- One reason why comics are so great is because no matter what age you are you can have a conversation with another comics fan and your opinion still counts. Whether you’re 14 or 45 you probably know just as much as the next guy about what’s going on in the New Avengers, or have a pretty cool take on Watchmen, or have collected every issue of Optic Nerve and can wax philosophical on Tomine’s work even though you will probably sound pretty boring while doing so. It’s a pretty inclusive medium. Which bring me to my next point….
- For all this talk about comics exclusivity Comic Con sure didn’t showcase that. Chelsea, who does not read comics, had one hell of a time at the convention. Hell, she even went to the DC Nation panel and didn’t feel like a fish out of water. Everyone was very welcoming and, and no one made her feel like a dick. I’m not saying she can walk into a comic shop now and pick something off the shelves because those people are still pricks (with a few exceptions, notably Rocketship in Brooklyn) but she’s been exposed, and it’s not as scary as she thought.
- Note to DC and Marvel: WOMEN READ COMICS! Like, a lot of them. Yeah it was still overwhelmingly a male audience but the female contingent was there in droves. Stop ignoring them.
Anyway, for my first convention experience this was a blast. I’m annoyed that the next NYCC is October 2010, but I’m going to try to hit up some other ones. MoCCA and maybe Baltimore, and if my tax return is especially nice maybe even San Diego.
For a better written, more interesting wrap-up of the con you should probably read Garrett Martin’s post at Creative Loafing.
For a list of Wednesday’s Child Comic Con articles and photos look below!
DC Nation (Chelsea Bahr)
NYC and its Authors/Battlestar Galactica: The Comic (Jennifer Drake)
Representation of Women in Comics (Chelsea Bahr)
The Multicultural Mask (Chelsea Bahr)
Comics and New Media (Paul DeBenedetto)
Graphic Novels and Academic Acceptance (Paul DeBenedetto)
Elvis Schmelvis! How Comic Books Spawned the Rock and Roll Era (Chelsea Bahr)
*Special thanks to Owen Thaxton for the photos!
The following entry was written by non-comic book fan and friend of the blog Chelsea Bahr.
David Hajdu, a soft-spoken man wearing wire-rimmed glasses and a tweed sports coat stood before all of ten people (myself included) to explain the development of comic books in the 40s and 50s and their cultural influence over America’s youth. Like listening to my grandpa talk about his “days of the past”, Hajdu steered us through the change in comic book content from the late 1940s to the early 1950s where comics began to distance themselves from “crime fighting” and towards “crime doing”. It was a time where “virtue didn’t have to triumph over evil”, he said, going on to example an issue of The Haunt of Fear where subversive ideas of the 1950s came to fruition. The spouse in this particular comic was the monster, equating marriage with torture (how cute). Creator William Gaines is quoted as having said: “We got a lot of mileage out of the ‘scheming wife’. The true graveyard is in the living room of the American home.” An interesting juxtaposition to the 1950′s Pleasantville model.
An image was projected onto the screen before us. It was the cover of a 1944 magazine, where an image of Satan led a pack of innocent-looking children underneath a headline: Parents Must Control the Comics. Hajdu segued into a story about a 1957 planning meeting between Stephen Sondheim and Leonard Berstein, who were discussing the opening scene of West Side Story. Sondheim decided that when introducing The Jets, all they needed to do is “communicate their interest in comics and the audience will understand that they are the delinquents.” The opening scene was to involve members of The Jets carrying boxes of comics, trading comics with each other, looking at each others comics to convey this “juvenile delinquency” associated with comic books at that time. It was The Comic Book Threat and the first, according to Hajdu, generational divide of the cultural world. Comics instilled in youth the idea of value, where the “value” was rooted in the fact that adults saw no value in them. In being able to buy an issue with a couple earned pennies, a kid could open the pages into a world of adventure, danger, and graphic excitement. As illustrated in the film Hajdu presented, kids would buy one comic and then trade for another and another and another and…. etc. This, Hajdu points out, is quite similar to the phenomenon that happened later with Rock ‘n Roll—where kids would go out to buy the latest record only to invite all their friends over to listen to it. Trading comics was the reason the notion of the “badass” assimilated into pop culture with such speed, and why parents felt so helpless to stop it.
