit shouldn't be getting smaller with each passing month. It lost likely isn't drawing in new readers, and is actively keeping part of the potential readership away.

-- Posted by: Ryan at April 21, 2009 10:51 AM

I think some of the difference in fan response comes from the fact that, with a few exceptions, Marvel's books tend to be team-based, which defers some of the comparative criticism drawn by, say, D.C.'s treatment of Wonder Woman as compared to Batman and Superman. At the same time, Marvel's eye-candy covers have consistently been balanced with a hefty selection of really strong, interesting female characters who consistently interacted with each other and weren't--those covers notwithstanding--as continually marginalized, stereotyped, or tokenized as their D.C. counterparts.

Unfortunately, Marvel's current leadership seems hell-bent on reversing that trend. It's a damn shame, and I suspect it'll do more to alienate Marvel's current--and substantial--female readership than it will to attract new readers of either gender.

-- Posted by: Rachel at April 21, 2009 12:31 PM

Mm. Yeah, thank you for writing this. Looking at that Marval Divas cover... It's not going to attract any new girl readers. It looks like it's just going to be full of cheap thrills for guys.

I'm a girl and I read comics, but not superhero comics so much. I read Ultra, and as far as I'm concerned that's the only superheroine comic that successfully pulled off the whole "superhero world from a woman's point of view." It did it by having very down to earth writing, and not so much cheesecake. Maybe the writing on this new Marvel Divas thing will be similar, but that cover is going to block girls from getting to it.

I can think of dozens of things they should do instead. Do covers in ordinary clothes, in natural situations real girls can identify with. If they want to draw them hot, then draw them in the latest fashion trends, not the neon spandex. (We girls don't mind looking at other hot girls, but we're usually paying attention to whether that outfit is flattering on her or not, and not how perfect her boobs are. Of course not every girl is like this, but there are lots of fashion magazines for a reason!)

Or, better yet, have a superheroine have an entire wardrobe of different costumes that all follow a theme so she's still recognizeable. That would be really cool.

Or /better yet/, why doesn't Marvel make a sueprheroine who is actually /girly?/ All these female superheroes get dressed up in primary skintight colors and prance around showing their boobs and their butts, but that... that's really not feminine. That's just a man hopped up on hormones who's been given a sexchange.

Ehhn. They'd need to hire on a team of people who are well versed in creating girl's content, and let them run wild with pink outfits and smiling covers, if they really want to court that female readership. (No, seriously. As a girl I'd MUCH rather buy a book that looks happy to see me, rather than one that looks angry at me, like that robot6 cover does!)

Probably the biggest problem I see is that this effort they're making is aimed at a girl audience that's far too old. The core audience of Sex and the City is like, what, 20 and up I'd guess? Mid-20s and 30s? Older than that? Out of all possible audiences who are new to comics, that's the one least likely to pick up a superhero book! What they NEED to do is go back to basics, court that younger audience who's still open to reading new things. And that means no T&A.

Give us stories that are relevant to our lives. Tell us what happens when a superhero has to put on that spandex while on her period (with sensitivity plz)! Show us self esteem issues that we're dealing with too!

Girls /do/ love empowered girl superheroes. Just look at the Powerpuff Girls.

Of course, maybe I'm misinterpreting this whole thing. Maybe this was never MEANT to be aimed at girls, maybe it's just another fanboy's daydream.

(p.s. sorry this got so long!)

-- Posted by: Erica at April 21, 2009 4:28 PM

I do agree about Marvel traditionally having High profile balanced gender teams, especially in the era when I was heavily reading X-Men, between issues 200 and 270 or so. But I could just as easily compare that to Legion of around the same era, and little mention is ever made of Legion, which was selling very well at the same time.

And you can't say DC hasn't tried out new female characters, or found places for women in their team books (I'd point to current rosters of both JLA and JSA). Or even cooked up teams comprised of all females based upon mutual respect and friendship, such as the fairly obvious Birds of Prey. Before we would head down the Wonder Woman path, I'd want to make sure we're talking perception of the character versus what's actually appeared in the comics for the past decade or so, because there is a difference (I find many people have an opinion on Wonder Woman, but few have ever done more than glance at the covers).

DC's biggest problem may be inconsistency. They put out a book like Birds of Prey for years, but will also launch a Supergirl series that people really, really were excited to see coming, and then make every possible incorrect move. Unfortunately, it often seems that readers start with Marvel (I did), hear the usual talking points about DC, and then DC does what they usually do and just throws fuel on the fire.

But I'm just not convinced that Marvel has done that much better by their characters. They've provided their male characters with a bevy of Damsels in Distress (which is what Sharon Carter has been through most of Brubaker's Captain America). They've had token females (Marvel Girl), provided silly outfits for their female character's (Emma Frost, Psylocke's "ninja" outfit, Gamora), create female version of male characters (for some reason I find X-23 a fairly obvious and icky example), cheesecake art work (they employ Greg Horn upon occasion), and have their own "women in refrigerators" (see: Daredevil), etc...

I'm not denying that DC has problems. They have spectacular public failures, and their problems are, in fact, a problem for the company as a publisher which need to be addressed by Levitz and Didio. But before we go off handing Marvel the Equal Opportunity Award, we should look past company/fandom loyalties and examine Marvel's output with the same level of scrutiny. It might even encourage DC to believe there's something to all this talk.

