OUT/THERE no 3: On 2000ad late January/February 2011

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/

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.

Dredd would be proud

Recently, 2000 AD and Judge Dredd Megazine have been doing a lot of work with female characters in fact, since #300 of the Megazine, aside from Judge Dredd’s own strip, a two part Armitage, and a horror one-off, every strip has been centred around a female lead, and #300’s Dredd focused on his protégé Ami Beeny and Armitage was saved by his female partner.
This isn’t lasting, but neither does it seem to have been a deliberate attempt at a women-heavy run: it’s just how the strips came out.
One of the strips that deserves a mention is Hondo City Justice by Robbie Morrison and Neil Googe, the latest in Morrison’s stories centred around Hondo (the Japanese mega-city in Dredd’s world). The lead is an old character, Inspector-Judge Inaba, one of the few female Judges in Hondo. She’s mainly been shown as partner and ally to recurring character Shimura (a Judge turned ronin); or there was a focus on her being an outsider in the Judge force due to her gender; or she headlined comedy stories that usually revolved around, you guessed it, T&A gags. And that was pretty much it for her.
Hondo City Justice has been a game-changer for her though. While the strip isn’t the best thing Morrison’s ever done the villains are a blatant riff on the X-Men and don’t really come off as impressive there’s something it brings to the table that we’ve seen with Inaba before. She’s now got a cadet. It’s a super-powerful teenage girl psionic cadet, part of an intended next generation of super-Judges, but at the core of Cadet Junko Asahara is that she’s a naïve, young cadet.
And this is the interesting bit, because another writer might have taken the obvious approach and had Inaba become a maternal figure with Junko, or give them a sisterly relationship. After all, one’s a woman and the other’s a girl! What else will you do?
Well, Morrison decided he’d have Inaba as a Judge and Junko as a Cadet, like you’d expect from a male-centred Dredd spinoff. Inaba is now the senior figure here, presented from the start as a highly competent and courageous officer; Junko is presented from the start as fresh out of the academy, overly disciplined & eager to impress her mentor. Only one time do we get a big sis/little sis scene, and that’s a deliberate ruse to trick a potential enemy.
Inaba takes the sort of hardline school-of-hard-knocks approach you’d expect from any equivalent character, and possibly more so: when Junko freezes in battle and is about to killed, Inaba calmly neutralises the threat and immediately demands to know why her cadet froze. The cadet explains she recognised the enemy and isn’t sure what happened; she’s asked to do a mind-probe to find out what’s going on, and does so even though she admits it’s not her speciality.
Inaba doesn’t (openly) show fear for Junko or asks her if she’s alright, Junko isn’t breaking down, both women are getting on with the situation at hand and not letting themselves get distracted. And when it comes to the grand finale, with Junko being mentally controlled by the Professor X stand-in, Inaba snaps her out of it not by making an emotional appeal but by playing on her cadet’s judicial training and getting her to focus on arresting the enemy.
It’s almost like… like Morrison’s writing them as Judges first.
And of course that’s just what he’s doing. Which, in the year 2010, shouldn’t be something remarkable in comics, but it is.
We could do with some more dynamics like Inaba’s and Junko’s.

I Hate Luann So Much

When I was a kid, I really liked the syndicated comic strip Luann by Greg Evans. There are very few female protagonists in the funnies, and as a kid I couldn’t really relate to Cathy or Sally Forth. But Luann was an age I would be fairly soon, and like with Archie Comics, I looked at her pleasingly cartoony adventures as a guide to the whirlwind of romance, adventure, and hilarious misunderstandings I would enjoy as a teenager.
So it’s kind of a shame that the comic regularly renders my adult self incoherent with rage.
It’s hard to know where to start in listing the problems with the way Luann handles gender, but let’s start with the very basic: it contains some of the most brain-numbingly hackneyed gender essentialist humor I’ve ever seen. Now, the comics page is rife with ‘men are from Mars, women are from Venus’ jokes, from the acerbic The Lockhorns to the gentle Hi and Lois, but that doesn’t excuse Luann. Nine out of ten Sunday strips return to the same tired well:

Women like pink! Men are dumb (but practical)! The sexes are forever a mystery to each other! This dated perspective does neither gender any favors (and of course presupposes that everyone in the world is cisgendered, so thanks for erasing a significant chunk of the population, Luann).
Then, of course, there’s all the slut-shaming. This mostly happens to Luann’s nemesis, cheerleader Tiffany. (Because cheerleaders are evil, of course. Although she appears to be the only one at their school, which would make anyone a little snappish.)

