Sexism, Sexuality, and the DC Relaunch

Last week’s DC relaunch offerings didn’t prompt much serious debate over which title was the best, but they launched a flurry of reactions against their portrayal of women.

But first, a warning: my goal here is to dig a little deeper than simply articulating either how these comics are sexist or how they might be defended. I take sexuality and sexual depictions in art very seriously. Culturally, our discussion of these matters (both in comics and generally) tends to be extremely superficial, lacking in the nuance that’s so overwhelmingly and desperately needed where human sexuality is concerned. My job here isn’t simply to condemn or defend, though I’m not afraid to do either, nor to do both. Rather, I’m focused on the more important task of articulating (and hopefully helping to define) the deeper, more difficult questions raised.

So if you’re looking for your viewpoint to be confirmed, plenty of other articulate essays on this subject have been put online since the preceding Wednesday. If you’re looking to think a little deeper, you’ve come to the right place.

But first, let’s define the material in question. At issue are two titles, plus one scene in a third (and some more general observations about a fourth). I’ll address these issues in descending order of severity, from the most obviously outrageous to the least (based on my own judgment of how much others have complained about them).

Catwoman

The issue that has provoked the most offense seems to be Catwoman #1, written by Judd Winnick, with art by Guillem March.

Catwoman (2011) #1 coverIts problems start with its cover, in which Catwoman, having apparently perpetrated a jewel heist, literally throws away her ill-gotten loot in order to dribble them over her unrealistically reclining body, including her cleavage. I pointed this out, almost as soon as the cover was released, and I even went further, stating that the translucent white gems symbolically represented semen, making the image a silly, general-audience version of something only intelligible when understood by the visual terms of pornography.

Keep that in mind, because it won’t be the last time we’ll look at material that, while toned down for DC super-heroes, clearly borrows the iconography of far more salacious and even adult material.

The story inside immediately establishes itself as interested in titillation, cropping panels so as to include Catwoman’s breasts or ass. In fact, this begins with the issue’s very first panel:

Catwoman (2011) #1, top of page 1

It’s a rule of thumb that the first panel of a comic, like the first shot of a movie or the first line of a prose story, should encapsulate the story’s themes and concerns. That’s certainly true here, in which we’re given a bra-covered breast, at just enough remove that we can’t call it a close-up, so the exploitation isn’t that much in-your-face. But we’re not given the protagonist’s face, despite looking at her front side and her being in a dramatic situation, which tells us that this won’t exactly be a character-driven piece.

Catwoman (2011) #1, page 3By page three, Catwoman’s leaping out of a building with her whip, having not quite put her costume entirely on, so that one bra-covered breast is sticking out of it. Before long, she goes undercover at a Russian mafia party, and after spotting a bad guy she knows, she proceeds to seduce him, prompting another large sexual image.

Catwoman #1, bottom of page 11

Catwoman then proceeds to beat and slice the man savagely, over a page and a half. She’s got bloodlust in her eyes, and he doesn’t even fight back.

It should be a disturbing sequence. Yet strangely, no one seems to have commented on it.

The assault is savage even in a genre defined by vigilante justice. Batman might beat someone up, but ostensibly only to bring them to justice. Here, Catwoman, presumably on the outs with the law, is only out to brutalize someone.

Catwoman #1, page 13Her motivation? We’re shown in flashback that he killed a girl. His motivation isn’t altogether clear, although he calls her a “little tramp.” It’s poorly done, in that the detail aren’t clear. In fact, we only presume Catwoman witnessed what we’re seeing. It’s the merest hint of a motivation, just enough to paint the victim as a really bad guy without actually painting anything. It exists only to justify her savage assault, couching it as some sort of feminist act, or at least feminine rage. Instead of the obvious conclusion that Catwoman is, after all, a psychopath.

Yet the flashback is only given half the space given to the assault. Obviously, the emphasis is on the violence, apparently for its own sake. But I guess no one wants to point this out, lest they be seen as actually feeling sympathy for a Russian mobster who would shoot a girl.

All of this has everything to do with sexuality, because the entire scene — indeed, the entire comic — is drenched in it. The only women at the party, outside of Catwoman, are said to be prostitutes. Catwoman uses her sexuality as part of her disguise, and she uses it to put her victim at ease before unleashing her surprise, brutal assault. An assault given a veneer of justification, allowing us to identify with the attacker, and not her victim, as someone filled with righteous fury over the treatment of women.

It reads very much like a feminist parable, written by a man whose only real interest is showing some bra-covered boobies and some entertaining violence. That sounds harsh, and Winnick’s done some good writing in the past. But it’s hard to shake off the feeling that feminism and crimes against women are being used here as fuel for sexploitation and savage violence.

Then again, Catwoman’s long had a strange relationship with feminism.  And she’s not the only female character to have such a strange relationship, as we’ll soon see.

But the strongest objections have come from the ending, in which Catwoman meets Batman for the first time, at least in this story and in the DC relaunch. They promptly kiss, and the narration make it clear that they have sex — and that this isn’t the first time.

Catwoman #1, page 20Moreover, there’s a sadomasochistic and fetishistic edge to their sex. One’s a hero, one’s a villain, although they’re attracted to one another. Catwoman’s narration tells us that “most of the costumes stay on.” They don’t know each other’s secret identities, and Catwoman’s fine with that — or even prefers it that way. Their sex seems to be violent, and she leaves her claws in, adding to the sadomasochistic overtones.

Many readers have described the scene as creepy or leaving them feeling dirty, like they’re reading vaguely pornographic fan fiction. And to be sure, this isn’t the kind of thing most people would want to be caught reading, with the comic open, in public — not so much because it’s graphic as because it’s fetishistic and has that creepy fan fiction feel to it.

Many have said (with more than a tiny bit of reactionary vigor) that the ending depicts on-panel penetration, but I’m not entirely sure that’s the case. At least Catwoman’s outfit is still intact beneath the waist, unless I’m missing some earlier scene in which we’re shown a zipper on its crotch.

It so happens that I wasn’t taken with this issue, but I’d actually defend its “climax,” in theory if not in execution.

Yes, it feels creepy. And no, it’s not particularly artfully done.

But this kind of sexuality is inherent to super-heroes. Batman and Catwoman have had sexual tension since she was introduced. Ever since Frank Miller and David Mazzucchelli’s brilliant 1987 “Year One” storyline, Catwoman’s been garbed in some sort of vaguely sadomasochistic — and certainly sexual — costume. And how many times since (from Catwoman’s first mini-series to her appearance in 1992′s Batman Returns) has she clawed Batman in a vaguely sexual way?

And let’s not forget that Watchmen derived much of its strength from depicting super-heroes as being messed up psychosexually. In fact, Watchmen contains a sequence in which Night Owl II and Silk Spectre II have sex with their costumes mostly still on, a point she makes in dialogue after the fact. Winnick’s obviously cribbing that here.

Now, I’m not arguing that Catwoman #1 is on par with Watchmen. That would be a ridiculous claim.

I am, however, saying that super-hero readers have at least one obvious precedent through which to interpret the ending of this issue. It clearly represents the super-hero’s psychosexual extremes, to which Batman and Catwoman have long been subject.

So there’s nothing new here. Nothing, actually, all that shocking at all.

Except that it’s Batman. For a certain kind of purist, what you do with Night Owl is one thing. But Batman, he’s sacred.

Well, it’s been 25 years since Watchmen. Like it or not, Batman’s caught up. I say it’s about time. I like a more innocent Batman too, but the two versions aren’t mutually exclusive.

My objection, therefore, isn’t at all to Batman and Catwoman having sex. It’s that the scene feels cribbed from Watchmen and isn’t particularly well-done. And occurs not in a thoughtful story about super-hero psychosexuality, but as the “climax” to some seriously sexploitative drivel.

I am not, you see, a puritan. Even when it comes to Batman.

Yes, we can certainly debate what belongs in a comic granted DC’s “Teen Plus” rating. But I would be remiss not to at least point out that there’s been comparatively little complaint about Batman torturing people. Or discussion of Catwoman’s vicious assault on an unarmed man, earlier in this issue. Surely any one of the many sequences in which Batman tortures someone, serving little point except entertainment, is more objectionable to Batman screwing Catwoman, even if that’s done as sexploitative garbage. Suggesting that vigilante violence solves problems, which Batman’s based upon, is just a bit more dangerous for the “teen plus” crowd than this sex scene, creepy though it is.

To pretend otherwise is only to distract from the real problem of sexploitation and Catwoman’s depiction in this issue. It only makes the person objecting seem anti-sex, rather than anti-sexism.

The problem isn’t that Batman and Catwoman have sex. It’s that Catwoman does this in an issue that has used her for the most thoughtless kind of titillation. Thus, the sex comes off less as a thoughtful extension of the super-hero and of Batman and Catwoman in particular. And more like just another hollow, exploitative gesture. A punchline, in a string of sexual jokes. Batman fucks Catwoman, reduced to a twist ending, as if what one does with one’s genitals is an “event.”

That’s offensive not only because of the cynical sexploitation it implies. It’s far more deeply offensive because it connects sex — and super-hero sex in particular — to exploitation. To the crass. To the low.

The sequence thus actually manages to marginalize and reduce sex and the full range of human sexuality, costume play and sadomasochism included. It is, after a fashion, itself puritanical.

Red Hood and the Outlaws

The second, strongly objectionable comic of the week is Red Hood and the Outlaws #1, written by Scott Lobdell, with art by Kenneth Rocafort.

It doesn’t feel as obvious in its sleaze as Catwoman #1, but it may well be worse in terms of what it depicts.

The title features Starfire, long a mainstay of the Teen Titans, recast as part of a team led by former Batman sidekick turned antihero, the Red Hood. She’s a sexy alien clad in a skimpy costume, though that’s nothing new. What is new is her sexuality.

As soon as she appears, Red Hood and Arsenal, the two male members of the team, comment upon her sexually. To be fair, Starfire has just appeared and decimated the opposition, so Arsenal has a good reason to ask, “Is she with you?” Red Hood doesn’t just play with the double meaning — whether she’s part of the team or (in a sexual relationship) “with” Red Hood. He calls Arsenal on that double meaning, and the two joke around about the fact that Red Hood has had sex with her.

Red Hood and the Outlaws #1, top of page 9

It doesn’t help matters that she immediately asks Red Hood what to do, in pretty submissive language, leaving the reader to wonder if that’s how she speaks to him in bed. Indeed, fraternity-level maturity about having sex with Starfire is one thing, but this combination of panels makes her seem like little more than Red Hood’s alien pet, available for use both sexually and as a weapon.

From there, we’re treated to an abundance of images featuring Starfire in a swimsuit, some of which dominate the pages they’re on. The in-story justification for this is that the team is relaxing on the beach in St. Martinique, making the swimsuit imagery ostensibly part of an overall representation of the team’s downtime, in which it lives the high life between violent and dangerous adventures. That’s clever enough, but the emphasis on swimsuit imagery is so great that it makes the justification feel, well, paper-thin.

Red Hood and the Outlaws #1, page 10 Red Hood and the Outlaws #1, page 11

The first page of the St. Martinique sequence features not one but two large images of the swimsuit-clad Starfire, consuming about four-fifths of the page. And the remainder is taken up by a boy snapping a photo of her, incognito. While this will become a plot point later, it also fits perfectly into the emphasis on Starfire’s body. The rest of the team isn’t even shown, relaxing or otherwise.

The next page, while focusing on Red Hood and Arsenal, is framed by a third, huge image of Starfire in a swimsuit. The two males’ dialogue is largely focused on her, and again the emphasis is largely sexual. Her visual dominance of the page thus makes narrative sense, making her body visually overshadow a conversation that is largely about that body. But while the visual composition of the page can be justified, there’s no escaping that the emphasis, both visually and textually, is on Starfire’s desirable body.

Red Hood and the Outlaws #1, top of page 13

A key point here is that Starfire is posed in her swimsuit not like a team member who’s relaxing but like a swimsuit model. She throws her head back so that her long hair arcs through the air, causing water to cascade as if in a photographic freeze-frame. She arches her back and leans over Arsenal to reach for her towel, aping the postures used in swimsuit photography. Clearly, the emphasis isn’t on what this relaxation means to her as a character. No girl chilling on the beach for her own enjoyment slingshots her hair around her body while arching her back like she’s posing for a photo shoot. All this imagery is clearly composed this way to titillate a heterosexual male readership.

To make matters worse, DC originally intended Starfire’s bikini to be semi-transparent, as the issue’s colorist has revealed.

from Red Hood and the Outlaws #1, page 10, as originally colored (with Starfire in a transparent bikini)

But the sequence that has yielded the strongest objections is what follows, as Starfire propositions Arsenal. He’s surprised, because he thought she was in a relationship with Red Hood. But she corrects him, expressing a confident and unhesitating belief in casual sex as recreation, a belief cast by her in terms of female empowerment.

Red Hood and the Outlaws #1, from the bottom of page 13

It’s hard not to get the sense that Starfire is a sort of party favor, a perk of being on Red Hood’s team.

Lest we doubt whether the two completed the act, we’re later shown the couple in bed together. The shells and other knickknacks on the wall appear distressed, implying a vigorous sexual session. A hand imprint on his chest underlines this impression, adding a sadomasochistic element. Although it’s a little hard to decipher, there are also two hand burns on the bed frame. From this, we can even divine at least one position the couple used.

Red Hood and the Outlaws #1, top of page 17

But although this is wrapped within Starfire’s depiction as a powerful and independent woman, it’s worth noting that she cloys to him, while asleep in bed. The lines of her closed eye and her downturned line of a mouth recall manga illustration and suggest an underlying tenderness. It’s not going too far to say that they suggest a submissive persona beneath Starfire’s extreme pro-sex feminist rhetoric.

The DC relaunch has changed DC continuity, and it’s worth noting that this Starfire isn’t exactly consistent with the Starfire before the relaunch. True, she was always depicted as a sexual being. In the pages of New Teen Titans (and later New Titans) in the 1980s (and ’90s), she had a sexual relationship with Nightwing that culminated in their marriage. In her past, she’d done time in an alien prison, during which she’d apparently been used as a sex slave. But she certainly didn’t seem promiscuous, and her relationship with Nightwing was loving, committed, and long-lasting.

Yet in this issue, she doesn’t even remember Nightwing. Or any of her Teen Titans colleagues. In this issue, her lack of long-term memory seems to be a characteristic trait of her species. Red Hood essentially claims — smiling slyly as he does — that she can barely tell humans — including them — apart. Her narration, on the first swimsuit page, confirms exactly this.

Now, the idea that an alien would have trouble telling humans apart, on its own, is actually rather clever — even if it doesn’t jibe with Starfire’s past at all. The idea is that, if even humans sometimes have trouble telling people of other races and ethnicities apart, aliens would have even more trouble doing so. Moreover, aliens might have different sensory organs, which evolved to tell members of their own species apart and which might not work for humans. And the story hints at exactly this. Clever stuff, at least taken on its own.

