Books, Comics, Music

Coming Out of the Refrigerators

From the 20’s through the 40s, both newspaper comics and comic books featured women creators and tough smart female characters. That changed with the 50’s move toward conformity and censorship in all media, but especially comics, deliberately infantilized during the Wertham witch hunt, though the medium had previously appealed to all ages. Women often appeared as marriage-obsessed brats who needed a spanking.

An exception was feisty Little Lulu by John Stanley, which belongs with Marston’s Wonder Woman with the great feminist characters of pop culture. Marvel Comics’ much-noted renaissance in the 60’s in fact placed female characters in very subsidiary roles, as Mike Madrid’s well regarded survey, Supergirls, notes. The otherwise revolutionary undergrounds tended to sexualize women. It wasn’t until the alternative publishers that emerged with the growth of the direct market and the Punk/DIY movement in the 80’s when women began self publishing titles such as Wimmen’s Comics and Twisted Sister, that their viewpoints became a part of comics again.

This did not end the struggle, of course. Mainstream (superhero) comics, with the exception of slight stirrings, remained a sexist fanboy’s club, in both production and characterization, for over two more decades of broke-back* “bad girls” and “women in refrigerators”.

It’s finally changing, and as many feminists have long advocated, comics for girls are leading the way. Gail Simone, pioneer female comics creator and the instigator of WiR, speaking of sexualized disposal of female characters in 1999, noted “If you demolish most of the characters girls like, then they won’t read comics.” Women writers, artists and colorists have now taken advantage of the rise in creator-owned properties rising through the zine and web comics world to bring fresh air and light to the dingy fan boy world the direct market comic shops had become. Libraries and traditional bookstores are enthusiastically reinforcing this trend, and the big producers, spurred by a very vocal WiR-inspired feminist voice in the blogosphere, are finally placing women such as Kelly Sue Deconnick and G. Willow Wilson of Captain Marvel, a muslim teen super heroine, in starring roles.

A long time Lulu, and even sometime Archie, fan, I’ve read several critical analyses of women in comics, such as Madrid’s Supergirls or Noah Berlatsky’s Wonder Woman, which defends the positive subtext of then-radical queer sexualities in Marston’s WW, without glossing over its sometimes misplaced fetishism. When I run across a teen or young adult comic for girls, I tend to pick it up, if only out of curiosity.

Many of these titles have been acclaimed critically and have sold well, indicating a market too long ignored. Others seem to pander, as if girls and YA women were a niche market some VP ordered them to check off the list. Here’s what I’ve found so far:

Wet Moon Sophie Campbell: An edgy goth melodrama about multiply tattooed girls at a southern art school. Extremes of punk rebellion manifested in fashion and body piercings and played off against the disdained redneck mainstream as a group of young adult girls attempt to sort their love lives. It’s well paced with good dialogue. It’s only the first of six volumes but sets up well. It seems to be a rewrite of a previous series of comics. I always favor adventurous, edgy writing as opposed to mainstream fluff, and I feel that even pre-teens enjoy somewhat rebellious or transgressive themes, but this would probably be most appropriate for high school or college readers.

Bandette, Colleen Coover: It must be wonderful, if fluffy, summertime reading for girls of 12, with a perky Audrey Hepburn-like hero lifted from To Catch a Thief. It has Euro-style clear line art and some good running gags. But its ineffectual villains and lack of real dramatic tension is a recipe for a superficiality that it rarely transcends.

Nimona. Noelle Stevenson: This is a funny, clever, retro-futurist fantasy about a teen girl who is a shape shifter, and wants to be a super villain. She convinces an aggrieved former do-gooder to take her on as a sidekick, and the mentor/intern relationship is hilariously fraught. “There are rules”, to evil doing, he reminds her rather incongruously when Nimona delights in her body counts. It becomes clear that Nimona is more powerful than any of them dreamed, and the subtle themes of emotional maturity and anger in this quirky coming of age fable, along with the graceful, spontaneous cartooning and bright, evocative colors are enough to make it appealing to any age. It resists easy answers or moral dogma, and its impetuous, transgressive heroine must be a breath of fresh air to a teen reader. It was a finalist for a National Book Award, and will be made into a movie. One senses a classic-in-waiting.

