Shiny Shelf

The New 52

By Lance Parkin on 03 October 2011

The relaunch of DC Comics’ entire line as ‘The New 52’ has generated sales, it’s generated discussion, and put DC firmly in the spotlight. One of the big talking points, though, has been that something has gone very wrong with its depiction of women.

It didn’t help DC’s case that they launched two books in the same week with pretty unambiguous portrayals of previously strong female characters purely as sex objects.

The first, ‘Catwoman’, seems to have taken its inspiration from googling “Batman Catwoman Sex Cartoon”, the second, ‘Red Hood and the Outlaws’, portrays the formerly fierce, sensual Starfire as a mindless sex object.

Were Catwoman and Starfire formerly demure, nun-like characters? No, they have both traditionally been portrayed as characters with a couple of beach balls stuffed down their tops who had every man around them under their spell. But their writers have usually understood that this was problematic, needed special attention, and they’ve usually been at pains to emphasise that these are strong characters who define their own terms.

There’s plenty of discussion online about how the new Catwoman and Starfire are a betrayal of all that’s gone before, much of it illustrated, if you want to track it down, and pretty much anything I’d have to say about those two characters has been said already.

A lot of the commentary online has been from either women saying these relaunched comics are not for them, or male bloggers saying there’s nothing for their young daughters (giving you some idea of the current demographics of comics readers).

This is perfectly valid. There is a vast audience of fangirls, from eight to ancient, who lap up manga, ‘Buffy’, ‘Harry Potter’, ‘The Sandman’, ‘Firefly’, ‘Game of Thrones’, ‘Supernatural’, ‘True Blood’ and so on and so on. DC put out 52 comics, so which of them are aimed at the fangirls? If, say, a university-age fangirl went into a comic book store looking for the books for her, what would she find, what would the store recommend?

Um … ‘I, Vampire’? Er… I guess ‘Wonder Woman’. ‘Batgirl’ and ‘Batwoman’, kinda. They’d like ‘Demon Knights’, I think.

But, no, there aren’t really any.

What makes it worse is that DC had a small, neglected cadre of characters for the audience before. Power Girl, Huntress, Raven, Starfire, Oracle, the previous Batgirl, the new Terra. Those characters had a small but devoted following who were able to find all sorts of role models and subtexts. Perhaps it was precisely the fact that they were so neglected and unloved by the powers that be but still managed to be interesting, fun characters that made them identification figures. What’s worse is that in the new DC, most of those women characters are still there, but they’ve been retasked simply as breast delivery systems in other books.

There’s a strong commercial incentive to fix this. In an era where most comic books would get a noticeable sales boost if every passenger on a Jumbo Jet bought a copy, neglecting half the entire population seems like a very peculiar blindspot. That the new DC can chase after the group of people nostalgic for more Rob Liefield ‘Hawk & Dove’, but it didn’t occur to them that, say, they might want to put something out for the ‘Twilight’ crowd suggests that their view of the world is a little… insular.

There are also a pitiful number of women writers and artists in the New 52 line up. There’s a little more representation at the editorial level, but not that much more. And it does seem to have an effect. There is the nagging suspicion that many of the artists for the New 52 have only ever seen breasts on a computer screen, and that their portrayal of women would be more convincing if, y’know, they’d met one. Ideally, it might be a plan to get in a few more creators who would be able to see lady bumps by bending their head slightly downwards at their own chests.

It’s wonderful to dream of new audiences. It would be great if more people read comics. All the talk is of getting women, kids, women, iPad owners, women and so on to buy more comics. Let’s get more diversity into the readership, let’s get comics that can be as exciting to teenagers as a rock band or a videogame. Did we mention all those women who buy manga? And, yes, it would be great to get them onboard.

Here’s the thing.

The bread and butter of comics, or at least the sort of comics DC have and will only ever publish as part of the DCU, is nerdy boys. The sort of boys who know that DCU stands for ‘DC Universe’ without being prompted and who can explain the major geographic differences between its East Coast of the USA and ours.

That’s a simple fact, and it’s not about to change. Nerdy fanboys will be 80% of DC Comics’ audience for all time. Hey, there are a lot of them, it needn’t be a problem. Make comics that successfully appeal only to fanboys, you’d sell a lot of comics. No one ever tells Bicycling Magazine that the real money is in the vast majority of people out there who don’t give a toss about bicycling. Identify your niche, dominate it, delight in the fact that one of the attributes of nerdy fanboys is obsessive completism.

