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.

Tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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.

See more, including free online content, on .

Also by Julian Darius:

This Lightning, This Madness: Understanding Alan Moore\'s Miracleman, Book One

author

The Cyberpunk Nexus: Exploring the Blade Runner Universe

contributor

producer

A Long Time Ago: Exploring the Star Wars Cinematic Universe

contributor

Classics on Infinite Earths: The Justice League and DC Crossover Canon

author

executive producer

New Life and New Civilizations: Exploring Star Trek Comics

contributor

producer

executive producer

When Manga Came to America: Super-Hero Revisionism in Mai, the Psychic Girl

author

a short documentary on Chris Claremont's historic run and its influence

executive producer

Warren Ellis: The Captured Ghosts Interviews

introduction

Voyage in Noise: Warren Ellis and the Demise of Western Civilization

co-author

Shot in the Face: A Savage Journey to the Heart of Transmetropolitan

contributor

The Weirdest Sci-Fi Comic Ever Made: Understanding Jack Kirby\'s 2001: A Space Odyssey

author

The Devil is in the Details: Examining Matt Murdock and Daredevil

contributor

Everything and a Mini-Series for the Kitchen Sink: Understanding Infinite Crisis

author

Revisionism, Radical Experimentation, and Dystopia in Keith Giffen\'s Legion of Super-Heroes

author

And the Universe so Big: Understanding Batman: The Killing Joke

author

a feature-length documentary film on celebrated comics writer Warren Ellis

executive producer

Keeping the World Strange: A Planetary Guide

contributor

Minutes to Midnight: Twelve Essays on Watchmen

contributor

a documentary on the life and work of celebrated comics writer Grant Morrison

executive producer

Improving the Foundations: Batman Begins from Comics to Screen

author

Teenagers from the Future: Essays on the Legion of Super-Heroes

contributor

Not pictured:

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