Overall, I’d give the panel 3 out of 5 stars. As informative and well-prepared as Hajdu was, the presentation erred slightly on the side of “long and dry” and lacked the informal, relaxed air many of the other panels exhibited. However, what it lacked in familiarity, it made up for in scholarly charm, and either way, it was an hour I felt privileged to be a part of.
Every once in a while something comes along that takes what you understand about a medium, challenges it, and makes you look at it from a completely different angle. For me and comics, this happened when I first read Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics a year or two ago, and happened again the night of February 6 when I attended the Graphic Novels and Academic Acceptance panel. It was the panel I was most looking forward to (preempted earlier in the day by another panel), and did not disappoint.
The panel consisted of Greg Urquhart (Alexander Street Press), Bill Savage (Northwestern University Professor), Jonathan Hickman (The Nightly News, Secret Warriors), Gene Kannenberg, Jr. (ComicsResearch.org), Kent Worcester (Marymount Manhattan College Professor) Dean Haspiel (Billy Dogma, Street Code), Peter Kuper (World War 3 Illustrated, Spy vs. Spy, Stop Forgetting to Remember), and moderator Karen Green (comiXology.)
First Ms. Green asking the panelists to introduce themselves, and each of them had an interesting story regarding their comics experience. The first spark of conversation came when Kannenberg, not a creator but an author and general researcher of comics culture, talked about creating a mini-comic for his wife’s zine. There’s so much you need to think about when drawing; his simple example: “how do you draw someone sitting in a chair?” This was an interesting observation. It isn’t so much the idea that “drawing is hard”; yeah I get that, but why is it hard, and why especially in comics? Graphic storytelling is often overlooked by academics because of its presumed simplicity, but as Kannenberg said, when you’re used to objectively looking at something and tearing it apart it becomes difficult to now do the opposite — build from nothing. While this isn’t necessarily specific to comics, the world of comics is in some ways so much more complex than any other art form because it combines so many storytelling elements in one.
Kannenberg’s point of the chair brought Dean Haspiel into the conversation: “My godmother is Shelley Winters,” he began. “One day I asked her, ‘what is acting? What do you do when you act? She said, ‘ok, go over to that chair, pick it up, and bring it over to me.’ So I was like, all right, and I walked over and I brought it to her.”
“Then she said, ‘Now go act it.’ Suddenly I didn’t know if I should be sad, angry… there’s so many choices.” He compared this to the art of storytelling in graphic literature. When drawing Kannenberg’s man in a chair there are so many ways to show it, so many angles and attitudes and positions, and each of them tells its own story in its own way.
Peter Kuper talked about doing an adaptation of Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle. The process of reducing the text down to what you need to say, and what words need to be there, was instructive to him, because it forced him to stop himself and say, “this is a forum that should take advantage of what the image can do”; he said whenever he could he tried to have the artwork do all the heavy lifting, with the text doing as little as possible in order to convey the story.
These were all fun anecdotes, and it was incredibly fascinating to look at the process of the creator, but it took an academic to put the panel in perspective. “It seems we’re having two different conversations,” Bill Savage interjected. “One about teaching comics as creative writing, versus the concept of comics being used as a subject to be taught and studied.”
Earlier in the introductions someone mentioned the term “graphic novel” which received universal scorn (including some by this blog’s author). Savage opined that the reason why the graphic novel label doesn’t bother him is because comics needed that kind of gesture toward respectability. The novel, after all, was at one point an illegitimate genre that wasn’t taught at universities either, but has come over time to be the dominant literary form in our culture. “When Eisner coined that term,” he said, “he knew exactly what he was doing.”