Except that this fact doesn’t occur in isolation. Because we’re also told that her species is extremely casual about sex. In fact, she says that the only rule of having sex with her species is “that love has nothing to do with it.” It’s a far cry from her quite loving relationship with Nightwing, whom she now doesn’t remember.

This new Starfire thus combines (1) a woman who looks like an orange-skinned swimsuit model with (2) the memory of a goldfish and (3) a belief that sex should never be anything but utterly casual. She’s the ultimate male fantasy, the ultimate sex object.

Only, she’s more than that. Because between having meaningless sex with her teammates (and, she implies, strangers when her teammates aren’t available), she’s also available to blow people up. And she’s apparently perfectly content to follow instructions about how to use that power, presumably again because she can’t tell humans apart.

She’s not exactly a bimbo. There’s no sign she’s dumb. For all I know, Red Hood could someday call on her to compute launch trajectories on the fly. But when it comes to so much as being able to remember who’s put his cock in her, she’s absolutely brain dead. Conveniently brain dead, I should say.

Consider that Starfire, prior to the DC relaunch, had escaped an alien prison where she had been kept as a sex slave, then gone on to show that she could establish a long-term, loving relationship. Now, she’s physically incapable of such a relationship, at least with a human. But she’s not incapable of having sex with humans. And this effectively renders her her own team’s sex slave, to be enjoyed casually and passed around.

Which doesn’t make her seem like the great exemplar of female empowerment.

Only she’s not exactly a sex slave either. She’s free to leave at any time. She’s making her own decisions, whether you agree with them or not. Writer Scott Lobdell makes this quite clear.

When she’s seducing Arsenal, Starfire seems appalled that he would think she’s in a relationship with Red Hood. “I am free to do what I want when I want,” she says.

And therein lies the deeper problem. Lobdell has given readers a male fantasy that’s so elaborately complete, it’s hard not to appreciate its engineering. She’s not a slave, so male readers don’t have to feel guilty enjoying her. In fact, they’re actually helping her be a more powerful, independent woman.

By having sex with her, knowing she can’t tell them apart.

They’re not taking advantage of her. They’re participating in her own empowerment. If anything, they’re her tools. And if they don’t have sex with her, she’ll just find someone else anyway.

She’s a live-in, gorgeous alien sex slave, without any of the guilt. Combined with explosive super-powers, which (because she can’t tell anyone apart) she’s only able to use when you tell her whom to kill.

Talk about “fire and forget.” Only here, it’s the weapon doing the forgetting. The tool, if you will. And that tool is both military and sexual.

Like I said, it’s hard not to admire the engineering. The cleverness that went into this. The fullness of the fantasy. One cloaked both by a clever narrative idea about alien physiology and by pro-sex feminism.

But that doesn’t and can’t detract from that fantasy’s implications. Because there’s no disguising that this fantasy is a heterosexual male one, which reduces Starfire to the status of the team’s weapon and object for recreation.

Wonder Woman

With Wonder Woman #1, written by Brian Azzarello with art by Cliff Chiang, the objections have mostly been limited to a single scene in which a woman, magically transported into Wonder Woman’s London housing, finds her sleeping in the nude. Wonder Woman has never been shown to sleep in the nude before, and some have taken this as a gratuitous use of nudity. Although, to be fair, far less of Wonder Woman’s flesh is shown than that of Starfire, and she’s not posed in especially erotic or titillating fashion.

Wonder Woman (2011) #1, bottom of page 10

It doesn’t help that the main controversy over this relaunched title was whether Wonder Woman would wear pants as part of her costume. She initially did, as part of Jim Lee’s redesign of her outfit, although they were dropped since the original cover was solicited, causing several people to post online various male DC characters in costumes but without pants. DC ultimately offered the with-pants cover as a variant, which might have seemed like an attempt to please both camps but which resulted in some complaints. For those inclined to see whether Wonder Woman wears pants or not as an issue involving sexism, turning that issue into a variant cover only seemed to turn Wonder Woman further into a sexual commodity.

While I’m glad people are talking about it, I’m certainly not bothered by Wonder Woman’s wardrobe. Yes, it’s skimpy (and stupidly so), but the real issue there is the illogic of super-heroine costumes more generally, not Wonder Woman’s in particular. This is a character that originally wore a skirt until people realized strangers could look up it. If anything, because of her long pedigree, one could argue that her costume should be the last to change. (Though of course, she’s also been a feminist heroine for some, so one could argue she ought to lead the charge.)

As for her sleeping in the nude, it strikes me as a fairly minor complaint because it’s not portrayed in an especially titillating manner. Some people do sleep in the nude, after all, and I could see an argument for why that makes sense for her character. If that’s the biggest and most problematic change about her revamp, fans should count themselves lucky.

A far bigger problem, at least for me, is what I regard as a severely misjudged plot. It starts with an unidentified glowing-eyed guy with vague powers, then shifts to someone in peacock feather killing horses with a scythe, before a dead horse seems to come alive again through magic. Then a blue-skinned intruder helps a girl we don’t know and who doesn’t know him. The blue-skinned guy gets shot with a bow and arrow, gets back up, and fights two attacking centaurs. The blue-skinned guy tosses Zola, the girl we don’t know, a magic key, and she’s teleported into Wonder Woman’s abode. By this point, when we see Wonder Woman sleeping nude, we’re already on page 10, and we’ve had nothing to help us explain any of this, outside of that old fallback of bad writing, “it’s magic.” And though we’ve gotten a couple of interesting visuals, they’re certainly not grounded in any interesting ideas. Nor have we gotten anything that might tell us why we should care about any of these characters, all of whom are new. And the rest of the issue doesn’t offer much in these directions. So while I’m inclined to give Wonder Woman a pass for her costume and her sleeping nude (and I regard Azzarello as a smart writer), I think it’s a spectacularly misjudged issue and couldn’t imagine it appealing to anyone but die-hard fans of magic and fantasy. But I’m apparently in the minority on this, so I’ll kindly shut up and continue with my topic.

Supergirl

In a climate in which Wonder Woman not wearing pants has been taken as sexism, Supergirl #1, written by Michael Green and Mike Johnston, with art by Mahmud Asrar and Dan Green, has also drawn some ire, since she (like Wonder Woman) also doesn’t wear pants.

And though I haven’t seen anyone point it out yet, Supergirl fights some ill-defined mecha in the issue, and they use what look like electronic ropes to restrain her. Should we be inclined, we could find here the suggestion of sexual bondage, not to mention the vaguest visual hint of tentacle rape.

from Supergirl (2011) #1

This one also strikes me as a symptom of a wider (and again, legitimate) problem with super-heroine costumes, and it’s nothing exceptionally skimpy for Supergirl. To be fair, it’s hard to explain how her Krytonian costume, including a top with full sleeves, would possibly lack pants. But that’s hardly anything new to the character. Her costume’s stupid and potentially sexist, but it has to be understood and criticized as a symptom of wider super-hero history and traditions, which are certainly fair game for exactly this kind of criticism.

And as stupid as energy lassos are, the last thing I want to do is to bar their use on one gender, for fear of being accused of sexism. They’re far more offensive for their stupidity than for their sexism, and that’s true of Supergirl #1 in general.

The DC Relaunch More Generally

Not a great week for DC and the ladies, then.

And coming this week: Voodoo #1, which (as we already know from artwork that’s been released) largely occurs within a strip club, in which the protagonist is apparently dancing undercover.

What’s perhaps most upsetting about the situation is also the most obvious. DC has promoted its relaunch as intended to be more diverse than in the past, and it has offered the fact that several titles star female characters as some proof of this. Yet those titles include the four discussed above. The two most egregious of those titles, Catwoman and Red Hood and the Outlaws, seem designed solely for male heterosexual readers. Creating titles starring female protagonists doesn’t mean much when those characters are clearly crafted as sexual objects for a male gaze.

It’s not fair to compare race and gender. Race involves little to no biological difference, while the biological differences between the sexes are both subtle and vast. We’ve barely begun to learn how men and women are wired to think differently, let alone figure out the implications. How rates of education or incarceration or income vary between races may well point to a social problem. That’s not necessarily true in the same way, when applied to the sexes. Biological differences at at play, obviously, when comparing the sexes’ rates of pregnancy, let alone differences in approaches to problem-solving or even objectification of sexual partners, as science has now demonstrably shown. So beware those comparing race and gender, since it usually indicates scientific ignorance or bad faith.

Having said that, consider an analogy in which a publisher celebrates its African-American protagonists, then depicts those characters as drug dealers or muscle-bound sports players. This analogy has all sorts of problems if you extend it to anything else, but consider how unsatisfying and upsetting and misguided and just plain sad such an attempt at “diversity” would feel.

On the other hand, it would be unfair not to notice a certain Catch-22 at work. DC (and comics generally) didn’t get such criticism before it announced its new concern for diversity. Once it did, commentators (including myself) quickly had an excuse to start using this lens, though which the DC relaunch didn’t look nearly diverse enough. To their credit, many (such as writer Gail Simone) pointed out that very few creators of these new titles were actually women — fewer, in fact, than even the paltry number before the relaunch. The result has been, ironically, an incredible amount of heat for DC.

There’s no denying that the relaunched comics have problems. Catwoman isn’t just sexploitation, it’s sleazy sexploitation with a thin guise of female rage. Red Hood and the Outlaws turns a once interesting and powerful female character into her own team’s ultimate sex object. What’s more, these aren’t just problematic depictions of women. They’re also not very good comics, and the sexploitation sometimes seems very much their point, rather than mere simply one layer among many. None of these facts should be ignored, and discussing them can only help comics.

But to its credit, DC has responded to these complaints far more frequently and completely than most comics companies ever do. It does at least seem concerned about them, even while its actual offerings have too often seemed tone-deaf, sometimes mind-bogglingly off-message.

This isn’t to say I feel sorry for DC. All the controversy certainly hasn’t hurt DC’s sales. Let’s hope DC takes the opportunity to correct itself, while not over-correcting, instead of basking in its riches.

But while DC takes heat and reaps financial rewards for some very questionable comics, something very good has come out of this.

Sexism in comics is being discussed within the comics community at a more serious level than ever before. That’s a good thing, and DC deserves some of the credit for that, along with the brave souls who have raised such complaints.

Even better, there’s a diverse range of opinion to this discussion. And those who disagree with it, who don’t see sexism, actually seem to be engaging in the debate. That’s a minor miracle, frankly.

What’s even better is that they’re not being shouted down or accused in any blanket way of misogyny — which tends to shut down debate extremely quickly, leaving feminists feeling marginalized and dissenters feeling silenced by a politically correct status quo. Neither of which is productive. It’s only through passionate and honest debate that progress can truly be made, and that seems — gasp! — to actually be occurring.

DC’s marketing blunder, in repeatedly provoking such a backlash, might just prove very good for the industry.

The industry is having to seriously negotiate its own male biases, including how it plays to its largely male audience, for perhaps the first time. And that is a wonderful thing, something I’d argue is productive for the quality of the stories being told.

But it does bring up an uncomfortable fact. DC (and comics generally) might well want more female readers. But its readership at present, even for titles like Wonder Woman, is overwhelmingly male. A truly out-of-the-box, feminist title might be smart bet in the present climate — it just might be embraced, get press, and sell. In the meantime, however, comic creators have to assume that their audience is almost exclusively male, even for a title starring a female character. And while that doesn’t excuse the kind of excesses seen in the issues described above, it does go a long way towards explaining it.

One could even guess that this might explain some of the increase in sexism seen in the DC relaunch. Creators probably feel a lot of pressure to succeed, given the attention on them and the fear that their new titles will be lost among 52 new series. Knowing their audience is male and generally responsive to sexploitation, seem to have amped up those qualities.

In the same way, violence seems to have increased in the DC relaunch. The sheer number of people sliced apart seems to have increased a thousandfold. And let’s not forget that the Joker’s face gets cut off and hung on a wall in Detective Comics #1.

It’s as if, feeling pressure to sell, even good and competent creators seem to have fallen back on sex and violence in the worst kind of way. While I haven’t done a quantitative study of the matter, I’d even theorize that, as a general rule, the more one of these new titles seemed safe in terms of sales, the less likely it was to ramp up the sex and violence. Red Hood and the Outlaws, for example, isn’t a title one would immediately guess is long for this world.

So if the DC relaunch is more sexist than the DC of the month before, it certainly doesn’t seem like the result of an editorial directive or an intent to produce misogynistic texts. No, it’s more likely a reflection of creators’ ideas about what will sell. And that has everything to do with comics history, rather than its future.

In a very real sense, it is that whole history of a male-dominated readership — and the narrative habits that go with it — that is now being confronted. It only seems as if the subject is the DC relaunch.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

In 1996, while still an undergraduate, Dr. Julian Darius founded what would become Sequart Organization. After graduating magna cum laude from Lawrence University (Appleton, Wisconsin), he obtained his M.A. in English, authoring a thesis on John Milton and utopianism. In 2002, he moved to Waikiki, teaching college while obtaining an M.A. in French (high honors) and a Ph.D. in English. In 2011, he founded Martian Lit, which publishes creative work, including his comic book Martian Comics. He currently lives in Illinois.

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68 Comments

  1. David Balan says:

    Great article.

    I’d like to add more to the discussion, but you’ve hit it on the head for the most part. I’m glad this debate is happening.

    And this quote:

    “We’ve barely begun to learn how men and women are wired to think differently, let alone figure out the implications.”

    Is particularly interesting – I may run with that idea for my next piece.

    • I have a lot more to say about that, but it didn’t fit here. I’m actually quite interested in those matters, which have wide-ranging implications, and there’s a lot of excellent literature out there on this.

      • David Balan says:

        Oh, I forgot to add, I wanted to tell you that you have one more in your minority camp thinking that Wonder Woman’s story was completely unintelligible – what the heck happened in that book anyway? Very poor structure.

      • Thanks, David. I love ambiguity and framing sequences, but I think clear, strong openings become are more important every year, as all forms of fiction have to compete with TV and the internet and video games. It’s something every remotely thoughtful fiction writer today acknowledges and has a take on. Spending half your first chapter without Wonder Woman is a perfectly fine, mildly structure-breaking idea. But when that half is filled with characters with whom we don’t identify and with magic that’s so ill-explained that it comes off as silly rather than scary… well, you’ve managed to lose your reader somewhere before page 10. And it’s not as if things suddenly get better from there.

        I like a lot of Brian Azzarello’s work very much, and I can even admire him for trying this unorthodox story structure, but I think he’s pushed it to the point where it collapses very quickly, due to ill-defined proceedings and characters with whom we can’t identify or connect with. I thought it was a spectacular failure of an issue. Not a dumb failure, but spectacularly misguided.

        It’s something any college creative writing teacher (like I used to be) should have caught. So I don’t understand why it wasn’t caught by DC editorial, especially with all the light on the DC relaunch.

