These Things Are Fun, and Fun Is Good

I like porn comics.
But how? You (my imaginary antagonist) ask, How can a feminist, a writer, someone who has fought for the legitimacy of comics, be so fond of such undignified smut?
Well, Virginia, as one of my heroes, the inimitable Tom Lehrer, once said, ‘Dirty books are fun.’ And, in the words of that literary luminary Theodore Geisel, ‘Fun is good.’
I was talking with a friend about Jenna Jameson’s upcoming comic series. ‘I’m looking forward to it,’ she said. ‘It looks really fun. And I like fun comics.’ I do, too. I like knock-down, drag-out fight scenes where the combatants take time to spout off witty one-liners. I like over-the-top characters, dark deco architecture, pseudoscientific mumbo-jumbo, and technology that’s cooler than it is practical. I like self-narrating private dicks in trench coats and slouchy fedoras, heroes who yell their own sound effects, self-consciously bad puns, purple prose, little girls with heavy artillery, and the occasional panty shot. I will read almost any comic that features a superhero in aviator goggles. I like pirates. I like the Wolverine series where he bums around Madripoor and fights vampires. Speaking of which, I also like sexy, brooding vampires.
I recently purchased a page of original art. It is a beautifully drawn splash of a wrestling ring in which a muscular man in a unitard is pinning a giant squid from outer space. It is awesome.
I’m extremely fond of Adam Hughes’s pinup art, because it’s both fun and sexy, and because the women in it look like they’re wise to you. I like pretty girls. I also like pretty boys. I like deliberately silly bikini pinups of characters who generally wouldn’t be caught dead in bikinis.
Sometimes, I’m lucky enough to find comics that are both fun and good. Walt Simonson’s run on The Mighty Thor is brilliant; it includes the most sweepingly epic, heart wrenchingly human stories I’ve read (not to mention really awesome use of sound effects). It also includes several issues in which Thor is a giant frog and a scene in which he solemnly tells a punk kid that he cannot wear his hair in a Mohawk because ‘Mine helmet would fall off.’ Hellboy spans a similar range, as do James Robinson’s Starman series and Gail Simone’s run on Birds of Prey. In none of these do the slapstick and the silly negate or diminish the quality. ‘Pancakes’ does not detract from Mike Mignola’s masterful use of mythology. That Misfit’s battle cry is ‘Dark Vengance!’ makes her poignant origin story even more effective.
Sometimes, comics are just fun. And that’s okay, too.
Discuss this column here.
August 6th, 2007
Categories: Birds of Prey, Hellboy, porn, pulp, Starman, Thor . Author: Rachel Edidin

