By Colin Smith
This is my third guest column on the matter of how sex and gender is being represented in 2000ad, and it’s been by far the hardest to write. For after having written two pieces in a row bemoaning, with a gathering sense of disappointment and frustration, the comic book’s lack of apparent concern where the 51% of the population that’s female is concerned, I find the past five week’s worth of progs have brought nothing that even vaguely improves the situation.
After awhile, even the most optimistic reader is surely forced to concede that no matter how vital the matter of sex and gender is beyond of pages of Tharg’s weekly “award-winning SF anthology”, within its covers it’s usually of very little apparent importance at all. 2000ad, we might conclude, is a boy’s comic that’s mostly for ageing blokes who really aren’t concerned with any kind of social agenda beyond who hits who and with what.
And if wasn’t for the commercial shortsightedness of this, and for the limitations it places on the type of stories which can be told, and for the lack of artistic ambition it displays, and, most importantly, for the moral disengagement that it marks, why, who could be in the slightest bit concerned with much, if not of course all, of what’s been shown, and what’s not been shown, in 2000ad over the past three months?
There’s such a marked and consistent editorial and creative indifference as to what surely are seriously important ethical issues where the politics of sex and gender are concerned, that 2000ad’s moral inertia seems to quite defeat any meaningful attempt to want to debate with its pages and to hope for more inclusive fare ahead. Don’t notice it, put up with it, or just go away and give up, “Tharg the mighty, Alien Editor extraordinaire”, seems to be saying to anyone tired of this relentless apathy towards women within the comic’s pages, because I’m not changing and we’re not changing and you’re just waffling on, repeating yourself over and over and over again.
You’re no fun, implies the Mighty Tharg, so confident, so cocksure, and, to a degree, he may well be right. It’s certainly no fun writing this time after time.
Of course, female readers can certainly enjoy the adventures of male characters in largely male environments presenting what are mostly traditional male gender characteristics. And I’ve no doubt that 2000ad has hundreds of loyal female readers who find the relative lack of female characters and the regular absence of feminist-minded thinking in the comic book to be a negligible barrier to their entertainment. And yet, I wonder what a woman – or a man who isn’t just concerned with reading about a male-centric view of the world – new to 2000ad would think of what’s been presented to us in the pages of this month’s comics? In the 5 chapters of “Ampney Crucis” from prog 1718 to 1722, for example, there was but one minor female character on show, who did nothing but cry, pray for her life and then, in hope of saving herself, gun down those around her in the hope of prolonging her existence. Yet of those men surrounding her, and for all their various virtues and weaknesses, not a tear is shown being shed, regardless of what side of the good/evil divide they fall upon. In essence, the blokes make this world, and the women weep and conform in order to find their place and perhaps save their lives.
The oddest thing about this is that the creators of this strip clearly aren’t thinking about what they’re presenting in terms of sex and gender. For it’s impossible to imagine how a more representative spread of men and women would have negatively affected the strip, and so it’s impossible to imagine why women should be so thin on the ground there, and so notably absent where the key roles are concerned. After all, it can’t be a question of the creators wanting to reflect the gender bias of the era that Crucis is set in, because if historical veracity was so important to them, they’d hardly be presenting us with a post World War One tale so full of demons and super-science in the first place.
Why is “Ampney Cruscis Investigates” so thinly populated by anyone who isn’t a man then? Who wouldn’t want to produce stories that were as much about women as men? Who’d want to limit their work by limiting the options for the members of the cast that they can play with?
Who’d want to write about blokes and pretty much nothing but blokes, peppered with a few female whiners and victims and enablers, especially when their work will eventually be collected as a trade paperback and placed before the public as an example of a genre piece so unintentionally regressive that it makes even US TV franchise cop shows appear to stand as revolutionary texts in the gender wars by comparison?
Similarly, “Necrophim” stars just one recognisably female figure amongst a cast of many, many tiresomely treacherous creatures. Why there’s just one female to be seen on that side of the curtain is never explained, but there lurks the awkward suspicion that she’s been intended as some kind of radical statement. After all, who’d place a single female character in a strip and not realise that that fact constituted a statement in itself anyway?
But what statement is it that’s being made in “Necrophim” where women are concerned? Perhaps we’re being shown the other side of equality, in that women are just as capable of being dastardly as men? Perhaps. But then, the new Queen of Hell is so often defined with reference to her previous role as a “scabbed whore”, and presented as a coldly manipulative and calculating creature, which leaves the only woman in this strip feeling uncomfortably close to that old male stereotype of the woman with the icy heart who uses sex and deceit to attain power. And it’s impossible not to look at the panels of the newly enthroned Cythea at the tales end, and not believe that those poses have been lifted from porn magazines, which leaves everything feeling utterly confused and rather insulting.
