Eye on Comics

Comics criticism and commentary from Don MacPherson

Gratuitous Insults

Posted by Don MacPherson on April 17th, 2007

I pass the time during lulls at work with a good novel. There are a few TV series that I follow religiously every week, never wanting to miss a new episode. And there’s nothing like going to the movies and taking in a flick on the big screen. But my favorite storytelling medium, obviously, is the comic book/graphic novel. Unfortunately, fans of the medium are saddled with an unfortunate stigma. You’ve seen it on The Simpsons in the form of the Comic Book Guy. You’ve seen the extreme fans at comics conventions as well, and those whose battle with unfortunate personal hygiene is a Never-Ending Battle in and of itself. The stereotype of the pathetic Comic Geek stems, sadly, from a certain fragment of reality. It’s really frustrating, though, when a major player in the medium and industry contributes to the preconception of the comics consumer as a horny, sexually frustrated basement dweller.

DC Comics, shame on you.

In the publisher’s recently release solicitations for the May 2007 Previews catalogue, two vinyl statues scheduled for release in specialty stores at the end of the year are featured. One is of Catwoman in her Darwyn Cooke-designed costume, zipped open to allow her impossible mammaries to dangle down and draw the viewer’s eye to the Cleavage of the Cat. The pose and how she’s dressed are so laughable that it’s a shame, because it seems as though the craftsmanship put into the statue is detailed and almost realistic.

The vamped up (even by Catwoman standards) statue is the work of a Japanese manufacturer, so there is that cultural tendency toward pop-culture sexualization in play. Also coming from the same manufacturer is a Supergirl statue, with a more obvious anime/manga influence being apparent in the design. Her impossibly elongated torso would make the vinyl figure seem ridiculous in appearance, but overpowering that silly look is the overtly sexual pose and look on a teenage character.

Look at this… She’s pulled up what little top she has to expose as much skin as allowable for a general audience. Supergirl seems to invite, seems to beg for something to be done. It’s like this blonde bimbo is offering a target for a perverse super-hero universe money shot. What casual consumer is going to walk into a comic shop, see this statue displayed (or its box, with the same image) and not wonder what kind of clientele is obsessed with fictional figures originally envisioned as characters in children’s reading material?

Obviously, these are drops in an ocean of sexual depictions of super-heroines in print, plaster and more. They’re so overt and blatant in their purpose as sexual totems for teen boys and young men, though, and it’s impossible to ignore or dismiss.

Is DC to blame for offering such material? One could argue the publisher is simply meeting a demand, fulfilling a certain niche in its marketplace. In order to meet that demand, though, DC is catering to a lower level, stooping to a lower level. Not only does it not need to stoop to that level, but if it still places an importance on its public image as a purveyor of kid-friendly material, it really shouldn’t release such a sexed-up vision of its decades-old super-hero characters.

Of course, DC isn’t the only offender in this regard, and it’s far from the worst. There’s a glut of similarly creepy or disconcerting comics and merchandise that are designed for that niche market.

One has to give DC Comics credit, though, for sexualizing characters of both genders in its newest solicitations. Just check out the Alex Ross-painted cover image for Justice Society of America #7, slated for release in July. It depicts the newest member of the title team, Citizen Steel, a young man carrying on his family’s heroic tradition after he was altered by liquid metal excreted by a Nazi super-villain.

That strange steel elixir has transformed him into an invulnerable super-hero, a man of steel. And if one looks closely, it’s not just his fists and flesh that are hard as a rock. Perhaps his red, white and blue costume has led him to believe he’s a postal carrier, because he’s looking down at a package… one he seems more than ready to deliver.

Groovy… it’s a special delivery… for the ladies. Or perhaps this is DC’s subtle attempt to test of the waters in the yaoi fanbase.

61 Responses to “Gratuitous Insults”

  1. Willow Says:

    Floyd The Barber Says:
    April 18th, 2007 at 1:39 am
    I’m sorry, but I think you’re overreacting to this just a tad. Personally I think those vinyl statues are beautiful…o Let’s face it, and just be honest here, it’s been years since these characters have REALLY been marketed to children anyway and everyone knows it.

    So if it’s not for children, it’s alright if it’s over sexualized. Never mind that people find the same movies and magazines and everything you’re quoting as ‘just the same’ as also being over sexualized.

    And I can’t believe you had the gall to bring up Barbie. Women have been complaining about Barbie and her lack of representation of real women for years.

    Violence in comics is one thing. And if you want to ring that bell, then by all means, ring that bell. But just because you don’t find something gratuitous insensitive, demeaning and unnecessary doesn’t mean it isn’t.