Everything I Know About Diversity, I Learned from Superhero Comics

Africa is basically one large country, split into nation states for reasons of plot convenience. There are few or no cultural or geographic difference between its regions. All Africans practice the same religion, which is ambiguous and animistic and can occasionally produce super powers.
All Jews are deeply observant.
Eastern Europe is almost entirely undeveloped. Its ruggedly traditional and childishly innocent inhabitants are all deeply superstitious, and its landscape is made up of sinister forests, thatched cottages, and arbitrarily placed haystacks.
Everyone in Japan comes from a Yakuza family, is a master of martial arts, and fiercely distrusts foreigners, to whom they refer exclusively as ‘Gaijin.’ They wear traditional apparel at all opportunities. Each baby is issued a magic-endowed Ancestral Sword at birth.
Irish people are quaint and friendly, and they all believe in (and in fact have generally seen or befriended) fairies and leprechauns, which they call ‘the wee folk.’ They all drink constantly but are gentle, comical, and wise when intoxicated. They wear green whenever possible.
Scots are temperamental but fiercely loyal. Due to a production surplus, their speech is littered with excess Rs.
Neither Ireland nor Scotland is industrialized, and neither’s quaintly charming culture has been tainted by the tourist industry.
Wales does not exist.
China is a much smaller and less prominent nation than Japan. All Citizens of China are deeply devoted to the Communist Party, and fashions have not changed since the Cultural Revolution.
Residents of the Southern regions of the United States are all either wealthy plantation owners or sharecroppers. The South has not changed architecturally since the Civil War.
Everyone over the age of sixty is a font of arcane knowledge. Most senior citizens–and all elderly black women–practice magic of some sort.
Most Americans live in New York. All large cities in the United States resemble New York.
Everyone in England lives in London. Everyone in France lives either in Paris or in an idyllic cottage in the countryside.
French people wear striped shirts and berets at every opportunity. They are each issued a baguette at the beginning of the day, which they must carry around with them until dusk.
Everyone in Europe and Australia is white.
Except for the South, which is still bitterly racist, the United States is entirely integrated and colorblind.
No one ever emigrates to a country other than America.
Most black Americans over the age of fifty practice Voodoo.
Everyone in New Orleans is deeply religious, fluent in French, and possessed of some sort of arcane powers.
Everyone not a member of the middle class is intensely connected to their cultural / ethnic background.
Most foreigners speak English very well, although with occasionally stilted grammar, but none of them can ever remember the words for ‘yes’ or ‘no’.
The lower classes are composed entirely of criminals and their long-suffering and usually handicapped or sickly mothers and sisters. They’re all kind of grimy, or at least tactically smudged.
Europe is crawling with Nazis, all of whom wear SS dress uniforms at all times and speak with German accents regardless their nationalities.
Everyone native to the former U.S.S.R. is white.
The former U.S.S.R. is now the nation of Russia. Little has changed since the dissolution of the Soviet Union: Russia’s residents are still all nationalistic, naive farmers with deep affinity for their folklore.
All lesbians are either butch or femme, but there are no butch / femme couples.
All gay men and most lesbians are white. All non-white lesbians are femme and extremely beautiful, and most are ninjas.
There are no homosexuals over the age of thirty-five who are not pedophiles.
Everyone not a white American Protestant will betray their ethnicity and nationality by the oaths they use, which will either be in a language other than English or will contain transparent cultural references.
Canada’s entire landscape is snow-blanketed pine forests. There are no large cities–or even cities at all–in Canada, just secret government compounds, logging camps, and truck stops.
Unattractive people only pair with other unattractive people.
No undeveloped or traditional culture is misogynistic.
South and Central America don’t exist, except during revolutions.
Nationality is not an issue for Arabs, all of whom are Muslims and most of whom dress the same. All non-American Muslim women wear burqua, which can be extremely form fitting and vary in shape, style, and degree of coverage.
All non-Catholic Christians are militant and violently intolerant fundamentalists. The only exceptions to this rule are missionaries, who are warm-hearted and selfless and never engage in cultural colonialism.
All atheists are pompous, pretentious, and dead wrong. Most of them are also conspiracy theorists.
Everyone intelligent is also rich, or at least upper-middle-class.
All Satanists actually worship Satan.
All pimps and most prostitutes are black.
All racists are gleefully so. All racism is deliberate and vindictive.
Cultural appropriation is charming and sweet.
There is no racism in Africa.
People of all ethnicities look like palette-swapped white people. There are no variations in their facial features, hair texture, or statures, except that all Asian women are petite and busty.
All young Asian women, regardless their classes or nationalities, wear cheongsam for all formal occasions.
If not all members of an ethnicity look like palette-swapped white people, then they all look like each other. The only ethnicities are Black, Asian, White, and occasionally Indian (which covers both persons from India and American Indians, as well as most Arabs) and there is little to no variation within these.
All tribes of American Indians are essentially the same. All American Indians are deeply connected to their cultural roots and spiritualities.
Everyone in Israel is white.
Australia’s aboriginal peoples are not oppressed in any way and live according to their cultural traditions, in constant communion with nature.
Most myths are literally true.
All Scandinavians are blonde. Scandinavian culture is culturally amorphous and gratingly cheerful.
There are no Pacific Islands aside from Japan.
Only white people are racist.
Inuit culture is largely intact, and the Inuits live happily, traditionally, and prosperously.
Plains Indians are the only oppressed indigenous people.
Islam is the only inherently sexist religion.
Discuss this column here.