There is, however, a terrible lurking sense that there may be an attempt at irony at play in “Shakara”. Given that it’s impossible to believe that anyone in 2011 would unthinkingly knowingly present us with Eva, the strip’s sometimes-narrator and sidekick, with her mutilated face mounted on an often-barely clothed porn-star’s body, is it possible that this is a joke aimed at comic book sexism? It’s a supposition that’s far more pleasing than the more obvious conclusion, which is that no one noticed what they were doing. For Eva, presented at the tale’s beginning as a violently able freedom fighter, is swiftly reduced to the role of sidekick to an obviously masculine super-warrior, and her most prominent role is to be so distractingly and devastatingly attractive that she can inspire alien males to assume she’s a prostitute. Yes, Eva’s major contribution this past month has been to distract utterly extra-terrestrial creatures with her huge breasts, waspish waist and massively shapely, if conspicuously scarred, thighs, the mere presence of which can trigger barely uncontrollable lust and the suggestion of illicit financial transactions. She possesses, it appears, the power of super-prostitution. Well, how fantastic that all that flesh can be so such a powerful sexual lure to quite unearthly creatures, and how grand that Eva’s role is to make the males of the galaxy so excited that they can’t concentrate on their jobs. She may be a rebel, she may be a scientist, she may be a warrior, but when it comes down to it, she contributes the most by crossing those extravagant legs and baring much of that even more extravagant chest. Flirting and semi-nudity is how this female protagonist serves the cause, and even as a gag, if such it is, it’s wearying and unpleasant.
Why do Eva and Cythea have to be presented as sex objects in the way that they are at all? Do female characters have to be presented as playing the role of prostitute or mythological sex demon, whether ironically or not? There are ways, after all, of presenting sexuality, and indeed a predatory sexuality, that don’t so apparently draw off of the specific repertoire of pornography, and the general one of casual sexism too. And if this is irony, what’s it’s being ironic about? Even when Eva is mostly clothed, those huge breasts remain mostly uncovered, and even in this future so distant that other recognisably human beings aren’t anywhere to be seen at all, it’s Eva whose compassionate eyes well with tears for Shakara’s welfare.
Why, if humanity hasn’t survived, its gender roles have.
But of all this month’s individual chapters, the most telling, if hardly the most offensive, might be “Kingdom” Part 9. In it, we have one Gene, a humanoid mutant dog, as our lead character, a huge hulk-like creature who doesn’t really look like a dog at all, or indeed a human being. Strangely enough, Clara, the similarly-mutated female dog-person he’s been twinned with, does look human, and, with the exception of a rather mutedly canine nose, she’s quite the stereotypically fetching pseudo-human female too, with thin hips, taut abs, large breasts, and a cutely-unkempt blonde hair-style too. And to compliment her traditional physical gender characteristics, Clara brings with her the habit of being a plot-complicating hostage and, compared to Gene-Dog, something of whiner too. She may be a useful sidekick in a firefight, but let’s not pretend this is anything other than a slightly less objectionable variation on one of the traditional roles that women have usually played in boy’s comics, for, so far, she’s little if anything more than an excuse for Gene to feel angst-ridden and alpha-male aggressive.
But let’s put aside the fact that “Kingdom” is an incredibly over-familiar, gender-insensitive and dull narrative. Instead, why don’t we consider how the last panel of “Kingdom” in prog 1722 is, in the context of this run of issues, simply insensitive. In it, the General, the tale’s antagonist, declares to our hulking hero that he’s going to kill all of his canine prisoners, and states that he’s going to start with that “bitch” of Gene’s. Now, the meaning of the phrase is no doubt meant to mark the General as a villain, but it serves in context as being yet another example of female characters such as Clara being insulted for, essentially, not being men. The word “bitch” here does indeed help point out that the General is something of a monster, but does that point have to be established by using such language to insultingly describe yet another subsidiary female character who’s already spent weeks of our time being helpless and serving as an excuse for the male lead to get really, really, really desperate and angry? For if it were just one strip in any single issue of 2000ad which was struggling and failing to be kind and respectful in its gender politics, then the General might say anything at all. He is, after, the bad guy here. But when the likes of everything we’ve discussed above is also present in any particular week’s issue, that word “bitch” passes in the wider context from being a symbol of villainy to yet an unnecessary example of creative and editorial cack-handedness.
