Why, in this modern era, are many male comics fans hostile toward women? I’ve seen speculations that they’re poorly socialized and afraid of women, or are angry at past rejections, or looking to exploit their gender’s clout in this milieu, to make up for powerlessness elsewhere in their lives. All likely causes. But there’s another likely cause which I haven’t seen theorized, and don’t expect to see theorized within the comics community. And that’s because this would cast a skeptical eye at a corner of the industry which is near and dear to the hearts of many male (and female!) cartoonists and fans. I’m referring to porn.
Porn, whether in comics, films, magazines, or online, is notorious for celebrating the rape and humiliation of women. Certainly NOT ALL porn fits this description, but it’s uncontroversial to say that many porn users enjoy scenes of forced and/or humiliating sex as part of their porn diet. Now, imagine you’re one of many comics fans who enjoy fictional scenes of women being raped or degraded. Pretend the high point of your day is climaxing to the sight and sound of gorgeous, nude women being forced to endure all sorts of depravity. Then, imagine some woman on the internet saying things you dislike about another hobby with which you strongly identify. Will your response be balanced and cordial? Will you view her thoughts with respect, as those of a fellow human being? Or will your mind return to the evening’s groveling, nude supermodels, their faces covered in something wet?
The comics community hates, hates, HATES to say anything critical of porn. This is because comics and porn have long been closely yoked in the war to defend free speech. To condemn porn is seen as undermining the right of comics folk to draw and read what we please. “They came for my neighbor and I said nothing; then they came for me.” Further, many cartoonists create porn themselves, including many female cartoonists. For these, condemnations even of “rapey” porn may strike uncomfortably close to home. How does one cut off a hand without injuring the wrist?
A thorny problem, but it must be confronted. Men’s view of women as degradable sex objects will not change as long as it is reinforced by powerful, orgasm-inducing imagery. If we wish women to stand tall in this industry, we cannot afford to be permissive on that point.
It’s been an interesting weekend.
On Friday, I tweeted (and Tumbled) the following:
My tweet quickly garnered over 650 retweets and 2,000 notes on Tumblr, and my Twitter followers shot from 750 to over 875. These numbers are probably nothing special for celebs, but if you’re a guy who averages half a dozen new followers per week, this sort of thing makes you sit up and take notice. It occurred to me that I struck a nerve: many people care deeply about superheroines, and how they are portrayed.
Several questions arose during all of this, both from readers of my tweet and in my own mind, and I’ve been mulling it over and would like to share my thoughts. I know there’s a lot to wade through here, but I promise not to ramble.
To start with, one reader complained that if we demand realism in depictions of breasts in comics, then we must also demand realism in depictions of everything, and the expressive liberties we enjoy in comics (e.g., Batman’s white, pupil-free eyes) would go out the window. My answer is that most superhero comics exist to glamorize heroism, and as such any liberties we take with reality should glorify the heroes. Batman’s glowing eyes glorify him by making him appear formidable, and are therefore justified. But does accentuating a superheroine’s breasts glorify her? Maybe, under certain conditions… but generally when I see this happening, the intention (and result) seems to be to make a sexual object of the heroine and arouse lust in male readers. I shouldn’t have to point this out, but I do, so I will: it offends the dignity of a heroine to make her do double-duty as a jiggle-girl for male arousal.
(Here I’ll pause to note that the superhero genre isn’t the only place where it’s foolish to sexually objectify the protagonist. Even in genres where the protag isn’t glamorized, you still need readers to identify with her. Making a character a sexual object will “other” that character for your readers, inviting them to desire or compete with her, rather than BE her. Note that males shun male figures whose sex appeal is their defining trait, such as soap stars, or Justin Bieber, or Fabio. Let’s not ask women to identify with a female Fabio.)
