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Trouble with Comics

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Last week, Frank Santoro and Sean T. Collins engaged in a discussion of contemporary comics criticism, that raised several issues on the lack of in depth criticism of newer cartoonists and the lack of outlets for the same. This is related to my own call for critical and cultural…

This is a terrific piece by Heidi. Sometimes, anger can cause one to write at too high a pitch, causing the reader to pay attention but miss the finer details, kind of like blaring a speaker in their ear, but this one is nicely controlled. A couple things it makes me realize is that never once in the thousands of reviews and columns I wrote did I try to really focus on female cartoonists, which I think is a failing. I could rationalize that some relatively well-known ones like Hope Larson and Lilli Carre I find pretty overrated, but honestly, I find most cartoonists overrated these days. It’s hard to name any work that arrives without flaws or deficiencies, regardless of gender. Lisa Hanawalt’s book was one of my favorites this year, a laff riot but also honest and uniquely weird. I do think comics criticism is barely into adolescence, at best, and the relatively small impact comics as a medium has on the culture means appreciation for female cartoonists will be slow-going. Even in the huge film industry, there are few female directors getting their shot, but no doubt the likes of Kathryn Bigelow has inspired many young women to make their own films. In a sense, I’m more worried about the comics industry and comics medium themselves first, the state of criticism second. At the same time as I’m acknowledging my own foibles, I have to say, in this context Marc Sobel’s line about a “distinctive female perspective” seems awfully patronizing. It sort of reminds me of a comment I read last week on Facebook where a guy took issue with my use of “African-American” just because Morgan Freeman on The Today Show said he prefers to be called “black.” I guess Mr. Freeman provided the distinctive black perspective and there are no others. 

As far as the Santoro/Collins piece, I had a very different reaction, more about why criticism has stagnated a bit and what factors drove me to mostly abandon writing about comics in favor of writing about other media at my own blog, even if it’s a much larger pool. I wrote to Santoro about this and he replied that he wanted to get back to me on some of it, so I’m waiting for that response before I publish that rant. 

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SPX Presents HEIDI MACDONALD at the LIBRARY OF CONGRESS!!!

OK, as you may or may not know, Heidi, the Goddess of The Beat and other realms of the comic world, graciously donated her entire mini-comics collection to the SPX Collection at the Library of Congress.

As part of of this act of deified munificence, she is going to give a lecture there this Friday September 13 at Noon.

Here is all the info you need.

I will be there, hope to see you!!

Warren

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Congrats to Heidi on this. Very cool.

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I had about 20 posts in various stages on gender issues this week…let’s put them all into one big roil, complete with shocking personal confessions:

§ Villain Month is for boys: When the New 52 rolled out two years ago (!?!) it was pointed out that there was a lone female creators: inker Sandra Hope. And there were many voices raised in protest.

Sue at DC Women Kicking Ass has analyzed Villain Month, the two years out event and…guess what. Things had improved in some areas and backslid in others.:

Total female creators credits for Forever Evil announced to date:

4

Total female credits for writers:

4

Ann Nocenti (Justice League Dark #23.1: The Creeper and Batman: The Dark Knight #23.1: Joker’s Daughter)

Gail Simone (Batman: The Dark Knight #23.1:The Ventriloquist)

Marguerite Bennett (Justice League #23.2: Lobo)

Total female credits for art:

0

That’s right 0. With 52 different covers and 52 books to be drawn, the total number of female artists with credits (that have been announced) is 0.

That gendercrunching guy has his own take on the numbers—I don’t usually quote these because I find comparing a female assistant editor to a female artist misleading but the metric is constant.

Is this concerning? Well, in the abstract, of course it is. With women drawing more comics, more bestselling comics and getting more acclaim everywhere in the mainstream world, its troubling that they’ve made so little headway at DC. In a larger sense, I find it far less remarkable. When the New 52 launched it was supposed to be “new” and female artists at DC were a new concept and thus part of the freshening up mode, so leaving them out seemed like a giant step backwards.