That’s the school guidance counselor angrily telling a student she looks cheap. Because that’s appropriate.
The whole thing is especially unpleasant because Evans lavishes so much attention on his rather adorable drawings of Tiffany in her not-particularly-revealing outfits. As Josh Fruhlinger of the Comics Curmudgeon put it, ‘it’s OK to include a lovingly detailed drawing of a teenage girl in a bikini in the comics, as long as you call her a tramp.’
Anyway, you’re wasting your breath, Miss Phelps. Tiffany was even slutty at eight years old:

But lest we think it’s only Tiffany’s navel that is the subject of hand-wringing horror, Evans makes sure to also slut-shame his protagonist:

You hear that, teenage tramps of the world? Your bared navels are not just tacky, they are immoral!
Then, of course, there are the straw feminists:

And did you know about all the ‘guy-bashing’ that occurs in this matriarchy in which we live? It’s a serious problem!

But as might be imagined, the strip is at its worst when it delves into romance. Or, uh, ‘romance.’ Like the time the school miscalculated the funds needed to send Luann’s class to Washington, D.C., and told Delta, the most civic-minded student in the school, that she couldn’t go. Enter Elwood, the creepy teenage millionaire with the hots for Luann. He offered to pay for Delta’s trip if Luann would go on a date with him. Luann’s friends pressured her into accepting, because of course a real friend would become a literal prostitute, albeit a G-rated one, for a friend, right?

‘Now it’s time for you to pay.’ SHUDDER SHUDDER SHUDDER
Or how about the time that Luann’s older brother Brad and his best friend TJ decided it would be hilarious good times to have TJ aggressively hit on Luann constantly, while he was living in her house?

Eventually Luann’s dad got wind of it and made the boys apologize, sparking a rare moment of reflection from Brad:

Oh, right being ambushed in safe spaces like her own bathroom by an adult man she thought she could trust was actually scary and upsetting for Luann! Wait, no, sexual harassment is flattering, isn’t it? Oh, TJ, you lovable scamp!
But by far the worst of Luann’s paramours is Gunther. Gunther is the nebbish nerd who has been in love with Luann forever. He’s a quintessential Nice Guy, and not in a good way the kind of guy who thinks that his pathetic, passive aggressive stalkerishness will eventually make Luann see that they are Totally Meant to Be:

I’m sorry, show me one girl who finds ‘I spent an inordinate amount of time sexily Photoshopping your face’ charming and not horrifyingly creepy, and I will give you five dollars.* Gunther gives me the serious skeeves, and the really tragic thing is that he is transparently set up as Luann’s eventual soulmate:

Never mind what Luann wants, even though it’s ostensibly her story. Dogged persistence has to count for something, right?
I’m especially bothered by Luann’s apparent need to coddle his feelings all the time, even when he’d being blatantly passive aggressive and needy:

Yes, Gunther, everyone loves you. Especially when you’re being a jealous creep:

‘Your costumes cover my whole body.’ Excuse me, I have to go wash now.
Confidential to Greg Evans: Women do not exist to soothe the tender wounded feelings of vulnerable men. They’re allowed to actually want things for themselves. They are not rewards.
Oh wait, I forgot what comic strip I was reading. This is, after all, the strip that contains the epic romance of Brad (Luann’s schlubby brother) and Toni (the unattainable goddess). Brad and Toni first met while they were both training to be firefighters, and Toni was dating the musclebound Dirk. Oops, I’m sorry, I mean she belonged to Dirk:

You’ll note that even though Toni takes offense at the word ‘property,’ Brad doesn’t. Hush now, Toni, the men are talking.
It’s cool, though, eventually Brad will win the game of Toni’s Life!

