Women in comics. It’s a hot topic, and one that I blog about weekly. From feminism to how characters are dressed to intersectional representation, women in comics matter. As I said in an earlier post, New York Comic Con 2014 has a lot of panels about that very topic (as well as racial diversity in comics, sexuality and gender in comics, and, generally, content emphasizing that #representationmatters—a hashtag favorite of mine while at cons).
That’s why I was so excited to attend my first panel of the day on Friday, “Marry, Do, Kill?: What Will it Take to Shatter Female Stereotypes in Comics?” The panel was held in one of the smaller rooms at the convention, but was packed full. Focusing a critical eye on female stereotypes in comics and pop media (because “stereotypes are lazy writing”), the panel included Dennis Celaro, Claire Connelly, Jennie Wood, Erica Schultz, Shaun Noel, and Ellie Pyle initially (although a few more panelists–Enrica Jang, Andy Schmidt, AK Lovelace–trickled in throughout the hour).
The first topic discussed—and one that was revisited throughout the panel—was the physical presentation of women in comics. Artist Dennis Celaro had a lot to say on the topic. “Is busty aspirational? No body type should be aspirational…our society values physical beauty far more than it should.” He continued, talking about his artistic aspirations, “I never wanted to be a ‘big tit’ artist. When I was drawing X-Factor, I made a choice to…make each character physically different…I got so much shit [for that decision]…Siren’s boobs are too big, this character’s boobs are too small, she’s not pretty enough…”
Erica Schultz agreed that comics create an unrealistic expectation of beauty, even within media itself , sharing a story of some banner art she had at a convention, where a 20-something man commented of the character on the banner: “god, she’s fat.” Dennis agreed that comics are mired in an illusion of what is beauty; “women who are just drawn like the airbrushed Marlyn Monroe…eyes, lips, and nostrils, thay have no character.” What might be “physically beautiful” is ultimately uninteresting to draw, look at, or use in comic art.
The panelists commented on their childhood experiences with comics. One stated “I grew up liking comics just as they were…but when you become a writer, you recognize tropes and clichés,” and begin to see them as boring. And though there was some question if we are telling creators to “teach to the test” (the Bechdel test, that is), there was agreement that “if you’re not interested in the diversity of people, you’re really limited yourself” as a writer and an artist. Ellie Pyle commented further, “there is no one specific way to create a ‘strong, female charater.’ Personality is as different as body types.”
Another writer touched on the topic of clichés, “if you call something a trope, that just means it was written poorly once,” and that is all the more reason to take that trope and write it well. The panel agreed upon the power of media. “It’s never ‘just’ a comic book…everything has an effect.
Shaun Noel and City of Walls artist, AK Lovelace, touched on the power of images: they had a convention banner featuring their lead character, Ariana, a black woman, in a warrior pose. The amount of positive feedback they got about the image was astounding. “We’re interested in normalcy. Our character is a little girl in a messed up city. We aren’t starting with an agenda,” but that’s port of the reason why their comic resonates. Dennis also touched on the power of comic are, “I don’t think art leads, it’s a reflection. The reason art is controversial is because it shows something that we don’t like in society.”
“The audience is diversifying, so the content is following suit. The market, the thirst for it, is there.” At the same time, “there’s a problem at a macro level with lack of representation. There’s a market not being served…but you can’t tell an artist what to make.” The entire panel agreed that “no matter what you’re writing….make the women human. That’s what makes them unique, makes them resonate.” Some writers will pat themselves on the back and say “oh, I wrote a strong female character—but they wrote a male character, just with breasts” and that’s very frustrating.”
Everybody agreed it was best to avoid comments on articles or content emphasizing the importance of diversity in terms of gender, race, and sexuality. “My mantra is ‘don’t read the comments.’”
The panel touched on indie versus mainstream: “Marvel and DC is a weak prism” to view comics through. Indie comics offer a “broader sense of the genre,” and allow artists to move away from the idea of an in-house style. It allows “you [to] find the right artist” for what is being written.
Talk turned to fridging women, with one panelist saying “if you’re going to fridge a woman, make sure we know her name, why it’s important this is happening.” Ellie responded, “if she has a name, and it’s part of her story, it’s not fridging. Killing a female character isn’t always fridging, and treating it as such negates the importance of what fridging actually is.”