      • David Balan says:

        I’m actually in the middle of my Comic Book Scripting course at my college right now, and it’s absolutely discouraging how many simple, basic principles that most of the New 52′s writers consistently ignore and fail to implement.

  2. What’s left to say? More I’m sure, but this is definitely an excellent analysis of the problems facing comics with reference to gender. Your greater point of opening a dialogue of the institutional problem of comics is one well worth taking into consideration. Simply changing the gender of the characters is not enough to equate to diversity–we need to examine how these characters are portrayed both visually and in the story.

    I also appreciate the point you make about the significance of context. For example, there’s a certain emotional gratification when couples are united on film or in our comics. However, when there is no context for this and it done (more or less) for its own sake, it becomes gratuitous. Take Saving Private Ryan as another example. The scenes on Omaha Beach can be especially difficult to watch, but it would have been dishonest to what actually happened portray with less violence. The death, destruction, blood, and gore are appropriate because there is a context for them. Mere hack ‘n slash for the sake of it becomes more akin to “horror porn.” It’s not WRONG for superheroes to embody elements of sexuality as you point out–it’s what can make them more rounded, 3-dimensional beings; however, taking short cuts and just cutting to the “good stuff” leaves the characters cheap and without any real merit.

    Like yourself, I’m really glad to see this shift. When I think about the potential for comics in the future, I’m genuinely excited about some of the stuff I see. But as you’ve mentioned, there need to be some big changes made and perhaps this will help usher in some of those shifts in views of gender (and ethnicity, etc).

    • You’re very kind, Forrest. I don’t feel as if anything I’ve said is definitive, merely groundwork for a greater and hopefully permanent discussion. And yes, yes, yes, we need to rethink the kinds of stories we’re publishing, not merely whether the powerful protagonist has breasts. Nor even merely how large those breasts are or how many panels should be focused directly on them.

      And you’re right about context.

      Thanks for your comment. It’s very heartening.

  3. Cody Walker says:

    With Catwoman, you’re pretty much on the nose.

    You’re reaching with Supergirl.

    And while you make some valid points about Starfire, I have to respectfully disagree with the assessment that Starfire’s sexuality is something new. Examples:

    http://29.media.tumblr.com/tumblr_l3wkc5bn8I1qc7r93o1_500.jpg

    http://26.media.tumblr.com/tumblr_l4f5xrqKAY1qc7r93o1_400.jpg

    http://30.media.tumblr.com/tumblr_lnacm5QoMK1qkz9yno1_500.jpg

    http://media.comicvine.com/uploads/8/83713/1569873-nightwingrules_super.jpg

    Of course, this doesn’t invalidate your comments about her forgetting and being a creepy sex slave, but anyone who thought that she was some sort of role-model before (not you, but I’ve seen others online) simply haven’t read much.

    • Good points on Starfire’s past. You’re right that I didn’t say that, but once again, you’re correcting some of the knee-jerk overreactions on the internet. That’s important, and I thank you for doing so.

      As for Supergirl, I said I was reaching and didn’t agree with it. I was just using it to illustrate that some have lumped it into the criticism, although I discussed the reasons why, how they could even go further, and then dismissed them. A bit of slight of hand.

      Thanks for your comment!

  4. Greg Martin says:

    Ireally do like what you guys do-thinking about comics. But this seems to be a case of over thinking here. Personally i thought catwoman in particular was a very entertaining comic. and probably has the best art(along with batwoman) of any of the titles and very nice storytelling. Truth be told i had a lot more fun with this book than swamp thing or say animal man. To me it was a fun sexy comic that wouldn’t have been out of place in say a european graphic novel-the sexual content involved was very mild(nothing one wouldn’t see in any pg movie).

    Is the only good comic a grim comic? I mean honestly watchmen to me reads as little more than an ode to rightwing revenge fantasies-and we could discuss the characterization(and the lack thereof) of women in watchmen. But you are quite right in pointing out that catwoman isnt watchmen and for me im glad. I’ve had quite enough of grim faced fellows stabbing/mangling/raping other grim faced fellows… Is there room for a title like catwoman-a light sexy romp(with some violent elements) amongst the ‘gritty’ titles which as you noted generally not only condone but actually advocate for torture/murder/militarism/war?

    I had a few deeper thoughts but i have written myself out i think on this topic- here’s a link to a forum post i did http://outcaststudios.com/forums/index.php/topic/11212-is-catwoman-poisoning-the-minds-of-americas-youth-d/ . And again thanks and i enjoy reading what you guys do.

    • Greg, I’m certainly not arguing the only good comic is a grim comic. That’s nowhere in the above article. And yes, we certainly can discuss the portrayal of women in Watchmen, and we actually have.

      In the piece you linked to, you seem to be quoting me as saying Catwoman is a “fuck buddy,” and I didn’t say that.

      You also seem to be lumping me and other reviewers into a kind of prudish response. I think that’s reactionary. Now, I totally understand where that’s coming from. There can be no denying that feminism has been too prudish for most of its history. And there can be no denying that political correctness has too often been oppressive and even damaging. That’s a history that needs to be acknowledged. But that shouldn’t be an excuse to never examine these subjects again. And I think my response above was anything but prudish. In fact, I defended super-hero sex (for which I fully expected some criticism) — just not how it was done in Catwoman #1. Also, I think Laura Hudson’s piece, while emotional and passionate and honest, wasn’t actually prudish either.

      But I think you raise a very good point. In your link, you ask, “Are adam hughes/frazetta/vallejo/frank cho/art adams…to be viewed as utter deviants and in fact purveyors of ‘soft core’ imagery or even worse?” No, of course not. All of the men you list are excellent artists whom I personally enjoy to one degree or another. Some I would call master artists. And yes, I’ve read their work, including some of it that is outright pornographic. I will defend that work’s right to exist and its quality to my dying breath. I will also defend others’ right to point out where that work has problems, should they wish to do so.

      Something I find so hopeful, so wonderful, in the criticism of these DC comics is that the reaction hasn’t been prudish. I’ve seen too much of that, as you obviously have. But this time, the criticism has almost always taken pains to say that yes, men like to look at pictures of sexy women, and there’s a place for that. Which, if you’ve lived through the horrors of gender feminism, is something truly wonderful and refreshing and so not-at-all-man-hating and so not-at-all-against-porn-or-even-sexploitation.

      So I think you can see, Greg, that I’m extraordinarily sympathetic to your viewpoint. I am anything but a feminist prude. In fact, I’ve seen feminist prudishness and will oppose it strongly.

      What I think you’re missing is context. Marvel did Shanna the She-Devil, by Frank Cho, and it was clearly sexploitation. No hiding that. In fact, it was originally going to have nudity, and I’m still disappointed that it wasn’t published as originally drawn! But everyone knew what they were getting. And I didn’t see people condemning that Marvel was publishing it.

      But with Catwoman, we’ve got a DC Universe title that’s been offered as a good jumping-on point for new readers. Including girls. And there’s no indication, outside of that suggestive cover, that Catwoman has been turned into a sexploitation comic. The result is a little like someone — yes, perhaps a teenage girl — picking up Supergirl and finding Frank Cho sexploitation. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it’s not what was advertised. It’s not off in some little corner of the DC Universe, like Shanna was at Marvel. So logically, you can expect some heat.

      Also, while it’s fine with me that you liked the issue, it’s not good sexploitation, like many of the artists you’ve mentioned have produced. And the reason, again, is because it’s a DC Universe title. So it flirts with being a sexploitation title, without ever really going there. And here’s the thing: when a comic does go there, into full sexploitation mode, it’s easy to laugh off. I mean, it’s hard to take Barbarella too seriously, know what I mean? Shanna isn’t meant as a stunning narrative that will examine the events and issues of our times. Sexploitation at its best is a fun, sexy romp. The slightest gesture toward sexploitation, in a non-sexploitation comic, can also sometimes be funny. A little wink to readers. But going this far, yet not going all the way, puts Catwoman #1 is a weird middle ground, in which it’s ostensibly a regular DC super-hero title, with a heroine who’s upset over the killing of a woman, only with this sexploitative overlay that, instead of coming off as fun and harmless, comes off as really creepy.

      Does that make sense? Again, no one’s trying to take away or condemn your sexploitation comics. And that’s actually part of why this backlash against DC’s portrayal of women is so refreshing and encouraging — I’ve yet to see a kind of blanket, anti-sex or even anti-sexploitation condemnation. American men, who’ve heard too much of that, should be thankful. But if they — we — don’t take not of this fact and continue to act as if any criticizing of any female portrayals is tantamount to the bad old days… well, then we’re just being dicks and asking for a return to those bad old days. Know what I’m saying?

      In other words, you’d actually be striking a blow for the right for sexploitation comics to exist by saying “Fine, I enjoyed Catwoman personally, but I can see how it’s offensive in the context of a DC relaunch title. And it’s obviously hurt people, as well as creeped people out. I respect that, I hear that, and thanks for not going after my sexploitation comics with the same brush.”

      Am I making sense here? Because I do really care about this topic. And I do honestly see where you’re coming from, just as I see why Catwoman #1 is upsetting.

      • Greg Martin says:

        i appreciate the response and thoughts julian, you know for me i guess the question is-why can’t catwoman be a sexploitation comic? are the new dc relaunch titles being held to some sort of higher standard(a standard of nebulous gender and racial politics) than say a dynamite or marvel book? And if yes then why? Honestly for me i thought the relaunch was just that-a relaunch…a chance to start fresh, sweep dead titles under the rug and clean up a great deal of continuity lunacy. But instead we find that what is being argued are the ‘sexy’ elements of some comics-catwoman in particular. Does dc have to turn into the new gold key?

        Julian i do think you are sincere and have thought about these issues at some length-but are we navel gazing? Is an issue of catwoman more hurtful than say a truly repellent comic books like captain america or punisher? And yet we have these self same reviewers who routinely lavish praise on books like captain america or mind bending continuity disasters like avengers children’s crusade, just aghast at catwoman. Reading catwoman is a pleasure not just because its well drawn but the narrative flows, characters are set, and at the last page i still know whats going on-nice tone, execution, and great art what more does one ask from a comic. I can definitely understand if catwoman isn’t one’s cup of tea but the scathing commentary suggests that it is not only one of the worst dc relaunch titles but if we are to believe some of the more overly righteous-it is also truly offensive and hurtful and probably pornographic. Let’s just say i disagree.

        Should books with female characters be written so that they don’t offend little girls? What? Do these same sorts of concerns apply to a book like deathstroke(possible can of worms opened here as i can already here the advocates for the old(youth challenged ^^;) crying about how deathstroke is treated)? Why do books with female characters have to be the ones written so as not to offend little girls-why couldn’t grifter for instance be written in this fashion? The answers are obvious-no one wants to read that type of book and if they do well archie comics are still being produced.

        One of the more disturbing aspects again of the reviews and comments regarding catwoman is the uniformity of ‘opinion’ here- http://www.comicbookresources.com/?page=user_review&id=3930 here- http://www.comicbookresources.com/?page=user_review&id=3930 here- http://www.comicsalliance.com/2011/09/22/starfire-catwoman-sex-superheroine
        here- http://www.comicbookresources.com/?page=user_review&id=3947
        and yes here(this article :D). In each review we have the same having your cake and eating it too odes to cheesecake/exploitation…yes each reviewer likes cheesecake comics and likes guillem march’s art but they just don’t like the art and cheesecake here. The reviews have a passive aggressive tone as if in this universe these reviewers are in fact delighting in lady death comics but somehow ‘offended’ by catwoman. It all strikes me as more than a bit phony-i mean why the soft sell? One of the sadder examples is again doug zawisza at cbr calling starfire’s portrayal in red hood ‘borderline pornographic content’-yo doug go to a hooters and you will think satanic cults have taken over strip malls.

        The reviews and comments display the views of a confused social layer, comics(of all things :D) should be held to a higher(amost religious) standard of portraying women-a very weird mix of gender politics/tea party backwardness/mixed with a corporate stooge’s love of conformity indeed. Because if we are to take the reviews at face value(minus the caveats to cheesecake) we find a puritanical streak running thru each of them. The idea that catwoman is any way a ‘soft core’ skin flick does make one wonder if the reviewer(s) have had much experience with life-it is a fact that women wear lingerie and ‘gross’ things like bikinis…and they have sex and yes some of it is ‘kinky’ or ‘perverted’ or worst yet ‘not in continuity’. Old joke-what happens when a blue nose has sex with a continuity nerd? this column http://www.comicsalliance.com/2011/09/22/starfire-catwoman-sex-superheroine/ :D.

        And yes women are different than men in real life and should be that way in comics as well. What we find is a desire to seemingly masculinize women-’punisher/batman/superman’ would never be shown with their underwear exposed seems to be the line. Concurrent with this is the idea of a ‘woman’s’ attitude and outlook-these women are supposed to be ‘liberated’…essentially what this means is they act like male ciphers or ‘ceos’ . In language and in dress our female superheroes are supposed to be more like their male counterparts-sexless grim faced tools…can’t wait for that female punisher book(talk about the ultimate ‘feminist’ dream).

        But also we find a conflicting urge to depower or afflict female characters. Enpowering thru disability. Now there is nothing wrong of course with championing the rights of disabled people or showing that they should be treated fairly-but enough is enough. It is as if the perfect comic book would be amanda waller(the fat version) in a wheelchair-of course numerous problems exist…namely that even fat women in wheelchairs wouldn’t buy that comic but would buy batman or nightwing instead.

        So we arrive at the unholy nexus of the prig and the prude and the corporate zealot-for the female character must be portrayed as not only ‘pure’ but be modest in dress and speech but also ideally successful. What does this all mean? Frankly not a great deal as red sonja(thankfully) comics are still being published…and i can go get a lady death if i want but it does create a rather poisoned atmosphere amongst the thinking set. Am i to feel guilty for liking guillem’s art…is it dirty? Should i have bought a comic like nightwing instead(interesting topic there for a male exploitation column :D)? I One simply cannot imagine this sort of debate going on in europe(dear god what would these reviewers make of manara) or in japan-one can almost hear the snorts of derision…boob hating parochial post modernist wankers(and that might be one of the kinder things being said).

        My major problems with the dc relaunch were titles that had major problems with craftsmanship-hawk and dove is a truly miserable comic for instance. But as far as catwoman goes not only didn’t i have a problem with the sexy nature of it-i frankly enjoyed the hell out of it.

      • Greg, I’m going to be blunt, because I don’t know how else to be in response to what you’ve written. Your job, should you choose to accept it, is now to read what I’ve written here and to decide to show that you’re the better, more reasonable man. Because that’s what’s going to make your argument come off better, and it’s in your self-interest as well as in the interest of your argument being taken seriously.

        I appreciate your comments and went out of my way to show that I understood them. But please, Greg, no one’s saying the DC relaunch should be the new Gold Key or the new Archie. (Straw man argument #1.) Didn’t you read my piece at all? Do you honestly think that’s anywhere close to what I’m saying? Or anyone else is saying? Who’s this bogeyman you’re fighting?