Bill’s approach to teaching comics is twofold. First, what he has tried to do is never put a class together that was “just comics,” because it turned into a niche course students took to have fun, which wouldn’t have any real academic merit and, as Savage said, “would get me fired”; thus, he picks his battles carefully.
“There are some faculty members that will never admit that comics are a worthy subject of study and…. fuck ‘em. I won’t even engage them in conversation about it, because I know, ok, Shakespeare’s better. Whatever.” This point is of course valid. There’s something to be said about just ignoring those who are too ignorant to even listen to you. Though I wonder what the harm could be in engaging in conversation? At best you might change someone’s mind, or get a non-comics fan to at least start thinking about comics in a critical way rather than being dismissive. At worst, well, they still hate comics. As long as you don’t get too worked up about it no harm done (though I suspect the frustration of having a person ignore your points completely might be a bit overwhelming).
Second, he tries to integrate comics into courses he teaches based on subject matter (100 Bullets in a course on crime fiction, The Golem’s Mighty Swing in a course on baseball) in order to make some change toward teaching comics. And he says it has worked. A lot of his peers have begun to teach books like Maus, which besides being a useful text for a class on WWII and the Holocaust, helped bring comics toward respectability by taking on such incredibly serious subject matter in an art form that was considered unrespectable. Now he has students that write masters theses on comics. Academic respectability is on a certain level a matter of “just doing it”.
Haspiel was shocked at the notion that there were some people who just didn’t like comics, which is in stark contrast to the perceived idea of comics’ unpopularity. “I don’t understand, everyone likes comics. I’ve never met someone who doesn’t like comics. Even if they don’t read comics, give them one and they will like it.”
“What’s that quote about Frank Sinatra, not trusting anyone who doesn’t drink? I don’t trust anyone who doesn’t like comics.”
However, Kent Worcester had a tale to illustrate Savage’s point. He was asked to teach a course on comics, and requested permission from his department chair, who agreed. At the end of the semester she went up to him and said, “You will never teach that class again!” This led Savage to talk about the generation of people who were brought up to believe comics were inherently juvenile, and how these people will eventually be “aged out”. This idea is one that I’ve reflected upon often; that no matter the opinion of the older generations, and whether it can be changed or not, it doesn’t really matter. They’ll be gone and change will come. This applies to many ideas, whether it be racism and sexism, or film and television. The irony, as the panel pointed out, is that those who are against teaching comics — again, generally the older generations — should be the people most open to historical argumentation. Courses taught in English, courses about American literature, even television in the classroom — these are all elements of academia taken for granted now which for a long time were unthinkable. Unfortunately this group is generally the hardest to convince, and thus Savage’s point is reiterated: “just do it”. Just teach the subject matter, get the ball rolling.
One big step, according to Greg Urquhart, is the trend of traditional novel writers who are comic fans, i.e., Michael Chabon and Jonathan Lethem, who have this sort of academic pull, and help legitimize the medium (it was here that Savage chimed in, talking about how E.E. Cummings and Ernest Hemingway loved Krazy Kat). For a professor to see a creator in a genre that they can relate to embrace comics gets the point across: “Maybe these aren’t just kid stuff.”
On the other side of the token, there are still things that continue to hamper the progress of the medium into academic acceptance. One example given by Kannenberg is the niching of the comic book as “superhero stuff”. Movies can say anything they want, can tell any kind of story, but when people think about comics they think superheroes. Comics aren’t thought to encapsulate other genres. His dissertation was on comics, but before he could present it his proposal had to be passed. When he got to the panel he brought in a bunch of comics and passed them around, and the professors couldn’t understand them; the way the panels were laid out, how to pace them, whatever it was — it was too difficult. Thus, according to Kannenberg, what needs to be done is to let “the scales fall from their eyes”; it’s not so much that it needs to be academically accepted per se, but they need to know smart graphic literature is out there.