Guest Column: Reflections in a Funhouse Mirror – The Joy of Superheroes

This week’s Inside Out is a guest column by the wildy brilliant Katherine Keller, Editrix in Chief of Sequential Tart. Next week, I’ll be back with the gory details of why I missed Comic-Con–which are nowhere near as cool as what Katherine has to say here:
So, I’m trying to put into words why I like superhero comics so much, explain why I still care when, in the past three years, it seems that Marvel and DC have repeatedly crapped on women characters (and the fanbase that follows them), why I think these issues are worth speaking up about, why I haven’t said ‘Oh, to Hell with it,’ and left the building as so many other readers have.
At the end of the day, as awesome and fulfilling as comics like Wet Moon, Fun Home, and Persepolis are, they aren’t–and never will be–that gloriously cracktacular bastard hybrid amalgamation of science fiction meets fantasy meets crime fiction that the superhero genre is.
Superheroes: the genre where anything can, and frequently does happen. (Hey, there’s a reason for that old fandom joke that ‘the letters DC stand for Delicious Crack.’ The power of Shazam used as a defibrillator. Jaime Reyes’ deep dark dental fantasy. ‘Nuff said.) No other genre is so wonderfully ripe with potential. And sometimes, that potential is even realized.
But that’s not the only reason I love superhero comics.
Before I discovered comics, I hated the token women character in most movies or TV. She existed only as the love interest of the week, would never be seen again, didn’t matter. I hated her for being pasted in. For stealing valuable screen time from my guys who could be doing something useful instead of trying to get up her skirt. And then she’d do something stupid and have to be rescued by the guys. Why even bother having a woman character?
But then I found comics. And I found Jean Grey and Psylocke and Rogue and Polaris … yes, the X-Men were my first big fandom, as they were for a lot of women. (And no, I didn’t have any problems getting up to speed on the plot threads and continuity, despite the fact that I jumped in right in the middle of a crossover event. I loved that there was so much back story for me to discover.) I finally found the women who mattered–and it was much-needed manna from heaven.
Right now (despite all the things I see that irritate the hell out of me), comics are pretty much the only visual mass media in town where one gets images, visuals of women being something other than the sidekick or pasted in love interest of the week, of women putting foot to ass, of women being as big, as bad-ass, and as important as male characters.
Really, as far as current TV is concerned, outside of Heroes and Friday Night Lights, where are the cool, empowered women as important characters with significant screen time? (Note to readers: I don’t do much anime. Invariably there’s a nasal, whiny female voice so insanely irritating that it drives me from the room.)
Looking at current TV, I see there’s Teyla on Stargate: Atlantis, but I could only stand so many plot holes I could fly a fleet of 757s through, not to mention the constant ‘deus ex Rodney’ story lines, before I bailed.
Buffy is gone.
Firefly is gone.
Xena is gone.
Babylon 5 is gone.
Alias is gone.
The less said about–hack! spit!–Lost, the better.
Yes, I am up in arms about the lack of a memorial for Stephanie Brown, and displeased about Power Girl being drawn looking like an inflate-a-date, but at least in comics, I’ve got a Power Girl, a bad-ass chica who’s the head of the JSA and could go to toe with anybody in the DCU.
And I’ve also got a White Tiger, and a Sasha Bordeaux (and the rest of the cast of the severely underrated Checkmate), and a Black Widow (two of those, actually), and the Birds of Prey.
Nowhere else do I see so many repeated images of women who stand up for themselves. Women who make a difference. Women who matter. Which is why all the stupidity and pandering to the lowest denominator I’ve seen in the last few years makes me and a lot of other women (and some men, too) so very angry.
But, I am still finding things to love, which is why I (and a lot of other women) are still here and why we’re not going to quietly slink away anytime soon.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, writing about what I love about superhero comics has gotten me all psyched. So, I’m going to re-read some of my Green Lantern Corps back issues. I love seeing Dr. Soranik Natu outwit her enemies and save the day–again. And only comics gives me that.
Discuss this column here.

Stop, Look, and Listen

The white feminist comics blogosphereme includedhas been ignoring and pussyfooting around the issue of race for way too long. It’s time to stop.
Please take the time you’d normally spend reading my column to read this post by Cheryl Lynn, if you haven’t already. Stay off the defensive. Just sit down, shut up, and listen to what she has to say.
And then, it’s time for us to start talking.
July 8th, 2007
Categories: blogging, race . Author: Rachel Edidin

Difficult Questions

  1. You are a comic-book writer or editor attempting to create a team of superheroes. You are sensitive to diversity issues in comics, but as a heterosexual white man, you are concerned that if you make characters of color, gay characters, or (wonder of wonders!) both, you will be accused of tokenism and appropriation. What do you do?
  2. You are a submissions editor at a major comic book publisher. You receive a pitch from a brilliant and well-known creator for a series whose content you consider extremely offensive. The company at which you work is in serious financial trouble, and you know that signing such a big-name creator might make the difference between going under and staying in business. What do you do?
  3. You are a writer or artist and a member of a minority or nonprivileged group (or groups) frequently misrepresented in or omitted entirely from mainstream media. You feel strongly about the importance of accurate representation of you and your peers in mainstream comics, and you believe that it’s vital for the Big Two to step up and take responsibility for this. However, they have consistently failed to respond to your frequent letters and submissions. What do you do?
  4. You are a die-hard fan of a publisher or creator whose work you respect deeply. However, that publisher or creator has just released a work you find extremely and inexcusably offensive. What do you do?
  5. You are a woman and/or minority who wants to break into mainstream comics. Knowing that comics is traditionally a monochromatic boys’ club, you are torn over emphasizing the contributions you could make in terms of diversity, and downplaying your otherness so that you will fit in and advance more quickly to a position in which you would have more power and impact. What do you do?
  6. You are a writer or artist working on a book which features a character of color. This character has been written and drawn for decades as a palette-swapped Caucasian. If you change that, you risk angering fans of the character by significantly altering his or her ‘personality’ and appearance; however, you feel that the character’s current appearance and personality are not true to her or his heritage, or to your own experiences and knowledge. What do you do?