On the other hand, as another reader insisted, there are occasions IN REALITY when women’s breasts are so accentuated. A woman with large breasts, wearing a form-fitting top, may indeed find the fabric clinging and creasing in revealing ways. There may even be those signs of nipple that some artists are so fond of depicting. Wouldn’t it be more honest to include such instances in our art? Again, I point back to the goals of the genre. In reality, guys sometimes walk around with their zippers down, but we don’t want to see Captain America with his zipper down, because that wouldn’t glorify him. Does it glorify a heroine to portray her nipple-bumps and boob-creases? If it did, women would aim for this effect all the time… but they don’t, so it doesn’t. (An art director once told me she spends half her time erasing the superfluous cleavage illustrators draw on female chests. Gals aren’t as thrilled with cleavage as you may think, fellas.)
Sure, there are exceptions. Cleavage is often thought glamorous at formal events, for example. This isn’t about rules, but about attitudes. My bottom line with costumes: would a cosplayer feel great about wearing this? (Hint: I’ve noticed that cosplayers usually adopt more modest hemlines than we see in the comics.)
And to digress from boobs for a moment, let me address the vertical crotch seam. I illustrate a lot of women’s fashion, and I have never noticed a vertical crotch seam in the clothing I’ve drawn. But in superheroine costumes I see this all the time. Do ladies have anything good to say about the vertical crotch seam, or is it just a way for guys to draw a pretend-vulva?
But back to boobs. Another reader asked why artists seem to have so much trouble drawing them properly. Part of the problem, as noted above, is the desire to sexually arouse male readers, but I’d also like to point out that drawing breasts is darn difficult. Even female artists often miss the mark. Breasts are unlike any other structure on the body. With limbs, you can draw the bone and layer firm muscles on top; with fat, you can just draw a bunch of bulges… but breasts are this weird combo of structure and gooshiness that’s hard to depict accurately. Plus, they move around and change shape and come in different sizes! To worsen matters, the clothed breast is usually only lightly shadowed (hence my tweet), whereas comics’ ink lines deal in starker contrasts. A cartoonist may default to a semicircular line to denote a breast, not intending to denote a fabric crease, but lacking any subtler way to depict the form. So, let’s don’t hustle out with calipers and pitchforks to skewer anyone who draws breasts wrong (including me!). Please judge the attitude of the work on the whole, and with your criticism be generous in both senses of the word: give it often, but give it kindly.
Finally, a reader was upset that I was concerned with how superheroines are dressed, rather than devoting my energies to the REAL issues women face, such as thousands of years of sexist oppression. Well. Setting aside the false dilemma there, I want to address the notion that how superheroines are dressed isn’t a “real” issue.
As I mentioned initially, many people care deeply about superheroines and how they are portrayed. I find this appropriate.
It’s a weird anomaly that, over the last century or so, our culture has deemed heroic fiction childish. Looking back through history, heroic fiction has always been a huge part of world literature for children and adults alike. The Odyssey, the Iliad, the Aeneid, Beowulf, King Arthur, Robin Hood, The Monkey King, Gilgamesh… this stuff wasn’t intended only for kids. Adults throughout history embraced the fact that our struggles can be more easily understood when cast as totems of power. Just as it’s easier for a number to represent other numbers when you write it as X, it’s easier for misfits to represent other misfits when you write them as X-Men. We turned our backs on this utility about a century ago, deciding that superheroic fiction belongs only on the playground, but the overwhelming popularity of superhero films, shows, novels, and games among adults is forcing us now to reconsider our folly.
Superheroes, per se, are a potent subgenre of heroic fiction because their powers externalize their struggles in ways that strength alone cannot, and because they locate heroism in the present day, rather than in the distant past of Robin Hood or Conan. They are more supple and more obviously relevant than other heroic fiction. But superheroic stories have been greatly limited in their influence, not only because they were deemed juvenile, but because they were considered a MALE power fantasy. The cliché was that superheroes were best enjoyed by the dorky, un-athletic male nerd. Who had more need than he for heroic inspiration? Well….. how about members of a gender physically smaller than his, who have been oppressed not only throughout childhood but THROUGHOUT HISTORY? How about a gender of people who, unlike him, have INCREASING reason to fear physical assaults as they near maturity, rather than the reverse? Who have LESS earning power than he does, and are held to EVEN HIGHER standards of attractiveness than those he bemoans falling short of? The superhero genre may be for everyone, but it seems women have even greater claim to it than anyone else.