Eventually, of course, after Brad got a restraining order against Dirk and lurked passive aggressively around Toni for a few years, they wound up together. And these two epic romances met when Gunther asked Brad for advice in wooing Luann:

Note how Brad shames Toni for her foolish past in front of this random teenage boy. Girl, you got yourself a catch!
Incidentally, ‘You can’t understand why she’s so blind to your sincere love’ pretty much perfectly sums up the intense creepiness of the Nice Guy archetye.
Anyway, the reason this all boiled over on me, resulting in this outrageously long post, is because of the current plotline. You see, Dirk is back! He’s out of jail, where he was placed for assaulting Brad after repeatedly violating his restraining order, and wants to see Toni, who broke up with him because he was verbally and emotionally abusive to her, and who he then proceeded to stalk. Even worse, he’s got a new job as the trash collector for their neighborhood! Naturally, our heroes call the cops.
Ha ha, no, just kidding, this is Luann. What actually happens is this:

The good guys of the strip place a teenage girl in the path of a proven stalker with a criminal record, a history of violence, and anger management issues, and tell her to lie to him The amount of sheer dangerous stupidity at play here is breathtaking. In any real world situation, Tiffany would be lucky to get out of there with a few swears thrown her way.
And yes, I realize this isn’t a real world situation. It’s a comic strip. But if Greg Evans doesn’t believe he has a responsibility to show the appropriate way to deal with a violent stalker by calling the cops he could at least have the courtesy not to attempt to make comedic hay out of it.

Ha ha, Brad and TJ are putting Tiffany in serious danger! It’s okay, because she’s a slut! Good one, Greg!
I hate Luann so much.

Strips out for the lads

So the possible revival of British comics has come, again (it’s not been that long since The DFC was the great hope and then died before a year was out). And this time, Mark Millar’s running the show and he’s brought his celebrity mates Frankie Boyle, Jonathan Ross, and Hit Girl and Kick-Ass with him.
On the face of it, this is a good thing: British comics could do with a successful revival, and the twin tactics of celebrities and a film franchise could see Millar’s magazine succeed. One problem though. He’s trying to make it like a lad’s mag, similar to tits-and-trivia titles Nuts and Zoo that dominate UK newsstands. And he’s quite upfront about this, and it’s a valid approach to take if you want to appeal to teenaged boys who don’t read comics (and by all accounts it’s selling gangbusters).
Except… well, the magazine is called CLiNT. Spelt exactly like that. Cos then it likes like a swear word based around vaginas, see.
And that’s going to amuse the target audience, but it’s a massive ‘up yours’ to, say, the 50% of Britain who don’t have willies. The name is a clear barrier. And if you get past that, then you’ll find several strips with only two female characters (Hit Girl and the journalist in Ross’ Turf; admittedly both are lead roles) and then… then you find the text features. They’re going for the lad’s mag feel too, and include features like a list of Hot Mums on telly, breathless descriptions of how the Manson Family planned to kill some people, and a list of embarrassing things said during sex. One such thing was about a woman yelling ‘Goldfish!’ during rough sex, because that was the safe word with her last boyfriend because rape, of course, is hilarious.
Now, yes, CLiNT is going for a very specific market. That doesn’t mean it has to be so unwittingly hostile to others, and this is very ‘you are not meant to read this’ stuff: this has been noted by female comic fans on the 2000 AD forums up to female panellists and Kirsty Wark on the BBC’s The Review Show. ‘The Mighty Tharg’ (or Matt Smith no, not that one as he’s otherwise known) at 2000 AD has also stepped in, using the editorial for prog 1703 to state ‘I’d hope that anything from the House of Tharg was never so exclusive as to make a portion of the readership feel sidelined… I like to think that I’m an equal opportunities Thrill-creator, crafting tales for all to enjoy, but let me know if you feel there’s something missing’.
Obviously, this is a clear touting of ‘look, we’re better than a competitor, keep buying us’, but the point is still clear besides that, and 2000 AD is also a primarily male-read comic. (It’s also unusual to see an editor outright say ‘tell us if we’re not doing representation properly’) The one time it flirted with similar territory was with the lads mag oriented ‘Women Just Don’t Get It’ ads… which, as covered in the book Thrill-Powered Overload, were foisted on it by then-publisher Egmon Fleetway, much to the horror of the editors who pleaded with them not to run the ads. (Sales went down after)
Millar has since stated he intends to make a girls comic along the same lines as CLiNT, but why does the current title have to raise barriers? And, based on it, can Millar and Titan Magazines be trusted to pull off a sister title? And that’s unfortunate. I want to trust him, because most of what he’s done with CLiNT makes tactical sense. I want him to succeed in his admirable goal of causing the UK industry to be as big as it was when he started out, and for other companies to create their own comics to match Titan’s Millar titles. I want, basically, lots of comics around for lots of people, some of which I’ll enjoy and others that others will.
But I don’t want something waving a ‘it’s not FOR you’ flag at a mass of the population. It doesn’t strike me as the right way to do things.
On the plus side, we are already seeing other publishers start their own comics: coming up next month is Strip Magazine, with intentions to be ‘general audience’, from Print Media Productions. And PMP are also planning European-style comic albums, their first being a female-led steampunk adventure called The Iron Moon. With luck, CLiNT’s opened the door to, well, better comics than CLiNT, and if it has I’ll have to eat a lot of the words I just typed.

