Why I Don’t Read Comics (A Call for Recommendations)

[This could be more accurately titled “Why I don’t read American Superhero Comics”… but I’m lazy]

“So,” you ask. “Why don’t you read comics, C.D.? ”

Me: “Because I hate fun, that’s why. I’m a fun-hating, humorless feminist who couldn’t recognize a good piece of work if she tried. And I live a miserable, miserable, funless existence. With no fun. Did I mention I hate fun? ‘Cause I do. I hates it with every fiber of my un-fun-having existence.”

You: “…well, yes, but that’s pretty obvious. Any other reason?”

Me: “You really want to know?”

You: “I really want to know. Why don’t you read comics, C.D.? My existence will be meaningless if you do not answer this question.”

Me: *Sigh* “This is going to be a complicated one. And  rage-filled one. Are you ready for the rage?”

Hulk rage Avengers Loki

And you wouldn’t like me when I’m rage-filled

You: “Hey, I read your American Idol coverage. I can handle the rage.”

Me: “Okay… you asked for it. It’s time for some serious epic-ranty writing: I’m turning on the Daft Punk-and-Xray Dog itunes playlist.

You: “NOOOO! NOT THE DAFT PUNK AND X-RAY DOG PLAYLIST!”

Me: “TOO LATE! *maniacal laughter*

***

This post has been a long time coming. I’ve basically been planning to write it since last summer… back before I had a blog. Heck, I’m not sure I didn’t get this blog just so I could write this post. So, you know. There’s some bottled-up rage coursing through the prose. And some bottled-up fangirl SQUEE too – but mostly rage.

Part 1: My (Sordid) History with Comic Books

At some point during DC’s reboot last summer (*shudder*), I thought: “I love superheroes with the fiery passion I usually reserve for flourless chocolate cake and the writings of Tamora Pierce. So why don’t I read comic books?”

And then I thought: “Wait. I do read comic books. I’ve been reading comic books my entire life. I remember reading comic books before I remember reading actual books.”

Well, frack me. I do read comic books.

And I love them.

Madly.

The thing is, I didn’t read typical American comic books. My family is french, and I spent a good part of my childhood in France. I also had access to my mother’s massive collection of french BD (Bandes Dessinee = “drawn strips”). So I wasn’t reading Captain America and Uncanny X-Men and Wonder Woman. I was reading Tintin and Lucky Luke and Asterix.

And I was reading Roger Leloup’s Yoko Tsuno.

Yoko Tsuno is quite possibly the best thing ever. Don’t quote me on that. The heroine, Yoko, is a japanese electrical engineer who comes to France looking for work, and who ends up having a series of very science fictional adventures (in the first book, for example, she discovers that aliens are living under the surface of the earth after having escaped their dying planet).

Yoko Tsuno Les Trois Soleil de Vinea Roger Leloup Cover

[Hey, look at that semi-realistic anatomy!]

Yoko is my go-to archetype for action heroes. She practices aikido and kyodu (japanese archery); she can shoot a gun and handle any alien weaponry you give her; she flies helicopters and gliders; she rides a motorcycle, and she can fix her darn coffee machine when it breaks. Despite her many martial talents, she prefers using compassion and intelligence to solve problems. She’s fiercely loyal to her friends. She’s also prideful, egocentric, dangerously curious and puts personal honor above everything else. Which gets her into immense amounts of trouble.

I love her, and I am so annoyed there aren’t English translations, because I think other people would love her madly too.