In the last minute of the panel, I asked about making covers more positive and approachable for women, citing the Milo Manara controversy. AK commented that he thought the entire outrage was stupid, and Dennis agreed, saying he thought the cover was artistically bad for Manara, but “the ultimate power is ‘buy it’ or ‘don’t buy it.’…We can’t threaten someone’s livelihood if it threatens their career.” Art has to take risks to find success.
Another huge part of women in comics is fandom. NYCC 2014 had a few panels from the Mary Sue which touched on female fandom, but it was Vulture that had an entire panel devoted to the Carol Corps and the effect of female fandom on the industry. The panel was small, just Kelly Sue Deconnick, Gail Simone, and Sana Amanat, but they are some of the most qualified people to be on a panel about the spread of female-friendly fandom.
The first question asked was if there’s been a recent explosion of female fandom, or if people are just starting to pay attention to it now. Gail noted that convention attendance has dramatically changed (making bathroom lines much longer for women), and that, when she got started, many women were actually leaving the industry because it was such a bad atmosphere for them. She predicted that we will see an influx of female creators with the increase of positive views on women in fandom.
Kelly Sue reminded everyone that girls have always read comics, and emphasized that “equality is not a loss.” Today, women find their way into comics through cartoons and films, and the internet gives them a forum to openly speak and create. However, comics themselves are less ubiquitous, and readers have to seek out comic stores and specialty shop, which is a big barrier to readership, especially female readership. “The smart stores are going to find a way to support and grow new readership…also, comics are cool again!”
But it’s not just fandom that’s changed. The industry itself is transforming, “our content has changed. We’re telling a different type of story, and our characters are more realistic and relate-able on a greater scale.”
On the topic of Red Sonja, Gail commented “there’s a big difference in a character being written to look at, and a character being written to be a character.” While she has removed a few of the ickier parts of red Sonja’s character history, it’s also about spinning clichés around, and making the character “bloody and sexy and smelly, but fun.”
Ms. Marvel is one of the top selling books for Marvel, and the first issue has just gone into its 6th printing—something that’s usually unheard of, even for the most popular comics—but the moderator wondered if its success can be emulated. Sana says yes, “it can. It’s not just a gimmick. We’ve tapped into something that people wanted for a long time…and it worked out.” (A fan later commented that she loved character like Carol and Kamala, because they’re “a superhero first and a woman second.”)
Both Gail and Kelly Sue are extremely active on social media, and that’s a boon for them and women in fandom. Interactive with fans on Twitter and Tumblr is “a pleasure,” says Gail. “You guys are my comics community.” In general, female fandom is “very interactive” and supporting. Fans send gifts, engage in discussion, and sincerely want to interact.
When asked what fans can do to support women in comics, Kelly Sue replied in her trademark frankness “fuck shit up. Speak up, stand up for what is important for you. Make comics.” The whole panel emphasized that women shouldn’t fall into the trap of being pitted against one another. “’Would Carol or Wonder Woman win?’ They’re both good guys, they wouldn’t fight each other, dumbass!”
One fan asks about the difficulties for women of color in the industry. Sana answers “it’s tough…Ms. Marvel is the anthem against hate.” It’s hard when the media doesn’t show you, “when your version of beauty is not what you see in the mirror.” Ultimately, it’s about intersectionality: “feminism is about fairness. Championing only one aspect of it doesn’t make sense, that’s not fairness.”
Kelly Sue emphasized the importance of calling people out on fandom gatekeeping. “Nobody gets to decide what you can like.” (If they still try to, she suggests you ask them what Carol Danver’s birthday is—May 26th, fyi.)
Gail states she likes “sexy comics. But when you take that choice away, it becomes ugly…showing off sexuality can be empowering, but you also know when it’s being exploited.” The entire panel emphasizes their interest in moving away from the clichés of comics past.
“’Write what you know’ is a fallacy and it’s lazy,” said Kelly Sue when one male fan asked about writing female characters. “Don’t limit yourself. Nobody said ‘Brian Michael Bendis is neither a spider nor a woman’ when he wrote Jessica Drew.”