And they seem to be laying claim to it with a vengeance. When I drew a Kate Bishop “Hawkeye” story for Marvel a year ago, I was amazed at the devotion to that character I saw among women on Tumblr. They made jewelry out of my Kate Bishop art!!! If you had told me as a kid that someday adult women would put my superhero drawings on their jewelry, I would have tumbled off panel like a cartoon character. And it wasn’t just Hawkeye. Women are all over all kinds of other superheroes. You could replace the entire Bifröst with women’s fan art of Loki alone. Not to mention all the comics, fanfic and cosplay. They are owning the genre. Sowing it with creativity, and reaping inspiration, and joy.
But in the midst of all of this, guys are still drawing superheroines like they’re arm-candy. So does it MATTER how superheroines are portrayed? Yeah. YEAH, I THINK IT DOES.
I won’t be tabling this year, but I will be at Seattle’s ECCC on Friday (March 28), just walking around for funsies, shopping and swapping sketchbooks with folks.
I’ll be checking email and the Twitters by phone throughout the day, so if you’re on the convention floor, feel free to ping me and say hello!
There’s been talk lately about comics critics’ preoccupation with the writing in comics, and about whether their reviews ought to include more discussion of the art. It’s probably uncontroversial to say that art does get ignored in most comics reviews, and this oversight is unfortunate, since artwork makes up the majority of what we read on the page. Ignoring a comic’s art is like ignoring a prose novel’s descriptions of places, characters, and events, preferring to address only the dialogue and the plot. Much that makes comics unique and affecting is passed over. However, as many critics freely admit, comics critics often lack the interest or training to discuss art smartly. Their concern is usually whether Adrian Veidt was right, not whether he was drawn right. Must they toss in a few shallow, obligatory remarks about the art, regardless of their fitness to do so? Should they try to bone up on art by reading some books on the subject, to at least appear informed as they critique artists who have studied the subject for decades? Or should they admit defeat, and continue to ignore the visuals through which they receive most of the narrative they wish to review? Well, no, no, and no. I think between silence and babble we can find a workable middle ground.
One of the favorite comebacks of a critiqued artist, no matter the medium, is “I’d like to see you do better!” The assumption seems to be that only those who have mastered the professional’s craft are qualified to criticize his performance. This is silly. We may as well say that only a former President is qualified to vote against a presidential candidate. Back to monarchy! While it’s clear that not everyone is qualified to be a President (or an artist), it’s also clear that most of us are qualified to cry foul at bad leadership (or bad art). Like leadership, art is a public enterprise which depends for its effectiveness on understanding the public’s needs and sympathies. Who better to comment on its effectiveness than the public?
“But the public is an idiot,” some will argue. “The public liked Richard Nixon. The public liked Thomas Kinkade.” Enter critics. To the extent that an antidote to public idiocy can be hoped for, the critic is it. The ideal critic reads widely, thinks deeply about what he’s read, and can lead the public by the hand during the foggy or steep stretches of their readerly journey. The ideal critic is the ideal reader, but with a sharper knack for explaining his responses to a book. And there, I think, is where the critic finds firm ground from which to speak: in his thoughtful response to the work of art. Contrary to the complaints of the wounded artist, the ideal critic does not explain to artists how to draw, or even to authors how to write. He instead explains something about which he is indeed an authority: his own encounter with the work. How does this comic’s artwork affect an ideal reader? What are that reader’s feelings upon poring over this string of images? These are crucial questions which a good critic is supremely qualified to answer. Even moreso than comic creators themselves, who are usually too busy with creating or with questions of craft to immerse themselves as thoroughly and subjectively in a broad pool of comics.