Two years later we kind of see where this is going, and getting new voices is not as much of a priority for DC as character management.

Still, meet the new boss, etc.

(Aside: I’ve heard people going “where is Amanda Conner??!!??” which is understandable because she’s an amazing artist but she is always working and FUN FACT there are scores of women artists around the world working on comics right this minute besides Amanda Conner. Women in Comics does not begin and end with Conner, Thompson and Doran.)

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§ Where are the great female comics journalists? On a somewhat similar note, while I’m super thrilled to see Comics Alliance back, this Reservoir Dogs-style staff pic did make me sad.

Can you guess why?

I’ve always been baffled why a site that has contributed so much to the notions of diversity and gender equality in comics hasn’t been able to develop more female writers. When I ask this kind of question I’m usually told,  it’s because none have come forward, and I’m sure it’s true. You see a site where 95% of the posts are written by men and you might suspect it isn’t a welcoming place, even if it isn’t true.

At The Beat I’ve assembled about equal numbers of male and female contributors. (I should note that ComicsMix also has a lot of female writers.) I didn’t set out to do it that way, I just noticed writers I liked or who came to me. Over at PW Comics World, Publisher’s Weekly’s comics newsletter, we had way more female reporters than male. In recent years, with the internet allowing women to be more vocal about their interests, and the (mostly male) gatekeepers who decided women didn’t belong at the big table neutralized, I’ve had no problem finding competent, insightful women to write about comics and other nerd topics. (To be fair, at the Beat I don’t have to answer to corporate goals for traffic, so I have far fewer concerns about content than a blog like Comics Alliance.)

That said, I do notice that women, even online, tend to segregate themselves into places where they feel more welcome or safer like Tumblr. Maybe it is time for women themselves to reach out more? And also not just write about gender issues. It’s important to jump on the outrage of the day, but if all you write about is gender, that’s how you will be branded, and only women “have gender” in the eyes of men. It’s a Catch 22 and a losing scenario.

Since I’m horn tooting, here’s one more example of mixing things up I was involved in. Caleb J. Mozzocco recently wrote about DC’s 25 most essential graphic novels list

Is it worth pointing out that none of the books are written by a woman, and, in fact, there’s only one female artist who has work on that list—Y: The Last Man’s Pia Guerra—although Lynn Varley’s Dark Knight colors and Karen Berger’s editing of some of the best books on that list are a good reminder that this list isn’t quite as male as it may appear simply by looking at the writers, pencil artists and inkers (Any suggestions for something written or drawn by a woman that DC has done that belongs on this list? The down side of not hiring many women to write or draw for you means that few classic or essential comics have been generated by them in the past. The few women in DC’s employ at the moment—Christie Marx, Gail Simone, Nicola Scott—are just working on continuity-heavy, unexceptional work).

So yeah, on DC’s list of 25 essential graphic novels—a list that represents an incredible body of lasting work—there is only one female writer or artist. And you know why there is ONE? Because I hired her. When I was an editor at Vertigo, I saw Pia’s samples, loved them, showed them to writers who loved them, BKV won the lottery to use her on a pitch and the rest is history. (And yeah, I’m sure BKV has a little to do with Y the Last Man being considered a classic than anything I ever did.) I don’t believe in quotas or affirmative action, but I do believe to live in a more diverse and interesting world you have to actually do something about diversity.

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§ Behind every woman…: There was also this this week. It’s so stupid that I hesitate to bring it up, but basically some idiot thinks Kelly Sue DeConnick only gets writing work because she’s marred to Matt Fraction. I can testify that when I met them (separately, before they even started dating) Kelly Sue was better known in comics than Fraction was, and sometime you marry someone who has common interests that you are both pursuing and it’s a lot of fun.