        The problem isn’t that Catwoman’s sexy. (Straw man argument #2.) As I made VERY CLEAR above. It’s that it was marketed as a regular super-hero comic that was friendly for new readers. And it’s sexploitative piffle at best. And not even good sexploitative piffle.

        Again, when you buy Shanna, you know what you’re getting. That isn’t how Catwoman was marketed. Do you really fail to see that? Or do you think it would be fine to say “hey, a new Superman that’s friendly to new readers, to everyone!” And then open the issue to see little except for Lois Lane’s cleavage. Do you see the problem there?

        If you want a sexploitative Catwoman, that’s fine with me. But TELL READERS that’s what you’re doing. Let the solicitation read “Catwoman’s always been sexy, but not remotely like she is in the hands of Winnick! Get ready to meow!” And then we’ll know what it is, which is the exact opposite of a “come one, come all” relaunch title.

        Also, while you obviously disagree, it’s really shitty exploitation. You cited some GREAT sexploitation comics. Catwoman’s a vaguely creepy, poorly told verison of those. The issue is miles away from Manara, for example.

        I’ve read Manara and love his work, by the way. Once again, that’s not the issue, nor are you doing yourself or your views any favors for confusing it for the issue. In any way.

        I also read a good deal of European and Japanese comics. Again, you seem to be railing at some feminist monster I haven’t read and not at me. In any way. Whatsoever.

        Also, I agree about the problems with craftsmanship. I’ve pointed that out REPEATEDLY. Including in the above article.

        Again, did you not see that? Did you READ my article? Because I (1) pointed out how violence is worse, (2) criticized how some reviewers hadn’t discussed the sex scene properly, and went as far as to say that made them seem anti-sex, (3) criticized some other reviewers as going too far in calling this pornography or even on-panel sex, and (4) obviously didn’t come CLOSE to saying this was the worst of the DC relaunch.

        These are ALL points you took up, as if I hadn’t JUST said them. Better, by the way.

        You couldn’t ASK for an article that looked at this issue seriously and was MORE fair or MORE understanding of your viewpoint than mine. I honestly believe that. And if you want to accuse ME of being anti-sexploitation or knee-jerk in my reaction, you really don’t have a right to complain about the people who AREN’T fair and just say this is misogynistic. Because you’ve failed to read what I’ve written in any light except “he’s criticizing sexy comics!” Which was not remotely what I said, nor could any reasonable person possibly construe that.

        Just what are you reacting to? Who’s coming to take away your guns? Know what I’m saying?

        You criticize these reviews as having their cake and eating it too, in saying cheesecake’s fine but this particular isn’t. What you find hypocritical, I find HOPEFUL. Because I really do remember the bad old days, in which no one would have dared defend cheesecake as anything but sexist and misogynistic. This time, we’re seeing people taking PAINS to say that’s not what they’re saying. How wonderful. You’d think you’d be pleased.

        But you’re not. And that tells people, clearly as day, that really you won’t stand for anyone pointing out that anything is sexist or dangerous in its implications about women. Really, nothing of that is acceptable to you, apparently. And what you don’t seem to recognize is that, by finding zero criticism of sexism acceptable, you’re telling people to just stop being careful. To stop inserting the polite caveats about cheesecake. And to go back to just saying this is misogynistic and everyone who reads it hates women. Is that really what you want? Because you’re honestly encouraging it.

        Do you see, Greg, how your invective rhetoric is encouraging that? You say that simply pointing out how these comics are troubling, even with the caveats about cheesecake, is equivalent to holding them to an “almost religious” standard. That’s insane, quite honestly. And an invitation to drop those caveats and just accuse everything of misogyny, since their quite reasonable tone is being met by the most invective rhetoric from you.

        You MUST see that.

        And you have the GALL to imply that I’m puritanical? Again, did you READ WHAT I WROTE? I couldn’t have been more careful to avoid being puritanical, which I’m certainly not (and I can assure you, everyone who knows me knows this). In fact, I cautioned other reviewers about the fact that they needed to be more careful, lest they sound puritanical. Again, what more could you ask for? But no, I’m apparently part of some puritanical conspiracy out to deprive you of bra-covered titties in Catwoman.

        I’m totally sympathetic with your point about how leftist feminism has too often allied itself with far-right prudishness. Except you DON’T make that point, not really. And recognizing that should lead you to see my above point, also IN THE ARTICLE, about how it’s important to recognize that the caveats you call hypocritical are actually indications that this sort of bizarre left / right cabal is NO LONGER in effect. Which should be hopeful and wonderful. Yet which you entirely miss.

        Instead, you follow up with yet another straw man argument (your third?) about how “female character[s] must be portrayed as not only ‘pure’ but be modest in dress and speech but also ideally successful.” Who the hell are you talking about here? Do you not understand that we’re so incredibly far from that? That absolutely NO ONE has said all super-heroes should be modest in dress and speech.

        Please go back and read the article without your reactionary zeal affecting your ability to read and comprehend. Then return to the comments section here and write something articulate that’s responding to anything that’s actually being talked about, instead how you feel attacked for liking cheesecake.

      • David Balan says:

        “The reviews and comments display the views of a confused social layer, comics(of all things :D) should be held to a higher(amost religious) standard of portraying women-a very weird mix of gender politics/tea party backwardness/mixed with a corporate stooge’s love of conformity indeed. Because if we are to take the reviews at face value(minus the caveats to cheesecake) we find a puritanical streak running thru each of them. The idea that catwoman is any way a ‘soft core’ skin flick does make one wonder if the reviewer(s) have had much experience with life-it is a fact that women wear lingerie and ‘gross’ things like bikinis…and they have sex and yes some of it is ‘kinky’ or ‘perverted’ or worst yet ‘not in continuity’.”

        No, all comics, all media, and everything can and should be held to a higher standard of portrayal of gender and truth.

        The way sex is portrayed in Catwoman is akin to saying that a pornstar’s life is glamorous. The pages of Catwoman objectify her beyond belief, and pretend that it’s some sort of “Feminine Power”.

        First of all, a pornstar’s life is not glamorous, it’s demeaning. Second of all, that’s not feminine power, it’s a masculine fantasy. Women don’t take power that way. Women are just as capable of being rock’em sock’em superheroes, but they do it in a different way – a feminine way. Females are, in general, more overtly emotional and less overtly physical than men are.

        Also, your argument about the simultaneous urge to empower and disable women is:

        a. Not related. Amanda Waller controversy has little to do with this (although actually, I was more offended by the pointless cheesecake in that issue than the slimming of Waller) Similarly, Barbara Gordon walking again is a different issue – one which is actually much more murky. But that has less to do with sexism and more to do with diversity – different things.
        b. An ad hominem argument. You’re saying that because they dislike Catwoman and Batgirl revamps, and yet like Guillem March, their reasoning in this instance is invalid – that doesn’t follow.

        And for the record, yes, all these same sorts of concerns apply to a book like Deathstroke, or Punisher, or what have you. It’s not necessarily viewed as sexist to portray a male simply as a sleep-around stud who smokes, drinks, fucks, and shoots (Not saying Deathstroke and Punisher are necessarily like this – but the possibility is there, and it would be an equivalent situation) but it certainly is vapid, and without value.

        Catwoman is smut. Smut filled with meaningless violence and meaningless sex, for the sake of meaningless violence and meaningless sex. It’s an absolutely perfect C- grade exhibitionist throwaway hollywood action flick. And just as those have almost no merit to them whatsoever, neither does Catwoman.

        But the worst part? It’s masquerading as a comic meant to draw in new readers to comics.

      • I actually don’t see porn as automatically demeaning to women. I am staunchly sex-positive and even porn-positive, which is why Greg calling me a puritan and ignoring my points is so infuriating and insulting.

      • See, I actually disagree, David, that Catwoman is smut. I think that’s going too far. (Though I agree with your other points.) That’s something I brought up in the article: I think saying this is porn or on-panel penetration is going too far, and it comes off as anti-sex instead of anti-sexism. To call it smut, at least in my view, is to tar it with the wrong brush. It’s sexploitation with some dangerous overtones about empowerment, and it’s the context (meant to draw in new readers, as you say) that makes that bad, not the simple fact that it’s got lots of bra-cover breasts or sex in it.

        At least in my view.

      • David Balan says:

        That’s an interesting thought about porn – having talked to someone who used to be in the industry, her experience says that it was highly degrading to women, and that the vast majority of women in such a position are not there by way of wanting to be there.

        But I suppose the idea of pornography in pure definition: images of overtly sexual acts – is that necessarily bad? Good question to raise.

      • I think it’s a very complicated issue, but I’m in favor of the full range of human sexuality, including homosexuality and sadomasochism. And I’m also staunchly pro-First Amendment. I think porn has an absolute right to exist, whether it makes people uncomfortable or not. Or even if it’s sexist or not. Human sexuality HAS EDGES. It is not always nice.

        That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t talk about them and their implications, including whether it’s demeaning or whether certain TYPES of porn are demeaning. I also don’t mean to devalue the opinion or experience of the person you talked to. I WANT discussion about this. But that’s my job, as I see it: to show what things mean, to examine their implications. Not to tar with broad brushes. Which I think I did quite fairly, with LOTS of pains taken not to be politically correct or puritanical.

        And my views similarly don’t mean that I can’t object to opening Superman and seeing Lois Lane explaining how her gang-rape empowers women, to use an exaggerated and ridiculous example. That doesn’t make me a puritan. It just means I’m a thinking individual and can see how this depiction is self-contradictory and absurd. And I’ll point that out. I don’t see how that’s controversial, but apparently it is.

        Surely, there must be some middle ground. Because it can’t be everything’s sexist and oppressive or nothing is. Know what I mean? Nuanced, thinking debate. That’s HONEST WITH ITSELF. Ah, is that too much to ask?

      • David Balan says:

        I’m definitely with you in terms of the full range of human sexuality – I’m just against any form of exploitation of another person’s weakness or insecurity for your own sexual benefit, at the expense of their own sexual self-esteem. That’s rather disgusting to me, because it’s a basic disrespect of another human being, sexual or not.

        That’s the part that bothers me about the porn industry – not the porn itself.

        And yes, the middle ground is always the way to go.

      • Good point about the porn industry. And please, please don’t get me wrong. I’m against people being coerced into porn, for example. Or abused as part of their jobs. That their job is porn is no excuse.

        I’m also really not a raging moderate. At all.

        But that’s what upsets me about Greg’s reaction: I’m SO sensitive to blanket condemnations of male sexuality or of art as being “misogynistic” (an overused and almost meaningless word, to me). I’m also really against political correctness. But I’m a thinking person, and I can see how these comics are problematic, and I can understand their dangerous implications and messages.

        What’s so frustrating is that there’s so little middle ground when we discuss sexuality and sexism. It so quickly descends into “misogyny!” vs. “what’s wrong with boobies?!?” Both of which are ridiculous to me. Sexuality is so complex, and sexual depictions at least as much. Surely, surely, in the wake of so much oppression and psychological pain, of both men and women, we must, must, must be able to have a discussion about this. A serious discussion, which acknowledges men like to look at breasts and which also acknowledges the implications of these comics. It’s VITALLY important.

        Because failing to acknowledge either isn’t just inaccurate and insensitive. It shuts down debate, when debate is so needed.

      • David Balan says:

        Julian – just noticed your response about Catwoman!

        What I’m saying, I suppose, is suppose that this was NOT advertised as a new reader comic – suppose it was just up front about being sexploitation. While it might reduce outrage, would it make the quality of content any better?

        I agree that this stuff has a right to exist (first amendment woo!) but that doesn’t mean it has a right to be called ‘good’.

      • I see what you’re saying. I would agree Catwoman #1 isn’t good. It’s confused. It’s not well-done. I’ve said so.

        But if by “not good,” you’re talking about sexploitation, I do think there’s good sexploitation. Well-done sexploitation. Beautiful sexploitation, even. That doesn’t mean we can’t talk about the messages in some of those books. Absolutely. But they’re not offensive in the way Catwoman is. They know what they are, and they’re not masquerading as pro-woman super-hero fun.

  5. Scott Skocy says:

    You are spot on about Catwoman and Red Hood. Catwoman is sleazy pandering. Red Hood is very much more troubling as it seems like sexism masquerading as feminism. I think a large part of the problem could be eliminated if the book gave a reason for Starfire to stay around the other two besides sex. She claims she can do whatever she wants, but she doesn’t appear to want anything other than occasional sex. She needs some agency, a purpose, something. Things may turn out to be not what they seem, this is only part of a story, but I don’t think Lobdell has earned that assumption.

    You touch on superheroine costumes in the Wonder Woman and Supergirl sections and, except for the truly egregious ones (Starfire), I’ve never really understood the problem with them. Compare Supergirl’s costume to a gymnast’s uniform. Or a volleyball teams uniform. They look very similar. Athletic wear is probably the closest comparison to superhero’s costumes that exist in the real world. They are both about the physical prowess of the wearer and demonstrating that to the audience. Women in superhero comics accomplish this the same way Olymipic Athletes do. Now, the portrayals may be poor (i.e. the subject of this article) the costumes themselves do not generally seem to be a problem.

    • Thanks for your comment, Scott. I hear you on super-heroine costumes. But the retort would be that super-heroes wear all sorts of costumes these days, not only spandex wrestling outfits. Including full body armor. The problem then becomes why 90% of super-heroines have such revealing costumes. And I thought I went light on that issue, because it really is a whole separate and complicated one. But yes, your point is something that has to be considered, as part of the whole mix of arguments surrounding that issue.

      But to try to get at what the problem might be, it’s twofold. First, it’s body typing, which is an incredibly painful issue to many women. Second, it’s the constant revealing nature of the outfits clothing these unrealistic, unattainable bodies. Which, if these are powerful women, is a little like drawing female C.E.O.s with their cleavage constantly showing.

      And I do think that you only have to look at some costumes (cough, Power Girl, cough) to see how the designs do go beyond gymnasts’ outfits.

      But again, this isn’t my hobby horse, this time around. It’s a huge and complex issue, and it’s beyond the scope of this present article. And I don’t think that casually addressing it — such as just saying it’s wrong — would be morally correct, since to arrive at that conclusion would entail considering a whole slew of arguments and counter-arguments, all of them subtle and complex and having to do with the twistedly complicated realities of sexuality, both genetic and cultural. Even outlining such a project makes me feel exhausted!

      So I do recognize that it’s something people care about and a real issue. But it’s not something I’m willing to casually condemn, when it comes to a single comic, such as Supergirl. Because I really do want to be fair about it.

  6. I was pretty disturbed with Catwoman layouts provided. I suspect even if I read the issue in its entirety, there’s not going to be enough context to really justify much of what was shown.

    Regarding the Supergirl analysis, I do agree that there is much less there going on, I do think Julian makes an attempt to point out this portion is more subtle evidence of the greater problems with women’s portrayal.

