Last year, DC Comics relaunched its entire line of superheroes in an event they titled The New 52. Aimed at luring new readers, the initiative sought to wipe away decades of confusing and conflicting continuity and to present the most authentic, essential versions of their popular characters (including Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman, and others). Costumes were redesigned, creative teams shifted, and backstories simplified or altered. 52 was by most accounts a commercial and artistic success. But despite the lip service that DC editorial has paid to bringing in new creators and readers, especially more women, they somehow still allowed a lot of crap to happen.
I do not want to rehash Red Hood and the Outlaws, Wonder Woman, or Catwoman here; even though last month’s Catwoman #0 is obviously the principle motivator of this post. Others have already written on these, and I encourage anyone interested enough to have gotten thus far to click on the links embedded in the titles above for some excellent commentary on the issues with those specific works.
Instead, I want to tackle a very specific argument that some creators and fans have raised in defense of the sexualization of women within the pages and on the covers of these comics. Let’s call it the ‘other mediums do it too!’ defense (AKA the ‘books/films/games/etc., are just as bad!’ defense). Put aside the fact that this defense, more of an excuse, is incredibly juvenile: if a novel jumped off a bridge, would you? It also conveniently elides the greatest formal difference between comics and other media: comic book characters are drawn, inked, and colored—wholly produced—by people. This seems rather obvious, I know. But it has enormous ramifications for the ways that the human form is represented, and how that representation is understood, consumed, and/or identified with by the comic’s audience. So, when I argue that representations of women in comics generally are worse than those in other media, it is not because I am a snob or self-hating comics fan (well, maybe sometimes), nor is it because there are some objective criteria by which we can measure this phenomenon. Nor do I believe that comics artists and writers and editorial boards are evil or are actively trying to ‘keep women down’ somehow–although at times (see examples above) one has to wonder. Rather, it is because in comics, unlike in prose or film, the creator or creative team exercises absolute control over the bodies it aims to represent.
In a novel, the author has control over what characters do and what they say, but very little effective control over what a character looks like. This is because even when a physical description is provided, visualization of the character is still left to the reader. This limitation of form actually gives enormous power to readers to shape their own version/vision of each character, creating one which is as relatable or realistic or fantastical as their imagination and desires dictate. Even when a specific characterization is insisted upon by an author (for example, by repeated callbacks to it) the totality of the visual representation is exceedingly unstable, because it must be recreated within readers’ heads whenever the character ‘appears’ on the page, and is subject to our own memories and wishes and moods. They draw quite heavily on our own conscious and unconscious beliefs and fears: note the anger of some Hunger Games fans when the film (correctly) portrayed Rue as black, contrary to some fans’ visualization of her. Examples like this one make it clear that the reader exercises more control over bodies in prose works than authors do, because the action of the novel transpires not on the page, but in our heads.
In film, even with access to techniques including adjustable lighting, camera perspective and angle, costuming, makeup, etc., the filmmaker is still limited to filming actual bodies. While an actual body can be uncommon or unlikely, surgically modified or enhanced, we can only call it ‘unrealistic’ if we mean that it is not achievable by many or most. So when Michael Bay (to cite a nonrandom example) takes a body which possesses many or most of our angst-producing cultural ideals of beauty, and subjects that body to a series of slow motion, low-angle crotch shots, there are still some practical limits on how much sexualization is achieved (even when it is the filmmaker’s goal), limits enforced by the shape and size of a real body belonging to a real person.
Not in comics. It is the most tightly controlled of visual mediums, where everything placed onto paper is a choice. The visual subject takes on an authenticating significance far beyond even film, in which at some point, one must obtain actual objects or people to point a camera at: the filmed chair that a Bond supervillian sits upon is not a supervillain’s chair, but an object belonging to the props department. Megan Fox is always Megan Fox, surviving even Michael Bay’s attempt to make us believe she is “Mikaela Banes.” In comics, however, a character like Starfire can be re-presented to the audience as a joyless, mindless sex robot, not only in her actions and her speech (the purview of the writer), but in even more striking and subtle ways by how she is drawn, how she is posed, and every nuance of her expression. This is the character, those are her meanings, and there is no ‘real’ to push back against the representation, and very little imaginative space ceded to the audience to refigure her. Catwoman can be reduced to nothing but a head, breasts, and ass—literally sexualized because secondary sexual characteristics make up the greater portion of her entire body:
The representations of characters in comics face very few technical limits: the difficulty in translating a supposedly three dimensional form into two dimensional space still exists, of course, but former constraints such as shoddy newsprint, poor publishing tools, and limited color choices are long gone. The creator(s) encounter no physical limits, either in terms of what is actually possible for human physiology, or even what is permissible by the laws of physics. This, of course, is one of the great benefits of comics as a form, and explains why the superhero was born within their pages, and still most comfortably (if not profitably) resides there. But it is also why representations of people—of gender certainly but also of race, dis/ability, and more—are so often more problematic in comics than in any other narrative form.
The best comics are amazing and super and wonder-ful because they grant their creators (like the heroes that fill their pages) nearly unlimited power—power to shape their floppy or hardbound worlds and to populate them. But with this power, as Mr Lee once said, also comes great responsibility. Those who love comics—fans and writers and artists and editors—should remember this.
(Many thanks to the comics reading group at the University of Oregon for their help in refining my thinking on this subject)
Brian Psiropoulos is a dad and PhD candidate in English literature. He likes stuff, especially gothic Victorian novels, superhero comics, and video games. Also tennis.