-- Posted by: Ryan at April 21, 2009 4:41 PM

Erica, I'd actually guess Sex and the City was aimed at an even older audience than what you describe. Especially given the content of the last movie (which, yes, I did watch). And I don't think they're picking up comics, either. I almost wondered if there isn't some ubiquitous love for SatC in New York that Joey Q was taking for granted when they made the announcement, but which doesn't actually apply everywhere.

Unfortunately, I think DC's biggest screw-up of the past decade was their relaunch of Supergirl as a wreck and with the look they gave her. There was a lot of potential with the sort of approach you mention, and that was, honestly, what I was expecting.

I would never dismiss the idea of putting together a team of people to focus on a line (or line within the line) that would get away from the usual mode of business and find new ways of telling superhero stories. DC and Marvel have so, so many characters, and if Wolverine can appear in 50 books each month, they can spare them to try out a new approach as well as sticking to their usual books.

-- Posted by: Ryan at April 21, 2009 4:58 PM

Ryan, great reply. I agree.

What I've noticed lately, with this and with the superhero jewelry and clothing lines Marvel is working on... It's like they're really super afraid of alienating their core audience of boys. I think that's really holding them back.

I don't think guys, and this is just a guess here, but I don't think guys would get offended at all if Marvel really branched out and made unapologetically feminine books and products. It would be like, "okay, that over there is for girls, I'm going to go read my favorite superhero comic which still exists and not be affected at all." Like, I really can't see any guy suddenly boycotting Marvel comics just because they made girl stuff /in addition/ to their core stuff. I don't think they realize that.

If anything, the guys would end up buying that sort of thing for their girlfriends.

After thinking about it more, this Marvel Divas would probably be a really great sell, if they didn't put in the lines about "what it's really like for women" and just sold it instead as a good story that happens to be about girl heroes. (For instance my husband looked at the cover and the blurb and said the concept looked interesting and that he'd probably read it. I'm sure he's not alone.) If those lines weren't in that interview, if they let it just be a superhero comic instead of trying to play up the selling-to-women bit, that would be perfectly fine and maybe it would do well based on its own merit, y'know?

-- Posted by: Erica at April 21, 2009 9:51 PM

You know that identity disk was nothing like Identity Crisis right? Apart from the word ''Identity'' they are nothing alike. Identity Disk was about villains man.

-- Posted by: Manuel at April 21, 2009 11:11 PM

Hi Manuel. I know Identity Disk was about something other than Identity Crisis, but I recall when it was coming out, it was marketed as competition to Identity Crisis. Until Identity Crisis came out, then... not so much. There was a bit of "Hey, Marvel readers, we got a story about secret identities, too! Don't read their little miniseries."

It's not like Marvel and DC don't put out similar and competing products all the time. I'd point to the sudden onslaught of cross-overs, kicked off by Infinite Crisis, or Marvel's sudden interest in their Golden Age properties with JSA hanging around the top of the sales charts. Its a small, transparent industry. Marvel does stuff that DC copies all the time, too... but its late and nothing leaps to mind.

Erica, I would be thrilled to know Supergirl, Wonder Woman, Vixen, etc... had a second life in other titles. And I can't imagine anyone would mind if those stories weren't hero v. villain superhero stories. Depending on the angle, the writer, etc... I imagine a guy like me who will give many a DC title the benefit of the doubt (especially if its tied to a property I already read, like the Superman or Justice League books) would give it a shot.

As per licensed product aimed at women, I agree. I just don't think the readership will care to much as long as they can also continue to get the product they enjoy. Heck, as a Superman fan, I see that logo slapped on all kinds of stuff, good and bad, and its all part of my interest in Superman as merchandising vehicle, which runs parallel to the actual comics, movies, etc...

At Marvel, I guess they tried this with "Spider-Man Lovess Mary Jane" (did I get that title right? Because that sounds... wrong). Not sure what happened with that book, or what it was like. Did McKeever write it?

-- Posted by: Ryan at April 22, 2009 1:10 AM

Thank you so much for writing about this! I made the mistake of reading most of the Robot 6 forum debate on this which started to make some of the writers come across as angry femisits (and 99% of people are all for feminism but the conversation tends to get a bit too aggressive too often and mistakes men on forums as the enemy when they're not)
I just really enjoyed having a guys perspective on the whole thing ( and finding that it's like all the rest of female comic readers. Why is Marvel publishing Marvel Divas again? What audience is this ment to be for?)

-- Posted by: Ms at April 23, 2009 11:11 PM

Thanks, Ms!

Well, one thing I am happy about here at Comic Fodder is that we rarely (actually, I don't think it ever happens) get some discussion going the way it can happen in a better trafficked site like Robot 6. And I read that same comment section as far down as I could.

While I didn't read it as "angry feminist" (much more "exasperated commenter"), there's certainly a law of diminishing returns when you find yourself in a similar discussion.

-- Posted by: Ryan at April 24, 2009 12:43 AM

I don't know why, but I find PowerGirl's exposed cleavage to be the most offensive display of poor taste (and stupidity) in mainstream comics.

I avoid anything with her near it....

It's not sexy. It looks stupid.

(a shout out to the female respondents to this discussion. It's great to hear your point-of-view on this subject!)

-- Posted by: TonyJazz at April 24, 2009 4:33 PM