Thursday, August 08, 2013

Reviews and a Few Thoughts on Race and Gender

I read this article on ThinkProgress about how four legendary white male comics creators were dismissive of race and sex of characters. Michael Kantor, Todd McFarlane, Len Wein and Gerry Conway were at the Television Critics Association press tour and seemed to be making a case for race neutral, sex neutral characters in comics. McFarlane said:
"So we actually stereotype and do it to both sexes. We just happen to show a little more skin when we get to the ladies.”
He also said, according to the article:
“There hasn’t really been historically a comic book that has worked that is trying to get across a kind of message, if you will," ... "So the female characters that work are the ones that are just strong women that actually it’s good storytelling, and the odd character that is a minority that works is the one that is just a good strong character. They’ve tried to do minority characters and bring that label and that surrounding [debate] into it. You’re aware that you’re reading a minority comic book. I think it’s wrong.”
Now, on the face of it, this is incendiary, especially for the people being marginalized: Women and People of Color. But the thing is, he has a point. They all do. When you write about a woman or a character with an ethnicity other than white and you make that the point of the story, then, odds are, it won't be very good on a story level because there won't be much foundation and a fair amount of writers will either revert to stereotypes or run out of ideas without an actual story. And that's largely because, at DC and Marvel, the majority of the writers are white males.

Which brings me to the point these men don't get. Characters differ. They need more than strength. They need their differences, which is why we have so many characters starring in so many books, and not just because their strengths and weaknesses vary. Sure, Aquaman lives in water; Superman inhabits the dry, surface world. But Aquaman is informed by his background, growing up in Atlantis. Superman is a Krptonian, separated in infancy from his family and his world. Bruce Wayne, despite being Batman, is a privileged white male and while losing his parents brutally in front of him when he was young and impressionable, how he reacted to that might've been much different had he not had the advantages his race and wealth afforded him.

Len Wein argued for racial neutrality:
“I think every time you take a female character, a black character, a Hispanic character, a gay character, and make that the point of the character, you are minimalizing the character.” ... “I have written anything you can possibly think of. I have created Storm who was the first black female superhero. I created a number of other characters, and it never matters to me what the color of their skin was. I was writing about who they were as human beings, and it wasn’t Black Storm. She was Storm.”
Again, a good point made. She was a character, an individual. And yet, he denies the background that made her the individual she was. How can you write about who someone was as a human being without infusing them with a racial identity, or include how their sex influenced how they were raised, how they view themselves, how they approach life?

Not all people of an ethnic group are the same. Not all women are the same, nor all men. But comic books don't tell neutral stories. No one is walking around wearing the same neutral body suit as everyone else. The characters aren't all the same shade of green or purple. There are aliens (and that's often been pointed at as an example of non-white characters!) and humans, and males and females. If a comic is set in a real-world setting, for instance, Earth, then it should reflect that reality, as should the creative teams.

These male writers were dismissive of female superheroes as a genre girls will read. Well, let me tell you guys something. I was reading superhero comics when I was seven, over 50 years ago. By the time I was twelve, girl comics (Archie, Millie the Model, romance comics) bored me.

Conway said:
"And I think it’s a mistake to sort of, like, pigeonhole superheroes, or to add so much to superheroes that you’re missing the fact it’s a genre within itself. It’s like saying, ‘Why are there no medieval stories about female knights?’ Because there was only one, you know, Joan of Arc. It’s not it’s an inherent limitation of that particular genre, superheroes.” 
And McFarlane added:
“It might not be the right platform,” he said. “I’ve got two daughters, and if I wanted to do something that I thought was emboldened to a female, I probably wouldn’t choose superhero comic books to get that message across. I would do it in either a TV show, a movie, a novel, or a book. It wouldn’t be superheroes because I know that’s heavily testosterone — driven, and it’s a certain kind of group of people. That’s not where I would go get this kind of message, so it might not be the right platform for some of this.”
A lot of women, myself, included would disagree. Vehemently. First, it's fiction. Second, women have fought in wars while disguised as men. Women have been part of mythology from the beginning, and mythology has been part of comics for a long time, with Wonder Woman the most obvious example. You want to empower your daughters? Let them see role models in all media, comics, included. Let them see females are respected and powerful even in the comics field you work in, Mr. McFarlane. Don't tell them, sorry, but these aren't really for you. They're for boys who need to look at pictures of women with their boobs and butt sticking out.

Not that I mind much of the sexy art. It's the gratuitous art that bothers me. It's how the males are all muscular while the women look like they can be broken in half like a wishbone. Power Girl might have big breasts and shows off her cleavage, but she's no pushover. When written well, she's an excellent role model. We need more like her. And we need more like the Vixen mini-series, that showed how good a story you can have when you work in a black female superhero's ethnicity.
“'I think the bigger question is why are readers not interested in those?' Conway asked."
Good question, Mr. Conway. Maybe the answer has to do with what's actually available. Some people, like me, will read about white male superheroes, but not everyone will be satisfied with just that. It's a different world now. And there are some more good points made in the article, so go read it, if you haven't, already.

And this attitude that comics follow or reflect society and don't or shouldn't lead, is part of the larger argument of: Does art imitate life or does life imitate art? I think it's both, a mix, same as nature/nurture has proven to be. You simply can't separate the two. And as society is diverse, so should be comics, re: sex, sexual orientation, ethnicity, on both the character and creator sides.

Gail Simone is writing The Movement for DC. It's political, dealing with societal and economic inequities. It has a lot of ethnic characters. Issue 4 shows us the background of many of these new superheroes. This comic reflects the social unrest of recent years, with the Occupy movement, etc. Yet it also is a move into new territory for a superhero comic, with many characters on both sides who can't easily be labeled all good or all bad. My only problem with this comic is the mice. I really hate mice and rats.

Gail's first issue of Red Sonja came out a couple of weeks ago and it's good. I've never read Red Sonja, so I can't compare what Gail is doing with her vs the past, but this is a woman who was beaten down yet not defeated. I won't say she's been empowered, because once freed from captivity, she claimed her own power. As if should be.

I also read the Hawkeye Annual, which focused on Kate Bishop. Kate, on the road with Lucky the Pizza Dog, bumbles her way into a big mess, then gets herself out of it. Kate is young and brash and capable, and she's written by a man, Matt Fraction, who gets it.


  1. They don't understand. They will never understand, unless they can step outside their positions of privilege and actually try to look at things from someone else's point of view.

    And saying that you have daughters or "know" a woman, doesn't really count.

    1. Yeah. Good point re: seeing it from the other side. They sounded so patronizing in some of those quotes.