The Beauty Myth

Today, boys and girls, we’re going to talk about Misty Lee’s body. She’s been talking about other people’s, so it seems only fair.
Misty Lee’s body has nothing to do with her credibility as a person and a commentator. The color of her eyes does not influence what they perceive. Her weight-height ratio has very little to do with her ability to interpret data. The degree to which she does or does not adhere to our society’s beauty standards does not determine her qualifications to accurately gauge the propriety or quality of a piece of media. And the number of men interested in seeing pictures of her naked has nothing to do with her ability to judge the validity of other people’s reactions to the Heroes for Hire #13 cover.
Misty Lee’s body is no more the issue than were the bodies of the women she insulted on her show, the women who, Lee claimed, objected to the blatant objectification and victimization of female characters in comics because they themselves were ‘fat and ugly.’ Unsurprisingly, many of these women reacted angrily to Lee’s comment; unsurprisingly, several of the reactions involved refutations of her claims, backed with physical descriptions and even photographs.
I think they missed the point: it doesn’t matter how fat and ugly I, or Misty Lee, or any other blogger or critic happens to be. When guys got up in arms about Citizen Steel’s package, the first accusations were not that they must be hung like infants. When men object to the content or subject of comics, it is not assumed that they are doing so to compensate for their own inadequacies, physical (fat, ugly), social (unable to get a date, no sense of humor), or mental (just don’t get it).
But if it’s a woman, appearance trumps. She doesn’t like this drawing of Power Girl? Must be because she’s insecure about her flat chest. Thinks women in comic books are objectified? Obviously, she’s jealous of the reactions they elicit from real-life men. When a male creator does something fans disagree with, they cast aspersions on his capabilities. When a female creator pisses off fanssometimes just by having the temerity to play in the boys’ leaguethey immediately attack her appearance. This is social control at its purest, kids: reducing over half the population to little more than fashion plates, whose thoughts are always secondary to their looks; making women creatures to be seen and judged, but never really heard.
In ‘Just Past the Horizon: On Reflection,’ Lisa Fortuner wrote about the importance of finding our reflections in the ‘paper mirror’ of comics, and the hurt and betrayal we feel when we see those reflections warped beyond recognition; when the books we read tell us that those female heroesand, by extension, the readers who identify with themexist only to fulfill someone else’s fantasies and dismiss our ardent need for heroes of our own. The same, I suspect, holds true for all of the groups relegated to the mirror’s edges or cut out altogether: people of color, queers, disabled persons, and others who do not fit the narrow mold of ‘normalcy.’
I am amazed that Misty Lee, of all people, failed to make that connectionto see that there’s more to women’s interest in comics than imagined comparisons with female superheroes.
And I wonder how she would have reacted if one of the women on the Heroes for Hire #13 cover had been Zatanna.
Discuss this column here.

Talk Back

The recent upsurge of fan activism in response to some particularly egregious products makes me really happy. Yeah, it’ll die down a bitreally, it’s already begun tobut it’s nice to see more people standing up and demanding that creators and publishers take responsibility for their work. And it’s in that spirit that I’m going to talk about one of the most popular and time-honored channels of communication between fans and publishers: letters to the editor.
As an assistant editor, I read a whole, whole lot of these. Here’s my useful and highly subjective list of Dos and Don’ts for letters to comics editors:
-Be respectful. Nothing will piss off an editor or creator like a rude letter, no matter how valid the complaints within. I will cheerfully read, respond to, and even print negative or critical letters as long as they’re civil. I like criticism. I like knowing what people think, and I appreciate fans who take the time to tell us what does and doesn’t work for them. If, on the other hand, you have sent me a five-hundred-word diatribe on why a comic or creator ‘sucks’ or what a ‘faggot,’ ‘douche,’ or ‘idiot’ I, another editor, or a creator is, I will mock your letter mercilessly with my colleagues before throwing it away.
-Know what you’re talking about. If you have a complaintor a complimentbe able to provide some context. We get an awful lot of letters complaining about things that ‘don’t make sense’ in single issues but which are perfectly clear within the context of the stories in which they appear.
Editors put in forty-to-sixty-plus-hour weeks for relatively little money. While we are generally happy to help answer questions, please don’t ask us to do your homework for you or send us questions you could answer with a Google search. That’s just not cool.
That said, ‘I’ve just discovered your comic! Where should I start?’ letters are pretty rad. However, you might still have better luck on a message board, since our frames of reference are hopelessly skewed.
-Avoid unnecessary jargon or abbreviations, and make sure spelling and grammar are at least clear. You don’t have to be perfect, but it really helps if we know what you’re talking about. Obviously, you get more leeway if English isn’t your native languagethen we’re just really honored that you took the effort to write to us in ours. If you’re writing your letter by hand, please, please, please try to write legibly.
All of the above, plus:
-Be succinct. Most letters which find their way into letter-columns are going to be edited heavily for lengthwe try to publish letters from as many readers as possibleand although the editors will do their best to preserve your meaning, the best way to keep cuts to a minimum is to keep your letter clear and to-the-point. Avoid unnecessary qualifiers, rambling anecdotes, and unnecessarily strung-out descriptions.
Also, the shorter a letter is, the easier it is for me to find a place for it in a column, and the more likely it is to get published.
-Proofread. Ever notice that letters to the editor are always properly spelled and punctuated? That’s ’cause assistant editors go through them and make corrections before the columns go to press. But you’re much, much more likely to be taken seriously if you sound mature, and that means proofreading your own email and avoiding text-message-style abbreviations. It also makes my life much easier, and I’ll love you for it.
-Make character attacks. This should be self-explanatory. Calling an editoror a writer, or an artistnames is not going to make them want to make you happy, and it is not going to make them receptive to your ideas, no matter how good those ideas may be. This doesn’t just go for people on the creative team, either: it’s generally considered pretty bad form to talk too much smack about anyone in comics unless it’s clear that anything you’re saying is confidential and between friends. The whole industry is one big, incestuous family, and we all know each other. It’s okay to tell Editor X that you don’t like Creator Y’s artjust don’t talk about what a jackass you think Creator Y is.
-Use a letter to the editor as an opportunity to pitch your own comic or advertise your website / business / publication. Most publishers have fairly strict submission policies, and ignoring or attempting to bypass them will basically tell editors that you’re irresponsible and lazy (it’s usually fine to ask for informal feedback on your work, as long as you’re not actually trying to submit it). Querying is one thing, but sending a pitch in the guise of a fan letter is really bad form.
For a great example of an eloquent, civil, and very angry letter to the editor, I highly recommend checking out Katherine Keller’s ‘An Open Letter on the Topic of Stephanie Brown’ over at Sequential Tart.
And in the meantime, talk back to me!