Buyers’ Remorse

I’ve had this sort of conversation a lot recently:
Lian Harper, a little girl of color and a unique and charming character, is killed off in a terrible comic book to forward the angsty storylines of her white father and grandfather.
Friend #1: Man, I’m so glad I don’t read DC comics anymore.
Right after an excellent article points out DC’s unfortunate tendency to kill off, limbo-fy, or otherwise sideline their non-white (and female) legacy characters in order to bring back their white, male forebears, non-white legacy character Ryan Choi is killed off to clear the way for his predecessor, white Ray Palmer.
Friend #2: I’m really glad I don’t give DC my money.
Ian Sattler makes one of the most mind-bogglingly ridiculous statements I have ever heard a DC representative say, dismissing accusations of inadvertently racist storytelling with an argument debunked by a fictional character in a comic published by DC that came out forty years ago.
Friend #3: This is why I stopped reading comics.
You may have noticed that these aren’t so much conversations as declarative statements by my friends. That’s because my part of the conversation consists mainly of uncomfortable, guilty silence. Because I also find all of these things reprehensible. But I still buy comics.
[Note: If this seems unfairly weighted against DC, it’s just because I don’t read very much Marvel. I really have no idea if they’re better or worse at writing women and POC than DC, although I suspect it’s about even.]
Whenever DC does something thunderously hurtful or stupid, I go through the same mental song-and-dance. In order to dramatize this internal process, I’ve enlisted Jaime Reyes and Kara Zor-El to act it out, because why not.

…Thank you, Jaime. Shall we continue?
Jaime: I can’t believe DC did that.
Kara: I can’t believe Jess gives money to a company that does things like that.
Jaime: But she didn’t buy the comic in which That Thing happened. This is exactly why she avoids big company-wide crossovers, where things like That Thing tend to happen. She reads books like mine.
Kara: Your book was canceled.
Jaime: …Oh yeah.
Kara: Sorry.
Jaime: But my point still stands! Why shouldn’t she support books that she does enjoy, where things like That Thing don’t happen, made by creators who don’t do things like That Thing for cheap shock value?
Kara: Because a vote for approval of one book is a vote for approval of the whole company. And she doesn’t always approve of the whole company.
Jaime: But if she doesn’t buy the books that she does like, not only will she not get to enjoy them, DC may take the decreased sales as a sign that their readership doesn’t like those books and cancel them. If she’s voting with her wallet, isn’t it better to vote for books she likes particularly those with female or non-Caucasian leads than vote against the comic book industry as a whole?
Kara: Not if she’s broke.
Jaime: Fair point.
Kara: Look, I don’t want her to stop enjoying my adventures, but by purchasing my comic, she’s also providing financial support to an industry that glorifies sexualized violence against women, erases and defames minorities, and employs creators who publicly announce the violence they fantasize about committing against members of organizations to which she belongs.
Jaime: She’s also providing financial support to an industry that tells stories that move her about characters she adores in a medium she considers to be an important aspect of our culture. A medium that, I might remind you, is dying. Is she going to take away her $2.99 and let superhero comics go gently into that good night?
Kara: …That last line sounded really out of character for you.
Jaime: Well, I’m really just a figment of Jess’s imagination.
So, uh…do you guys have a solution for me?
Jaime: Nah.
Kara: I got nothin’.
Since I, like Kara and Jaime, have no solution for my dilemma, I usually just wind up doing what I’ve been doing buying comics that feature characters I love and creators I respect, while avoiding the type of books that tend to lay waste through swathes of C-listers and the creators who have produced work I find offensive. But I feel guilty about it. I could stop buying comics, but I’d probably feel guilty about that too. (My mother’s Jewish and my father’s Catholic. I’m really good at feeling guilty.)
So what do you think, folks? Am I the only one who goes through these internal trials? As comic book fans, do we have an ethical responsibility to buy or not buy comics? Am I making a mountain out of a molehill? Would Tiny Titans be improved by melodramatic Dylan Thomas paraphrases for no reason?
Answer: probably.