Lumberjanes, Noelle Stevenson: The success of Nimona and the sudden rush to serve the long ignored and hungry girl market opened opportunity for Stevenson, and this collaboration with Grace Ellis and Brooke Allen for Boom! Comics resulted. It’s necessarily more episodic, and becomes fairly silly at times, but its themes of girlhood friendship (and nascent crushes) have made it a hit and won it a comics industry Eisner Award. It takes place in a summer camp with a high incidence of paranormal activity, and the plucky heroines meet each three-eyed terror with resolve while bucking up each other’s courage. I prefer Nimona’s darker, more complex themes, but I’m clearly not the target market and Lumberjanes delivers intelligent fluff ala traditional classics such as Little Luluwith none of Archie’s male-centric conformity.

Patsy Walker, AKA Hellcat, Kate Leth and Brittney Williams: This character as teen market superstar seems like kind of a no-brainer, but something went wrong here. Marvel has been active in development of comics for girls and an early pioneer of strong female characters since the 80’s X-Men reboots. And Patsy herself is a holdover from the first boom in teen- and romance comics in the 50’s. But Marvel obviously overthought or over-analyzed this one. In fact Patsy’s last appearance, as sidekick to She-Hulk in the alt-comics inflected Marvel Now series, had already been named to some comics-for-girls lists when they let a focus-group mentality and cliche take over for the present reboot. There’s nothing wrong with gay and bi characters, until they take on a vaguely stereotyped, check list feel. And the simplistic art in pastel colors also feels a bit like a marketing move. Stereotype infects the storytelling too, with illustrations of smartphone text messages often taking the place of inventive interplay between word and picture, a glaring violation of the ‘show it, don’t tell it’ rule. How did they get this so wrong?

Bombshells: Alternative-universe series where various young female superheroes-including Anne Frank (!) battle Nazis in WWII. The art (meh) and plotting are by committee, and as these group things go, the story is choppy and abrupt, but again, escapist comics targeting girls or young women are rare at DC, and they’ve lasted 18 issues, so who am I to judge?

Mockingbird, Chelsea Cain and Kate Niemczyk: A spin off from TV’s Agents of Shield, with some of the same romantic complications, a healthy dose of snark and fantasy, and some pretty engaging art. Marvel gets this one right, as it does with Hawkeye and Silver Surfer, two other general interest comics with strong female leads that seem inclusive without pandering to stereotyped marketing categories.

Saga, Brian K. Vaughn and Fiona Staples: Though war and sex take very prominent roles in this general interest sci-fi epic-to-be (it’s ongoing), I’m betting teen girls make up a lot of its NYT Bestseller List readership. Partly because its overriding theme is the power of love and family. It’s narrated by the offspring of a very unlikely marriage of warring soldiers, and it’s funny, heartwarming and poignant with appealing illustration and endearingly bizarre characters.

This One Summer , Jillian and Mariko Tamaki: These cousins are the gold standard for graphically and thematically sophisticated cartoon literature for girls, in my opinion. This tale of quietly but seismically changing relationships among friends and family in a previously idyllic summer vacation spot reads like a novel and looks like a master ink painting. In short, it puts the “graphic” and “novel” back into “graphic novel”, a not very descriptive marketing category in the book industry’s raging love affair with the various types of comics now flooding the shelves. As a measure of the suddenness of this infatuation with bookish female teens, their last GN, Skim, was even better in its take on girlhood coming out rites of passage, but did not attract nearly as much mainstream attention. And there is nothing in these richly drawn, subtle, emotionally incisive coming-of-age tales that prevents an engaged reading by even, say, middle aged men, so read them, and see what happens when a vibrant medium meets a diverse and challenging creative landscape.

Paper Girls, Brian K. Vaughan, Cliff Chiang: Image Comics has evolved from the home of sexist “Bad Girls” such as Witchblade, etc, into a solid purveyor of genre with a fairly diverse line up of creators and characters. Interesting, if not all that innovative story of 12-year old paper girls in a post-apocalyptic time warp. Again, if I was a 12 year old, I might think this is great.

*Brokeback is the snide feminist term for the contorted poses that busty, wasp-wasted female superheroes were forced into in order to display both tits and ass during the bad girls era.