Why does gender and sexuality have to be used as an insult at all where female characters are concerned? Male characters don’t seem to have any such problem across any span of strips you might care to mention in 2000ad. They’re never portrayed as having been rent-boys, demonic or not, or as turning alien heads by playing any such role. They’re never placed in strips which are nearly entirely populated by women, and treated as if their place is to get captured, undressed, or, at best, to support a big strong female hero. They’re never brainwashed into marrying and being raped by demi-alien monsters, as in ABC Warriors, or threatened with rape, as in Savage. Men are, well; they’re men, aren’t they, and the fact of simply being male isn’t of itself used even as a common basis for villain’s insults.
Now, perhaps next week will find us reading of how all this by-the-numbers sexism has been a cleverly-established, ironic set-up in the plot. Perhaps our female dog-soldier will emerge absolutely in charge of her own destiny, free of any need to rely on big Gene’s calmness and muscular arms, far more than just a hostage and sidekick.
But if so, it’ll come after more than three months of mostly-standard fare male-centrism in 2000ad, and two months of “Kingdom” itself, and that’s too long a time for a strip which is consumed in weekly doses in the context of this so-often banally regressive comic book.
Ultimately, as we’ve discussed before, and as I promise not to prattle on about at any length here, this problem of sexism, unconscious although I’ve no doubt it is, is one that reflects particularly poorly on this comic book’s editorial office. Worse yet, it’s a policy of inattention that ends up reflecting unfairly on the comic book’s creators too. In a magazine where gender was more carefully and kindly attended to, the presence of a single strip such as “Judge Dredd: Served Cold” could play out its course with its lack of female characters passing largely unnoticed. If 2000 ad wanted to present a male-heavy strip that’s both homage to Thirties gangster movies and CSI-like TV detective shows with no female leads on show, as in the latest Judge Dredd story, then why not? The fact that the machismo of a great deal of the characters on show in “Served Cold” serves them particularly badly could even be read as a challenge to traditional constructions of the masculine hero. A strip that’s largely empty of female characters can still be, after all, a profoundly anti-sexist statement.
But in the end, “Judge Dredd: Served Cold” is, when read in the company of its fellows, just another story where the antagonists and protagonists are nearly all male. Certainly, every major role in the story is occupied by men. Now, there might be a point to this, to women being reduced to one-panel displays of competency by female Judges and various brief cameos of women presented in one way or another as victims of a highly sexualised and sexist culture. But when that is what’s so often being presented elsewhere, any possibility for irony, again, collapses. There’s no space for subtly where sex and gender is concerned in 2000ad at the moment, if subtly if what the creators of “Served Cold” are providing. And if “Served Cold” is to a greater or lesser degree about how male mule-headedness creates and perpetuates mayhem, then its placement in February’s 2000ad has quite undermined its purpose.
If, on the other hand, it’s just a story of blokes shooting blokes, as it well might be, then why would anyone want to do that, in this time, in this climate, in this particular situation?
The creators and editorial staff involved in these past 5 progs have all produced work that presents admirable, if not sappily minded and unbearably perfect, representations of women in the past, I’m sure. (A few of the writers and artists are unfamiliar to me, but I’m happy to assume the very best here.) But to commission and then publish as a block all of the work discussed above, and to do so for week after week after week, merely causes everyone involved to look bad, to a greater or lesser degree, be they editors, creators, readers or the brand of the comic book as a whole.
Even the consumer must surely start to feel somewhat grubby and alienated after awhile, or so I’d sincerely hope. Certainly, I feel that way.
But the important thing really isn’t whether good professionals, or indeed a much loved comic book, look bad or not. What counts is whether the work is, in context, clearly on the side of the relatively powerless against the relatively powerful or not.
That’s the litmus test, and for yet another month, it’s a test that 2000ad has once again failed.
It’s now been more than a year since I first started writing about sex and gender and 2000ad, and I think that I’ve not only said everything that I have to say on the subject, but said it so many times than even I’m tired of hearing it. And so, I think it’s time for me to put the subject, and the comic as a whole, to one side, though individual serials will undoubtedly yet catch my attention. For there’s no debate to contribute to that I can perceive on this matter of sex and gender in 2000ad outside of a tiny group of folks, and I regret sincerely that I’ve lacked the skill and insight to inspire one. But I can’t see what good I might even be doing myself by writing what I have on this topic. So it goes.
But there we go. My job here is done, because I couldn’t contribute anything at all to the job at hand.
Colin Smith will continue writing about comic books at http://toobusythinkingboutcomics.blogspot.com/