    And you’re right–the general trajectories we see with Starfire from early on (and she’s not the only one). As you mention, I also don’t think a past pattern of behavior / representation invalidates the basis of the argument here. What it does–in my mind, at least–is reinforce the notion that this highly skewed (and harmful) portrayal of women (most often by men) in comics goes back for some time and it isn’t new to DC. Perhaps what we see with Red Hood & the Outlaws is simply taking what was already there and pushing the envelope even further.

  7. The most hilarious response to Catwoman so far has come, perhaps not surprisingly, from the new readers DC is supposedly trying to attract:

    “The very first panel has all the information I need [in order] to see who this comic is aimed at. It’s a close-up of Catwoman’s breasts,” reader Justin said, adding sarcastically, “So I assume this is aimed at mammogram technicians, which is weird because it seems like they would be better off putting something in for teen boys.”

    From Comic Book Resources’ excellent look at how new readers respond to the DC relaunch.

  8. Cody Walker says:

    I think this was to you http://twitter.com/#!/DCComics/status/118881331752087553

    http://twitter.com/#!/DCComics/status/118881338186145793

    • Cody, you keep offering links as if they’re responding to me! When they’re obviously not, though are good responses to tangential points. Tricky, tricky.

      Not that they don’t amuse me. :)

      I think that DC Twitter update (“We encourage people to pay attention to the ratings when picking out any books to read themselves or for their children.”) is clearly about the 7-year-old given Red Hood and the Outlaws. Which I’ve forwarded around today. It’s at http://io9.com/5844355/ and is well worth reading.

  9. Greg Martin says:

    hey i wasn’t sure how to reply to the above posts so i’m just posting down here. there is definitely an interesting discussion to be had with this topic-the problem is i’m not sure we’re having it. :D. The main problem your article and the other reviews(altho in fairness i do think you were more even handed…to a fault perhaps-more on that below) have tho is the very real danger of getting laughed at. Catwoman is in fact pretty timid fare(a bra here a butt there) and nothing we don’t see in other media…and in europe again this would be considered boring indeed. But not here in the united states for we stand for things like…well ‘lady button up that top’ :D.

    And Julian i did read your article and i thought it was thoughtful if again more than a bit evasive-devil’s advocate anyone. The opening is a bit of tough going ‘the translucent white gems symbolically represented semen’ . After reading your piece is it possible, no matter what side one takes on this issue, to disagree? I found it hard to find the thesis here as there are so many caveats and ‘on the one hand’s-any position could be gleaned and defended…even or almost especially opposite ones :D. I don’t mean this to be harsh and in fact i think you are a clear headed writer but one does need to get to one’s points. How often does one have to declare they aren’t puritanical before you get the idea you are dealing with a charlatan? i think three is the number :D. Much like the old saw ‘im not a racist, i have..’, we find ourselves repeating ‘im not a puritan, i like hot babe comics…’.

    Now the commenters to your article do indeed seem to have a very clear read on your article-and as with some of the reviews the words ‘smut’, ‘porn’(you even allude to porn or at least the iconography of porn in your article), ‘sleazy’ appear often enough for us to make some assumptions. In fairness you do argue the smut charges, you personally seem to land on the sleazy side. What does it matter that people call catwoman ‘porn’ or ‘smut’? If catwoman or red hood is indeed ‘porn’, or from zawisza ‘borderline porn’, then hasn’t the word just lost all of its value. If this is ‘porn’ or ‘smut’ what then is actual ‘smut’ or ‘porn’. And needless to say are smut and porn necessarily bad? Again in fairness i think you address these issues at some length and rather sensibly.

    As far as my response goes it was as much a response to your post as a continuation of thoughts on the collected reviews-my personal reaction to the comic mirrored this review http://comics.cosmicbooknews.com/content/review-catwoman-1-winick-march . I loved the cover and loved the preview pages…the art is just top notch and inside i got a sexy story with an actual narrative. I just enjoyed it, it was a refreshing fun read in this age of mega crossovers and blatant jingoistic narratives(see here the year of captain america shoved down our throats at marvel).

    But then i started reading some of the reviews and your column….it was very odd-was i wrong? am i a degenerate for liking this book? Is catwoman really one of the worst comics of the dc relaunch? Worse than the by the numbers tony daniels detective comics or the rather limp snyder batman…one does have doubts. Again why must(and frankly it seems to be an imperative as all four comics discussed in your own article have female leads) female characters, and only female characters, display virtue or in fact present themselves as role models. Isn’t there room for a lady in a tight black leather costume(and sometimes less) wielding a whip to be sexy and sexual? Or should she just be played straight as a cat burglar and a mischievous flirt… There appears to be a longing for an earlier day or incarnation of catwoman -not only the story but almost especially the art…it isn’t difficult to find approving mentions of darwyn cooke’s catwoman and in an especially confused review by Greg McElhatton, http://www.comicbookresources.com/?page=user_review&id=3930 we even find praise(backhanded but still praise) for the talents of jim balent. Progression thru regression.

    So down the rabbithole of liberal gender politics(a dubious and more often than not contradictory line of thinking) and retrograde rightwing scolding we go- most of these reviews could be very comfortably placed on the web page of the christian coalition(‘oh my word her bra is showing’-satan’s work indeed).

    As to the mention of amanda waller and her obesity(or lack thereof) i think it ties in perfectly, and not as an ad-hominem attack as David has suggested, with the suggestions(implied and otherwise) of the reviewers that the only good woman is an ugly or mannish(if not in looks at least in attitude) one . Only by being wheelchair bound or fat can a woman truly be a role model.

    Rather a long reply and i appreciate the discussion-perhaps next time we can discuss the obsession comic reviewers have with race/gender politics and the nearly non-existent discussion of issues of class :D.

    • If you think I’m a puritan, Greg, it say a whole lot more about you than it does about me.

      The iconography of porn is very different than porn, obviously. And of course, I agree that Catwoman is not porn and that to call it such is to rob the word of its meaning. So too have I implied that Catwoman’s breast is not in fact hanging out. It’s covered, even if it’s only by a bra. I was very careful about that.

      I don’t think you’re a degenerate at all for liking Catwoman. I don’t know anyone who would say that, and I wouldn’t tolerate someone saying so. That just makes you sound defensive, I’m sorry to say.

      I’ve said this earlier, but I must restate that I never said Catwoman was one of the worst comics of the DC relaunch. That is not my opinion, and I’ve said it before. I do think Batman #1 was better, though it wasn’t great.

      Have I ever once said or implied that female characters must display virtue or be role models? That is not the issue. Obviously, no one is saying that female characters have to be virtuous. That would be absurd. Drama comes from imperfections. All characters make mistakes and make choices. I don’t think anyone — anyone — has said that female characters shouldn’t show cleavage or shouldn’t have sex. Have you read that ANYWHERE?

      You’re railing, but you’re not hitting anything. You set up these false dichotomies, as if what’s being criticized is the existence of cleavage or female characters being imperfect. Yet no one’s said anything of the sort.

      But yet you KEEP equivocating between people saying “this comic has problems” (or, in my case, very precise implications of specific stories) and saying “all female characters have to be 100% prim and proper.” Which, of course, no one has said.

      I’m a huge fan of Frank Miller’s Catwoman and Frank Miller generally. Does this sound like the statement of a puritan about the character? And I BROUGHT UP that history above! Jeez.

      I do agree that we should have more discussion of class. But that has nothing to do with this issue.

      While you keep railing against what you HEAR, instead of what’s being SAID, you keep ignoring anything that’s actually been said about Catwoman (let alone Red Hood and the Outlaws). Instead, you set up a dichotomy with no middle ground. And in it, any criticism of the presentation of women is puritanical and should be totally dismissed.

      What would it take for you to say that it’s reasonable for someone to say “this depiction has problematic implications?”

      What would it take for you to say, “Hey, yeah, gotta admit, I can see the point on this one?”

      What do you think IS fair to point out is problematic, in terms of female portrayals?

      If I point out very carefully that no, it’s not porn, but it is sexploitation… where’s your objection? You don’t disagree with my assessment. You just say you liked it and sexploitation’s fine in a Catwoman comic. Well, great. But that’s a pretty mild refutation of what I’ve written. Because I didn’t say sexploitation was wrong or shouldn’t be in a Catwoman comic.

      Do you disagree that the story’s got a veil of female female anger about it, as if to justify the violence and sexploitation? I don’t think you can really argue that. I didn’t say people can’t depict this material. My job is solely to describe HOW this works.

      I guess you would disagree that it feels weird and sleazy. That’s your opinion, and that’s fine. So why not say that? Why rail against all these arguments I DID NOT MAKE?

      But here’s the real problem… the real way in which you’re shooting yourself in the foot:

      You treat me like I’m a crazy feminist extremist, condemning the fact that men like to look at pretty girls and saying all women must be depicted virtuously, when I’m really not doing that at all. I don’t even consider myself a feminist. And I was extremely, extremely careful in what I said. I did that knowing I’d get criticism — yes, perhaps from people who liked Catwoman. But also from people concerned about how these comics depict women, whom I expected to say I was being too easy on these titles. And yet I was willing to take the stands I took, expecting heat for them, possibly from both sides but certainly including those against whom you seem to be raging. But I made a series of statements, on the various issues involved, and these were very considered stances that I felt I could stand by and would feel comfortable defending, come hell or high water. It was not easy for me to do. But as I say, I was very precise and considered. Hence those caveats, for which you criticize me.

      And then you come along and lump me in with puritans and anti-sexploitation people and all sorts of things that I am decidedly not. And I cannot begin to explain to you how utterly offensive that is, to me of all people.

      Dude, you really don’t know where I’ve been. You don’t know the battles I’ve waged, my entire adult life, against the sort of puritanism you seem bothered by. These battles have threatened my health, led to me being slandered, literally threatened my safety, and very directly threatened my professional life. I continue to bear psychological scars from these experiences. But I have not backed down once, even in the face of direct personal hostility that — to be blunt about it — you may not be able to imagine.

      I didn’t do all that to be so casually accused of puritanism by you. Especially when you don’t seem to appreciate how very careful I’ve been NOT to say any of the things you seem to accuse me of saying, precisely BECAUSE I don’t believe in them. Nor how brave and precise that was.

      But I guess, no criticism of any depiction of women, no amount of admitting that yes, this is an implication of a comic, is acceptable to you.

      And because of this, you’ve managed to piss off someone who’s a hell of a lot more sympathetic to your points than almost any thoughtful critic would be, let alone the intellectual establishment.

      • Greg Martin says:

        I appreciate the responses…and i have enjoyed the discussion-if there is a bit of a ‘man on an island’ feel to my stand :D. I went to great pains to point out that my reply was ‘as much a response to your post as a continuation of thoughts on the collected reviews’.

        Just as a side note-honestly guys bringing up watchmen repeatedly just seems absurd…but not for the obvious reasons(not because watchmen is somehow a gold standard-honestly i get no joy from reading watchmen)-the main reason is because in watchmen women are treated in a truly reprehensible fashion. A shrieking vietnamese harpy is gunned down, a woman is raped in a very ugly scene-one senses joy in the depiction of it, and more importantly watchmen is a comic in which women really haven’t a voice nor a place. They are there as nags/objects/placeholders-devices really…

        Onward, as to me ‘raging’-isn’t this a pretty old rhetorical trick…anyone who disagrees is, for rather obvious reasons, filled with anger(implying incoherence and in this case quite a bit worse). I think a reset would be helpful here, the language is getting a bit careless…

        We are running away from discussion of catwoman and now are into self-martyrdom. Julian it may very well be true that you have been fighting puritanism(tough battles in academia) but have they really threatened your physical safety, i don’t doubt that you are telling the truth but i just have difficulty envisioning these scenarios, and if they have occured maybe a switch to fighting for things that actually matter would be a wise course. If one is to risk one’s life isn’t it better to be in the fight for ending a war or fighting for social justice-would seem a shame to see you get knifed for defending catwoman’s bra :D.

        I have been pretty clear in what my problems with the reviews and comments have been-and i have offered up a clear throated defense of catwoman…and manara and the truly fine tradition of babe art. This isn’t an overarching embrace nor defense of all ‘cheesecake’ as bad cheesecake can be as dull and offensive as any issue of bendis’s avengers-but catwoman was to me very well done cheesecake…something that has it’s place and hopefully always will in every comic shop.

      • I do appreciate your “man on an island” position, Greg! It’s a place I’ve been myself too often!

        I think you’ve made a good defense of “the truly fine tradition of babe art.” I’ve leapt to your defense there! And really, I agree that such material not only has a right to exist, but in many cases (e.g. Manara) are of great artistic merit. I not only believe that but have staked out that position here, in response to other comments.

        I’m sorry if I’ve been harsh on you, but I didn’t mean to dismiss your points completely by saying you’re “raging.” That wasn’t a rhetorical trick at all. It was a response to how much I think you are defending the right of comics to depict women sexually and in ways that are sexy to male readers. Which I very much agree with, and I implied as much in my article. But your reaction was, I think it’s fair to say, much less about my article and more about what you feel is implied by the overall criticism of these recent comics. I don’t think you’re 100% wrong about that. But I think you didn’t appreciate how much closer I am to your point of view than any knee-jerk “this is sexist!” response. I don’t throw around the term “sexist” cavalierly, with narratives or people. I was very careful in saying that some implications of these stories (especially Red Hood were indeed objectively sexist, but I didn’t say sexploitation comics were always sexist, nor that they didn’t have a right to exist, even if they were. Again, what I meant by “raging” wasn’t that you were angry, because anger may be fully justified. I meant that you were making all sorts of arguments, some better than others, that responded more to what you see in this body of criticism at the moment, rather than to what I’d actually said. Because what I said was not only careful but actually very sensitive to many of the same arguments you would go on to make. But I felt that you weren’t seeing that, in part because you felt attacked by this body of criticism, into which you were lumping me without recognizing the important distinctions I was trying to make.

        I hope I’ve expressed that clearly.

        As for my own past, please don’t call it “self-martyrdom.” You don’t know what it’s like when, at a small and liberal university, the school newspaper you actually work for singles you out as the problem, despite that you were making very cogent points. Nor how it feels when people storm into your dormitory room and refuse to leave, nor when they all stare at you hatefully when you cross the quad, nor when they storm up to your table at lunch and announce that you hate women. Nor when professors advise you to leave, lest you be injured in an attack. And all because I’d made quite salient points, such as pointing out that destroying the art of fellow students wasn’t a very good protest against Newt Gingrich — and that cannibalizing your own community, in some sort of ritual liberal purges, isn’t the most effective action against ills like sexism. And this was me at 18, the first of many battles. So, since you seemed to doubt my story, there’s a little more of it. I have dozens of them.

