I keep hoping to get a big enough caffeine buzz going to write about the current gender war raging in the comics petri-dish blogosphere, but it just isn’t working. Maybe it’s time to switch to Jack Daniels. The matter of the Mary Jane statue strikes at the very heart of what my life’s work has been, but I long ago decided that walking the walk was the only way to go, and grow increasingly tired of talking the talk. But with everyone using the issue to parade their own sexual hang ups in front of everyone, why should I be any different?
For those coming in late, the matter started when the blogger linked to above showed a Sideshow statue of Mary Jane, Peter Parker/Spier-Man’s wife designed by Adam Hughes in a posture that was planned to show off her amazing assets — well let’s not be coy, designed to show her giant boobs and fantastic ass. We’re all used to that, but it was the fact that she was also bent over a wash tub wringing out her husband’s costume by hand that really put it over the top. Hughes is a fine artist whose sexy and titillating art is accomplished and original enough to appeal to men and women alike, although probably more of the former line up for his sketches. The pose may have been an homage to L’il Abner, or some Playboy cartoonist that I’m not aware of (i should mention that I haven’t read the hundreds and thousands of message board postings on this topic…I have a life.)
The statue is very well done, which is probably why it’s struck a nerve to the point where its been mentioned on Fox.com and in EW. There’s also the simple matter that many people seem to have forgotten, which I shall return to, articulated by this poster:
Even if I accepted your premise about cheesecake imagery (which I don’t), there’s one important fact you’re forgetting.
Mary Jane is a character that Marvel has actively marketed not to men, not even to women, but to girls. What age do you think ‘Mary Jane Loves Spiderman’ is aimed at? 11? 14?
Coinciding with this uproar is a posting on Johanna’s blog in which she stated bluntly that superhero comics aren’t for women, a bold assertion that turned the When Fangirls Attack/GirlWonder.org faction against her and further foamed the milk.
Why the hoo-ha? Well, as I’ve been hinting for a long time, the integration of women into the comics world (again) is easily the biggest sociological aspect of comics current rise to respectability. It may actually be the CAUSE of it. Comics regaining a bilateral appeal is a huge story, and any demographic shift in any sphere brings discomfort and border skirmishes.
As hard as it may be to boil down, I think there are a couple of issues at the heart of the matter here. One is female comics readers. The other is female comics creators. One does not necessarily solve the other, although it helps.
Before moving on, I need to point out that one of the reasons Johanna, Valerie and I are all so snarky and/or jaded is because we’ve been to the mountain. We’ve worked in the comics industry. Although it never affected the way I felt about my own work — I’m pretty secure in my abilities, or lack of same — the messages I received engendered in me a powerful need to help others by showing these message up for the ignorant, insecure messages they are.
What were those messages? “Women can’t draw comics.” “Women can’t draw superheroes.” “Women can’t read comics; they aren’t visual enough.” These are messages I heard and or read over and over again, sometimes implicitly but many times boldly, flatly stated.
I remember an early crisis at Friends of Lulu when the writer Andrew Vachss was slated to be a speaker at a Lulu function. Some members of the board were appalled because in an earlier talk he had mentioned the old “Women don’t read comics because women aren’t visual,” trope. Privately, I wondered what a guy with one eye knew about visual acuity, but he did end up talking; his support for women and children’s safety superseded his lack of demographic knowledge.
While it would be nice to think that these messages are a thing of the past, their influence lingers to this day. Some of it is the normal boy/girl questioning of methods, some of it is peculiar to the comics world. I will return to how this affects the making of the comics in a later post, but for now I will stick with the matter of what some have dubbed “fangirl entitlement.” While there is no doubt that this exists, the wish to read about characters you like that are ostensibly aimed at you presented in a manner that you will find enjoyable is not necessarily entitlement. But again, we need to peel away the onion.
The first question to ask is: Are female heroes even viable? By heroes, I mean, implicitly “action/adventure heroes.” not Mrs. Dalloway or Jane Eyre. Female action heroes were very scarce in any commercially viable way until maybe 15 years ago. (It was called ALIENS not RIPLEY.) One theory goes that it was Lara Croft and the Tomb Raider video game franchise that really made it okay for boys to watch a woman with big boobs run around with a gun, Russ Meyer’s pioneering efforts in this direction to the contrary. In other words, just having a female figure near didn’t kill a boy’s action jones, and even increased the excitement.
The rise of the female genre fan paralleled this. While for boys Xena: Warrior Princess had some of the thrill of watching an attractive woman do things, it also presented the kind of fan-friendly role model and mythology for women, and the lesbian angle made it even more attractive for everyone. Then came Buffy the Vampire Slayer, another mythology/romance heavy franchise that appealed most strongly to girls and women and lasted for seven seasons. BUFFY proved you could have it all.
One thing you gotta remember: women and girls are the CONSUMERS. They are the ones who buy the shoes and the pillows and the books. Young males like their gadgets, of course, and their toys — or statues as the case may be — but they are the most coveted demographic group to reach, and part of the reason why comics advertising sells. Given no other personal responsibilities, women would probably spend ALL their spare time buying shoes — The Beat included — but men have to be persuaded to buy shoes, even if the ones they are wearing are falling apart and smell. And they have to be persuaded that the shoes they buy do not have cooties and will somehow make them seem cooler so that they can attain more young women who are wearing expensive shoes.
You see how it works? It is all so simple, so natural, so beautiful.
Now cut back to the American comics industry, i.e. Marvel and DC. They are run by people to whom fanboy entitlement means a job application. As I heard Will Eisner say long ago, “As long as there are young men who doubt their masculinity, there will be a need for superheroes.” Throw in the Biosphere III environment of the comics shop market, and you have a perfect closed eco-system of consumer and producer, each feeding what the other needs. Only there’s a leak in the bio-dome and oxygen is slowly leaching out and no one knows what to do.
Or was. The flash flood of manga in America swept away all preconceived notions. Turns out it WASN’T the medium or the characters or the format that didn’t draw in the girls…IT WAS THE CONTENTS ALL ALONG!
SHOCK! HORROR! DENIAL!
Okay I’ve spent 90 minutes on this and I vowed I would do some badly needed errands today, so I’m going to have to cut this history lesson short for now. To be continued.