    People just love sex and they always will. It’s natural. That’s why it sells.

    Not People – Men. Men like a certain type of sex. And that representation sells. And men often don’t see anything wrong with it.

    Ugh…

  2. Don MacPherson Says:

    Willow, we agree on several points, but I have to point out something about your final comment…

    You wrote:
    Men like a certain type of sex. And that representation sells. And men often don’t see anything wrong with it.

    I don’t think it’s completely fair to paint the entire gender with that brush. There was a time when it would have been an accurate statement, and had you said “most men,” I think we’d be on the same page. But I think things have improved somewhat, that we have people of both genders recognizing there are problems.

  3. Willow Says:

    Maybe I’m bitter?

    I should say most men. I thought I had said most men. But I guess I’ve had too many experience saying most, and thinking of exceptions, only to find out that the men in particular were looking at things from a completely different pov, that only seemed similar to what my point was.

    But for fairness sake, yes, most would be correct. My apologies.

  4. 1 Says:

    Don wrote:
    Groovy… it’s a special delivery… for the ladies. Or perhaps this is DC’s subtle attempt to test of the waters in the yaoi fanbase.

    Not only is most of the yaoi fanbase female, it is also actually a genre that was started by women for women despite what many Westerners often think. The proportion of gay fans in Western countries is much higher than in Japan. Also, in Japanese bookstores, there are separate shelves for manga for men and for women, and yaoi is in the ones for women. Thus no confusion is possible about the target audience. Many Japanese gay men despise Yaoi because of its lack of realism, and because they feel it objectifies them. Manga made by gay men for gay men are very different from yaoi and they feature overly hairy and muscular men, complete opposites of the ones in yaoi.

  5. Don MacPherson Says:

    Yes, I realized after publishing the editorial that my offhand comment about yaoi was off the mark. Rather than edit the piece to make myself look better, I opted to let my mistake stand (as one would have to in print).

  6. Floyd The Barber Says:

    Willow wrote:
    “And I can’t believe you had the gall to bring up Barbie. Women have been complaining about Barbie and her lack of representation of real women for years.”

    That’s WHY I brought her up. Jesus Christ people, I know I’ve been accused of misrepresenting others here, but how much of what I said has been misrepresented? Did you not read the (who’s no better) part afterwards?

    “So if it’s not for children, it’s alright if it’s over sexualized.”

    YES! Yesyesyesyesyesyesyes! If you don’t like it, don’t buy it. You HAVE that choice. When I have a problem is when people suggest things like this shouldn’t be made. That takes away the choice of the people who want it.

    “Not People – Men. Men like a certain type of sex. And that representation sells. And men often don’t see anything wrong with it.”

    The truth is not all women think this way. I’ve known quite a few women (my wife included) who can enjoy super-hero comics (and sex for that matter) without it making them feel demeaned in any way. I’m sure you would probably argue that they’re not intelligent enough to worry about such things. I would argue that they know better than to turn to comics and entertainment to fix deeper social problems.

  7. Willow Says:

    Floyd The Barber Says:
    April 26th, 2007 at 12:30 am

    If you don’t like it, don’t buy it. You HAVE that choice. When I have a problem is when people suggest things like this shouldn’t be made.

    I don’t buy it. My problem is with it being presented as the only way the genre can be. And with it saying ‘I represent the current taste /trend in Super Hero Comics’

    When it’s being promoted as General Audience I don’t have the same ability to ignore it when I go shopping for comics, because it’s right. there.

    That’s not the same as erotic comics, made for adults that you can get behind the counter or where-ever.

    The truth is not all women think this way.

    But not all women don’t. I don’t appreciate being told that my pov is wrong or worthless simply because the women in your life have never said anything along my lines.

    Not all women think this way means not ALL WOMEN think this way. Therefore there are some women who feel demeaned and devalued and as if they’re being shut out of something they used to enjoy as children or teenagers or want to enjoy now as adults.

    There. Is. A. Problem.

    I don’t understand why it is, when people say ‘There is a problem. I’m bringing it to your attention. I’m not the only one with this problem. If you could fix this problem there would be a greater enjoyment to be had by more people’ – And the response is ‘But not all people feel the way you do’.

    Since when has the majority ever done anything for the betterment of the minority?

    That’s why the minority speaks up. But as loud as we speak, everyone else keeps shouting louder to the point where it’s easier to become involved in something else and comic fandom loses out.

