OUT/THERE 2: Snapshots from the Gender Wars in 2000 AD this month

A guest column by Colin Smith of Too Busy Thinking About My Comics

I can’t say that I’ve any grasp clear grasp of what ‘Shakara: Avenger’ is about. We’re three episodes into the strip’s run by now, and to this reader new to ‘Shakara’, who’s bemused and somewhat alienated by the fact that each new chapter appears to be describing a different property, it all seems more trouble than it’s worth. Certainly, ‘Shakara’ is yet another example of a 2000ad strip which has apparently been produced for an established hardcore of readers rather than with an eye upon a less knowledgeable and genre-dedicated audience.
Chapter three seems to star one ‘Eva Procopio’, a character described in this week’s prog as an ‘Anti-hierarchy terrorist’, whatever that might be; it certainly sounds as she’s a rebellious protagonist who’s very much in possession of a noble cause. She has a face which appears to be hideously mutilated, though it may well be that she’s an alien whose species have evolved to look like Donatella Versace immediately after a further bout of plastic surgery, an experience which has removed her nose but left some very broad stitches still in place. Or perhaps she’s been tortured, or perhaps her appearance is a deliberate and controlled lifestyle choice rather than an accidental botch-up. Who knows, if all they have is these three dense chapters to go by? Perhaps I missed the key information after I mislaid my will to read on. As I’ve tried to intimate, it’s a hard strip to be able to engage with, which means that it’s a hard strip to want to engage with.
But, though I can tell you little of her character, or purpose, I can report that she is built like a surgically-enhanced porn star, and that she wears a tight, cut off, stripy t-shirt which strongly accentuates her ferociously large and yet pertly upward-turning, breasts, while leaving her midriff and much of her thighs apparently quite naked .Her legs are wrapped in the same material as her breasts are, and these leggings rather suspiciously terminate just where a pair of suspenders hired along with a party nurse uniform would. And between the bottom of her breasts and the top of these leggings, where an earlier age might have imagined a need for modesty? Why, nothing except the very skimpiest of strips of material, super-string thin and yet insubstantial enough to make a thong appear to be an artifact from the age of Victorian overdressing.
The final chapter of ‘Slaine: Mercenary’ could almost have been created as a classroom aid for a Media Studies lesson on the contents and priorities of boy’s comics. Out of a total of 12 pages at hand, 10 are given over to an extended and largely plotless brawl between a gang of sportsmad barbarians. Severed heads are kicked into the air, as they have been for what seems like months now, our hero transforms into a fearsome monster, and whatever logic had remained in the story collapses into convenience. It all passes without providing any good or even partially convincing reason why the reader should’ve paid for all this unreconstructed mayhem, or at least it does if the same reader should happen to be one who doesn’t find the sight of very big men hurting each other time after time after time to be particularly interesting in itself.
Yet there is a sombre if not particularly moving ending to the tale, with the reader being presented with a full page closing splash of poor lonesome Slaine staring into a snowstorm, having had his offer of a shall we say? relationship rejected by Raven, a Celtic maiden saved from decapitation by our exceedingly manly hero. Oh, that sad, lonely, wordless barbarian man carrying his very big axe. 10 pages of violence, 1 page of desperate self-pity: can you see what I mean about a Media Studies teaching aid?
And that rejection of Slaine by Raven, which is quite literally crushed into less than half of a single page, is the only substantial emotional moment that we’re provided with in this whole story. To the credit of Mr Mills, his script does have Nest turn down her uncouth saviour’s offer, which leaves her retaining a measure of dignity and autonomy where other tales might follow tradition and have her safely and admiringly tucked up under the hero’s arm. But it’s such a shame that such a potentially moving scene is over after just one row and four tiny panels of it having begun. Elsewhere in the chapter, where the obviously more important business of repetitious violence is concerned, there’s a maximum of 6 panels to be found on each page. In essence, scenes of gratuitous slaughter take up more than 80% of this chapter, and the conversation between Slaine and Raven about the rest of their lives takes up about 3% of panel-time.
It’s the perfect example of how relatively unimportant recognisable human emotions beyond bloodlust, greed and fear are in ‘Slaine’. And that’s why the strip is, for anyone largely uninterested in muscular hairy men constantly hitting each other, extremely tedious. It’s not because the text is largely empty of women that this is so, though it surely doesn’t help, but, rather, because the work itself is largely absent of the kind of emotional meaning that might snare a reader who wants something more than weeks and weeks of Murderball to read about. And I suspect that the first point, namely the absence of women, is rather closely related to the second, namely the absence of emotional meaning beyond machismo and manly despair. Because if the focus is on men being manly to men in a violent fashion, then the possibility for stories which evoke more thoughtful and moving responses than ‘ugh!’ and ‘argh!’ must surely recede from the consciousness of all involved. Perhaps remembering that women do after all make up a greater percentage of the human race than men might allow creators to recall that there are other possibilities for stories which might compliment all that violence and all the laughing about violence too.
Just because ‘Slaine’ exists in the genre that it does doesn’t mean that it’s a strip that’s not capable of being more in part touching, and thought provoking, and, as a consequence, interesting and moving. And I can’t help but believe that placing Slaine into a world that contains more recognisable human beings of all and any genders might just make the strip into something that’s more than one big, seemingly endless, wearisome throwdown.