        My point isn’t that I’m a martyr — I’ve never asked for sympathy. It’s that I’ve very much fought the good fight against puritanism and the extremes political correctness. And I’ve faced great and real risks because of it. So when you lump me in with the worst implications of other critics, it’s very offensive to me, and it leaves me feeling like you don’t know who your friends are, in this debate. If you see what I mean.

        Because yes, there are upsetting implications of these comics. Those are objectively there. But I will stand with you, when that criticism crosses the line into censorship, or even approaches it. And when that criticism veers into a more general critique of pornography, sexy images, or male sexuality.

        That’s part of my frustration: I want the critics of sexism in comics to be sensitive to this. To be sensitive to you, to put it bluntly. And perhaps to be a little more precise in their criticism. But you, in return, have got to recognize that and, while making your points, not act as if no one can point out sexist implications in comics. Because if you do that, you’re only encouraging these critics of sexism not to be precise, nor to be sensitive to all those things that I have seen lacking in these debates in the past — many of the same things that you seem to care about.

        Again, I hope I’m being clear here. I’m not sure if I am, but it’s a subject that’s very important to me, for reasons I’ve already indicated.

    • David Balan says:

      Greg, you seem to have missed the distinction between sex and sexuality being used for the purposes of the story (ala Watchmen, to take an example from above) and sex and sexuality being used for the purposes of objectification, self-indulgence, and masturbatory sales promotion. The overtly objectifying imagery in Catwoman is not engaging or interesting on a story level, or any level – it’s offensive, because it’s pandering to me, hoping I’ll like it because tits are shoved in my face.

      It’s there to titillate fans, not tell a story. I would say exactly the same thing about a comic book with a male who was nothing but drink, fuck, and blow shit up. Those sorts of depictions take very important issues like sexuality, war, and homicide and reduce them to overly simplistic and absolutely ignorant terms – I can tell that the writers of Catwoman (or any similar male comic as I noted above) know absolutely nothing about how the world works, or they at least choose to ignore it. That’s not stimulating stuff, it’s stupidity, born out of ignorance of more than just women.

      Get that crap out of my comic books.

      • Well, David, I personally tend to agree with you, although I love Manara and plenty of un-p.c. things.

        But there’s such a difference between the elegant line and light stories of Manara, which are just delightful, and the kind of crass material in Catwoman. Know what I mean?

        And I’ll defend the loving beauty and sexual wonder of Manara to the death. But Catwoman couldn’t be further from that. Nor was it advertised and marketed that way.

      • David Balan says:

        I haven’t read Manara so I can’t really say, but work involving or even focusing on sex isn’t bad, it’s just that most work like that tends to not understand sexuality at all.

      • Greg Martin says:

        David reading your post-begs the question…you don’t actually read comics(at least not mainstream superhero books) do you?

        What is the marvel or dc universe if not a collection of men blowing shit up. Now why the drinking or fucking part is bad i dont know…but if you are searching for heroes that are on the side of working people or at all interested in actual justice i would suggest not reading marvel or dc comics. Marvel particularly, for at least the last 10 years has really been steeped in slavish devotion(and promotion) of all things military and authority.

        This review of watchmen http://www.wsws.org/articles/2009/mar2009/watc-m13.shtml provides the most lucid commentary on the mindset of creators(in this case mr walsh is discussing films but i think his points are well taken and apply doubly to comics). Given this intellectually impoverished environment is catwoman then the real problem? Or again from walsh’s article-’On the one hand, artists who ought to know better, but don’t, are taking “masked crimefighters” and their adventures all too seriously;’…

      • David Balan says:

        I read some mainstream comics – I only read mainstream comics that have value, in my eyes, that take world issues seriously and whose creators are thinking deeply and writing well.

        You’re right, most of Marvel and DC’s stuff falls into the awful, vapid, pointless camp. I know. And I’m just as quick to say that all that stuff sucks – but superheroes, by definition, do not have to be vapid. They need not be against complexity or thought, and they need not be confined to “light entertainment” that encourages you to switch off your brain. I find that sort of entertainment boring.

        And that sort of entertainment it is not at all the entirety of Marvel or DC. See my review on Silver Surfer: Requiem for an example of a truly uplifting Marvel comic book.

        As for the review of Watchmen, it’s a review of the film… And the film sucks. Big time. All the subtlety and subtext of Watchmen was essentially chopped out of the film. Only the grim, gritty surface quality was kept and amped up, so that the inherent camp in the storyline became, rather than a subtle commentary on superheroes and life, a blind romp through the land of taking-ourselves-too-seriously. Not to mention they completely gutted the ending, removing all the symbolism and complexity from it, and turning into a 2-bit frame.

        Watchmen the graphic novel, in fact, takes on issues of sexism, rape, sexuality, and the way in which women and men treat one another, and while it never shies away from ugliness, it always takes the time to look, and look hard at what’s happening. I don’t know where you got the idea that there was a ‘pleasure’ in the depiction of the rape of Sally Jupiter – it was no more pleasurable than Sue Dibny’s rape in Identity Crisis – it was tasteful in its depiction, horrifying in its implications, and thought-provoking in its execution.

        Additionally, that review offers this quote:

        “Presumably, the original comic book series was meant to offer some kind of critique of Reagan’s America. What remains of that is cheap misanthropy for the most part, the kind that seems to pop up in most graphic novel adaptations and other shallow forays into so-called “neo-film noir” territory (LA Confidential, Sin City, etc.).”

        The guy has clearly never even read the comic book. That doesn’t make his review of the film less valid, but the graphic novel is much different.

        However, you can still apply these same ideas about the general decline of hollywood to the general decline of comic books. In fact I agree, 90% of both hollywood and comic books is meaningless. But Watchmen is actually a wonderful exception to this rule, not an example of it.

        Catwoman, on the other hand… Here’s another quote from the review:

        “They do not know much of importance about the world and thus do not have much that is illuminating or dramatic to share with an audience.”

        Catwoman doesn’t know much of importance about sexuality, and thus has nothing illuminating, dramatic, or interesting to share with an audience.

        So yes, Catwoman is the real problem, it’s just not the only problem. That doesn’t excuse it at all.

      • “Superheroes, by definition, do not have to be vapid.” Yes, yes, yes! And that’s part of the point: it’s actually profoundly insulting to the genre to say, well, it’s super-heroes so it’s always going to exploitative, vapid crap. (I’m not saying Greg said that, but it is a strain in many of the defenses of the genre going on, not only in response to pointing out sexism but also pointing out these comics’ shoddy construction.)

        And yes, David, both Watchmen and Identity Crisis are available for criticism, including in their depiction of women. That’s happened, and it’s perfectly fine. But you’re 100% correct that at least those works interrogate these issues. They examine them as part of their stories. In a way that Catwoman utterly fails to do. And this indication of thought, of even recognizing the implications of the story you’re telling, is more important than reaching any specific conclusions. I don’t think there are necessarily right answers. And I’ll take thought over agreement any day. In many ways, I prefer it — I don’t need my opinions confirmed. I want them to be challenged. But there’s no challenge in Catwoman, no thought to speak of — except, perhaps, some very confused thought over what constitutes feminist action.

        And that makes all the difference in the world. That’s what makes Catwoman mindless pablum, whereas Watchmen might be wrong on many things, but it’s thoughtfully, intelligently wrong. At worst. And insightful and challenging at best.

        What a beautiful distinction. One that’s so very American in the best way. So very pro-free-speech, so very pro-democratic debate. It’s enough to warm the heart.

      • David Balan says:

        Agreed, Julian! I did not mean to say that Watchmen was above criticism, (may I be struck by lightning before I say anything of the sort!) rather that it was intelligent in its investigation, even if it might be wrong on some things. A cogent argument, rather than limp pandering. You said it well.

      • I didn’t think you were saying Watchmen was above criticism. I was merely expanding upon what you’d already said well. Little more than putting it in my own words.

  10. Miguel Rosa says:

    Manara understands eroticism and sensuality very well. He’s devoted most of his career to it. What I like about his work – and I have half a shelf of his material – is that he depicts sex as a playful, enjoyable, even creative experience. It’s not creepy or unpleasant… it’s just fun.

    I find DC’s art depicted here creepy and unsavoury. There’s something hollow about the sex going on in those pages. It’s purely bestial and heartless. And exaggerated. Manara’s heroines are physically credible and yet exude more sensuality than Pin-up Starfire.

  11. CW Warner says:

    I don’t fucking read comics much at all. But this is an important topic that needs to be discussed. Who better to do it than Dr. Darius? But let me say this. It is depressing and predictable for bitches to see these same cliched images over and over, even for so called empowered female superheroes. It is not empowering to see a superhero character pretend not to care about whose dick is in her from day to day. It is not empowering to pose in stupid positions as an otherwise kick -ass superhero, with lines like “can I do anything else for you?” to a male character. See, it is always the run of the mill cycle of female depictions, across ALL KINDS of illustrations everywhere we turn, not just these comics (which I generally appreciate looking at for color contrasts,and texture) females are found in, and it has seemingly been so forever. Where is the creativity? Also, where is the creativity from male responses (aside from Darius’ here)? Seriously. If a woman says she sees sexism, misogyny, needless, gratuitous sexploitation anywhere, she can be sure that males (and some sad females) will gather round to call her a prude, a psycho, a crazy anti-sex conservative, a whiny man-hater, and so on. Oh, and “a jealous hater.” A new favorite. Wow. Didn’t see THAT coming. Can we please have some thoughtful dialogue? Yeah, fun and light playful sexy things are fine. No one CARES about that. No one will complain. But is there anywhere for females (or males who empathize) to get a break from the pounding (no pun intended) of it all into really unnecessary places, and often badly situated? This is 2011. I expect better than this. PS: My opinion on the above is that there is nothing really upsetting to me about the image of WW itself. But Darius points out some interesting aspects regarding the comic and dialogue there. Also, the last image of Catwoman has the potential to be sexy and cool but I think it is just not done well. And I see nothing really as bothersome there as I do with the others, which Darius pointed out intelligently while making it clear he is not anti-sex, a feminist, or some hysterical puritanical prude but that this is all detrimental to the genre, not as creative or as great as it can be and also does not keep afoot very well with everything that has gone on to the here and now. My concern is not with all that as much as it is with the pushing of these images in ALL areas of life and media, which creates all kinds of real- life ugly mayhem!
    PSS: I dig Betty and Veronica.

  12. So much has already been said here that I fear I have little to add, but I did want to expand on an idea that David suggested about titillation and his desire for more complexity in mainstream comics.

    In the article, Julian alludes to the sex scene in Watchmen. While he admits that comparing that book with Catwoman is like comparing apples and oranges, I think it does help to illustrate why the sexploitation in Catwoman is . . . troubling. In Watchmen, sex isn’t really the focus of the scene. Rather, Moore and Gibbons use the sex scene to add another layer of answer to the larger, proverbial question: what would superheroes really be like? In this case, the interest is not in the eroticism of the scene, nor in the logistics of “how” such people would have sex, but rather the psychological need of the characters for wearing masks.

    The sex scene demonstrates the ways in which Dan, in particular, is impotent (and not just sexually) without the fetishistic connection to his Nite Owl paraphernalia. In fact, the failed sexual encounter also helps to establish the “superiority” of Adrian with the television broadcast of his gymnastic prowess. And I’m admittedly only scratching the surface here.

    We see the same thing when Dan and Laurie fight off the attackers in the alley. That scene, a superhero cliche if there ever were one, is not about violence any more than the sex scene is about sex. Instead it helps us, once again, to see why these characters are drawn to their “other” lives.

    Maybe we all see what we want to see, and I don’t wish to put words in Julian’s mouth, but I can say that when I read this essay, I saw a critic analyzing the use of sex in several new titles and feeling frustrated because they all seemed to be using sexuality–one of the richest aspects of human society–in relatively empty, simplistic, and manipulative ways. One might voice the same concern about the exploitation of almost anything else of substance as well–violence, war, poverty, corporate corruption, racism, religion, relationships, or family.

    Does this mean that every comic has to be heavy handed and densely textured? No. Just smart. Or witty. Or insightful. Or complex. Or sophisticated.

    In this case, however, when we start to see one subject–sexuality–being exploited repeatedly in the same way, trending company wide if you will, it seems both appropriate and necessary to start asking some tougher questions about the overall vision of the DC relaunch. And that’s what this article seems to do.

    • Excellent, excellent points, Greg Carpenter. You’ve put it better than I did. “When I read this essay, I saw a critic analyzing the use of sex in several new titles and feeling frustrated because they all seemed to be using sexuality–one of the richest aspects of human society–in relatively empty, simplistic, and manipulative ways.” Yes, yes, yes, and said better than I did.

      Because as you suggest, sexuality is something that’s rich and important. Sadly, bad attitudes towards sexuality have damaged the psyches of more people that we shall ever be able to count. I’m fully supportive of any attempt to explore this, through super-heroes or not. That can only be therapeutic, or at least add to this vital discussion. Of course, Catwoman doesn’t do that. It just (like Red Hood) pretends to. And that pretense makes all those supposedly sexy images a lot more offensive, because it doesn’t simply present them as eye candy — it masks them in the most insipid non-thoughtful veneer of thoughfulness, and guiltily so.

      Thank you so much, Greg, for your thoughts, your eloquence, and your support.

  13. Feminism is the belief that women should be treated equally to men. These comics are written and illustrated by men; they view the characters through the eyes of men. These are female superheroes/villains depicted in ways that men would view how a female superhero/villain would behave. Perhaps that is something that should be broached. When a marginalized group is being portrayed by someone in a position of power it tends to cause controversy, particularly when the subject deals with the over-sexualized personas of the marginalized.

    Sexuality as a weapon is a now boring and banal approach to how females would persevere in a battle. And while sexuality is inevitably a part of sequential art these days, it seems that more and more often women characters in action comics are wholly defined by their sexuality. Not by their cunning, not by their intelligence, not by their skill. And deciding that this use of sex as power is a boring use of the angel/whore dichotomy does not make one a puritan, perhaps it makes them a discerning reader who would be more interested in seeing writers and illustrators stretch their creative muscle instead of further taxing a theme as old as the written word.

    As a proclaimed feminist, and as someone who has written about feminism on this website, I am not threatened by the use of sexual intercourse in comics or by the exploitation of women, and if you want to be brave and look the obvious in the face one can see that is exactly what it is, I am just bored by it. I could care less that Wonder Woman wears pants now or that, surprise surprise!, Catwoman is acting sexually adventurous and harking back to the thrills of anonymous sex; it would just make for a more interesting read if the writers decided to heavily reflect on how to create a character with depth. It would also be nice to see women not so aggressively sexualized to titillate the reader.

    Additionally, it would be nice to see DC making an effort to engage female readers. I don’t feel empowered when I look at these images, I don’t feel vindicated at the behaviors of these characters. In fact, I find them shallow and lacking focus. It would be nice to see the world of money producing action comics (i.e. Marvel and DC) shifting to include a more comprehensive look at the female superhero/villain.

    • J-R, I appreciate what you’re saying, and I totally agree with your assessment of the material in question and the need to engage female readers.