Yes, subjectively. Typically, objectivity is held up as the critic’s honor code, and it is important for critics to be objective about whether, for instance, they hated a comic because of the comic or because of indigestion. But a critic’s objectivity should judge his subjective response to the comic, rather than the comic itself. This subjective, personal response to the comic is the “middle ground” I mentioned initially, and forms the boundary of the critic’s authority to criticize works he lacks the skill to create. An objective critique of a comic’s art might observe that the perspective was faked, or that the inking was rushed, but here a critic not trained in art would be venturing into foreign territory. (Too often I’ve seen ignorant critics condemn art as “rushed” or “phoned in,” when I knew from personal observation that it was neither. The trouble, if any, had other causes.) Instead, he should stick with what he knows: how did the art make him feel? Are the environments credible? Do they foster the desired mood? It’s enough for him to observe whether the pictures do their job; precise diagnoses of the hows and whys can be left to artists.
So, we return the critic to the activity which best suits him, and which first inspired him to pursue his role: enjoying thoughtful, deeply felt encounters with a breadth of material, and sharing the same with a curious public. In comics, artwork is part of that experience, but the critic doesn’t need to master how art is made; only how it makes him feel.
I’m sorry to learn tonight that Joey Manley passed away. Apparently he died of pneumonia. He was 48.
It’s difficult to describe the role Joey played in the comics industry. He was at various times a critic, blogger, entrepreneur, publisher, editor, website-builder… someone who worked to advance webcomics in every way imaginable other than by creating them.
I first heard of Joey through my friend and fellow cartoonist Derek Kirk Kim. Derek wanted me to drive to San Francisco and meet with this guy he’d met online to discuss a secret plan to make webcomics lucrative — our Holy Grail! Joey was staying in the Tenderloin at the time, and the idea of visiting a dodgy neighborhood to discuss a secret money-plan with some stranger named “Joey” sounded like something out of a Spillane novel, but I was in my twenties, so I went. What I found in Joey, then and thereafter, was a man of passion, sensitivity, wit, and two assets uncommon to cartoonists: the wealth and the drive necessary to Get Something Done.
I quickly signed on to Joey’s plan, which was a subscription-funded website featuring weekly content by a select group of cartoonists. Among other things, what set Modern Tales apart was that it offered uniformly superior webcomics on a regular basis — a distinction ensured by Joey’s astute recruitment of a roster of committed, talented creators. He was the “Harvey Kurtzman” of webcomics, to use MT alum Shaenon Garrity’s comparison. (For more on Modern Tales and its eventual fortunes, read Shaenon’s reminiscence from last April. Also featured there is a photo of Joey and the MT crew, including my own grinning, bandana-clad head.)
In the end, Modern Tales only earned me a few bucks, but it changed my life in other ways. More specifically, Joey changed my life. Before joining MT, my artistic output was mostly analog. I drew on paper, photocopied my art, and sent those photocopies to clients and publishers. Occasionally I would scan a piece to upload to the internet, but I lacked the software or expertise to adjust or improve my art once it entered the computer. So, in the world of webcomics, I was a bit of a lame duck. Joey was ever-helpful, explaining with small words and great patience what could be done with a computer and how to go about doing it. He even purchased and sent me a new graphics program to speed my progress. No strings, not a loaner. “A gift.” I didn’t even need the program to meet my commitments to Modern Tales. What it did allow me to do, though, was sharpen my game as an illustrator, and attract clients I’d never have landed otherwise. It was a doorway to a better career. And not only was it well beyond what I could afford at the time, but I hadn’t even realized I needed it. Joey saw an invisible need in my life and met it without discussion.
I left Modern Tales after a year or so; my readership hadn’t grown as I’d hoped, and I’d found other goals to pursue. After leaving, I didn’t see much of Joey online, and he eventually moved east and wasn’t as present at the conventions I attended. But I always planned to repay him for his gift. Not with money, but with (I hoped) something more meaningful. “After I ‘arrive’,” I thought,”after I write and draw a graphic novel, I’ll send Joey some originals, and a letter, explaining what his friendship and patronage meant to me….”
I saw Joey for the last time at a convention a year or two ago. He was perusing some comics nearby, and didn’t notice me watching him. I thought about our friendship, and about how long it had been since we’d spoken, and about the things I wanted to say to him, someday. I let him walk on.