I was also reading Sailor Moon. [A japanese manga, not a french BD] Which: say what you want about the ridiculousness of the heroes’ outfits, but that was a well-drawn, fun, intelligent manga that portrayed a group of competent women saving the world. It had awesome female friendships, it had lots of weird-ass mythology (like Usagi’s future daughter traveling back in time. Fantastic WTFrackery.), it had a male hero who in no way took away from Usagi’s agency, all the female characters were different and interesting…

[Are you noting a theme? I’m noting a theme]

WITCH Cordelia Will

As I grew older, I started reading WITCH. Sure, WITCH would not win a “realistic portrayal of anatomy” award – I, for one, would like to know where the girls store their organs when they transform – but it was another group of cool, interesting young women saving the world. With SUPERPOWERS. And awesome clothes [fashion junkie. Can’t help it]. I’ve got three giant piles of WITCH comics on the floor of my room because I’d collected so many of them that they broke the bookshelf.
I’m not even joking.

Oh, and then I discovered Les Passagers du Vent. Super-inappropriate for a ten year old to read (Rape! Sex! GRAPHICALLY PORTRAYED Sex! Really accurate depictions of torture and violence!). But also one of the best BD series of all time (yes, I am willing to go there). It takes place in the 18th century, and follows the adventures of Isa, a former noblewoman whose identity was stolen by her best friend. Isa is a bit like the count of Monte Cristo… if the Count of Monte Cristo was a bisexual, cross-dressing adventurer-turned-abolitionist. You don’t want to mess with her. She comes up with the most creative (and vicious) forms of revenge. Isa was my first introduction to the twisted, tortured action hero, and I never turned back.

Les Passagers du Vent La Fille Sous La Dunette Francois Bourgeon

Not to mention the artwork, which is stunning

So my introduction to comic books involved a whole lot of strong, competent female superheroes and action heroes. And a lot of female-led titles. And even though these women all fit pretty standard “beauty” norms (thin, young etc.),  they also weren’t overtly sexualized. They were smart, competent, interesting women who happened to be beautiful. They weren’t posed specifically to show off their “sex appeal.” They made things explode and they punched people and they were awesome. [Nothing induces hero-worship in a ten year old so much as someone who can make things explode

Catwoman zero cover

What? The Everloving? Frack?

When I came back to the States, I started watching the Batman TV show (whichever one was on in the 90s). And I loved that too. Because Bruce Wayne was all brooding and efficient, and he had the best theme music ever (Na Na Na Na Na BATMAN). Plus, he was great at making things explode. This led to my discovery of the X-men: Evolution TV show. I became a huge fan of the X-Men in general, and of Rogue in particular.

Part 2: The Rage

Now, here’s where we’re going to get away from the SQUEE portion of the post and into the RAGE portion.

I was informed by a helpful friend that the X-Men TV show was based on a comic series.

And that’s when all the trouble began.

First I tried reading the X-men comics. The problem was that at the time, they were running the “House of M” arc. Which is a terrible place for a newbie to come in. I spent the entire time going:

“Well, this is boring. Who are these people? And where the frack is Rogue? Where’s Rogue? Where’s Rogue? Where’s – ”

But, you know, stuff like this happens. So I tried some other comics. And I inadvertently managed to land on a group of comic books with some real WTF posing and major sexualization of female characters. I honestly can’t remember what these comics were, because I was so appalled with what was happening that I blotted the whole thing out. I’m talking MAJOR costume fails (and when I say costume, what I really mean is: lack thereof), and enormous breasts on top of tiny, tiny women, and… yeah. I wish I could remember the name of the comic, because it’s begging for an Escher Girls post.

Let’s be clear: I’d spent years seeing naked women in the Passagers du Vent comics with no problems at all. But these comics were just – they were so ridiculous. I could not take the superheroines seriously. Who in their right mind would go fight the Big Bad Guy wearing four-inch spike heels and a bra? A bra, which, I might add, provided no breast support whatsoever (because the breasts were practically popping out). The men in the comics, on the other hand, were fully covered, and stood like normal human beings do.

I probably could have overlooked this if the female characters themselves were good, but TWO of them were killed off in the same issue. And the third one was completely incompetent.

I was done. I went straight back to my Yoko Tsuno and Les Passagers du Vent, and I stopped trying to get into American Comics.

Until last summer.

