Likes Boobs, Reads ComicsA column article, Comics Bulletin Soapbox by: Kyle Garret
We're going to be testing out a new column idea, where Kyle Garret tries to view some of DC's more controversial books from the perspective of someone they're supposedly created for: a hetereosexual white male. Kyle is hoping to explore why these kinds of comics remain so prevalent and whether they even work for the demographic defenders say they were explicitly made to court the interests of. This first piece specifically deals with the business behind these kinds of issues, and whether it's sustainable
-Alexander LaVelle Harris, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, "Graduation Part 1"
(A tip of the hat to the talented Jill Pantozzi, whose blog inspired the name of this column)
Sometime in the early 1990's I was watching an episode of the Phil Donahue show. Yes, I know that dates me horribly. The topic of discussion was pornography, and at this point in the show they were talking about Playboy magazine. Phil mentioned that the old joke about reading Playboy for the articles actually had some basis in truth, as Playboy really does publish good articles, not mention some of the best short fiction around. One of the anti-pornography guests said that their problem was with men who use Playboy for the purposes of masturbation.
Even 20 years ago I knew enough to respond with a "duh."
Because of course people masturbate to Playboy. Why else would you put naked women in a magazine?
Comic books, however, are not pornography (at least not most of them) and, while my thirteen year old self might take issue with this, they are not a facilitator for masturbation. So why, then, do we get comic books like the first issues of Catwoman and Red Hood and the Outlaws, comics that are clearly meant for the purpose of titillation? Who are these for? And why are they being published?
No, Really, I Read Catwoman for the Writing
The obvious answer is that such depictions of women produce sales. While writers Judd Winick and Scott Lobdell would probably claim that they're trying to either rope in readers or keep them coming back, that's ultimately the same thing. So do a half naked Catwoman and a basically brain dead alien sex doll really pull in new readers?
On one hand, it seems like they do, or DC wouldn't be doing it. Entire independent comic book companies were created around the sole concept of "bad girl" comics. They were everywhere. Someone was buying them. Even the speculator boom can't account for all those sales, because there was no value in any of those books-– they were never going to worth anything.
But there have been some substantial shifts in comics since the 90's. Aside from the sheer volume of readers who have run screaming from the room, comic book readers have gotten older. That kid who was watching the Phil Donahue show might have been thrilled to see the character formerly known as Starfire on full display, but the guy writing this column is just embarrassed by it.
That Seems About Right
Perhaps this is DC's reasoning. Perhaps they're doing this in an effort to bring in new readers, a new generation of teenagers who want to see such things. After all, what do teenagers like more than sex? Look at the advertising campaign for a show like Gossip Girl. Those ads are meant to be as titillating as possible, to spur interest in the minds of adolescents who have probably never even had sex. And it works. Gossip Girl has managed to stay on the air for going on five years, entirely because it scores so highly with a specific demographic.
The problem here is twofold: 1) DC is doing this at the risk of alienating their existing audience, and 2) at least on television we have other options.
The first problem is actually not much of one, which is why DC didn't mind publishing these books. Comic book readers are not unlike addicts in an abusive relationship; we always go back. We never actually boycott companies if they do something we disagree with. Sue Dibney is raped and murdered, but, hey, I need to get my monthly Green Lantern fix, so I'll just look the other way. We are the champions of idle threats, and unless that changes we will never have any real influence. DC knows this, so they know they can get away with Red Hood and the Outlaws.
The second problem is actually the bigger one.
Not long ago, I was reading Phonogram: The Singles Club #5. My wife noticed the cover and asked me, in a scandalous voice, what I was reading. The comic in question, and the cover in question, are not remotely risqué. Yes, Laura is wearing a pretty short dress, but it's nothing you wouldn't see at a club. She's also not as anatomically ridiculous as the average comic book woman. All of this begged the question: why did my wife get the impression I was reading something seedy?
Well, why wouldn't she?
Comic books have a long standing history of portraying women as little more than sex objects to be ogled. As early as the Golden Age, "good girl" art was popular, to the point where it became a target of Fredric Wertham in Seduction of the Innocent. But while the drawings of women, at least, would be toned down until the late 60's, the precedent had already been set. If Matt Baker's version of the Phantom Lady was par for the course for comics in the 40's, then imagine how such a portrayal would eventually translate in the social landscape thirty years later.
Now think about this: Of the solo books that DC is publishing that feature women as the lead, 17% of them are about strippers. Are 17% of the women in the world strippers? Sure, that's just one book (Voodoo), but with so few titles about women, having even one with a concept like that makes its impact that much greater.
Yes, Fans, Please Throw Your Money At Me
The problem with Catwoman #1 isn't that she's drawn in various states of undress and that she has an impossible body. There are, at the very least, story reasons for those panels, and she actually spends the majority of the issue fully clothed, which can't be said for Starfire. The problem isn't even that Catwoman and Batman have sex. It's that the last five pages are dedicated to the sex scene, including a final full page that appears to serve as the climax (and I really wish there was a better word for that) of the issue. We would never see such a thing in a Batman comic. Superman would never have sex with Lois Lane for the last few pages of one of his books. There's a different standard at play, one which says that we all just want to see Catwoman have sex with Batman, because that's all she is as a character. The sex scene becomes the most important event in the comic, not because people are talking about it, but because it's told that way.
Again, with so few examples of female centered books, something like this stands out even more.
And not to pull away too far from the issue at hand, but a lot of this stems from the fact that we're an industry that's controlled by two companies who almost exclusively produce superhero books. This is a genre that, as I mentioned above, has set a precedent for objectifying women and has, traditionally, been targeted at young males. This issue of how women are portrayed in comics comes up again and again, and how often is it something other than a superhero book? And if superheroes are your genre of choice, what do you do about something like this? If you boycott DC, you're removing half of the comics available to you. And what about when Marvel does something similar?
In the end, just not being sexist isn't enough for comics to get past things like this. We need to expand. We need to get to the point where an issue as awful as Red Hood and the Outlaws #1 is the exception, not the norm, and surrounded by so many great comics that it's completely buried. Better yet, we need to raise the bar to the point where such comics would be laughable. Until then, we'll continue to see such blatant sexism, even if we decry it every time it happens.
Kyle Garret is the author of I Pray Hardest When I'm Being Shot At," available now from Hellgate Press. His short fiction has been published in the Ginosko Literary Journal, Literary Town Hall, Children, Churches, & Daddies and Falling Into Place. He writes comic book reviews here at Comic Bulletin and blogs for PopMatters. He can be found at KyleGarret.com and on Twitter as @kylegarret.