Continuing on this point, Worcester spoke about the difference between simplification and encapsulation. When he worked on the symposium on the editorial cartoon half of their submissions talked about how the work they were discussing “simplified reality”. The problem there is that comics generally do not simplify reality, but often are very conceptual and can reach you in different ways. Haspiel chimed in, agreeing that conveying your point in comics is decidedly un-simple, which brought him back to his point of the incredible amount of choices you can make in order to convey one idea in a multitude of ways.
After a while Green opened the floor to questions.
The first question was one I had considered throughout the panel: with all the talk of teaching comics, is there a fear that some professors teaching comics can be doing it a disservice; that is, teaching them incorrectly? Is there some kind of personal responsibility?
“First of all,” Savage began, “just because a subject is taught doesn’t mean it’s going to be taught well. Secondly, better taught poorly than not taught at all.” Urquhart added to this: “The trend is too strong for one instance to kill a whole movement. It might happen on one campus, but even there, after some time, it takes just one faculty member to champion it again.”
Its been said kids experience reading and art differently than adults. Are there specific differences you’ve seen?
Kuper saw it as an important element to current acceptance. Kids who grow up reading comics have a special kind of literacy. Visual literacy is an element that turns a lot of people off to comics, because there’s too much information that hits them. However, the new culture is so visual. In the past art schools wouldn’t have comics; in fact they were discouraged. Now they have to teach comics, because its about sequential thinking. If you don’t help them with that you create an ill-equipped student.
But it also teaches juxtaposition. Kannenberg made the point that thirty years ago TV, for example, was very linear. Continuing Kuper’s point, nowadays there’s so much coming at you at once and that’s something which is great about comics. You can read it straight through quickly, of course, but you can’t just do that, because you have to slow down to really see what’s there and understand how the parts work together.
How do the creators on the panel approach the process of creating?
Haspiel started approaching writing from going to film school. He would add so much information to his scripts that it was overwhelming, even for himself. Eventually he started laying out narrative visually before even worrying about what the words were going to be. Echoing Kuper’s earlier sentiments, it’s a very visual medium, clearly, and words are there to support whatever isn’t being said in the visual, as well as adding another narrative aspect to the visual experience. You show the story first, and everything else is a compliment.
The person who asked the question referred to Peter as a mostly wordless creator. But contrary to that he says while he likes doing wordless comics, he doesn’t tie himself down to that, because the form is so vast that you can do wordless comics, journalism, adaptation… so many different facets, that there are so many ways to tell a story. Anything is possible. You can be as serious or as silly as you want to be.
One person commented that when he teaches comics he uses them as a pedagogical tool. For example, he makes his students read Watchmen, which in turn prepares them to read Plato; it teaches them the way they should read. Comics can teach you how to see the world in different ways, yet it’s really easily accessible to a lot of people. This was an interesting point, because first it implies that the way one reads comics is the “correct” way to read. If this statement is true it’s a pretty big step in the right direction for comics as far as academic acceptance, though one suspects this may be a bit of a stretch. Secondly, it presupposes that comics are easily accessible, yet just the idea of it as niche culture, as it is in our society today, creates a sort of inaccessibility that the average person may find frightening.
Top Shelf’s Leigh Walton (who, along with Laura Hudson, writes the incredibly interesting Cereblog) was in attendance, and asked about the critical discourse of comics studies as it grows, where it’s happening, and if we’ve figured out how to read comics.
I don’t know that the panelists specifically answered these questions, but it brought up some interesting discussion. Worcester began by saying that teaching comics involves teaching some amount of specialized vocabulary. Art students probably get it better than history or lit students, sure, but even there certain things need to be taught. So ultimately no one has a real expertise on the matter, which is one of the reasons why it’s so exciting.
Savage said one of the most significant moments in the movement of comics into general mainstream acceptability was when the New York Times book review stopped having the rhetorical gesture of talking about Graphic Novels with an intro paragraph explaining why comics can be serious. Now they’ve gotten passed making excuses, and even have op-eds that are cartoons, as well as adding a reviewer who every few weeks only reviews graphic novels.