Last summer, I heard that DC – one of the two major comic book companies – was rebooting and revamping all of its monthly superhero books. “Well,” I thought. “That would be a great way to get into American superhero comics! I’m going to keep an eye on that and see how it evolves.”

[Terrible ideas. I have them all the time]

Anyone who is at all interested in comics and/or feminism knows what happened next.

First hint that things were not going to end well: People realized that DC was going from 12% female creators (terrible) to 1% (even MORE terrible). Out of 160 artists and writers… three were women.

Second hint: the de-paralyzing of Barbara Gordon, AKA Oracle. Barbara Gordon was once Batgirl, before she was shot by the Joker. She survived, but was paralyzed and started using a wheelchair. She then became an icon for the (real world) disabled community when she got back into crimefighting, wheelchair and all, as a member of the Birds of Prey team.
And the DC 52 reboot completely got rid of that history and turned her back into Batgirl.
People were not pleased.

[It should be noted that my understanding of the Barbara Gordon canon is… less than perfect. If you know more than I do, please call me out on my mistakes]

Third hint: the cancellation of major female-led titles like Power Girl. The disappearance of major female heroes like Huntress and Stephanie Brown.

Fourth hint: the really gruesome treatment of female fans at Comic-Con when one of them dared to ask DC creators: “where are all the women?”
Turned into a PR disaster, because the creators and execs were downright rude and insulting.

Fifth hint: the books come out. The Catwoman and Starfire comics were complete and utter debacles. See photo of Starfire below.

Starfire DC 52 reboot

Starfire… I don’t even know.

Let me put it this way: I went to three comic book panels at WisCon, and the panelists were all STILL MAD about the reboot. A year later.

To be absolutely fair, the DC reboot was thrown together in such a hurry that they can’t possibly have had time to pull together a misogynistic conspiracy to alienate and exclude female readers. It all just happened by accident! Imagine what they could have achieved if they had been trying!” (Andrew Wheeler at No More Mutants)

Seriously.

Look, I understand if I’m not DC’s primary market. I think it’s a stupid move, personally, because comic books are dying and DC could use new customers… and you know who isn’t reading comics? You know what vast untapped group of potential consumers might start reading comics if the industry made a decent effort to market to them? [Yes, that would be women]

But okay, if you don’t want to appeal to women directly, that’s your terrible business decision. I’m not asking you to suddenly start catering to my every desire. I’m just asking you to stop actively offending me. It’s really not that hard.

To quote Lara Hudson at the Comics Alliance:  “(I have long maintained that to bring in more female readers, superhero comics don’t even need to specifically target women as much as they need to not actively offend them. This is not an insanely hard to thing to do, and yet here we are.)

When you make no effort to hire female creators, you show that you don’t care about women. When you cancel popular titles led by female heroes, you show that you don’t care about women. When you treat female fans rudely – refusing to answer their questions, dismissing their concerns, making pseudo-excuses about how DC is the ‘most diverse’ comic book company – you show that you don’t care about women.

When you take comic books that women could easily get on board with – like Catwoman – and you spend the first two pages of the comic showing shots of Selina Kyle in her lingerie (mostly of her breasts and butt) while refusing to show her face –

You’re showing who you do care about.

And it’s not women.

Here’s the thing, Mr. Comic Book Executive/Business Guy/Whatever
When they tell you that your artistic depictions of female heroes are losing you customers, they are NOT JOKING.
When they tell you that turning your female characters into a giant fanservice for straight men turns women off…
They are not joking.
I know you don’t get it. But trust me. Most women don’t want to see themselves portrayed just as fanservice. They don’t want to see female characters depicted as pure objects of male desire.
I can hear what you’re thinking:”She’s just sexy! You must hate sexy! You hate sexy women because you’re jealous! And you hate sex! You’re a slut-shamer!”
*Deep breath* There is a major difference between a comic where the female character is smart, competent, powerful and also sexy… and comic book where the first priority, in all cases, is to show the female character as being sexy.
Natasha Romanov/ Black Widow in The Avengers movie is sexy, because she’s a sexy woman. But she’s not fanservice.
Batman, when he stands around looking all broody, is sexy. But he’s not fanservice. He’s not being posed for the sole purpose of being “sexy.” (here’s what that would look like)

Catwoman up there?
Is fanservice.

