Thursday, September 22, 2011

Laura Hudson's Post Re: Sex and Women in Comics

Look.  So, yesterday the comics internet decided to explode in one of its usual firestorms of outrage over something I do, actually, take fairly seriously.   This is such a usual occurrence that I think its, from time to time, worth looking at what is being said versus what is happening.  And so I talked a bit about the "controversy".

I absolutely do not share everyone's views, and/ but I am not dismissive of negative representations of women in comics.  Or the under-representation of women in the industry.  I do think we're going through growing pains as women have joined the ranks of readers in the past few years in numbers that I find truly surprising and welcome.

Like any critical read of a work of "art", there's always more than one point of view.  Any kind of reading from a feminist perspective is constantly undergoing convulsions as the narrative of gender roles is no longer defined by the mores of the 1970's culture movements. 

Yesterday via Twitter, Comics Alliance EiC Laura Hudson declared her fury regarding the comics we talked about yesterday.  In fact, its how I became alerted to the issue.

Today Hudson wrote a post that I think addressed some of what I was discussing (though not at me, because it is extremely, extremely unlikely anybody but NTT and myself actually read yesterday's post).  But enough people must have raised a hand in question that she went ahead and put together a thoughtful post that went well beyond the usual Gender Studies 101 rhetoric that usually defines these conversations.  I appreciate her honesty.  I don't agree with everything she says, and I'd actually argue her one example of an "acceptable" approach is open to the same criticism she ladles elsewhere, but I very much recommend reading her post. 

You can find it at Comics Alliance.

The trouble is:  I think Hudson is hitting a cross-roads that a lot of us are hitting.  DC just relaunched.  Its seeking new readers.  Its counting on old readers to stick around, but there's a calculated move going on to appeal to a very certain demographic.

I don't know that the shock comes so much that this was stuff we had never seen before in mainstream superhero comics, or the fact that, with the relaunch, there was an opportunity for those comics to be different.

I'd be lying if I didn't see some of what's happening in comics as the beginning of the end of me grabbing everything off the shelf.  In some ways, I'm actually quite okay with that.  The demographic is men ages 18-34.  I'm a dude, but I am not 18-34.  I don't know Laura Hudson's age, but she is not a dude.  And like so many women AND men who've come to superhero comics from the big 2, at some point the shine of the superheroes wears off, and you want your superheroes to love you back, but some editor and creative team with different ideas from your own goes off and does something dumb.

The nearest analogy I can think of is if DC suddenly decided Superman would spend an inordinate amount of page-time in a thong, standing around posing.  I guess I'd think that maybe Superman was now aimed not so much at me, and I'd find that awfully disappointing.  I may support my arguments from yesterday, but I also don't want to dismiss the totemic power of fictional heroes, feeling those heroes are yours, and the sheer disappointment of seeing those heroes portrayed in ways you find a betrayal of why you loved them in the first place.  Maybe loved them enough to build one of the internet's most popular stop-offs for conversations about DC and Marvel superheroes.

I am not "in the industry".  I don't even attend conventions.  I'm just the chubby guy who buys all the Superman stuff DC puts out each week at your local comics shop.

For virtually anyone else, I stand by my point that "if you don't like it, don't buy it or read it".  I believe in diversity in superhero books, and while my ego can crush mountains, its not big enough to believe I truly like and appreciate "everything".  And if you support the stuff that DOES match your tastes, that's all you can do.  But Hudson is now a bit like the film critic who has to go see, oh...  The Smurfs, which you just know isn't aimed at you and is likely going to be absolutely rotten.  Folks in the reviewing game don't get to say no to "experiencing" all that comics has to offer, I guess.

I said this in the comments in a prior post, but once upon a time I was rolling my eyes at some movie trailer or other, and my wife (wise as she often is) turned to me and said "You know, it isn't for you.  They don't make every movie to please you."  And this was true.

My hope for the New 52 was for a greater diversity in product, and I'm not sure we've really gotten that in the first two weeks.  I don't think that was even possible given the slate of talent Didio and Lee lined up for the initial effort.  Old dogs.  New Tricks.  Blah blah blah.  But there CAN be room for diversity other than genre diversity.  Superhero horror, space adventure, etc...  we can also have differences in tone, in appeal.

However, here may be where Hudson and I fundamentally differ:  I don't really care that much if Red Hood continues on this way or Catwoman is nothing but weird rooftop hook-ups with Batman and Catwoman.  I won't read it and it won't affect me.  Sure, I think its stupid, but I also think both Maxim magazine, NASCAR, cake baking shows and 95% of Sandra Bullock's output are stupid, but I just don't care that any of it is out there.  It doesn't affect me.