How Cool Is That?

I’m having a vile week, so I’m going to write about something that makes me happy: Kate Corrigan.
Kate is a character created by Mike Mignola, although these days, she’s written primarily by John Arcudi and drawn by Guy Davis. She first appeared in Hellboy and is now a regular in spinoff series B.P.R.D.
Kate is smart. She is crazy smart. She’s also an academic: she has a Ph.D. from N.Y.U and has written over a dozen books on European folklore. She has millennia-worth of history and myth at her fingertips, is a polyglot, and spends most of her money onyou guessed itmore books. She writes papers for fun.
So? you ask. She’s just another dusty old professor-type. What’s so special about that?
Ah, but that’s not all she is. Kate has given up her teaching position to work as a consultant, Field Director, and Special Task Force Liason at the B.P.R.D., which. for those of you who don’t read Hellboy and B.P.R.D. (and shame on you!), is the Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defense. Kate goes on missions. She gets dirty and bruised. And she loves it, because it’s fun and it’s interesting. Oh, and she doesn’t just play the token egghead and spout useless trivia, eitherif she’s on a mission, it’s because she knows or can do stuff that matters.
Kate is somewhere between thirty-five and fifty. She has short, unkempt hair. She dresses practically and comfortably. She doesn’t wear makeup. When she’s not on assignments, she likes to wear long, flowy skirts. She drinks green tea and tries to make friends.
In the B.P.R.D., she’s the levelheaded one: unlike Abe Sapien and Liz Sherman, Kate stays pretty angst-free. She’s practical, she’s smart, and she’s even genuinely nice.
Kate has been around since pretty early in Hellboy, but she didn’t really get a chance to shine on her own until the B.P.R.D. series The Universal Machine, in which she got sucked back in time to the home of the ancient and sinister Marquis Adoet de Fabre, a nasty, centuries-old nobleman with a castleful of vampires and an incredibly powerful demon in his thrall.
I’m not gonna give too many details, ‘cause it’s a great read and full of teriffic twists. But I will tell you that Kate ends up tricking the Marquis, cutting off three of his fingers, destroying his castle, and generally being badass. Kate does this without any superpowers, and, more impressively, she does it without breaking character. She’s smart, she’s witty, and she stays aware of her surroundings, and that’s enoughwithout diminishing her accomplishment or making it look like something anyone could have done.
I like Kate. I like her because she’s a well-realized female character, and I like the people who created her. I like her because she isn’t a cliché or a stereotype. I like that when I think of her, the image that jumps to mind is her face, not her body. I like her because she’s smart and nice, and because I suspect she’d be a lot of fun to get drunk with, and because she loves books. I like her because she’s someone I’d like to know, and because she reminds me of people I really do know. I like her because she reminds me a littleokay, maybe more than a littleof me, or at least of someone I wouldn’t mind becoming someday.
As Kate’s original creator would say, There you go.