‘Previously, D-Man’s sister’s long-lost clone…’

So this yakuza queenpin walks into a casino to meet this hitmen, right? And she’s the ex-wife of one and she’s called in because of this gang war between this bald guy called Appelido and a fat dude that hasn’t got a name, and apparently the war’s a big deal. And these criminals who are known to be dead are all walking around and oh, no, we’re not going to explain why, just roll with it.
What? No, we’ll tell you the fat guy’s name later. Oh, and yeah, that singer in the background and hitman Finnigan’s comment is significant, you’re right, but we don’t have time to explain what it refers to and look, yes, I know you don’t know why that Indian guy called Kal with a bionic hand is so grumpy but okay, look, SHOOTING. That’s cool, eh? Lookit the yellow speed lines!
That’s me trying to explain the plot of 2000 AD’s current Sinister Dexter story. That story is tied into other stories going back eight years, none of which are in trade. There is little to explain what’s going on to anyone new (That Reminds Me Of This has ended up completely bored of the strip as a result of not knowing who the drokk anyone is). I’ve been reading 2000 AD since 2003 and even I get lost at times.
This is the curse of the serial comic: trying to tell the story and not get bogged down in exposition, while also trying to fill in anyone new what’s going on. Or rather, it should be trying to fill in anyone new. And there’s the problem: Sinister Dexter doesn’t seem to be assuming anyone new will be picking up 2000 AD.
And it’s not alone in this. I read the Norman Osborn-era Thunderbolts comic, Ellis thru Parker, and during the Dark Reign issues it could get very confusing. The Siege tie-in was especially bizarre: what the hell is going on here? Why is it happening? Why is there a war against Asgard? If it wasn’t for the Internet, I’d have been lost: the Thunderbolts tie-in to Secret Invasion was guilty of assuming I knew about the crossover too, but ‘shape-shifting aliens are attacking!’ is a lot easier to grasp on the go.
You can all think of your own examples. But the alternative is often… well, Comics Alliance did a very funny comic strip summing up the backstory of X-Man Rachel Summers. It’s confusing, messy, and if a comic tried to explain it to you in a story you’d recoil from the damn thing. I read Spider-Man during the Clone Saga and remember issues that opened with millions of captions explaining every damn facet of the past umpteen issues, and that never stopped being far too confusing.
And then there’s that infamous Batgirl two-page spread of the whole Bat Family talking through Cassandra Cain’s last two years of stories in intricate detail. Who doesn’t get a headache just looking at it? Why would it make someone want to read more about Cass?
Too often, comics either assume nobody new will be reading or bombards new readers with too much. Both options are harmful, they turn off new readers (and the latter pisses off the existing ones). We need better options here.
Luckily, we’ve got some. How does Grant Morrison deal with Cyclops being possessed by Apocalypse for a whole story? ‘He was taken over by one of them ‘evil forces’ we run into from time to time,’ sums up Logan, and it’s made Scott a mess: that’s all you have to know, and it tells you what life is like in the X-Men and (later in the scene) what Logan thinks of Scott. How does Garth Ennis get out of the Punisher being turned into a hitman for Heaven and get him back to killing normal criminals? ‘Tried it. Didn’t like it.’
We need these things to be kept simple, to the point, and tied into the story. Otherwise, we’ll get very, very, very, very confused and/or bored and why read something that makes you confused or bored?

