‘So are comic books still sexist…?’: A Brief Introduction

As fun as they are to read, I really love talking about comic books. From favourite heroes and classic storylines to the finer points of adaptation, talking about comics is a chance to scratch my literature analysis itch without losing the other person ten seconds into the conversation because – unlike contradictory French philosophy – most people have some kind of opinion on Thor. (Even if it’s just that he’s dreamy.)

I especially loving talking about comics with my non-superhero-obsessed friends because conversations tend to stray further than whether or not Wolverine is overused these days. (Yes, yes he is.) The kind of questions that other people come up with in chats like this are always interesting because they poke holes in the generally accepted quirks of the genre that comic books regular readers often ignore. From the complicated nature of multiple characters sharing the same name or identity (‘Wait, how many Spider-Men are there?’) to the way that comic book characters never seem to stay dead for long (‘Wait, so he wasn’t shot? What’s a Time Gun?’) the finer points of navigating superhero comics are understandably baffling from an outside perspective.

(In case anyone was wondering, there are a theoretically infinite number of Spider-Men (each from their own universes) and they recently all teamed-up to save the whole of reality. Day-to-day, there’s … about half a dozen with their own series – including one who is actually Gwen Stacey. She’s the best. Also, time guns are stupid.)

Questions like this are interesting because they force you as a regular reader to take a step back and actually think about the reasoning rather than just accept it and move on as normal. However, I wasn’t quite sure how to answer when someone recently asked me, ‘Are comics still sexist towards women or are they okay now?’

To be able to unpack that question and meaningfully answer it, first you have to consider how comics portray their characters differently to other kinds of media and how readers navigate this. For example, rather than a single actor portraying a character across all their (relatively) consistent appearances, comic book characters can appear in so many different stories and mediums simultaneously. This makes their numerous appearances more complicated to resolve into a single, cohesive character because a difficult decision Wonder Woman has to make in Justice League might actively contradict a core principle she’s currently asserting in her own book. Times this by several books a month, each with their own editors, writers and artists, and chuck fifty years of history on top and figuring out what a superhero is ‘all about’ becomes an impossibly exhaustive task.

As a practical example of how much character depictions can differ, here are three recent versions of super villain Nebula. In addition to the wonderful, drag-esque version played Karen Gillan in the Guardians of the Galaxy film, there's two completely different portrayals of her from Guardians Team-up #1 and #2 (which was a two-part story, somehow).

As a practical example of how much character depictions can differ, here are three recent versions of super villain Nebula. In addition to the wonderful, drag-esque version played Karen Gillan in the Guardians of the Galaxy film, there’s two completely different portrayals of her from Guardians Team-up #1 and #2 (unsurprisingly by different artists). The similarities are obvious but so are the differences, the #2 Nebula expresses her cold demeanour through her posture and her vacant eyes. In comparison the #1 version is just… chesty.

The way regular comic book readers mediate this is by cherry picking the parts of a character’s history they like and ignoring the rest, meaning that the version of Storm in my head that I love is most likely different to lots of other people’s. (Unless they also watched the 90s X-Men cartoon because it’s basically just that.) Think of it like having a favourite Doctor from Doctor Who, except that they’re all happening simultaneously and none of them are the definite ‘current’ version. Oh and some of them are intent on getting picked up for soliciting for no bluddy reason.

Nearly every character has particular storylines, costumes or personality traits that particular writers seemed really keen to push that either don’t work for the character or just don’t go with what’s came before. But due to the sheer amount of things that happen in comics on a regular basis, ‘inconsistencies’ such as these are often quietly forgotten sooner or later. It’s only when a particularly pernicious element starts getting picked up by other writers that it becomes harder to ignore, from bad storylines to physically impossible costumes. When Batgirl was brutally disabled in the standalone Batman story The Killing Joke in order to torment her father, the consequences were carried over to in-continuity books and haunted her for almost 20 years. Not great.

So are comic books still sexist towards women? Well the sheer number of different books running concurrently means that the potential for limited, negative or downright fucking weird interpretations of female characters will always be there. However, Marvel and DC’s recent moves towards greater inclusion and diversity have also created lots more appearances that offer engaging, dynamic and non-creepy depictions of female characters.

In turn, this offers more tangible things to potentially go into the ‘this actually happened (as far as comics go)’ pile in readers’ heads, hopefully dwarfing the ‘yeah we’re just gonna ignore that’ pile. A negative portrayal still stings when it hits a character you care about deeply but whether its the infamous Spider-Butt scandal or the recent backlash against a Joker-theme variant cover for Batgirl #41, (yeah, you’d think they’d have moved on?) having great representation of that character elsewhere is always the best way to challenge these setbacks.

Spider-Woman’s subsequently brilliant redesign and Batgirl’s new light-hearted and compelling solo series do more than make up for the sexist depictions of their characters because not only do they wipe out the bullshit portrayals but they create brand new opportunities for these characters to do totally new things, repositioning them in more meaningful contexts and steering them towards more interesting futures.

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