Can of Worms: Writing About Women in Comics

Trista DeVries | 14 January 2014 | Comics | 0 Comments   

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There I was, on a quiet Saturday morning just after Christmas, all cuddled up on the couch with my brand new “Good Morning Beautiful” mug filled with delicious English Breakfast tea (just a dash of milk), reading my only comic gift of the season: Batgirl Volume 2: Knightfall Descends. (It’s a great book, you should totally read it.)

I got to one panel, in which Batgirl has had an altercation with a particularly brutal Big Bad in a public gathering (frequently known to those who leave the house as ‘parties.’) “Is everyone else okay?” asks Batgirl. “We’re okay Batwoman,” replies a man in a tuxedo. As she’s turning to leave she calls back, “It’s Batgirl. Batgirl, alright?

I paused for a moment and took a sip of tea to calm myself. You see, there are few things that get under my skin more than when a fully grown woman refers to herself as a “girl.”

The pause turned into a minute and the minute turned into five as I sat in thought. I grabbed my phone and opened my Facebook app. I messaged Mr. Green and said, “Hey, I want to write about women in comics. You want me to do that?” Ten minutes later the deal was sealed. I would be writing about women in comics for Geek Hard.

That ended my comic reading for the morning as I got online to do some research for what I was sure was about to become my new favourite hobby. I write about film for a living, but comics are an old love and I figured that getting out of my comfort zone wouldn’t be a bad thing.

My mind was reeling. I wanted to look back at the various incarnations of Wonder Woman and determine who is doing her the most justice. I was dying for an excuse to dive into the Brubaker Catwoman stuff. I really wanted to discuss the fact that most female comic characters have to be both eye candy and kick-ass, but few of them are actually people. And if none of that worked out, I would get at least one solid article out of my feminist huff on the whole “girl/woman” title thing.

I Googled ‘women in comics,’ certain that the internet would serve me up a delicious buffet of topics already covered, but the returned result was nothing short of devastating.

I found reports of sexual harassment of women who work in the comics industry, either as publishers (and esteemed ones at that) or creators (more here), and reports of the staggering inequality in the gender breakdown of creators and invited panelists at cons and events.

Apparently saying the words “women in comics” in any room of people with a little bit of knowledge was like cracking open a can of worms – a can of mutant, radioactive, killer worms.

Two hours later I came out of the internet, feeling like I’d been punched in the gut. Have you ever loved something irrationally – like, beyond good sense – only to discover that your voice is not wanted there simply because of your gender? And that the very fact that the medium by which this thing you love is presented spends a great deal of time objectifying women reinforces destructive and negative behaviour towards you? It kind of shatters you.

You’re probably saying mean things to your computer screen right now, if you’re even still reading. So I should probably take a moment to say that while I did uncover some fairly vile behaviour and some staggeringly unequal statistics, I can’t, in good conscience, make blanket statements like ‘all men who write and create comics sexually harass women and think it’s okay to do that.’ I also can’t, in good conscience, say that ‘a man has never written a solid, genuinely empowered female character for a comic book.’ In fact, I think that at this very moment there are hundreds of men who work in the comics industry who are not sexually harassing women as you read this. I also think that there are women submitting work to publishers that will be genuinely considered on its merits, not behind the veil of “well, it’s good… for a woman.”

So what, then, is my point? Well, friend, my point is this: when I decided to write about women in comics I had my world rocked. What I found made me want to stop reading comics. It made me want to ensure that I didn’t contribute financially to an industry that has some pretty crazy gender standards both on and off the page.

Then I thought, well, shit, that’s stupid.

I’m a feminist. I’ve been one since I can remember. I came wired this way (or so my mom likes to say, since I’ve never outlived the story of how I pulled a bottle out of my mouth and demanded to know if any women wrote books after she had read me a string of them written by male authors.) Feminists tend not to stick our heads in the dirt and pretend that if we simply don’t engage something, it will get better. Instead, we tend of attack it head on, intelligently.

My plan for this column isn’t different now, and I’m unlikely to write on any topic that I didn’t initially plan to. The only difference is that now I know that I’m just about to crack open a can of worms.

If you’re gonna geek out, GEEK HARD!

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Trista DeVries

Columnist at Geek Hard
Trista DeVries fell in love with comics 3.8 seconds after the opening credits of Batman (1989), when The Dark Knight became her official, personal hero. When not writing for Geek Hard, she is a freelance writer, movielover, wife, cat owner and knitter. She is also the Editor-in-Chief of online film magazine Toronto Film Scene.

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