Sisterhood Is Powerful

I’m writing this on a bed in room 819 of the Madison Concourse Hotel. Next to me, Robyn Fleming is updating The Hathor Legacy. On the other bed, Karen Healey and Elizabeth McDonald are skimming the Girl-Wonder forum. At the desk in the corner, Andrea Rubenstein is working on the next issue of Cerise.
We’re all tired and a little grouchy, catching our breath from the crash of WisCon ending earlier today. Later, we’re going to order pizza and maybe watch some bad television or dive into the dozens of books we’ve bought over the course of the con. We’ll probably stay up too late, regardless. Tomorrow, my friend Michael will pick me up; I’ll spend the next day with him, then fly back home on Wednesday, and it’ll be back to work and life.
But I’ll be going back with something I didn’t have beforefaces to the names (and, in some cases, names to the handles) with which I’ve grown increasingly familiar over the past year in the feminist community. Also, I bought some porn, which may be another column in its own right.
For now, though, I’ll stick with names and faces, and the people behind them, and to start, I’ll make a confession: I’m scared of women. Not all women, of course, and certainly not in a shriek-and-run-away sort of way. And it’s not fear preciselymore like discomfort, or maybe mistrust. I worry that they’re talking about me behind my back, holding me up to standards I can never even try to meet.
In high school, when I started gaming, it was always me and the guys. There were other girlsGracie and Heather, who huddled together and giggled behind their hands but neither of them gamed, and I was never really one of them. Instead, I occupied a frustrating and lonely liminal space. The girls made it clear that gaming and comics and other such geekery was guy stuff; they preferred to whisper and occasionally burst out laughing at the guys’ silliness. The guys were friendly enough, and quickly accepted me as one of their own (you know you’re one of the guys when they start telling embarrassing masturbation stories) but never quite gave up on the idea that I was somehow closer to Gracie and Heather, connected by the invisible link of our gender. I was intensely lonely, but because I was a generally fucked-up and angst-ridden adolescent, I didn’t think much of it.
In college, it was a little bettera few girls gamed, and a few read comicsbut only a little. Most of the women I gamed with were still trailing reluctantly behind their more enthusiastic boyfriends and made it emphatically clear that they were not gamers. They were dismissive of ‘geek stuff’ like comics and video games. They liked to plan ‘girl time’ for while their boyfriendsand I, who was again denied membership in that exclusive club, or perhaps just forgotten along the waywere gaming or hanging out at the comics shop. It was a less painful space to occupy than it had been in high school, because my friendships with the guys were much closer, but it was still awkward, and it was still acutely lonely. I wanted friendships with other women, but I was tired of those friendships being conditional on my pretending not to careor at least staying carefully quietabout a substantial slice of my life.
Groups were the worst. There were some women who I knew were geekswho had pull lists at the comics shop, who played in CCG tournaments and waited breathless for news of the latest World of Warcraft expansion. One-on-one, we could chatter happily about our interests. But when there were more people around, everything changed. My friends would jump back into their girly, non-geek personae. They’d clam up or even outright lie.
By the time I started at Dark Horse, I had very nearly given up on having many close female friends who didn’t tacitly dismiss or outright mock my hobbiesand now, my career. When I was first introduced around the editorial department, it was with growing dismay that I discovered that many of my coworkers were women close to my age: even though they made comics for a living, I was quietly convinced that nothing would changetheir jobs must simply be anomalies. They couldn’t really be into comics, let alone video games; I couldn’t imagine that any of them collected dice.
When Samantha Robertson asked if my partner and I did any tabletop gaming, my first thought was, ‘Oh, fuck. Am I that obvious?’
‘Yeah, some,’ I said.
‘What systems?’ she asked.
It turned out Sam played tabletop games. She also played video games. Jemiah wrote vampire novels and adored classic movies. Katie, who had a Fray poster and a sticker that said ‘If you’re not outraged, you’re not paying attention’ in her office window, was a rabid fan of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and didn’t care who knew. They were liberal. They were brilliant. They were women And they were confidently self-identified geeks. I suddenly had a pretty decent of how East Berlin must have felt when the wall fell.
I started posting on comics forums not long after and was lucky enough to find Girl-Wonder almost immediately. I had been abstractly aware that there were female and feminist comics fans out there, but finding an organized community of them was a revelation akin to connecting with the other women at Dark Horse.
But it didn’t clicknot really, not so I believed ituntil WisCon. Attending an explicitly feminist conventionmeeting and touching and talking and living with the women I’d connected to on Girl-Wonder and elsewhere in the feminist geek communitygave me a whole new understanding of just how much those connections matter. In an industry in which we make up an often overlooked or dismissed minority, taking time to celebrate and connect with each other is not only importantit’s necessary. Our individual experiences and beliefs may differ, but as we celebrate and recognize the common ground that we are breaking together, to share ideas and join forces, the old adage of a whole greater than the sum of its partsa whole that, by existing, adds to those partsbegins to make sense.