But the reason I brought this up because it made me flash back to about 25 years ago when a still-very prominent and much loved comics publisher told me “All the women in comics get work because they’re dating a guy in comics.” And then this guy laughed because it was all a joke and I shouldn’t be offended. Maybe this was stupid of me, but that moment was part of the reason that I resisted having a serious relationship in the comics industry for years. I knew the minute I was part of a “couple,” everything I did would no longer be my success but because of the “couple’s” success.

Now that I’m in a wonderful relationship with a wonderful man who is also in comics (and I’m also a little wiser) I see that being with someone who really understands what you love is one of the best situations you can be in. But idiots will take it as nepotism no matter what. Keep fighting, Kelly Sue, keep fighting.

§ The wisdom of Whedon: Speaking of men who do get it, Joss Whedon was promoting his little Much Ado About Nothing film and had many insightful and informed things to say.

Why do you think there’s a lack of female superheroes in film?

Toymakers will tell you they won’t sell enough, and movie people will point to the two terrible superheroine movies that were made and say, You see? It can’t be done. It’s stupid, and I’m hoping The Hunger Games will lead to a paradigm shift. It’s frustrating to me that I don’t see anybody developing one of these movies. It actually pisses me off. My daughter watched The Avengers and was like, “My favorite characters were the Black Widow and Maria Hill,” and I thought, Yeah, of course they were. I read a beautiful thing Junot Diaz wrote: “If you want to make a human being into a monster, deny them, at the cultural level, any reflection of themselves.”

§ Women in Hollywood gain a scrap of influence: AND WHILE WE’RE FINISHING THIS UP: here is what I consider a must read, The Hollywood Reporter’s Revenge of the Over 40 Actresses. The bottom line for this story is “The audience is aging and so are the stars” as the Baby Boom generation continues it chicken-in-the-snake ripple through demographics. But there are some surprising stats in the piece:

Even so, the industry still reacts with surprise whenever a female star demonstrates box-office clout. On March 15, The Call, an otherwise routine thriller, opened as that weekend’s top new wide release thanks to the presence of Halle Berry, 46. The TriStar film bowed to $17.1 million, trouncing the heavily promoted Steve Carell-Jim Carrey comedy The Incredible Burt Wonderstone (in which Carell, 50, was paired romantically with Olivia Wilde, 29). Female moviegoers made up 56 percent of Call’s audience, and 48 percent of the overall audience cited Berry as the reason for turning out.

Making sure older female moviegoers — in Hollywood’s marketing lingo, “older” means those over 25 — have someone to root for in a movie even can factor into the casting of tentpoles looking to attract all four quadrants. And so, Gwyneth Paltrow, 40, became a key marketing hook for this year’s top-performing film to date, Iron Man 3. (It’s worth noting that when Marvel and director Jon Favreauwere assembling the first Iron Man, they sought McAdams, then 29, for the role of Pepper Potts, which Paltrow eventually made her own.) “Ever since I’ve turned 40, I feel younger than ever and more energetic,” announced Paltrow at the Iron Man 3 premiere in Hollywood. “I’m ready. I’m ready for action now.”

There’s also advice that mirrors what I was saying a few graphs ago — you gotta make your own opportunities.

“I advise any actor to take control of your career,” says Feig. “Start doing stand-up. Start writing roles for yourself. When you’re sitting around waiting for the town to have an epiphany, you’re going to sit forever. Look for the parts, chase the parts, but at the same time, seize control.”

Kristen Wiig did just that when she co-wrote and starred in Feig’s Bridesmaids. She finds herself among the town’s most in-demand despite being on the precipice of 40 (she turns 40 this summer). “She’s definitely someone who can get a movie made on her name alone,” notes Gabler.

Of course, all this positive thinking gets rebuffed when you really dig down into the numbers:

But not all the news is encouraging. A recent USC study tracked characters appearing in the 500 top-grossing films from 2007 to 2012 and found that the percentage of females between the ages of 40 and 64 has not changed meaningfully over time. The majority of all female characters onscreen in the 100 most popular films in 2012 were between ages 21 and 39. And, among characters in the 40- to 64-year-old range, males outnumbered female characters by nearly 4-to-1.