Crafting Comics: Getting Started OR Choosing Between Drawing Practice and Aquatic Larceny

I was nine when I attempted to make my first comic. I remember fragrant steam wafting up the stairs from my mother cooking dinner, making the entire top floor of my house sticky-humid. I remember clearly how my markers bled through the paper and ripped the fibres up into clumps of wet, dark fuzz.
I ran out of ideas after about two pages. I hated the look of the hands I’d drawn, and the pages didn’t look right, though I couldn’t put my finger on why. Something wasn’t working. I lacked some important, but unknown, capacity and so I stopped.
This was the pattern—hit the wall, get frustrated, put it aside. It is not the most efficient way to progress, and worse, my drawing teacher in the graphic design program I got into in college was one of those ‘learn by doing’ types for most thingswhich made me loco, because I am not.
I was not actually taught quite a lot of useful things. Easy things. Simple draftsmanship, and I mean simple draftsmanshiphow to easily find the centre of a rectangle even when in perspective is a simple matter of drawing diagonals from opposing corners, so that where they cross, you find the centre. Try drawing a building, window, robot, or anything in perspective without knowing this. I couldn’tmy attempt at a perspective projection in class was half erasing, half applying my brainpan to my desk. I did learn things there, between bouts of planning my escape to a life of piracy on the high seas.
I left school. I didn’t pick up a pencil again for a year. When I realized that the hideous experience wasn’t more important to me than making comics, I started drawing again, and reading. I found the information was out there in dribs and drabs, so I finally made real progress, on my own, in little steps.
I have limited advice that’s worth anythingI cannot tell you if art school is or isn’t worth your time. Some people love it and benefit hugely. Some fantasize about piracy on the high seas. I will say that fine art may not serve you as directly for comics the way graphic art/design might, because they have a different focus.
I can tell you that you can start drawing whenever you want. I know people who started up after decades not drawing. You learned to walk and talk, you can learn this. I have tutored an eleven year old boy and a forty year old man. It doesn’t matter.
I can tell you that anybody (mainly well-meaning teachers and peers) who told you in grammar school to stop drawing because you weren’t good enough were wrong (and silly). It’s fine if you pursued other things and aptitudes, but they were wrong. You can start again. You can learn any time.
Because the truth is, most people are average. Some people are that in that rare, fingernail fraction of the pie that is genius, but most aren’t. So what? It’s always been that way. You get better by working at it, like every other skill, just as you’ve always done since walking and talking.
So, if you’re starting out and don’t know where to start at all, I present a list of books and resources I’ve found helpful, and why. These are all texts I have used personally. You can get them from your local library or buy them yourself. I have organized them by category, and the first is on figure drawing.
You cannot make comics about people without understanding how they work. When an artist does not understand anatomy, it shows. You can reference for complex poses or details, but if you don’t understand anatomy, proportion and body language, your figures will look weird and unnatural. They will not convey the emotion you need to get your point across.
This does not mean your figures need to be photorealistic. On the contrary, I find very few people can pull off dynamic action with a photorealistic approachtoo much detail, no matter how exquisitely rendered, can suck a lot of energy out of the action.
From my own experience, there are particular areas to pay attention to, and I am generally of the opinion that it is better to learn real anatomy and then simplify and adapt a style out of it. Get a good foundation firstjust like with writing, if you study it (and I have), profs like to get you started with a literary foundation first. You can always go bouncing off into genre style later. Trying to learn to draw from comics alone could hinder youcreating an extreme, exaggerated funhouse mirror effect. Just look at the 90s. Ye gods.
So my recommendations will mostly fall along traditional lines, with a few important cautions:
Anatomy books are full of naked people, and people who look to have been flayed or taken apartskulls with eyeballs and brow muscles, backs laid open with the muscles depicted, skeletons in poses, that sort of thing. Just a caution to the squeamisha friend of mine still learning to draw finds my books unbearably creepy.