Sexual Assault (in comics) Awareness Month Coda: The Widowmaker, Revisited

This is the coda to a series about sexual assault and comics. You can find the previous posts here:
Rape in the Gutters
Writing Sexual Violence, Part 1
Writing Sexual Violence, Part 2
The Widowmaker
Is It Too Much to Ask?
Rape Is Rape Is Rape
Same-Sex Assault
The Morning After
Back when I wrote about the Conan #39 letter column, several people asked whether I could post the actual text of that column here. I checked with the boss-types, who said yesprovided that I wait ’til Conan #40 hit the stands. Luckily for me, #40 came out in the midst of my panicked preparation for WisCon (Augh! Paper! Panels! Costume Ball!), so I don’t have to come up with a column’s worth of new content.
Before jumping into the letter column, I want to say a few things: First, if you’re glad to see this, please consider buying the comic that it appeared in. Second, this column happened because of the tremendous amount of feedback we got from fans regarding Janissa’s rape. If you like this idea, or if you want to see more of this kind of material, please take a few minutes to shoot off an email to me, Scott Allie, Matt Dryer, or Dark Horse in general to let us know. Finally, although I didn’t get to mention this in the letter column itself, I want to reiterate that it wouldn’t have been possible without a lot of support from Conan‘s editor, Scott Allie; my partner in crime, Katie Moody; the Girl-Wonder community; and former Conan layout artist Thomas Yeates, with whom I corresponded extensively in the process of writing this thing.
So, without further ado, the Conan #39 letter column.
This month I’m handing over the lettercol to my assistant, Rachel Edidin. She’s been making a massive contribution to my books the last six months or so, and had an idea for this month’s lettercol to which I couldn’t say no. By the time she’s done, it’ll be hard to add marketing plugs for our other books, so I’ll get that out of the way here. Next issue of the monthly features Paul Lee and Dave Stewart back with Tim, and Thoth back to mess with Conan’s life. Meanwhile, the epic saga of King Conan’s dark journey into Stygia continues in Conan and the Midnight God.
This lettercol will no doubt renew a topic that’s been kicking around this series for more than two years. I appreciate this sort of dialogue with readers. Some people have written to say that the way some people approach the subject is inappropriate, in one way or another, but I’m happy to see people addressing it, so I try not to judge. There are some things to which it’s hard to have any ‘proper’ response.
Here’s Rachel—