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§ The politics of cosplay: Now here’s where I get into trouble. I’ve avoiding talking much about cosplay here because a) it’s not my major field of study and b) I think my opinions differ from those of many on the cosplay scene. Anyway there was a long and very smart article by Emily Finke called Slut Shaming and Concern Trolling in Geek Culture about a woman who went to a con wearing a mini skirted Star Fleet uniform and was castigated for it:

Dragon*Con isn’t perfect, and in most ways, is a much less safe convention for a woman. However, at Dragon*Con, I am accepted as a costumer. At a con like Balticon, I’m celebrated as eye candy. I felt like I was placed in the role of Convention Booth Babe, receiving both the objectified interest from the men and the scorn of the women.

While I don’t think anyone should be abused, touched or treated like an object no matter how they are dressed as a con—even the guys in tights with no underwear—I’m far more fired up about other gender related issues than I am about the right to wear costumes that were designed by men specifically to objectify women. Those Star Trek costumes were stupid and meant to make women look sexy not to make a statement about empowerment—even if wearing a mini skirt was considered a form of empowerment by women in the 60s. Finke says a lot of women told her her skirt was too short and ascribes the motives to jealousy (probably true) and bringing her down a peg (also true.) We do live live in a society where wearing a skirt that’s too short—or wearing tights with no underwear and your franks ‘n’ beans showing—means you aren’t taken seriously and that’s hurtful.

Unfortunately, the default assumption of convention space is “male space” The really annoying thing about this whole discussion? Convention space has never been a space that was solely the domain of men. From the very beginning of the fandom that I chose to represent at Balticon — Star Trek — conventions had women. Women creating costumes, dressing as Klingons. Women discussing gender and racial politics in the series. Women participating in collaborative remixing of the canon. There have always been women objecting to “warrior women” on the covers of books and magazines and protesting the misogynistic habits of male writers who enjoy pinching and groping. There have always been women using science fiction to rewrite gender assumptions. They were there. They are there. They’ve always been there. The history of geekdom is not a history of men, it’s a history of invisible women.

The “invisible woman” syndrome is really what I’ve been writing about in each and every item in this list: not getting hired, not being noticed, not getting credit.

Being attractive and wearing costumes that enhance that is a good way to get attention—you’re certainly not invisible. While I support the right of every women to show off her confidence and lore by wearing whatever costume she wants—and not to be quizzed and questioned, let alone harassed and abused. But it only goes part of the way, and it’s only part of the struggle.

Okay out of time and room. Next time: why a female Doctor Who would destroy society as we know it.

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Good stuff here from Heidi Macdonald. DC Comics is always worth discussing because of their prominence in North American comics, but as Heidi points out, there are a lot of women doing comics for other publishers, self-published, as illustrators and animators, or doing comics in other countries. When it comes to minority representation, one must always keep in mind that old publishers like Marvel and DC created most of their characters (for the purpose of this point, I’m calling them the creators) in times when they were targeting young, usually white, males, with minimal effort over the years to be more diverse, both with the characters and stories and the talent hired to make them. It echoes the Diaz quote by Whedon; when women or other minorities don’t see themselves truly reflected in the comics, the comics don’t take hold in their hearts, and they move on to other things. This is not to say there aren’t many female artists, writers and editors who could do great work for DC, but I do think there is a smaller percentage than the guys who grew up with 40-50 male heroic role models or analogues every month. I think with some of these eligible women, not having drunk that superhero Kool-Aid when they were young, they see through a lot of the bullshit at these publishers and don’t think it’s worth it to try to fit within these restrictive systems that seem more and more to be chewing up talented people. And you know, if Amanda Conner’s begets project in 2012 is Before Watchmen, I’d rather she go elsewhere, anyway.

—Christopher Allen