I think there’s a huge problem with the depiction of women in ‘Red Hood and the Outlaws’, I don’t want to downplay or diminish that. Here’s the thing, though: I don’t think that book’s depiction of men is any better, either in how those men behave generally or how they behave towards women specifically.

I think the creators’ inability to figure out that young women who watched the ‘Teen Titans’ cartoon might have been tempted to give this book a try to see their favourite character Starfire in action is shortsighted. I think the contempt those creators show towards the teenage boys and manchildren they’re clearly aiming the book at is at least as bad.

Men in the ‘Red Hood and the Outlaws’ world like breasts, guns, butts, beer, sex and more breasts. Small boys sit around with cameraphones waiting to take sexy voyeur shots of women. Men talk about women solely in terms of sex. They shag and shoot and then turn the page and they never mention it again. They see a woman who is clearly not in control of her own actions, clearly not in a position to consent, and head off to bed with her.

None of this is portrayed in a blokey, ‘Top Gear’-y, way. It’s all in an Alex and his droogs wanting a bit of the old in-and-out way. When ‘Wanted’ did it, it was in a story about wish fulfillment, it was about moral bankruptcy. Here… it’s just guys being guys.

Superheroes are meant to be heroic. They are role models. Comics do, as Grant Morrison said, serve as etiquette primers, and even if you’re a teenager, at university, a twenty-, thirty- or (gulp) fortysomething, these are stories about what’s right and wrong. Comics portray a heightened world, an escapist fantasy.

Now this has never been in a monkey-see, monkey-do way. The children of the Silver Age admired Superman’s heroism and can-do attitude without adopting the attitude that if a woman really loved you, the best thing to do was get engaged to a mermaid, forcing her to get engaged to Superhorse as revenge (NB: this actually happened in a Superman comic). Girls were icky, but it was quite a nice icky. They were great to hang around with, as long as they didn’t try any of that kissing stuff.

The point was – Superman behaved like his eight year old readers. As the readership got older, the comics grew up, too. Awkwardly, but supremely aware of how awkwardly. Like their readers. Many of the superheroes got married, being lucky enough to find women who might not share all their interests but did just understood them, awkwardness, obsession and all. Like their readers.

One of life’s little ironies is that in the 1980s, only two groups of people were talking about ironic deconstruction – the cutting edge literary theorists in academic papers and the people who made comic books. Now every TV show, movie and book is a deconstruction of another one, it’s hard to remember just how startling it was when Alan Moore took Swamp Thing apart, or how Frank Miller mercilessly dug into Batman to find the intense virtue and insanity at his core.

But above all else, those comics knew their audience. The success of Alan Moore is down to two things, I’d say – he’s always known what his artists want to draw, but above all else he’s always known what sort of comics he’d like to read.

Is ‘Red Hood and the Outlaws’ what any of the people making it actually want to read, or is it aimed at some demographic target? Either alternative is horrifying.

Now, it’s possible that the joke’s on me, that ‘Red Hood and the Outlaws’ is meant to be a deeply arch, deadpan parody of a piece of witless, crudely written and drawn drivel. That it’s meant to be a searing expose of modern culture’s vapid, regressive, voyeuristic attitude to women. That the treatment of Starfire, formerly a vivacious, strong leader, now literally a sex object whose brain has been switched off, is actually satire. That it’s the modern Adam West ‘Batman’, and the joke’s on the people who don’t see the joke.

All I can say is that I’m usually pretty highly attuned to all this, and it didn’t set off my Spidey-Sense.

DC… did you ever ask yourself who this book is for? And if you did, did you really think that the ‘a bunch of pricks’ demographic was really the way to go? Many women commenting on the new DCU have said they don’t feel welcome. Well, books like ‘Red Hood’ don’t make me feel welcome, either.

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By Lance Parkin

Lance Parkin writes lots of things, including a biography of Alan Moore that's due out late next year. Find out more at his website.

2 Responses

  1. Colleen says:

    Here from Graeme Burk’s FB. As a woman more on the ancient than eight end of things who has bought Superman and Action on a regular basis for over twenty years and now is not because of the changes, I find this very interesting.

  2. Panther says:

    I am a male fan from the days of 20 and 25 cent books. I would not touch DC now with a ten foot pole. And I would NEVER give a book to my 13 year old nephew either.