But what I would like to see is counterprogramming within DC.  Maybe DC could consider printing some stuff that people who aren't into fantasy-sex-with-orange-aliens might want to read.  And I think that's maybe there already, and its important to remember that and point it out.  I've only read Wonder Woman and Supergirl from this week's haul, and I like them okay.  And you will hear about WW this week around the comics internets, I think.

Anyway, I don't want to dismiss Hudson's emotional appeal, because people don't buy comics or fall in love with characters or stories or comics or comics universes thanks to scoring debate points.  If it doesn't engage them, that's a loss.  And that's a loss of readers.


Jake Shore said...

I think Laura's right on. The idea that somehow this crap is portraying liberated, empowered women is a joke. She is right, of course, that these female characters are sad, immature visions of women created by sad, adolescent men under the dubious assumption they serving an audience that really wants this sort of product.

Any guy that's had a meaningful relationship with a woman very soon realizes that her understanding of intimacy and sexuality are very different from his. This is no defense of bad behavior by men. Laura's right to condemn the hypocrisy of how we judge men and women's behavior. But to ignore the very real differences between the sexes, and then justify your smut as some sort of new paradigm in feminine sexual identity is just childish.

Having said that, I'm not the least bit shocked or outraged. This crap has been happening in comics for years now and is a large part of why I walked away from comics. The catalyst for me was Brian Azzarello's run on Superman. In issue #212, Mr. Kent and Lois engage in some fairly graphic, post-sex pillow talk that I found ridiculous and pathetic, and at completely at odds with the character I grew up with.

It was a that point I realized they had finally quit making comics for kids altogether, choosing to pander exclusively to 30 yr. old teenagers.

One of Laura's most compelling points was the message that comics communicate to girls and women like her, "...this is what comics like this tell me about myself, as a lady: They tell me that I can be beautiful and powerful, but only if I wear as few clothes as possible. They tell me that I can have exciting adventures, as long as I have enormous breasts that I constantly contort to display to the people around me. They tell me I can be sexually adventurous and pursue my physical desires, as long as I do it in ways that feel inauthentic and contrived to appeal to men and kind of creep me out. When I look at these images, that is what I hear, and I don't think I even realized how much until this week."

It's disappointing that DC chose to go this direction with some of their titles in this relaunch, but not surprising. I looked at that preview of Wonder Woman you linked to and just shook my head. Here's DC's chance to reintroduce the character and she's naked for the first few pages. Really DC? You expect to expand your readership and demographics with this?

You're right to say that if you don't like it, don't buy it; ignore it. But when that stuff becomes more and more the norm, what's to say our favorite titles our immune?

Thanks for the thoughtful post.

Simon MacDonald said...

@Jake Shore thanks for summing up my thoughts more eloquently then I ever could have.

The League said...

I'll be honest. I think this topic is terribly complex and I'm having a hard time not agreeing with all sides.

I'm really wrestling with the relaunch of Wonder Woman.

I am not sure that nude-sleeping Diana was "wrong" or "right", but it also added nothing at all to the story.

Speaking of Superman 212 and Wonder Woman - Azzarello is one of the writers I've felt for a while was style over substance, and his runs on Batman and Superman, and then his "Joker" comic solidified that impression. Its why I sort of crossed my eyes when he came on Wonder Woman. In a lot of ways, I think he holds superheroes and their fans in contempt, and he, in particular, mistakes his own work for "edginess". I enjoyed parts of the first issue, and I'll talk about that later.

I would also point out that so much of this is in the eye of the beholder. I recently saw an article on DCU Women Kicking Ass in which a female fan wrote a long post citing Superman 212 as an example of the healthy, vibrant sexual relationship shared by Superman and Lois.

I don't necessarily agree with any viewpoint on this as I only vaguely remember the incident and haven't read the story in years.

But DC is flailing. And part of the problem is, I think, the inconsistency of the message. I mentioned before that I think Gail Simone would have gotten a pass on the pages from Secret Six, and I think Hudson's example gets a pass because she, personally, found the situation amusing.

The double-standards are almost impossible to avoid (and Rich Johnston has a piece so smug on Bleeding Cool today, you want to smack him, but I think its worth considering when you see some of the usual rhetoric applied on the other foot) -

I don't know what you do to keep up when frank (and goofy) sexual situations are a mainstay of American fiction. Because certainly one person's take on whether the humor of, say, The Big Bang Theory is okay or not is not going to jive with someone else's take (and BBT is more or less a sex farce 50% of the time these days).

But I do get Hudson's quote and the spirit behind her appeal to her readership - and that's why I wanted to continue on this topic.

I can only hope that DC understands what diversity means for their books and for the audience, and who WANTS to buy books about certain characters done a certain way (think about how much Palmiotti and Gray did to rehabilitate the perception of Powergirl - and how quickly the enthusiasm boiled away there).