Urquhart began his point with a quote he’d once heard:
“If an artist paints something you don’t understand its because you’re ignorant; if a comics artist creates something you don’t understand its because the creator’s ignorant.”
However, that’s now shifting; it’s become more of the argument, as Savage says, of “is this one thing any good” as opposed to “is that kind of thing any good.” Urquhart goes on to talk about giving a copy of Owly to his daughter who is learning how to read. She struggled much more with the wordless Owly than with other books, but at the same time it affected her more deeply. It really drove home the literacy involved.
I left this panel, thoughts swimming through my head, points and counterpoints rattling around causing a commotion. I guess at the end of the day it gave me a feeling of hope. With all of these intelligent people sitting in front of us giving insight into the world of academia in conjunction with comics culture, it made me realize that there probably is room for intelligent discussion about comics in a world full of scorn for the medium, and that maybe that scorn isn’t so hard to flip on its head. I know that just by writing this blog I’ve had people email me telling me that they don’t read comics but that they liked the idea of discourse in comics. And so this panel most of all showed me that it isn’t ridiculous to care. To care about comics’ future, and to care about how its looked at. Sure I hate the term “Graphic Novel”, but maybe Savage is right; maybe Eisner did know exactly what he was doing when he coined the term, and instead of being such a snob about it I should, if not embrace it, accept it as a method to getting people to accept the medium. I’ve said before that I think the term over-legitimizes something that doesn’t need legitimacy, but perhaps that’s just not true. Perhaps I’ve just been content with that small niche role. But as I said: this panel has certainly made me think differently about a lot of what I had accepted as true in the comics world.
I’d like to finish this the way Karen did, with one final question, inspired by Art Spiegelman. Spiegelman, in a keynote entitled Comics Marching into the Canon, mentioned his comics “canon”. There’s been a “canon” in literature for a number of years, which has been exploded in the last 15 years or so. The question is, what’s the usefulness of having one?
Haspiel seemed to think it was for dialogue only. Savage agreed, but said you can’t open up a canon before you build it first. You create a list of artists who fit the definition — his definition explains canon as those books where if you call yourself educated you either have read, feel guilty about not having read, or can fake having read. You need that for comics. Something where if you see someone at a party you can talk about having read Maus, Jimmy Corrigan, etc. That needs to be built first, and once it is, then you can start breaking it open, so to speak; “hey, I know plenty of stuff that’s way better!”
“Yeah, it’s all just dialogue,” Haspiel concluded. “It’s just used for discussion. And maybe through that you might learn something cool, or different.”
Green used this prompt as the perfect ending to a perfect panel: “And that,” she said, “is education.”
More to come!
To get a quick idea of what the Comics and New Media panel at Comic Con was all about, let me first give you a run-down of the panelists: Josh Neufeld, writer/artist of the web comic A.D.: New Orleans After the Deluge , a true story of real survivors of Hurricane Katrina; Larry Smith, editor of Smith Magazine, whose website hosted A.D. during it’s original complete run; Lisa Weinert, an editor at Pantheon, who are publishing an A.D. collection; and Kate Lee, Neufeld’s agent. I had unwittingly become part of a giant advertisement for A.D.! Way too meta.
Friday afternoon I walked into my first panel, expecting to see Graphic Novels and Academic Acceptance only to find that it had been moved from 3:30 PM to 7:00, replaced with Comics and New Media. Right off the bat I was let down, as the Academic Acceptance panel was one I was looking forward to since I first saw the panel lineup. It didn’t help any that there were horrible technical issues, either; a video they planned on showing wouldn’t play sound, and three different A/V guys had to come in throughout the panel to try and rectify it.
While they were trying to fix the video we got to hear about Josh’s comic, which seemed like a really interesting idea. He traveled to New Orleans after Katrina and met a group of strangers with their own unique story to tell, and started updating Smith weekly with comics about each of their lives. The most intriguing aspect of this to me was that it allowed for instantaneous feedback from the characters themselves. The idea of creating a story that is largely biographical and being able to change it on the fly in order to preserve accuracy is one I had not really considered before this, and I admit the possibilities of this can lead to really great storytelling.
