In recent months, an interesting thing has happened without my knowing it–I’m reading more comics with a female lead. I didn’t seek these books out. I tried them and found that I enjoyed them.
Now, none of these books are written by a woman. So, a fair criticism is that I’m reading a man’s interpretation of a woman. Indeed, three of the four characters have their sex appeal in full display–Power Girl with her cleavage, Wonder Woman with her long legs and cleavage, and Zatanna with the fish net stockings and bustier. Not exactly feminist characters. Wonder Woman, Power Girl, and Zatanna are all heroines that have been used to objectify women. And I’ve been wary of female superhero comics for that reason. In fact, I had that feeling of a guilty pleasure . . . except that I was not buying the comics for the boobs. I was attracted to the comics because of the art–for the style, not the cheesecake.
You see, they have something that’s sorely missing from American superhero comics, something that takes me back to what I enjoyed about comics as a kid.
- First, they have solid action. Yes, a couple have large story arcs, but each issue has a story and action. I can read each issue and finish a story [most of the time].
- Second, except for Wonder Woman, they have a sense of humor. It’s not P.G. Wodehouse humor or the kind that makes you laugh aloud, but the humor keeps the book light and the characters likable.
Too many superhero comics today are moody, dramatic, and dark. I appreciate the desire to be more serious, although most fail. The fact is that the earth can only be threatened so many times before I’m ready for it to explode. What I like about these female-lead titles is that they’re personal, about the character in transition, which makes their humor even more appealing. Wonder Woman is the exception in these four titles because the Amazons are under a dire threat. Yet, even she has an interesting personal conflict, as she questions her faith.
So, I like the characters in spite of the cheesecake element. I don’t think Wonder Woman can escape her bikini wax [although they have her in long pants now] or Power Girl can escape her porn star breasts. Yet, I see the artists making some effort to minimize those features. For example, I first picked up Power Girl 17 and saw this pages like this where her cleavage was hardly noticeable:
I don’t doubt these books and depictions still have their problems. I’m not ignoring them, but I see progress. I see these comics as upholding a tradition that I thought had been lost, as something quirky and fun that couldn’t be recovered even more than 25 years after the Watchmen and Dark Knight. I think these comics are passing the Bechdel test. I don’t feel that these stories are wholly at the expense of women. [Honestly, as long as the DC characters are who they are, they will always be sexist.] Yet, they are doing some good while being objectified, even if the objectification is pushed to the background. It’s like women who do have big breasts, sexy lips, beautiful hair, a great body and who have to deal with the responses to their attributes. Taking Zatanna out of the fishnet stockings and giving her smaller breasts might be considered an easy out for the male because it completely removes the sex appeal and doesn’t ask the male reader to change. I know I’m focusing back on men, but that’s where the problem is . . . with men’s perceptions of women.
So, there are two ways to look at the problem of women in comics–how they are presented and how they are viewed. The former puts the onus on the artists, and the latter, on the reader. Much of the criticism of comics has focused on the former. In a way, it’s almost a puritanical approach, focusing on removing the temptation rather than on changing the sinner. One could argue that the latter is a far more mature approach the former.
Now, I don’t want to exaggerate what these titles are doing, but I think they are all doing this to some degree, going beyond just wrapping a lame story around any excuse to get the women characters in sexy positions [although I think Zatanna succumbs to this on occasion]. Maybe I’m finally growing up myself, enjoying female comics for the stories and the characters themselves.