A guest column by Colin Smith
And things were going so well.
We weren’t halfway through September and there were strong women to be found everywhere in both 2000 ad and The Megazine. Lily Mackenzie, Judge Anderson and Judge Inaba were headlining characters in the latter, while Rowan Morrigan was the lead in “Age Of Wolf” in the former. Elsewhere in both comics, female characters were occupying substantial support roles, as in “Low-Life” and “Nikolai Dante”, and carrying the protagonist’s responsibilities in short stories such as “A Judge’s First Duty”.
It may or may not have been a deliberate policy on the part of Tharg’s staff, but editor Matt Smith certainly recognised an opportunity to use the matter of gender to score points off of Mark Millar’s newly minted “Clint”, a new monthly aimed squarely at an audience of utterly unreconstructed adolescent blokes. 2000 ad and the Megazine were apparently, he announced, welcoming comic books for right-thinking women as much as long-reading fan-males everywhere.
It wasn’t entirely true, of course, but there were undeniably positive aspects to the strips being published at that time where representations of gender were concerned. The women were brave and strong, comfortable with authority and secure in their own worth. They weren’t reliant on men saving the day, trying to prove themselves to daddy, or running away from their destiny as housewives and mothers. Most importantly, they weren’t functioning solely, or even significantly, as sex objects.
Things were undoubtedly looking up, and yet there was a still a very real sense that the most difficult challenges were still ahead. Of all of the female characters on show, only the splendidly self-possessed and decidedly life-worn Judge Thora, the fearsomely matriarchal Madame Dante and the stern Judge Leland weren’t notably youthful, slim-hipped and alluring. The idea that a woman’s body might be represented as something other than fatless, hairless, boy-hipped, and beautifully symmetrical clearly hadn’t taken hold across the range of creators, although in places even characters which appeared to have been designed merely to be alluring revealed unexpected qualities. Simon Fraser’s “Lily Mackenzie”, for example, began in the Megazine with a series of stories that strayed at times towards cheesecake, and yet, over the passing months, the eponymous heroine was revealed to be bright, determined, and more than capable of looking after herself; her looks quickly and thankfully ceased to define her. And Boo Cook’s artwork for Judge Anderson at times showed the heroine originally modelled on a 30-something Debbie Harry aging gracefully into someone still beautiful, but at times stoically mature. If the reader still wasn’t being given women whose appearance reflected even the breadth of types that a typical TV soap might offer, there was without doubt some significant movement forward.
It hasn’t lasted. Strips starring female characters have been blinking out of sight since October and their replacements have been far less representative of anything other than blokes. 2000 ad carried not a single strip starring a female lead in November, and, most worrying, those women who have appeared in the comic have been often confined to some very traditional roles indeed. In prog 1713, for example, there are women as youthful lures, clothes-makers, old lovers, and beguiling if vengeful ghosts. Considered in isolation, none of these various characters can be considered as offensive in the slightest way, and many were examples of impressive work. But when the presence of women in a comic-book exists only as a string of slight and stereotypical roles, then it’s the cumulative effect which counts.
This week’s 2000 ad brings us little relief either. No female leads at all. An apparently helpless girl-woman about to be executed in “Slaine” before the anti-hero’s gaze. And in both “SinisterDexter” and “Dandridge”, women act as beautiful dispatchers while the men engage in the business of daring deeds and grand explosions. These women are bright and impressive and powerful, but it’s still the men who do the fighting and dominate the majority of the panel-time, while the women serve behind the lines. As said above, this doesn’t make these characters offensive in the slightest way, but what it does do is highlight the pressing need for 2000 ad to be carrying more female leads in its more recent pages.