And I have hope that right now DC has interns busily plugging away reading what people are saying online. I kind of suspect that they actually do, given some of the rumored shake-ups, and we're not even done with month 1 of the relaunch.

Its fair to judge DC harshly, because I think they had an opportunity here to do better. I find it sad that, upon reflection, this is so much what I expected out of the books in question, its why I didn't buy them. But I think we also need to revisit DC in 6 months and see what's happening. Will they make changes? They haven't even really had time to turn the ship since the SDCC debacle.

Simon MacDonald said...

I can't objectively evaluate an Azzarello book. I've met the man and he is a giant horses @$$ and I'm being kind in my summation. I stopped reading the 100 bullet trades right after I met him he made such a great impression. I should be able to separate the creator from the work but I can't so shame on me.

See I don't think that Simone would have gotten a pass if she'd written the same scene. Mind you I don't think she'd write the same scene in the same way. I guess what it boils down to for me is that it is just bad writing. Women, alien or not, just don't act that way.

Again, I can not buy that book any harder than I'm already not buying that book so I'm not sure why this upsets me so much.

The League said...

How have I not heard this Azzarello story? Here's something we can ALL agree on - hearing Simon's "Azzarello is a jerk" stories.

I don't think Simone would have written the scene exactly the same way, but I think its worth thinking about exactly what's different that she does that's apparently okay versus what happened in that scene. She certainly has had characters have sex without affection (and gone to the other extreme). I'd be curious to see what readers would say if she used another by-line, just to see what landmines are out there.

That said: I LIKE a lot of Simone's work.

I think I need to develop a better sense of empathy when I see readers complaining about certain elements they dislike in comics instead of just automatically rolling my eyes.

Jake Shore said...

I too wish to hear Simon's Azzarello story!

Look, I think this discussion begs a few questions:

1. Do people read comics to be titillated?

2. If not, does DC care? Does it affect their creative choices?

3. Can DC's creative teams produce "Raiders of the Lost Ark?" That is, can they produce comics that appeal to both 10-yr olds and 30-yr olds?

4. Is DC even capable of changing? I mean, given where the industry is, given the creative preferences of their writers and artists, could they (assuming they wanted to) make some books that are more friendly to younger readers, or at least, less "adult," less dark without drawing the ire of their own creative teams, fanboys who like adult stuff, and cynical critics?

5. Are these controversies the result of an intentional effort by DC to get publicity? Or to show how "edgy" and contemporary their product is?

By the way, Rich Johnston is a tool who thinks he's clever. If you believe the sexes are utterly interchangeable, and that anyone who thinks otherwise is a reactionary knuckle-dragger then I guess he has a good point.

The League said...

Re: whether or not people read comics to be titillated - That's a really good question, Jake, and one that I think that we all need to figure out. Its not, I think, what has ever been why I picked up a book month after month (or I would have been an avid reader of, say, Tarot). So why is it ingrained in DC's line?

Is DC capable of changing? I think DC is capable of changing. I don't know if that includes everyone on DC's editorial staff. And its going to take some vision.

I DO think its an attempt to be edgy, but I DON'T think its intentionally controversial. Not right now. This isn't the sort of controversy they usually court, its the sort of landmine they tend to wander into because nobody working at DC seems to know how to ask the right questions when it comes to this sort of thing. That's my opinion, anyway, after watching these guys the past ten years.

I keep one eye on Bleeding Cool the same way I keep it on Newsarama and all the other comics sites, to get a picture of what's going on out there. My point in including it in the illustration isn't so much about the Starfire example, but because of the level of conversation that gets tossed around. While I don't think the gender swap is the litmus test, when I've seen the "would we put up with Superman in this same pose" takes on Wonder Woman, it at least gives you pause to think. And as I DO take this stuff seriously, but I also believe that some times in well-intentioned zeal, the comics internet freaks out about the wrong thing, we can always put the shoe on the other foot. Yeah, in this case, I think it was a bit dumb, but at least if we can walk away from something like that and say "no, we're still right on this", then we can be all the more certain.

Simon MacDonald said...

I posted my Azzarello story over in Ryan's WW review.

My answers to Jake's questions:

1) Apparently some people do but I hold companies like Marvel and DC to higher standards. I want kids to be able to read these comics like I did growing up. Sadly, with some of the stories being written do not show men and women having healthy, mature relationships. I worry that kids reading this kind of stuff will grow up and emulate these behaviours.

2) I think it does affect their creative choices. The more I see of the DCnU it seems to be targeted at pre-pubescent boys or the unfortunate man-child who's never grown up.

3) Yes, yes they can. Not all of them but certainly some of them can.

4) Yes, they could totally do this as well but it doesn't seem they want to.

5) I think they are being intentionally edgy but are really trolling the lowest common denominator.