After more and more talk of A.D., however, I began to realize something was amiss. Smith had already stated his website housed more than just Neufeld’s comic, why weren’t these being addressed? What about the inherent issues of new media culture vs. print? Were they waiting until after the video to discuss these things? Finally the technical problems were fixed and we got to watch and listen to a video which was basically a recap of what we all heard the panelists talking about, and then…. nothing. Q&A time.
I was stunned. I don’t mind panels about a specific work, but don’t trick people into wasting an hour of their lives on something they weren’t expecting. I was looking for COMICS AND NEW MEDIA; intelligent discussion on the future of comics in the age of new media, points about print vs. new media, the pros and cons of both, etc. I did not even remotely get that. The only points that touched on the supposed topic of the panel without audience participation were:
- When publishing a web comic in book format the web comic’s very existence can be used to help publishers promote the work, due to all of the extras (videos, podcasts, etc.) on the website.
- Webcomics are more accessible to a general audience, and therefore are instrumental in bringing new readers into comics.
- Twitter, Facebook, and MySpace are good ways to promote your comic.
Chelsea and I got so little out of the panel itself that I felt inclined to raise my hand and ask a question which I felt was fundamental to the very discussion of comics and new media itself; that is, with all the burgeoning technology we have nowadays and web comics becoming more and more popular what keeps print relevant? Or going further: IS print relevant? Because all you hear in these conversations is, “web comics are great, and they’re really becoming more legitimate in terms of an art form… but gee, nothings going to replace print”. Well why is that the case? This economy is a prime example of a time when free web comics and news sites stand to make more money than a newspaper or publisher. Hell, I read one article saying it would cost the New York Times less to send Amazon Kindle e-readers to subscribers than to print and deliver the paper every day. Hell, I get all my news from the free Times iPhone app myself. And what if Marvel or DC decided to go COMPLETELY digital? The possibilities are endless there. The answer to my question was typical of this argument: “people just like the feel of the paper in their hands”. Well eventually that answer isn’t going to cut it anymore, and real studies are going to need to be done, and real discussion is going to have to come of it, because if you sleep on new technology you’re gonna be eaten alive.
All in all, I was thoroughly disappointed in this panel. As an advertisement it was great: I plan on reading A.D. and buying it in print if I enjoy it enough (you should really take a look at it, the art is gorgeous). But as a panel on comics in new media I was let down by the lack of insight and discussion that seemed so ripe for the picking.
The following entry was written by non-comic book fan and friend of the blog Chelsea Bahr.
I can’t say enough good things about the Multicultural Mask panel. Easily my favorite of the ones I went to this weekend. Not only was Greg Pak adorable, but all the panelists– moderator Jeff Yang (Asian Pop columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle and editor of Secret Identities: The Asian American Superhero Anthology), Jann Jones, (DC Comics coordinating editor), Stuart Moore (writer and founding Vertigo editor), Perry Moore (Hero), Robert J. Walker (Delete, O+Men) and Danielle O’Brien– were very intelligent and interesting to listen to. Discussing the issue of diversification in comics and comic book characters, Greg Pak right out the gate made an interesting point regarding characters that portray race stereotypes (Fu Manchu, anyone?). He stated that regardless of whether a character’s first appearance in a comic is “dated”, the fact that that character is even available– to be developed, expanded, etc.– is incredibly significant. The problem I have with this, however, is how long does it take for those characters to be developed from the “Fu Manchu” stereotype? I mean, I suppose that without that introduction, the token Asian nerd that inevitably pops up in every television show and box-office hit might not exist, and sure they always make you laugh and are always incredibly endearing, but does that make it ok?
Editor’s note: going along with that same point, I wonder how much the token Asian nerd is an expansion or development, helping break stereotypes rather than reinforce them? I’d say not much of one. -P.D.