It’s a shame to find a year closing in such a fashion when in places it’s been producing such promising fare. Perhaps it might be more productive to end with a mention of some of those characters which have to a greater or less degree both defied the prevailing comic-book stereotypes of women while standing as entertaining characters in their own right. And so, in no particular order, may I present to you my votes for Women Of The Year in 2000ad and the Megazine;
1. Judge Thora, from “Low-Life” by Rob Williams and D’israeli
It took me a while to warm to Judge Thora as a character, mainly because Mr William’s script for “Low-Life” was based on the assumption that all his readers would be familiar with the characters at hand, and this reader wasn’t. Yet, like a champion who’s stumbled out of the starting gate and yet raced past the finish line well ahead of the field, “Low-Life” soon established its pedigree and justified its form. In Judge Thora, writer Mr Williams presented us with a portrait of a woman obsessed with staring hard choices straight in the eye while being egotistical and determined enough to betray most every principle and colleague she had in doing so. It’s the type of role which comic-book fictions rarely grant to women, and at every stage of their story, Mr Williams and Mr D’Israeli ensured that their depiction of Thora was both quite individual and entirely free of traditionally sexist tropes. Chief of the undercover “Wally Squad” in the “Low-Life”, and so responsible for policing one of the roughest slums in the future city of Mega-City One, Thora could never be mistaken for a standard-issue, deeply-caring matriarch. Looking as old and worn and yet indomitable as the neighbourhood she felt she represented, Thora was neither mother, lover, victim or child, and her assassination at the end of “Low-Life” was a source of some considerable regret to this reader. Yet so strong was her character, and so significant the menace she’d presented, that her murder never felt like that traditionally dealt out to uppity women. Thora was shot because she was too formidable and corrupt to be allowed to live, and that’s a very different matter indeed.
2. Lily Mackenzie, by Simon Fraser
I’d never have imagined presenting Lily as a character worthy of the reader’s attention and respect after her first few appearances, as discussed above. But as the months have passed, Mr Fraser has achieved a remarkable feat, in that he’s confounded initial presumptions through the gently-paced establishing of Lily as a bright, intelligent and determined lead for his strip. A highly-competent young woman searching for her lost brother in a mundane outer-space setting, Lily’s adventures are distinguished by a focus on the everyday practicalities of surviving a future entirely free of alien monsters and ray guns. And from the scenes in which Lily expresses her joyful and practical command of the biological sciences on the surface of Charybdis, to those in which she reluctantly uses her army brat’s skill with a gun to defend friend and family from a fearsome assault, Mr Fraser’s work has established his heroine as an individual and not a type, as a well-rounded character and not merely a pleasant and attractive lead, and that’s a process well worthy of respect.
3. June Akiwara, from “Damnation Station” by Al Ewing, Simon Davis and Boo Cook
One of the advantages of the presence of women who occupy the space usually dominated by male heroes is that other female characters can be shown in more traditional roles without seeming to argue that being, for example, a wife and mother is all that a woman can ever be. Yet even considering that, the arc of June Akiwara’s life, from her cheerful and competent first appearance to her final scene as the slaughtered victim of a “terrorist” attack, might in the hands of a less able writer than Al Ewing seem hopelessly retrograde. A mother traumatised by the loss of her child, and vulnerable to despair and self-harm if she suspects she’s hurt anyone else she’s responsible for, June might once have seemed to represent the fate of women who try to rise above their traditional place in life. But in ”Damnation Station”, she stands not for female weakness, but for the misdirection of humanity’s empathy, for the way in which we damage ourselves and others by unthinkingly serving causes which exploit rather than assist our fellows. In Al Ewing’s tale of humanity fighting on the wrong side in a galactic war, all of June’s attempts to serve with competency and care are doomed to fall woefully short despite her very best efforts because she’s simply serving the wrong cause. In such a context, June’s collapse from apparently-competent legionnaire to drug-dulled, broken-hearted victim of a terrorist attack stands not as an example of fundamental feminine weakness, but of what happens to human beings when they’re perverted into serving apparently-laudable, but entirely-corrupt leaders. In a sense, for the utter corruption of the moral order in “Damnation Station” to be fully established, the most decent and wounded of all the characters there had to be shown being obliterated, and that was June Akiwara. Bad things happen to ordinary folks unwittingly serving anti-social ends, Damnation Station argues, and it’s a point that couldn’t be so movingly established without such a genuinely tragic loss.
It’s notable, however, that two of my three choices for “Female Character Of The Year” ended up dead in 2010. Let’s hope for better times, and where appropriate, longer lives, for the women of 2000 ad and the Megazine in 2011.
Colin Smith blogs regularly at Too Busy Thinking About My Comics