Women want to connect with characters.
And it’s pretty hard to connect with a character when all you see of her for three pages are her boobs. I mean, nothing against boobs, but they don’t do much for me.

The DC reboot was hell on wheels. The months of internet debate, the accusations, the “all you humorless feminists just need to get laid” (ad infinitum) etc. Watching DC rolling out their products, and seeing that yes, in point of fact, women were right to be mad, women were right to be afraid, because they really were screwing up…

I gave up.

I stopped trying to get back into superhero comics.

Because I couldn’t take it anymore. I honestly couldn’t. I couldn’t take loving a product that was explicitly marketing away from me. That dismissed me as a potential consumer. I couldn’t take being in a fandom where I was treated like a unicorn, like an exception. I couldn’t take being in a fandom where people said: “but no women read comics anyways, so it doesn’t matter.” I couldn’t take loving a medium that uses female characters solely to appeal to the desires of straight men. I couldn’t take loving a medium that doesn’t care about me, that treats women as windowdressing or as cheesecake. That throws good female characters overboard to motivate the “emotional journeys” of male characters.

I cannot even get into the bullshit of the “but women don’t read comic books” argument. First, it’s not true.

And second: Yeah, lots of women don’t read comic books.

And this is part of the reason why.

Mr. Comic Book Executive/Business Person/Whatever.
Here’s the thing: I would like to read comics. I would like to read comics very much.
I have money I would like to spend. And I would like to spend it on your product. And I think you would like that.

But I’m not going to spend it on a product that couldn’t give a rat’s ass about women.

You are driving female readers away. You drove me away, and I have a pretty high tolerance for this sort of stuff. I read Science Fiction. I participate in SF fandom. It’s not the most female-friendly place on the planet.

*deep breath*

Okay. I’m calming down.

I know I’m being unfair. I really do. I know that –  if I take time, if I do research, if I find like-minded fans – I can find superhero comics that aren’t offensive. That tell great stories without turning the female characters into window dressing. I know this because, as previously mentioned, I am a science fiction fan. I spend a lot of time dealing with friends and acquaintances who don’t understand my love for the genre because they think science fiction is a sexist medium.

But as a fan, I know science fiction isn’t inherently a sexist genre. It has a lot of really problematic stuff, yes. The vast majority of the big-name series are headlined by white men, yes. The genre has a problem with self-examination and with accepting female fans as equal to male ones, yes. But there is space in science fiction for women. It’s not “inherently” a man’s genre. There are many wonderful feminist science fiction books. There are many wonderful feminist science fiction fans.

And I’m sure that the same thing is true of comics. In fact, I know it is – most of the comics I read when I was young had positive portrayals of women. if I put the effort in, I’m sure I could find some wonderful feminist superhero comics.

Part of the problem, frankly, is exhaustion. There’s only so much I can do. Unlike a straight white male comic book fan, I do have to put significant effort in if I want to find series with protagonists who look like me. I have to put even more effort in to find female protagonists who are portrayed respectfully. And since I already spend a lot of time doing that in the science fiction field…

I’m sort of sick of it.

Because I want to read comics to have fun, darn it. I know I joked about being a humorless feminist at the top of the post, but a big part of the reason I avoid comics is because they’re not fun anymore.

I don’t want to be angry all the time. I don’t want to be dissecting gender roles all the time. I don’t want to post five thousand word rants about how black female heroes are portrayed as animals. I don’t want to have to spend hours on the internet, sifting through reviews to try to find the three non-offensive superhero titles.