The panel moved on to talk about how comics are really the last medium to break through the “true diversification wall”, and that even the diverse characters that do exist are nowhere near being on par with existing lead characters– think Falcon vs. Thor. Perry Moore, creator of Hero (the story whose lead character is not only an Asian American, but a gay Asian American) pointed out that people tend to write from experience, and the comic book industry is an industry full of white guys. He went on to say that the fact that there are no original black superheroes isn’t a racist thing (although, I think that’s kind of ignoring the fact that racism probably did at one time exist in Marvel and DC offices, if it doesn’t still), it’s simply a “write what you know” thing.
Moore went on to talk about identity, and made the point that people sometimes tend to get caught up in equating a character’s race, gender, sexual preference, etc. with who the character is. Someone asked if any of the panelists thought a big, flagship character (like Captain America) could ever be in an issue and be like, “Hey, guess what? I’m gay!” Moore responded: “You have to stay true to the character. The character’s identity isn’t made up of ‘being gay’ or ‘being heterosexual’- they’re made up of a lot of different things, and if they’re gay, that’s only one small piece of who they are.” Jann Jones went on to talk about the incessant hate mail received for the creation of a lesbian Batwoman (who is apparently becoming a lead in Detective Comics): “You’re not going to make everyone happy, but you have to put it out there. And there’s a challenge in not making it too inclusive or exclusive.”
“The bigger question than the inclusion of these representatives, then,” Yang stated, “is how these representatives are portrayed.” The hour ended, and I ran home to add Hero to my Amazon wish list.
033 The Representation of Women in Comics panel: Chelsea thought it was dumb and then I agreed with her.
The following entry was written by non-comic book fan and friend of the blog Chelsea Bahr.
Perhaps the most irritating thing about the gender argument is the fact that the people that always seem to be doing the arguing are either a) extremely irritating b) misinformed c) extreme and entirely unwilling to even consider anything outside their argument (Editor’s Note: Wednesday’s Child feels that he is none of these things.) Unlucky for me, the Representation of Women in Comics panelists were all of the above. Moderated by Abby Denson, Chris Butzer of Rabid Rabbit, cousins Jillian and Mariko Tamaki of Skim fame, Robin Furth, who adapted Stephen King’s Dark Tower for Marvel, and a couple others not only decided to use the hour for their own self-promotion, but danced around the already vague and predictable questions Denson posed. Sorry guys, but the fact that some women find a 36-24-36 blonde bombshell in skin tight latex offensive is nothing new.
As Denson asked questions like, “What comes to mind when you think of ‘the representation of women in comics’?” and “Do you think the portrayal of women has progressed?” I watched as audience members became (if they weren’t already) totally uninterested. I couldn’t help but feel like these shallow, unaffecting questions had been scrawled out onto a napkin on the hike over from the food court. Not only did they fail to establish any sort of dialogue from the panelists, but they also didn’t allow any room for audience members to open up a discussion of their own.
Most irritating about the panel (aside from the complete lethargy) was the hypocrisy found therein. The driving point reiterated over and over throughout the hour by each of the panelists was that females have progressed in comics because of the shift in their positions of power. ORLY? Denson mentioned- several times- her current project centered around Aunt May stealing Peter Parker’s Spidey Suit to go fight crime, unbeknownst to him. She emphasized how she felt the character of Aunt May has always been so “dated”, wearing “unfashionable clothes” and “staying at home all day twiddling her thumbs”. Denson said she felt compelled to transform Aunt May’s character into a strong, modern woman. This really made me raise my eyebrows. So the only way Aunt May is able to be “strong” is by putting on a male character’s suit and going out to “fight crime”- the traditional male “action role”? So older women who “sit at home” and exhibit any sort of femininity can’t be strong, since strength is apparently still being equated with stereotypical masculinity? So not only are you perpetuating gender stereotypes, but you are recreating gender boundaries? Well that’s great. Thanks so much Denson! I’ll be sure to wipe off my nailpolish the next time I decide to shotgun a beer.