    Moreover, personally, I am sick and tired of saying ‘There is a problem Comics Fandom. There is a problem, men in Comics’ and being told that I’m actually saying ‘CENSORSHIP. OMG THE BOOBIES. OH GOD THE SEX!!! IT BURRRRNNNNNS! BELLYBUTTONS OH NO! OH MY THROBBING PRUDES’

    Cause I’m not.

  8. Floyd The Barber Says:

    Willow wrote:
    “I don’t appreciate being told that my pov is wrong or worthless”

    I would never ever say anyone’s pov was worthless. And if I thought so I surely wouldn’t take the time to even respond to it. Please realize that to disagree isn’t always to attack.

    “My problem is with it being presented as the only way the genre can be.”

    But it’s not. There are definitely more realistic portrayals of women in comics out there. Most of which have been really high quality nicely done comics. Marvel’s Spider-girl is a fine example. As was Marvel’s Alias series. David Mack’s Kabuki continues to be one of the most original comics out there. DC’s Manhunter is a good example. On the Indy side I recommend the long running Strangers In Paradise. Queen and Country is another good one. If you can find any Valiant’s short-lived Harbinger was an excellent example of portraying realistic girls as super-heroes. The one sad sad thing all these great series have in common is that they have all had very little financial success when compared to “the standard”. They are all either cancelled (Harbinger, Alias, Manhunter), have faced cancellation (Spider-girl) or are far under the radar of a lot of comics fans (Strangers, Kabuki). All of these amount to sales. I’m sure there are other fine examples, these are just the ones that come to mind that I have personally enjoyed. Maybe you have supported some of these series, maybe you haven’t. It just seems to me that there are A lot of people willing to complain, point fingers and cry “shame, shame” about gratuitous portrayals WITHOUT actually getting out there and supporting comics made in attempt to balance things out. And to me that just reeks of hypocrisy.

    I FREELY ADMIT AND (believe it or not) AGREE with you guys that there certainly could be more of a variety of the way women are portrayed in comics. But do you really believe pointing to Supergirl and Catwoman and saying “Shame on DC” is going to turn that tide? The only way that tide is ever going to turn is if people actually start buying and supporting what they do want to see.

  9. Toon Brew » Blog Archive » Mary Jane Washwoman Says:

    […] Women and comics will likely be a volatile combination for years yet. The tight costumes, big breasts, and stereotypical behavior are not going anywhere, and neither is the legion of nerdlings defending them as “no big deal.” The worst part is that I agree with both camps, to a certain extent. Big boobs and tight costumes don’t really bother me (besides, now we have bulges to counteract them!). Portrayals of helpless, stupid, overly-domesticated women do. […]

  10. Aaron James Says:

    The American public is obsessed with sexuality in an unhealthy way. When Janet’s breast is a bigger scandal for many than the Iraq war and a kid seeing a naked body causes more fear and panic than kids seeing people getting their heads cut off (notice that Tales from the Crypt was played in TV in prime-time), that’s demonstrative of a collective neurosis.

    America is a country that suffers from sexual neurosis, period. Sometimes it’s almost like there will be a return to sex with holes in a sheet. Look at how men won’t even take a group shower now and get dressed inside a towel. Why? They’re worried someone might see them naked and even post a photo on the Internet. Big deal. Everyone has a penis or breasts and a small number have both. Get over it, people.

    Kids are playing Grand Theft Auto and FPS games because killing is good and breasts/dicks are evil. Sorry, but that’s fucked up.

  11. Aaron James Says:

    As for the issue of sexism… I agree that it’s not a good thing for sexist portrayals of women to be commonplace without similarly provocative portrayals of men being seen. If the objectification is done equally, then it’s no big deal. People fantasize and objectify bodies. In fact, the superhero physique itself is a form of objectification. We don’t see fat or skinny super heros very much, and if we do, they usually morph into idealized (objectified) bodies. But, there are examples of arguably demeaning depictions of females and bordering perverted depictions (like that Supergirl). The reality is, though, that people aren’t fully mature until around age 24. That’s right, folks. That’s what the scientific evidence now shows about brain maturity. So, are we going to extend childhood to that point? Personally, I think people need to remember that there’s a big difference between a sexually functional adolescent and a pre-pubescent. Cries of pedophilia in reaction to something like that Supergirl statue are unwarranted. It may be uncomfortable for many adults to recognize the fact that adolescent bodies are sexually attractive, but that discomfort itself says we have to deal with sexuality more frankly, instead of trying to censor it away.

    If people would stop treating the human body as if it’s evil, our culture would be in lot better shape. That’s the bottom line.