I want to have fun. I want to pick up a random comic book and see a bunch of awesome people having awesome adventures. And see things explode. A straight white guy can pick up almost any comic book and find people like him – straight white men – portrayed in a respectful, intelligent fashion. But I can’t do that.

It’s not fair to continually ask female fans – or POC fans, or queer fans, or disabled fans – to put more effort in, and to deal with more BS. It’s just not.

It shouldn’t be this hard for potential fans to engage in comics. It shouldn’t be this painful. It shouldn’t be this rage-filled. Because yes, some female fans will put the effort in, but a whole lot of them (like me) will look at the industry and say “if it doesn’t respect me, why should I put the effort in?”

So.

That’s why, three thousand words later, I don’t read comics. Or rather, why I don’t read American Superhero comics. I still read my french stuff.

Part Three: A Call for Recommendations

Here’s where it changes.

In the past few months, I’ve decided that I would like to give comics another try. I’ve taken a careful stock of my patience – and my rage – and decided that yes, I can, for a short period of time, put in the requisite effort to find the good stuff. For a few months, I can handle the female-unfriendly comic book fandom. Just long enough to see if it’s worth it. To see if I can handle it full time.

Because I do love comics. I do. I wouldn’t put this much effort into a medium that I didn’t love with a mad passion. And I miss them. I keep hearing people talking about Batgirl and Oracle and Captain Marvel (Carol Danvers), and I want to read those books so much.

More importantly, I believe in comics. I know that they aren’t an inherently misogynistic medium. And I know that the way to change comics is to get involved. It’s to read the works. It’s to support the good ones, and recommend them to others. It’s to call out the problems and cheer on the solutions. Not everyone can. Not everyone has the capacity to do so.

But right here, right now, I do.

Plus, I just want to have fun. And see some things explode. And people get punched in the face. You know. The fun stuff.

Comics seem like a good way to go.

So. This is a call for recommendations. What should I read? Ideas? Advice? I really need it! I’m going in pretty cold, and although I have some leads (*cough* Gail Simone *cough*), I trust personal recommendations more than I trust the internet.

A couple things to note. I have access to a library with a fair collection of trade paperbacks, and I’m willing to invest a (small) amount of money into this venture. So nothing… super expensive, thanks.

Obviously, I am not interested in reading overtly misogynistic work. I’m also not interested in dealing with comics that have a huge amount of fanservice. Some is okay (particularly if it’s gender neutral, although I’m not holding my breath). I’m also not interested in reading anything that’s racist or homophobic. I have a very high tolerance for portrayals of sex and violence, so long as the sex isn’t pure fanservice.

If you’ve got a comic, on the other hand, that has hilariously bad portrayals of women… I probably wouldn’t mind reading one. Just so I can snark about it afterwards. I do read Escher girls, after all.

I will gladly read male-led titles. I’m going to try to read at least 50% female-led titles (since I am a feminist blogger, after all), but there are some great male superheroes, and I’d love to hear about good runs. Although I’m concentrating on American superhero comics, I will also gladly read non-superhero comics (huge fan of Alison Bechdel, for example), and non-American comics (mangas, BDs etc.) as long as they’re available either in english or french.

I honestly do not have a preference between DC and Marvel.

I would also love recommendations for any comics-related blogs that have a feminist spin (like DC Women Kicking Ass) – or that at least have an awareness of gender issues. Comics-related blogs that comment on issues of race, class, sexual orientation, disability etc. are also of interest to me!

And yes, I will be blogging about this. Hopefully, it’ll be more fangirl SQUEE and less HULK SMASH RAGE…but no guarantees.

Hulk Rage Mark Ruffalo

This is what I look like every morning after reading the feminist blogs…

All right. Here we go. The great comic experiment of 2012.

Girl your loins.

And send your recommendations.

*Turns off the Daft Punk and X-Ray Dog Playlist. Everyone else breaths a sigh of relief*