      I would only qualify that by saying that I’m not a feminist, precisely because I think feminism as a movement has long been too tainted with other, sometimes offensive comments that have nothing to do with the fair treatment of women. In other words, while feminism was busy proclaiming itself the belief that women should be treated equally, it was also busy proclaiming that heterosexual sex was rape and that severing one’s husband’s penis deserved to be celebrated. That’s tainted the movement irrevocably, for me at least. But that doesn’t mean that I haven’t called the cops when I’ve heard domestic violence, nor that I don’t see women as people deserving of the same respect.

      It’s a minor point but an important one. But let me give a loud endorsement to everything else you’ve said. Thanks for the comment!

  14. I just want to thank everyone who’s commented so far, even those with whom I’ve disagreed. It’s wonderful to be having this discussion. Thank you all so much for participating in it, whatever you’ve said.

  15. Greg Martin says:

    Not to last word this one…:D but a few points still need be addressed.

    You know Julian i know you have made the point of wanting(and actively trying) critics of sexism to be more sensitive-i would argue that they aren’t listening and it hasn’t worked. The critics and commenters not only aren’t sensitive they are in fact offensive and…well we must use honest language-most of the time stupid and wrong headed.

    Or are we to ignore the unhealthy similarity that ‘left’ or post modernist criticisms of catwoman have in common with what is understood(and rightfully so) to be regressive rightwing criticisms of exploitation-tits oh my goodness!. Is this just an unfortunate coincidence or are the two camps more alike on this issue(gender politics-again a murky and oftentimes dubious field of thought) than either would care to admit. Are we back to ideas,well intentioned(giving a huge benefit of the doubt here :D) ones , about female beauty that ultimately lead to the the worst kinds of exploitation-the inhibited(thru moral,the backwards morality of the religious type, or societal mores) kind? Or put more simply-is my only enjoyment of comics to come from the times when im reading one and beach volleyball happens to be on espn?

    As to watchmen, this of course calls for an entirely different thread…or three. But a few thoughts on watchmen broadly-again from above…i really get no joy from reading watchmen and find it to be thoroughly retrograde in outlook. That watchmen is celebrated as the ‘shakespeare’(bit of hyperbole-but honestly just that, a bit)of comics is more of a damning comment on the state of comics than it is praise for the work itself. In watchmen as noted by walsh two of the characters of the comic are essentially fascistic -and with a nod and a wink, altho some of their actions are shown to be repellent, are in fact celebrated. One really can’t read the rorshach prison sequence(except as unfortunate template for a series of truly miserable punisher, amongst many others, comics) with anything but disgust-moore was obviously delighting in this little cutout of grim sadism.

    Furthering this point then we find walsh’s critique of hollywood(and i would argue that the problem with the watchmen movie isn’t that it strayed away from the graphic novel…but instead that it relied to heavily on it-weak source material) most definitely applies to watchmen, and comics creators generally in spades. Watchmen directly birthed the ugly nihilism of ‘the boys’, jason aaron’s backwards wolverine et al.. We should remember that most of today’s comic writers are openly trying to script for hollywood-so the vicious circle continues. Bad filmakers copping ideas from the intellectual sewer of comic writers whose sole dream is to make a hollywood movie….

    Squaring the circle a bit and back to watchmen’s portrayal of women. It would be difficult(being charitable here) to find much in watchmen that is in anyway a serious or thought out treatment of women or humanity in general. Instead, as noted above, women in watchmen are nothing but props-the rape is supposed to make us hate the comedian…but does it? Just a plot device and in fact could have been comedian doing any number of ‘wrong’ things-the scene is long and rendered in great detail…but what is supposed to evoke disgust merely feels voyeuristic. When he guns down the shrieking vietnamese woman one doesn’t feel a great deal,she is there to provide a place and a reason for comedian and dr manhattan to gab,…we instead have sympathy oddly enough for the comedian-he after all has his face cut and this shrieking harpy is a 2 panel side note. Laurie’s role is laughable-her conversations with dr manhattan show her to be at best a self absorbed dunce.

    How does this all to apply to catwoman-a fair question indeed :D. I think a light hearted sexy romp is just what we need. Particularly in this age of grim ‘serious’ comics-which are nothing more than celebrations of rightwing revenge fantasies…isn’t catwoman just what the doctor ordered?

    • David Balan says:

      We appear to have either been reading a different book or reading through different glasses – you cite no evidence as to why Moore was “delighting in this little cutout of grim sadism” other than your own opinion. Yes, the prison sequence was violent, and even disturbing, but you see, that was the point. Such is the power of a writer, to make us sympathize and even root for a character who is capable of such brutal things as Rorschach. (See movies such as Silence of the Lambs for other evidence of the writer’s power to control sympathy) Is Rorschach a fascist?

      Here’s the definition of fascism from Merriam-Webster:

      “a political philosophy, movement, or regime (as that of the Fascisti) that exalts nation and often race above the individual and that stands for a centralized autocratic government headed by a dictatorial leader, severe economic and social regimentation, and forcible suppression of opposition”

      I suppose you could call Rorschach a fascist – but he only kills those who have committed crimes, in his eyes what he views as evil. He absolutely hates his landlady, among other people, but he never harms her, despite their differences of opinion. Rorschach may complain about liberals, but he doesn’t hunt them down and silence them – in fact, Rorschach leaves his legacy to the media – an institution made possible by free speech. Rorschach is an extremist with a black-and-white view of the world, but it’s a blatant misnomer to call him a fascist.

      The same with the Comedian – the Comedian is a brutal, disgusting, self-interested brute, but excessive violence does not a fascist make – an ideology does. The fascist believes in the immutability of a dictatorial government – the Comedian doesn’t believe that at all, he believes in the fallibility, and frankly stupidity, of all governments.

      Calling those characters fascists is just a cheap way to denigrate them because one doesn’t like the story and wants to label it as “bad”. It’s exactly like that faux-logic that you have so railed against (which I might add, nobody here is purporting) that claims anything that involves sex is bad.

      “Instead, as noted above, women in watchmen are nothing but props-the rape is supposed to make us hate the comedian…but does it? Just a plot device and in fact could have been comedian doing any number of ‘wrong’ things-the scene is long and rendered in great detail…but what is supposed to evoke disgust merely feels voyeuristic.”

      The rape isn’t supposed to make us hate the comedian – even Sally doesn’t hate the comedian. That’s just the thing – we feel like it SHOULD, but it doesn’t. It does feel voyeuristic, we feel like Hooded Justice walking in on it, reacting instantly with doing the right thing (beating the shit out of the Comedian) but then feeling convicted when the Comedian replies, “This is what gets you hot, isn’t it?”

      It’s very disturbing. It’s supposed to be. Yes, the part where the Comedian guns down the vietnamese woman is emotionally distancing – we’re seeing the event from the perspective of Dr. Manhattan. The whole scene is meant to provide the question: “Why should we care? Why should he care?” It’s meant to be desensitizing to the horrors of murder and rape. It’s meant to show how that is the way this world is now. It’s meant to show that most of the world will look at comics like Catwoman and not blink an eye. Moore isn’t reveling in sadism or sexism, he’s showing the reader that that ugly stuff exists, and it’s not going to go away if you just pretend it doesn’t exist.

      By contrast, Catwoman is just pretending it’s not a problem. It’s vacuous, empty, and insulting, a marketing campaign of adolescent titillation masquerading as a story. I’m not sure how exactly you can say that the women in Watchmen are props and yet say Catwoman doesn’t do the same thing to its protagonist in a much less thoughtful manner.

      But I’ll listen if you can explain!

      • Yes, yes, yes about the Comedian gunning down the Vietnamese woman. The point is to make us think about such horrors, and quite obviously so. Well said.

    • I disagree that critics who have pointed out sexism aren’t being sensitive and conciliatory. I’m not sure how they could have been more so, outside of saying “This isn’t offensive and it’s actually pretty cool!” That doesn’t mean these critics haven’t made mistakes, nor that it wouldn’t be helpful to point out where those mistakes are and engage in a debate with them. Nor that this debate has to be limited to mistakes: simply offering another perspective is also a good thing. Have you seen these critics shutting down that debate, in the wake of considered arguments against them? I surely haven’t.

      You say that you don’t want us to go back to a kind of politically correct ideas about female beauty. I’m not sure we were ever there, but I’m quite sure we aren’t going there again, nor have any of these critics called for that. Where have you seen such a thing?

      “Is my only enjoyment of comics to come from the times when im reading one and beach volleyball happens to be on espn?” I have no idea what this means, except to imply that, if female characters were overweight or unattractive to you, you’d find no enjoyment of comics at all. Could that really be the case? Are you really saying that great stories and even super-hero action move you not at all? Would your entire enjoyment of this medium be stripped clean (so to write) were the breasts to shrink?

      What’s very strange is that you call Catwoman “a light hearted sexy romp” and an antidote to “grim ‘serious’ comics.”

      First, I don’t find Catwoman light at all. Indeed, that’s part of the problem. It’s got one of the most vicious assaults I’ve seen in comics in recent years, as I pointed out. One that’s actually a revenge fantasy, precisely as you complain about Nightwing. Catwoman‘s tone is not at all light-hearted. Justice League International is light-hearted. And plenty of the sexploitation comics you point out are indeed light-hearted as well. If what you want is “a light hearted sexy romp,” there are plenty of better examples. Catwoman is actually pretty dark and takes itself fairly seriously, despite its cleavage.

      Second, I’m not in the camp that says grim comics are the problem. That’s never been the issue. The issue is, as you suggest, stupid grim comics. Dark revenge fantasies. A parody of grim. To say grim comics are the problem is, to me, to show that one cannot distinguish between the violent and the gratuitous, poorly-told violent. Now, I know I’m in the majority on this one. But too often, any sort of realism in a comic is labeled “grim,” and the result has been a demonstrable lessening of the intelligence of the stories comics tell. I want good, smart stories, whether they’re grim or not. Stories that move me and make me think. And are well-done, just in terms of sheer craftsmanship.

      My problem with Catwoman isn’t that it’s violent. It isn’t that its sexy or sexual, as I pointed out in my article, because that simply cannot be the issue. No, my problem is that it’s stupid and thoughtless and not well done (that flashback is a perfect example of the issue’s confusion), and the result of this isn’t at all a “light hearted sexy romp.” It’s something dark and rather ugly, with dangerous implications about what constitutes a powerful female character (not just cleavage but also shockingly violent rage).

      Finally, it’s a quibble, but I feel the need to point out that there’s nothing meaningfully post-modernist about pointing out sexism. Post-modern, while a vague term, tends to indicate a concern for focus on absence, rather than presence, for metafiction, for ideas of supplementation and fragmentation, etc. Many, many people misuse the term, but I do think it’s worth pointing out.

  16. Ben Marton says:

    I can’t believe this is to be my first comment ever (I think) on the best comic commentary site on the web, and a) it will be made so low down a very long thread that its statistical likelihood of being read is significantly lessened (which is not to comment in any way on the quality of this discussion, by the way), and b) although I wholeheartedly agree with Mr. Darius to the point of celebrating the very existence of this article, my comment will further a very off-topic trajectory, but I can no longer remain silent (and darn if this site isn’t so good, I gotta have a piece of it)

    Mr. Balan, I applaud your defense of what may be (IMHO as the young folk say) the greatest, most literary work of graphic storytelling thus far. And I applaud it (in a desperate attempt to lasso a little relevance here) because it asserts the difference between a writer and artist trusting their readers to interpret their storytelling with a complex critical eye, and a writer and artist assuming their readers will be either too jaded and uncaring or simultaneously blind and generous with their wallets to expect just a little more from grown-up professionals who (as Mr. Darius has pointed out with, I must say, the patience of a saint) should be responsible enough to make clear whether they are producing a fun soft-core sex romp (nothing wrong with that), a hyper-violent vicarious revenge fantasy with noir overtones (nothing wrong with that either), or a broad-demographic gateway superhero comic book designed to court any number of diverse buyers (certainly nothing wrong with that), and then, before putting ink to paper or finger to mouse or whatever, take careful note of the rating on the cover.

    ‘Catwoman’ #1 manages to be simultaneously clumsy, vapid, offensively (read: unnecessarily) violent, misogynistic (I will happily employ the term), shallow and somehow pretentious. And if you want to make ‘having your cake and eating it too’ your phrase du jour, there you have it. ‘Watchmen’, on the other hand, remains one of a small number of superhero comics I will happily label as literature (as an English teacher, I have taught it as such) without feeling vaguely defensive. And perhaps most importantly at all, can one really conceive of an impressionable twelve year-old browsing the racks, picking ‘Watchmen’ (regardless of which variant cover they spy), and taking it home on the strength of the titillating image with which they are presented, only to discover an interior story that demands post-ironic reading beyond their capability?

    I love, love love superheroes. Always will. I have read a number of DC’s ‘New 52′ and, with the notable exception of ‘Action Comics’ #1, my reaction has ranged from crushingly underwhelmed to sickened and outraged. Were it not for the presence of non-DC fare like ‘Atomic Robo,’ ‘Captain America and Bucky’ (excuse the jingoistic example, Mr. Martin, but it is a quality book), and the exquisite ‘Kirby Genesis,’ I would really despair.

    • David Balan says:

      Thanks for your comment, Ben! It seems quite relevant to me.

      Very good point about how a prospective young reader would react to Catwoman vs. Watchmen.

      I would add more, but you seem to have said it all!

    • Ben, what a wonderful response. Thank you also for all your quite flattering complements, and none mean more than those about Sequart in general, because this really is a team effort, with great expenditures of time for everyone involved. Again, thank you.

      You’re extraordinarily articulate about the difference between Watchmen and Catwoman. And yes, I’ve enjoyed Kirby Genesis as well, and I’m eager to see Astro City start back up. But this does raise a wonderful point: if DC seems intent on excluding half the population, surely some readers will begin to realize that, as much as they love DC’s characters (as I do), their super-hero fix is being offered elsewhere in higher quality.

      • Greg Martin says:

        ‘It’s meant to show how that is the way this world is now .’-from balan above

        ‘ Balan, I applaud your defense of what may be (IMHO as the young folk say) the greatest, most literary work of graphic storytelling thus far.’ and ‘ ‘Watchmen’, on the other hand, remains one of a small number of superhero comics I will happily label as literature …’ -marton from above.

        Thank you for the ongoing discussion gentlemen -it has been lively and well argued(if i doubt we will ever agree :D).

        Is watchmen truly ‘literature’ and does it have something serious or important to tell us about the human condition? I doubt that it is or that it does…but more importantly to me did it work as a comic book(art and words together clicking)? No-the art is flat and more than a bit stiff…the story all preposterous scheme peopled with rightwing vigilantes and pamepered middle class ‘lefts’-do these sorts have anything interesting to tell us about life? Of course not, so then we are left in search of something of value…truly difficult for watchmen is a book peopled and voiced solely by this type. Reading watchmen left me scrambling for a red sonja comic.