A response, by Paul DeBenedetto:
While I did not attend this panel I agree with Chelsea here, insofar as a lot of argument regarding strong women protagonists is that it’s important to prove that women can do what men can do; the problem with this is that you’re making men the barometer. By saying “I’m just as tough as that guy; see?”, you’re basically setting yourself up to fail, because essentially saying this perpetuates the idea that, overall, men are “better” than women- that is, if there’s such a struggle for women to prove themselves to men the implication is that men are something women should aspire to be like.
Ultimately, rather than try to “masculize” women in comics, why not accentuate their inherent femininity? It’s like my friend Thimali once said to me; she’s a woman, and she knows there are clear differences between her and a man. Not weaknesses or strengths, just differences.If she were in Aunt May’s shoes, for example, she wouldn’t need to dress in that Spider Suit to prove she can “hang with the boys”. Yes, generally men are hopped up on testosterone, but aren’t women more emotional animals? Paraphrasing her (probably butchering her real comments, actually): “once a month my emotions are thrown for a loop. I am happy, I am sad, I am angry, I am moody. And thus by definition I am more in touch with my emotions than a man is.” And this is true. Men and women experience different things, are built differently, and thus act differently.
This is not to say that female characters CAN’T be traditionally strong or tough. Wonder Woman, Supergirl, Powergirl, Batgirl, Batwoman, Echo, Ms. Marvel, Elektra; all of these characters are physically strong, and it’s in character. Aunt May? Not so much. Incidentally, you know who else is “dated” and wears “unfashionable clothes”? My grandmother.
Yes, throughout history masculinity and the “Alpha Male” have been dominant, whether it be on television, in literature, or even in the workplace. But isn’t the answer to rebel against and reject THAT idea, rather than to ostensibly play into it?
Speaking of “A for effort”, pretty sure this guy won the costume contest. Funny thing about him: his costume was made of like papier-mâché or something. Yes, in order to portray the toughest, most indestructible guy in the Marvel universe he used flimsy chewed up paper. Dude’s arm was falling off. Also, he was like ten feet tall. My man wore stilts the entire time. Dedication.
Kind of goes back to what I said before; here we have a chubby skeletor, except I’m pretty sure this guy knew exactly what he was doing, because he carried around a sign all weekend that said Unemployed Skeletor.
More to come…
There were tons and tons of things I loved about Comic Con; the panels were excellent (more on those as the updates continue today and through the week), all the deals on books made my wallet cry and my bookshelf smile, and meeting and talking to creators and panelists was loads of fun.
The one thing that I got a kick out of the most, however, was the sheer amount of children enjoying themselves. There’s a ton of talk about how “comics aren’t for kids anymore”, and how “kids aren’t interested” in comics these days but seeing all of these children with their parents, on line to buy books and in the audiences of panels — some even asking engaging questions to the panelists! — was a refreshing sight. Every Wednesday in the shops all I see are men in their late twenties through their thirties and even into their forties, hording books like it’s going out of style (guilty as charged). Its comforting to know that something that started out as a kid’s medium is still enriching to that demographic.
There are a few arguments I’ve heard when I tell people this. One friend theorized that, this being New York, kids are more exposed to art and literature at an early age, and thus are more inclined to be interested in comics or graphic literature as a whole. Indeed, one panelist talked about her three year old daughter who is obsessed with Owly. My friend went on to say that, in his small town that he grew up in, you would be less likely to find as many kids interested in comics.
Another theory someone had was that these kids were in fact “forced” to go to the Con with their comic/sci-fi/whatever fan parents. And it certainly seemed that way in some cases; at one point I saw a man carrying his daughter kicking and screaming from booth to booth. However, I’d like to believe that this was a small minority, and that the bored parents with their enthusiastic children I saw wandering around were the majority.
In any case, and whatever the exposure, at least its there. And its something I wish I had the opportunity to be a part of when I was younger. Who knows? Maybe there’s now a future writer, artist, or just plain comics fan, where there otherwise wouldn’t have been one?