‘Kingdom’ is a strip which does co-star a strong and able female protagonist, one Clara Bow. She’s handy in a fight, which is a plus, and she’s fully dressed, which is another, though she’s ultimately reliant, it seems, upon her male and dogly companion, and given to fearful despair rather than stoicism when faced with death, which, for the only female protagonist in this week’s 2000ad not dressed as a porn star, is a shame. For if that same role were to have been given to a male character in ‘Slaine’, for example, the lack of emotional restraint and the desire for a cuddle at their end would have been a marker more of weakness than character, and so it is for Clara too.
But it ought to said that if we’re just taking a snapshot of some of the gender roles present in this month’s 2000ad, then ‘Kingdom’ is a somewhat more progressive strip than most. And if it were surrounded by other features which recognised the fundamental issues of social justice more readily, and which as a consequence had more fully clothed women placed as protagonists in their narratives, then no one could blink an eye at Clara’s role in ‘Kingdom’. Instead, Clara could be an example of a human being with individual strengths and weakness rather than a role model. But since she’s alone in performing as a female heroic lead in the pages of 2000ad, the fact that she’s not as brave as her male companion when death seems to be calling stands against her character, and seems to say that woman, when the worst arrives, need reassurance and holding far more than men do.
And so, Clara Bow seems rather unremarkable and unimpressive as a female heroic lead. That’s a doubly unfortunate business, because she also appears to be quite unremarkable as an individual too. In three episodes, there’s been little sign of any recognisable personality attached to her actions beyond the broadest of responses to her companion and their mutual adventure. She’s not really a person, or even a two-dimensional comic-book character. She’s at best a type. And ‘Kingdom’ as a whole reads as if it were the preliminary storyboards for an initial conference concerning a proposal for a computer game. For in common with so much in 2000ad these past few months, ‘Kingdom’ doesn’t read as if it’s a story about people, but rather as if it’s a tale about fighting, and different levels of challenge, and enemies, and action. So far, it’s a quest game in two-dimensional form, and it’s hard to see why anyone would want to produce a strip which is so unconcerned with people while so apparently happy to place before the reader the most familiar of plots and the least interesting and moving of challenges.
And because ‘Kingdom’ is so flat, and so unconcerned so far with anything other than the conventions of the genre it inhabits, it doesn’t really matter what gender its leads belong to. For the characters it gives us don’t convince either as people or as metaphors for particular human characteristics except in the very broadest of terms. We’re now 15 pages into the story, and we’re 3 chapters down, and if this were television, or the movies, or a novel, I suspect that someone with an editorial responsibility might have recommended giving the audience something to associate their emotions with beyond a succession of running-chasing-fighting-looking-around-running-chasing-fighting.
If 2000 ad truly wants to provide an alternative to what editor Matt Smith implied was the male-centric product of Mark Millar’s ‘Clint’, then it needs to do something more than present men and women as cut from fundamentally the same grey cloth while being put into service as one-dimensional game-pieces. In certain strips it does just that, such as in ‘The Chief Judge’s Speech’ in the Christmas special, where the reader was given an adventure story, and political satire, and social comment, and a loathing for the powers-that-be, and a series of good long belly laughs too. In fact, so grounded in a recognisably human situation was ‘The Chief Judge’s Speech’ that it almost didn’t matter that it was a story lacking even one substantial role for a single recognisably female character at all. It was a story that was strong on the business of what it is to inhabit a corrupt society at a time of debased celebration, and so it’s perfectly understandable that the specific issue of gender might not be a priority. After all, short stories using established characters can’t possibly attend to every social dilemma that might be considered important. The problem of a lack of meaning exists not when a strip has attended to one human, social problem rather than another, but when creators engage with no human problems at all except for those tenuously concerned with laser guns and monsters and their like.
And so, when matters of social justice and human interaction aren’t a priority, the old male-centric narratives seem to re-emerge unchallenged, because, in truth, they far too rarely have been challenged, and so they’ve never been truly put to bed.
What is ‘Kingdom’ about beyond the most standard-issue of adventure yarns, and why should the reader care?
In ‘Necrophim’, as best as I can understand, for it’s another strip which has apparently been written without an excess of care for the reader who’s new to its world and its key players and events, there is but a single female character, a succubus, who uses her sexual powers and her utter ruthlessness in an attempt to attain her will. Beyond her scheming presence, ‘Necrophim’ appears to stand quite empty of any other female characters at all. Still, in terms of the presence of significant speaking roles held by women, this does put ‘Necrophim’ ahead of quite 50% of the stories in 2000ad’s 100 page Christmas special, but that’s the smallest of mercies.
To have but a single woman in ‘Necrophim’, and to associate her with the role of the evil sexual seductress come to power, and to then provide no-one else of her gender as a point of contrast even where the business of wickedness is concerned, is surely more than just a touch insensitive, and surely a mark of a lack of ambition where the whole matter of sex and gender is concerned.
Did no one notice there was but one woman in the whole of ‘Necrophim’? Did no-one care?

