An Almost Unnoticed Side-Effect:

Thoughts on the Janelle Asselin / Teen Titans Cover Controversy

Heard about the recent Teen Titans controversy?

For any mainstream comics fans living under a rock the last several weeks, the latest development in the recent series of social justice related uproars in the comics community stems back to Janelle Asselin’s “Anatomy of a Bad Cover: DC’s ‘New Teen Titans’ #1”[1] on Comic Book Resources. The article is an extended critique of Kenneth Rocafort’s work on the above image, and what said image presents as a whole to prospective new customers. Here, the big argument is focused on the center-stage figure:

“Let’s start with the elephant in the room: Wonder Girl’s rack. Perhaps I’m alone in having an issue with an underaged teen girl being drawn with breasts the size of her head… The problem is not that she’s a teen girl with large breasts, because those certainly exist. The main problem is that this is not the natural chest of a large-breasted woman. Those are implants. On a teenaged superheroine. Natural breasts don’t have that round shape (sorry, boys).

“A secondary problem is that no girl with breasts that large is going to wear a strapless top for anything, much less a career that involves a lot of physical activity… The way Rocafort has drawn her here, we’re one bounce away from a nipslip. On a teenager. In case you forgot that entirely relevant point.”

I highly recommend reading the entire article if you haven’t already, as well as Andy Khouri’s piece “Fake Geek Guys: A Message to Men About Sexual Harrasement” [2], commenting on both the reaction to Asselin’s piece and the common backlash of death threats and rape threats against comic creators (especially female creators). He reprinted one of the messages sent to Ms. Asselin via an anonymous online survey she set up (no longer open) that, while hopefully a significant outlier, provides some insight into just how deeply ingrained this sentiment can get:

“Women in comics are the deviation, the invading body, the cancer. We are the cure, the norm, the natural order. All you are is a pair of halfway decent tits, a c*** and a loud mouth. But see, it doesn’t matter how loud you get. It doesn’t matter how many of your lezbo tumblr and twitter fangirl friends agree with you and reinforce your views. You can be all ‘I’m not going to be silent about misogyny so f*** you!’ all you want. In the end all you are is a pathetic little girl trying to effect change and failing to make a dent. You might as well try to drain the ocean of fish. That’s the kind of battle you face with people like me. We won’t quit. We won’t stop attacking. We won’t give up. Ever.”

And the internet recoiled, and many and varied discussions were had, such as the Khouri piece, and we all reflected on how awfully — when push comes to shove — we tend to fail at the “community” piece of the comics community. Until the next news comes along to grab our attention, eventually, a similar incident will happen, and we’ll probably continue on this cycle until something happens to change things (a boycott, a Twitter hashtag, or god forbid, someone trying to make good on a threat).

On CBR, where the whole mess started, the forums — open since 1996 — were shut down. Site founder Jonah Weiland explained his decision[3] to scrap the archives and start over as not just the result of the original article, but from a growing contingent on the forums interested in little but spreading ill will, vulgarity, and outright cruelty. The recent incident was merely what caused things to spill over. Pouring through the archives before the old forums were lost forever, in the threads related to the Titans cover and Ms. Asselin’s critique, here were some of my favorite responses:

  • “Oh my, what a surprise that a woman does not like the way Wonder Girl is drawn.”
  • “I for one am tired of people claiming that comics are sexist. Sure women are often drawn with massive breasts and a figure like a porn star, but hey look at the men.”
  • “I keep my trap shut and enjoy the fantasy. Which is what this ‘woman’ should do as well.”
  • “Once big boobs come into play its unleashing the white knights and feminazis.”
  • “Ridiculous feminist hyperbole.”
  • “I’ll make it simple for you. 12 and under= kid. 13 and up=teenager”
  • “Who wants to read about ugly chicks, anyway?”
  • “It seems like we can’t enjoy sexy superheroes anymore.”
  • “You’re not ‘entitled’ to feel welcome in desiring to uproot fundamentals of the industry.”
  • “The whole thing escalated because she choose it to made it public when it should’ve keeped private.”

The reason I noticed all of this is because I’m a member of the forums myself. I’m hardly an old-timer — I only signed up last November — but it had become a pretty considerable part of my daily life, a little home-away-from-home as far as comics went. The harsh awakening that it, in fact, wasn’t such for so many others was painful but hardly surprising. Like Mr. Weiland said, this was something that was building for some time.

My little area of expertise on the site was the Superman section, which was (and is) largely divided into two camps: Silver / Bronze Age vs Byrne. The former thinks DC has been broken the last 20-30 years in its depiction of Big Blue and how it shed and often reversed decades of characterization. The latter claim Superman was a bland cipher until Byrne “fixed” him, either claiming his material was the natural descendant of Siegel and Shuster’s original work or saying that their work shouldn’t be held on a pedestal in favor of what they feel works. There were a few “can’t we all just get along?” types, but one can imagine how well that worked out.