        Am i back on my island ? i feel a bit like harold bloom at a harry potter convention :D. Or in the much more eloquent words of Hallberg ‘…”Watchmen” is “staggeringly complex” by comic-book standards. In the context of “Superman” and “The Silver Surfer”, “Watchmen” is indeed a remarkable psychological achievement. In the context of “Under the Volcano”, not so much. ‘- http://moreintelligentlife.com/story/watchmen-graphic-novel .

        Or better yet from moore himself ‘“I’d like to think that if there’s any value in Watchmen, I don’t think the value’s in its radical look at superheroes…The thing that was interesting…for me was its structure…. It was an exercise in comic book structure and I think it would probably have been, at the time, quite an unusual reading experience because that hadn’t been done before.”’

        Admirers of watchmen are of a certain opinion of things…which i am afraid leads to more than a bit of histrionics and wild hyperbole. One is reminded of edmund morris-the reagan biographer who became so confused by his subject that he invented a fictional character to tell a history. Still we weren’t necessarily discussing watchmen but i found there were a few loose ends to clear up on that front.

        Again from above-it’s just a difficult case to make that women in watchmen are treated in anything but an unflattering(at best) light? Whores, nags, scolds, interminable bores-all deserving of little more than a bullet or a good raping…this is moore’s world. For what positive traits are we to glean from rorschach’s mom, from the vietnamese harridan or the vacuous silk spectre? Or again from moore ”The Silk Spectre was just a female character because I needed to have a heroine in there”. It truly is grasping at straws to defend the treatment of women in watchmen…but when balan suggests that these episodes tell us something about how the ‘world is now’, one starts to believe they are dealing with a charlatan or a poseur.

        Of course catwoman isn’t watchmen(thankfully :D)…and i have never claimed that it was. My sole claims toward catwoman are that it is well drawn and entertaining…the definition of a good comic. One really is on shaky ground to argue the superiority of say batman/detective/batman and robin etal. over catwoman. Catwoman is easily the superior of the workmanlike uninspired collection of bat titles…and definitely superior to lesser vehicles like captain america or kirby genesis(one sighs when thinking of busiek).

        What we have is the truly bizarre spectacle of the reviewing class(for all of it’s huffing and puffing about the portrayals of women…is largely comprised of men) getting their lenses fogged by the bra unconcealed. One senses insincerity and the melodrama of the blowhard at every turn in these scolding reviews and comments…

        and tellingly from this review by greg burgas at cbr(which as led the charge against all things sexy in the dc relaunch) ‘I should point out that I asked my wife to read this. She wasn’t offended at all – not much offends her – but she was bored by it….’ http://goodcomics.comicbookresources.com/2011/10/02/greg-reviews-every-single-new-dc-comic/ So his wife wasn’t offended and if you hear him tell him it(for of course there is nothing wrong with a sexy comic…but :D), neither was he-except that he was…one wants to shout ‘get over yourself’ or again from walsh ‘ On the one hand, artists who ought to know better, but don’t, are taking “masked crimefighters” and their adventures all too seriously;’…

      • I take some offense at your suggestion that David Balan, who’s written some quite elegant and wonderful things (and has been quite patient with you, by the way), might be “a charlatan or a poseur.” No one’s pointed out that your misuse of words makes them suspect pseudo-intellectualism, for example. Please apologize to David or make it clear that this isn’t what you mean to say.

        I would agree that there is some female nagging in Watchmen, although I’d strongly argue it interrogates the human condition. Moore’s opinion is hardly definitive, and of course there are several reasons why he would say that, including his changing views on super-heroes.

        I really don’t think you’re using “histrionics” correctly, with reference to people defending Watchmen.

        We’re just not going to agree that Catwoman is a great comic, that it’s well-drawn or entertaining. Nor that people should somehow sigh when thinking of Busiek. Nor that Watchmen is all the terrible things you accuse it of (including sexism, which you seem to take offense when critics other than you discuss).

        And again, you complain about something (a critic saying he doesn’t take offense) that you’d think you would support. It seems to be about what you think “one starts to believe,” that is to say your personal suspicions, rather than what’s actually being said. Which was also the case with my entire article, at least with earlier comments you made.

        I’m not going to debate about Greg Burgas. But him saying he wan’t offended isn’t exactly an example of a critic demanding women always be portrayed as pure or shutting down debate in response to people being reasonable. Instead of providing that — as I tried to suggest you might, if you wanted to support your argument — you’ve actually provided evidence against your own argument and then said it means the opposite of what it says. I’m not interested in debating how Burgas uses the word “offense.” I am interested in how it’s decidedly not a good example of the politically correct gestapo you read as underlying lots of statements that aren’t saying the things you accuse them of.

      • David Balan says:

        Greg, I’m gonna have to tell you that that entire post you just put up has absolutely no content – it’s a bunch of words whose sole meaning is this:

        “You’re wrong. Because.”

        That’s it.

        You’re not arguing or debating, you’re mystifying your point with quotes and references. When you link outside sources, that material can and has been consistently used to actually disprove your points. Once this is done, you simply abandon that material and proceed to new material, ignoring the argument before you.

        I don’t really have anything more to add to the debate because you’re not debating — you’re just talking at yourself.

        I’m not angry, I’m just not going to continue this discussion with you, because it has ceased to be a discussion at all.

  17. Ben Marton says:

    Mr. Martin, I really appreciate that you appreciate this argument to be ‘lively and well argued,’ and thank you for taking the time to examine all comments (even from those of a latecomer like me who derails the debate and morphs it into something else!)

    But…

    ‘Histrionics and hyperbole’? Really? Really?

    Name-drop Harold Bloom to your heart’s content. ‘Watchmen’ is literature. Great literature, by any yardstick I can find. Bear in mind, of course, that I do not subscribe to the opinion of the highly articulate writer you hyperlinked; irony is not obligatory. Remove that simple understanding, and the (quite excellent) ‘Intelligent Life’ article reads as high praise indeed.

    That Moore does not seem to be interested in developing his female protagonists further than he does (and even this is open to interpretation; Laurie Juspeczyk has always struck me as the second-most-relatable voice of reason in the entire work) is hardly a deal-breaker as far as membership in the Serious Lit Club goes. Most critics will defend ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’ with every bit of the ol’ Histrionics and Hyperbole, yet what is one to make of the portrayal of women therein? That they are either icy fascist matrons, manipulative emotional blackmailers, fragile ineffectual interns, or whores? And don’t get me started on the threat of the ‘Black Boys.’ Is this Kesey’s world? No. Sorry. Nice try, but not nearly good enough.

    I can honestly say (with perhaps only a little H&H) that I have lived and breathed (mostly superhero) comics for over twenty-seven years now. And if I sound a little nettled at this point, well, having your well-considered, passionate arguments dismissed as ‘insincerity and the melodrama of the blowhard’ will do that. Think for a moment about what you are saying. That corner of the ‘Reviewing Class’ (what? is this class warfare now? Are we suddenly on Fox News?) that, as you say ‘huffs and puffs’ about portrayals of women in comics is mostly comprised of men? Why shouldn’t it be? I am outraged by the recent portrayals of Starfire and Catwoman primarily because of what they say about my gender and its seemingly inexhaustible capacity for grinning and shrugging off criticism with a ‘that’s just the way it is’ when called to account for puerile depictions of the half of the population that has seen far more than its fair share of abuse in this particular medium.

    No Sir, my glasses aren’t fogged by these books in the least. Nor were they by ‘Warlord of Mars: Dejah Thoris,’ ‘Shanna the She-Devil’ or Steve Mannion’s excellent ‘Fearless Dawn.’ These are all excellent examples of joyous, cheeky, sexy romps by writers and artists accomplished enough to make the material work without somehow demeaning or warping their subjects in the mad scramble for that most coveted of all current labels: ‘edgy.’ Moving a little further along the scale, here are a few books with strong female protagonists that I would actually give any ‘Teen Plus’ reader before I would let them go anywhere near The Subject of Today’s Discussion: ‘Amber Atoms,’ ‘Twilight Guardian,’ the outstanding ‘The Unknown,’ and the criminally overlooked ‘The Many Adventures of Miranda Mercury.’ Oh, and don’t think Moore can write women? Read ‘Promethea.’

    I sigh when I think of Kurt Busiek too. And smile. Because I am rarely given reason to doubt that he loves the medium in which he works, and his work, however esoteric or parochial or in-jokey it might seem to the high-minded (is that where you were going with that sigh?), his work is celebratory rather than simply un-nerving.

    Harold, if you are not enjoying the Harry Potter Convention, leave and make room for people who have done their homework.

    :D

    • Yeah, Promethea‘s really the redemption of Moore on women, isn’t it? But again, I’m not out to enforce any gestapo-like political correctness. Watchmen can indeed be criticized for its portrayal of women, although not necessarily all the ways it has been so criticized here are successful. But it does, so characteristically of Moore, do so with consideration for sexuality. It’s not dumb. I’ll take a thoughtful portrayal of women (or men) that I might have problems with over something thoughtless, as I think Catwoman was.

      Kudos, Ben, for what you’ve said… and for defending Busiek, who’s produced good and even some historic work — which is far less grim and far more artistically successful than Catwoman, if that’s one’s criteria.

  18. “Is watchmen truly ‘literature’ and does it have something serious or important to tell us about the human condition? I doubt that it is or that it does…but more importantly to me did it work as a comic book(art and words together clicking)? No-the art is flat and more than a bit stiff…the story all preposterous scheme peopled with rightwing vigilantes and pamepered middle class ‘lefts’-do these sorts have anything interesting to tell us about life? Of course not, so then we are left in search of something of value…truly difficult for watchmen is a book peopled and voiced solely by this type. Reading watchmen left me scrambling for a red sonja comic.”

    I’m reminded of when I was studying the transition that took place in Western civilization when we moved from an oral culture to a written culture roughly during the time of Plato. There was significant anxiety over this new form of communication that was supplanting the old form, and of course, conflict broke out over the matter (and inspired Plato’s seminal work “The Republic” and his critique against orality). In the same vein, I do think there is some anxiety over the acceptance of comics as an acceptable and viable form of literature still today. Granted, I am greatly encouraged at what I consider to be “my” generation which is opening the doors of the canon long guarded by individuals such as Bloom, Hirsch, and others from that literati elite; however, I also am aware these individuals haven’t retired yet and are still sitting in positions of influence throughout academia. The battle still goes on.

    One specific point I would like to bring up, however, is the notion of what I like to call “ugly art.” I apologize for being unable to remember where I heard the term (as it is not my own) and I’m not entirely satisfied with it (as it casts a judgement on the artist and his/her work). Still, the idea behind this concept of “ugly art” is that the work is presented in such a way that it forces the reader to focus on the composition and movement of the art as mere elements of the overall narrative. Art Spiegelmen discusses a notion similar to this when he says:

    I didn’t want people to get too interested in the drawings. I wanted them to be there, but the story operates somewhere else. It operates somewhere between the words and the idea that’s in the pictures, and in the movement between the pictures, which is the essence of what happens in a comic. So by not focusing you too hard on these people you’re forced back into your role as a reader rather than looker. (qtd. in Andreas Huyssen’s “Of Mice and Mimesis: Reading Spiegelman with Adorno”).

    Ultimately, I agree with the idea that the art of The Watchmen isn’t initially gripping and stimulating. I’m just not a huge fan of Dave Gibbon’s… visual representation and design of the superheroes as I might express a sort of visual enjoyment of an artist such as Jim Lee or Darwyn Cooke. Hand me a copy of nearly ANY of Cooke’s work, and my eye is caught. But to better qualify this initial statement, I DO appreciate and enjoy Gibbon’s ability to design the layout of his panels and deliberately arrange and create images in those panels in a meaningful, thought-provoking way. In this way, I’m less distracted / stimulated / by the initial visuals of Watchmen; instead, the art work works in a sort of synthesis with the storyline to deliver a substantive narrative.

    For me, this is one (of many) reasons I think many comics scholars and critics consider this work to have attained and maintained its position in the contemporary literary canon.

    • Thanks for your comment, which is thoughtful as always.

      Just for the record, while it was probably a typo, Plato critiqued the written word, not orality. But ironically, Plato wrote; Socrates did not, so it’s Plato (and Xenophon) who win. :)

      You’re right about “ugly art,” though I think the problem is more art that distracts from the narrative. It’s a point McCloud made in Understanding Comics. For me, Jon Van Fleet (a brilliant artist) can do that in comics form, despite how much I adore his work, which is a tension that always bothers me because I’ll buy anything he does purely for the art. Whereas Schuiten (of the French Obscure Cities series I’ve been writing about) is detailed but doesn’t distract, or at least works well with a thoughtful narrative that wants you to pause and to think.

      Personally, I love Gibbons’s work. I think it reflects Watchmen‘s concerns for symmetry and precision, and it carries the narrative very well. As you point out. There’s a fusion between text and image that’s marvelous.

      And while I love Darwyn Cooke’s work, an awful lot of Cooke’s imitators leave me cold — they come off as cartoony, rather than stylized.

      There’s a concept in representation that has come out in animation: once an image gets too close to reality, the gulf between it and reality looks creepy. Get Disney characters too real, and they suddenly look bizarre instead of cute or real. Perhaps that’s a good analogy for art becoming too distracting: detail can be good, but at some point, you’re reading an art book with panel borders and text laid on top.

      Where we each draw that line may be personal, ultimately.

      • My understanding of The Republic’s critique of the poet’s had to do with the oral nature of the way poetry was related at the time of Plato’s writing the work. But I may be showing the influences of those whom I studied under and their interpretations of it. :-) Still, I think the comparison still holds over the anxiety older systems often feel with the emergence of newer approaches.

        While I might not find Gibbon’s style visually “pleasing,” it just strikes me as smart and exceptionally intentional. I’m thinking of David Balan’s recent offering on the Joker fish story arc and the importance of intentional, focused story telling. Gibbon’s efforts are very much of the same sort. I think a careful reader would be hard-pressed to find a wasted line or panel in the entire series.

        And while I might not find his style to my taste (again, only in the immediate visual sense), I also wouldn’t call Gibbon’s work “ugly art” (again… I think I need to find a new term for it). Instead, I’m thinking of examples like Marjane Satrapi’s “Persepolis,” Lydia Barry’s body of work, or Art Spiegelman’s “Maus.” These are perhaps better examples of the sort of art Spiegelman describes in the quote I referenced earlier.

      • You’re absolutely right that the comparison still holds. And one could argue that Plato was saying the opposite of what Socrates said, because Plato was writing! It’s one of the many great ironies, even post-modern ironies, of Plato, who’s fascinating and deserves to be treated as much as literature as philosophy.

        You’re right that Gibbons’s style is intentional, and you’ve put it far better than me!

        I also think you’re right about Satrapi and Spiegelman. I’d personally go for “distracting art,” but that’s just me.

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