OUT/THERE: Sex & Gender In This Month In 2000 AD & Judge Dredd Megazine

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.

Announcing the Girl-Wonder.org Membership Drive!

Girl-Wonder.org is pleased to announce that it is holding elections for the Board of Directors for its governing body, Gworg.
Gworg is an incorporated non-profit feminist organization dedicated to fostering an attentive, empowered comics fan community, to encouraging respect and high-quality character depiction, and to assisting the professional development of women working in the field of comics. Anyone who supports these aims is eligible to become a member, and all members are able to vote, stand for office, and nominate others to the Board.
Becoming a Director is an excellent opportunity to support and direct the progress of Girl-Wonder.org! Moreover, since Gworg is a registered non-profit organization, this also makes a great entry of volunteer work on your resume.
This is how it works:
1) To become an official member of Gworg, you must purchase a voting membership good for one year. There is a nominal fee of five dollars, which is waived for Girl-Wonder.org volunteers (bloggers, cartoonists, forums moderators, etc). All members are eligible to vote in elections, and to nominate themselves or others for Board positions.
2) If you want to be a Board Director, nominate yourself! You can also nominate others don’t worry about approaching them to see if they’re interested or if they’re members, because we’ll do that.
3) We’ll make sure all nominees want to run for election and are eligible to do so.
We will be accepting new members and Board nominations from Tuesday, November 30th through Tuesday, December 21st. Elections will be announced on Tuesday, December 28th. Members will then have until Tuesday, January 4th to vote for this year’s Gworg Board of Directors.
Each Board of Directors will decide upon tasks depending on its Directors’ talents and interests, but below are listed some of the things that past and current Directors have done. As you can see, there’s plenty of scope for many kinds of activities under the Girl-Wonder.org banner!

  • Chairs Board meetings, oversees projects, liases with other organizations.
  • Keeps minutes, sorts correspondence, organizes Board meeting schedule and agenda.
  • Keeps funds, makes financial reports, organizes audits.
    IT Director:
  • Keeps the back-end of the site running, fixes catastrophes, adds new sub-sites.
    Press and Media Coordinator
  • Handles press contacts, manages con promotions, writes press releases
    Auction organisation:
  • Organises Girl-Wonder.org’s charity auctions
    Incorporation Director:
  • Investigating regulations and requirements for incorporation, filing documentation, keeping records, getting us incorporated (yay!)
    Zine Publisher:
  • Soliciting and coordinating contributors, designing layout, publishing zine
    Merchandising Director:
  • Investigates options for Girl-Wonder.org merchandise
    Mod Liaison:
  • Liaises between Board and forum moderators, recruits new moderators, organizes moderator schedules and forum rules.