I’m writing this column for two reasons. First, I want to address some issues that have come up in connection with the rape in Janissa’s backstory (Conan #12). Second, April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month, and in connection with that, I’m going to talk a bit about some sexual assault facts and resources.
Two years and twenty-seven issues after Janissa’s introduction, we’re still getting letters about her. We’ve been accused of misogyny, of misrepresentation, of sloppy storytelling; in addition to the dozen-odd letters that have appeared in columns, we’ve received and responded to several that were simply too long to run.
One of the most common complaints we received was that Janissa just wasn’t a realistic representation of a rape survivor: that someone who had been through what she’d experienced should be severely traumatized and minimally functional, not ‘a sexy comic book ninja babe.’
I didn’t read Janissa as a sexy comic book ninja babe; from her first appearance, I interpreted her as deeply damaged. But then, I spent four-plus years as a volunteer victim advocate at a rape crisis center, and I’ve had a lot of direct experience with survivors of sexual assault. Everyone reacts to traumaespecially sexual traumain different ways; I’ve seen the classic ‘sobbing in fetal position’ scene, but I’ve also seen women who coped with brutal assaults by cracking jokes. What they had experienced was no less traumatic, and the fact that their reactions weren’t the ‘right’ way for a trauma victim to behave makes them no less valid. One of the first things that crisis advocates learn is never to judge a survivor by her or his behavior.
And what if Janissa is sexy? For some survivors, presenting themselves as sexualand sexyis a way of reclaiming their sexuality and self-confidence. Sometimes that behavior comes from a less healthy source: some survivors feel that they’re ‘damaged goods,’ and that, as such, they might as well play the part. To me, Janissa reads as confident (or self-destructive) enough to run around in armor that leaves pretty much every vital organ and nerve center exposed. (I’m concerned less with the ‘sexiness’ of her outfit than its wild impracticality!)
So, while Janissa’s demeanor may not be what you’d expect from a trauma survivor, that doesn’t mean it’s not realistic. But is Janissa’s story sexist?
The obvious test is to ask how much the story would change were its protagonist male. Not a lot—you can feasibly replace Janissa with, say, a second son of an aristocrat who’s sick of living a passive life of leisure and goes to a sage to learn how to become strong and self-directed, etc. Case closed, right?
But art doesn’t exist in a vacuum. The reality is that a male writer wrote a story about a woman who was gang-raped by demons in a society (and literary form) in which the throwaway status of many female characters reflects the status of women in real life; in which rape is often blown off or blamed on the victim. Regardless a writer’s specific motivation, the fictional use of rape as a default story element in female characters’ back-stories is indicative of how casually and unquestioningly we perceive sexual violence as universal to women’s lives.
Does that mean it’s always inappropriate or sexist to portray women who are rape survivors in comics, or that Kurt’s story was inherently sexist? Hell, no. I think that Kurt’s decision to include rape in Janissa’s background was a sound creative choice. He wanted to create a character who had become a dehumanized fighter; systematic use of sexual violence is a pretty effective means of achieving that end. More important, he didn’t rely on the trope of ‘woman gets raped and decides to become a warrior’—the rapes are instead the Bone Woman’s vicious twist on Janissa’s desire to develop strength and skill.
But: The objection that a writer, editor, or publisher shouldn’t have to take responsibility for something that isn’t his or her fault—in this case, the tired trope of female heroes as rape survivors—ignores the real problem. While I don’t think that the chronic victimization of female characters is the responsibility of a single writer or publisher, I think that all writers and publishers should take steps to acknowledge and address that problem and the climate that created it. Even small steps (like dedicating a letter column to addressing rape issues in a given comic!) can make a difference by promoting open discussion and increasing awareness.
In America, a woman is raped every two minutes*. It’s been estimated that one in six women is a survivor of sexual violence, but that’s a conservative guess: the real number is likely closer to one in four. More than half of female rape survivors were assaulted when they were under the age of thirty. Nearly a third were assaulted before they were eleven.
Less than a fifth of those assaults are ever reported to law enforcement agencies.
Rape isn’t just a women’s issue. One in thirty-three men has been a victim of rape or attempted rape; of those men, at least half are exclusively heterosexual. Again, that’s a conservative estimate; it’s impossible to know the real number, and men are even less likely than women to report being sexually assaulted.
It was an accident that Janissa’s return coincided with Sexual Assault Awareness Month, but coincidence or not, it’s too important an issue to bypass. Based on the number of letters we’ve gotten about Janissa’s rape, many of you feel the same way.
It’s important to discuss this because rape feeds on silence and shame. Survivors are hesitant to speak up for fear of skepticism and social stigma. The rest of us are hesitant to raise our voices because hey, it isn’t our problem.
Rape is everybody’s problem. If you yourself aren’t a survivor of sexual violence, you more than likely knowor will eventually knowand care about someone who is.
Some Common Myths About Sexual Assault:
Sexual assault is a crime of passion and lust, and victims have usually ‘led on’ their attackers through dress or behavior.
Rape isn’t an act of passion; it’s an act of violence. It isn’t about uncontrollable desire: it’s about power. It is never okay to force sex on someone, no matter how they look or behave.
If she doesn’t protest, it’s not rape.
Acquiescence is not the same as consent. If someone was impaired (chemically or otherwise), verbally coerced, or threatened, or even if they simply didn’t consent, it’s not okay to have sex with them.
All assailants are men / all victims are women.
While it’s true that the majority of rapes involve a male assailant and a female victim, that’s not the whole story. Ten to fifteen percent of rape victims are male, and although female perpetrators are rare, they do exist.
If a man is raped / rapes another man, he must be gay.
Rape doesn’t have anything to do with sexual orientation: remember, it’s about power, not desire. 50% of male rape survivors identify as exclusively heterosexual, as do an even higher percentage of their attackers.
Women often lie about being raped.
According to the FBI, less than 2% of rape reports turn out to be false.
If you or a friend has been assaulted, if you want to know what you can do to help stop sexual assault or support survivors, or if you just want to learn more, here are some resources:
National Sexual Assault Hotline: 1.800.656.HOPE
Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network:
National Sexual Violence Resource Center and Sexual Assault Awareness Month:
Men Can Stop Rape:
The Clothesline Project:
*All statistics are from either the National Institute of Justice or the Illinois Department of Justice.
Legal note:
Conan #39 (including the above letter column) Copyright © 2007 Conan Properties International, LLC. Conan® and Conan the Barbarian® (including all prominent characters featured in this issue) and the distinctive likenesses thereof are trademarks of Conan Properties International, LLC unless otherwise noted. All contents © Conan Properties International, LLC unless otherwise noted. Dark Horse Comics® and the Dark Horse logo are trademarks of Dark Horse Comics, Inc., registered in various categories and countries. All rights reserved. No portion of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted, in any form or by any means, without the express written permission of Dark Horse Comics, Inc. Names, characters, places, and incidents featured in this publication either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons (living or dead), events, institutions, or locales, without satiric intent, is coincidental.
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