Most how-to books tend to assume everybody’s white, and usually, a specific 6’4’ northern European white dude. Eyelids depicted will not include epicanthic folds, which neatly excludes people from Asia, Inuit and First Nations people, some Africans, many South Pacific peoples, and some Europeans. Proclamations about cheekbone width, nose width, nostril shape and facial slope should be taken with a grain of salt. When depicting distinct ethnic groups, find your reference and sweat the small stuff, just like in portraiture.
Most how-to books tend to present hypermasculine and hyperfeminine models. How-to draw comics books are especially bad for thissee above, don’t learn to draw from comics. Men and women’s skulls and skeletons don’t actually reliably conform to the models these books would have you believeask an archaeologist or pathologist about determining gender from a skull. Then offer them sympathy. How-to books with a focus on comics also tend not to show you how to depict kids of various ages, and many artists struggle with them (the Choi/Oback team did well in X-23: Target X, however).
Do not expect most books to show you useful things like how to depict fat, injury, disease, or other physiological conditions. They do not generally depict sex organs either, if necessary to your work, and many do not show internal organs. You just have to do your own research. Terry Moore (Strangers in Paradise, Echo) knows a thing or two about body types.
None of these are insurmountable (except the creepy factor) once you understand the basics, but be aware of these issues.
The best books I’ve got fall on a continuum of how-to technique and reference.
The best written material I have yet found on drawing technique would be the legendary series by Andrew Loomis. All of them are good, good luck finding themfor some reason, the publishers in their wisdom have allowed them to go out of print. I found a used, stained, fairly stinky copy of Andrew Loomis’ Figure Drawing For All It’s Worth for $100. It is my smelly baby and I love it. Some little softcovers are out there, however, and I strongly recommend Drawing the Head and Figures In Action.
Loomis’ books are brilliant, plain English (though dated), with concrete advice and many very good diagrams and examples which you can find via Google Image Search. I’m not suggesting or nothin’, but e-books are out there. Update your antivirus and anti-spyware.
Multiple texts offer the benefit of perspective. Maybe you don’t agree with Loomis. Maybe you want more focus on bones, or photographs. Other useful texts:
Dynamic Figure Drawing and Dynamic Anatomy by Burne Hogarth is better for heroic anatomy and figure practice, lots of examples, big illustrations. Leans a bit heavier on art jargon than others, and can be intimidating because of this. His figures often look somewhat elongated.
Anatomy for the Artist by Sarah Simblett has a lot of big, high quality pictures. Features a brief look at sex organs (unusual!), a section on drawing the skeleton in perspective, vellum overlays of skeleton over photo, and the nice feature of anatomy in masterworks. Glossary of anatomical jargon. Unique in my searching for models who are people of colour. Overall: swank.
Anatomy: A Complete Guide for Artists by Joseph Sheppard — Bones and muscles, bones and muscles, bones and muscles! Other things, of course, but this book is so good with bones that I loaned my copy to my sister so she could study for her archaeology exam. No foolin’ (and she passed). If you want to draw a skeleton army, this one is very good. Lots of drawn examples. A reference.
An Atlas of Anatomy for Artists by Fritz Schider — a reference text, what sets this one apart is the sheer breadth of examples, which is basically all it is. Photographs, details of sculpture, engravings, studies from Da Vinci, and Muybridge’s motion studies to name a few. Notable for the inclusion of children’s development as well. Light on text, but technical (with wee tiny print).
Drawing the Head and Figure by Jack Hamm — Dense with detail does not describe. Wall to wall illustrations. Simple, not too jargony, fairly inexpensive. Broad, like Loomis, but with little text. An overall good book to start with and to refer to.
Go forth to your local library or book store and check these and other titles out to find the best for your needs. A used book store may ferret out some Loomis texts for you, but be prepared to be disappointed, unfortunately, as they are sought after and rare.
My next entry will be on drawing the head, and adapting anatomy rules put forth in these books to particular situations.