That in and of itself isn’t the problem. The problem was the idea that those who didn’t agree weren’t true fans. Neither side promoted an ideal alternative. Pick a side, just so long as, either way, in the end the result is a brainwashed stooge that doesn’t really love Superman.

I’m not going to act like I don’t think characters have definitive, indivisible aspects to how they work (however simple), but the sheer disrespectful audacity on display — often on the part of people whose opinions I agreed with, or at least respected — to declare that enjoying a character, that enjoying anything isn’t enough to make one a fan, never ceases to astonish me. Batman fans on whether or not Miller saved the character or broke him, which Green Lantern is the only good one, whether not Spider-Man should grow up, for shame! All wasted breath on individual fictional characters. Why a woman daring to point out that we fail to live up to our billing as a “community” is all it takes to elicit anarchy is beyond me. Apparently that’s when it gets over the top enough for people to really take notice.

I don’t intend for a second to suggest that the discord resulting from heated exchanges over fictional characters is on par with actual threats of physical violence. Nor would I deny that there is, and has been, an enduring sexist undercurrent within the comics fan community. But I’d argue that the worst sentiments often on display here are systemic problems perpetuated by a common root cause.

Comics are not mainstream. Neither are superheroes, beyond their status as acceptable action movie protagonists. We can say otherwise, but that won’t keep John Doe on the street from giving you confused (or outright pitying) looks if you talk about your fandom. The emotional value of finding a group that will accept you, that love these stories and this medium as much as you do, can be frankly immeasurable. But the prizing of that platonic state of things where they benefit you most, and the mindset it generates, leaves one open and susceptible to attack, confusing critique for criticism.

Our tribe has become so insular that once we pay the social price for entering, even so much as proposing a change in the dynamics of the hierarchy can be interpreted as an attack on it. When push comes to shove, the oppressed become more interested in becoming oppressors than helping others that once shared their common communal stigma. Their new privilege grants the elusive power they’ve spent their whole lives suffering under; the power that proves they’re in charge. Strange that power seems to be the only reason they’re interested in the super-people, rather than what is done with that power. They are, in fact, rejecting the opportunity to be transformed by it.

So here is my proposition:

The characters, plots, and tropes are things, not people. They, by design and necessity, resemble people well. And resemble they should. Without doing so, the themes cease to perform their chief function: to change lives, to sort them out. Still, the aforementioned are still figments of the artist’s imagination. When a community avidly decries that their treasures, these created fictions, no longer act in accordance to their feelings and dreams, they are, in fact, stirring unrest. It’s the continuities, plots, and characters we’re supposed to take a second look at, not the people drawing them, interacting with them. Comics have no usefulness otherwise, beyond that awful episode of The Big Bang Theory that implied the only reason people read comics is for bizarre trivia.

I won’t be so titanic a prick and suggest this debacle “brought things home” for me. If the controversy made me realize anything, it’s that other people have strong emotional attachments to their characters and they willfully express them. Still, I think we need the self-awareness to be utterly ashamed of ourselves. We are a fragile microcosm, one I have personal experience with (rather than an intellectual appreciation of). The forums are back in a modified form, with a new and stricter set of rules[4], but that hardly erases the past or stops the more passive-aggressive affronts to the “new and improved” digital ecosystem. For someone who owes his social conscience to superheroes and the discussions surrounding them, that’s depressing as hell.

In spite of my initial expectations of withdrawing almost entirely, I’m still there. I expected to mostly stick to messaging friends, but I’m still out there doing pretty much the same stuff I was before. Riddled with problems though it may be, it’s a community I’ll always have affection for and always number among. Even if I can’t contribute much to fixing it, or engender a better class of conversation, disconnecting altogether would be a defeat, not a victory. If you believe otherwise, do you really want the alternative?

I can’t believe it otherwise myself. We can be better. We can acknowledge and exorcise the worst parts of ourselves and stop from giving in to mob rule. And most of all, we as a community can get together and finally acknowledge, and implement, the acceptance and basic sense of decency so fundamentally on display in the material we all love.






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David Mann divides his time between studying creative writing at Knox College, spending time at home in Kansas with his dogs, cats and other family members, and writing online. His hobbies include pizza and sleep, and history will vindicate him in all that he does.

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1 Comment

  1. Hmmmm. I think I’m going to have to blog about this to make my better point better, since I haven’t seen people writing about this problem from a point of view outside the world of geekdom. The publishers are using sexual attraction to sell a mediocre product, one that contains no actual sex. One could argue that this is part of the pulp tradition that is also reflected in the paperback market, but those books actually have some sort of titillating passages inside, also. To me, comic book covers more closely resemble beer ads; they promise a surface life of sexual adventure, but actually portray a world where women are passed over for consumer products.

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