I’ve been home from Dragon*Con for four days and I’m already biding my time until next year. The con is, as I will explain to any brick space people who are silly enough to ask, my favorite weekend of the whole year. It’s like coming home, really. For five days that slice of downtown Atlanta is host to many musical acts, performers, fans, industry reps, artists, and academic experts across almost any field or genre you can think of. It’s a safe space for enthusiasm that will also make you think if you let it. I’d been looking forward to con with extra zeal this year due to some sharp downturns in my personal life, and con did not disappoint. Or rather, it didn’t disappoint until 11:30AM on Monday, which has kind of put a damper on the whole madcap experience.

The Comics and Pop Art track at D*C is one of my favorite tracks. It’s presented like a mini academic conference within the confines of the larger convention, and you’re just as likely to find an in-depth study on the feminine pose in comics as it relates to art history as you are a panel devoted to the literary wells we draw our comics ideas from. The attendees are usually as curious and well-read as the presenters. The Gender and Race panel I attended earlier in the weekend was standing room only, and it made me incredibly happy to be there as someone asked about the inherent issues in writing a minority character from the side of the majority. These are things I think about quite a lot as a writer and I’m always put a bit at ease when I see other people think about them too. I’m telling you all of this because I don’t want you to think that my issue here is with the con or the track, but with a specific group of panelists and with the moderator who was not prepared and who couldn’t get a handle on her panel.

The 11:30 Monday morning panel was called Girls Rule! and the blurb said that it would be a “discussion of the many incredible female characters and creators who are capable of kicking butt.” I know, right? Doesn’t that sound amazing? Doesn’t it sound like a place where you can get together with like-minded people and talk about Captain Marvel and the Carol Corps? Kate Kane and how she resonates with all of us queer comic loving ladies? Kelly Sue DeConnick and Gail Simone and Becky Cloonan and the rest of the accessible, intelligent, creative, and inspiring women who work in the industry and fight for us every day? That would have been such a great panel! That was not the actual panel.

During the actual panel I got to sit in a room that was about 75% female and watch in shared disbelief as a panelist held up the picture below and, without a hint of irony in his voice, explained to us that this character was a good, strong female character because she was armed to the hilt. She can totally defeat the vampires! Look at all these weapons! Think about what she could do to vampires with them! And while you’re thinking about that, be sure to ruminate on how conveniently attractive and improbably built she is! This is a woman who refuses to be held down by the patriarchal idea of functional clothing! Her tits defy you! They’ll defy you long time!

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[Lady Van Helsing, as proposed for their upcoming Unleashed event.]

Sorry, I got a bit carried away there, but you see where I’m coming from, I’m sure. This particular image is one of the characters from Zenoscope Entertainment’s Grimm’s Fairy Tales comic line. She’s their answer to Van Helsing and I can’t help but think that way too many of her important arteries are exposed for effective vampire fighting. This is a line of comics that I have been warned not to read by a male employee at my local comic shop because of how dreadfully misogynistic it is. I had picked up the book to flip through it, because I love both fairy tales and sexy ladies and I’m not opposed to the Skinemax version of Fables on principle as long as the stories are interesting. In this case they’re not. Some books actually are just what they say on the tin. When the panelist in question was asked about the functionality of her wardrobe and the overtly stylized design he deflected by telling us how women of all stripes read these books and dress up as the characters. That’s…nice, but it doesn’t answer the question. Another non-answer we received is that his wife tells him things about ladies sometimes, so he’s justified in this presentation of them. I’m not even going to touch the ignorance in that.

I am also not going to bash cosplayers or people who enjoy these books. Personal preferences and tastes vary and that’s integral to the way the world works. This company is filling a demand in the market and kudos to them for being able to exploit everything at work here. However, I am going to call into question the mindset that can’t quite comprehend the fact that it’s problematic that we need to ask these questions at all. There is a dangerous fallacy at work here, and that fallacy is that brute force and artillery can stand in for strength of character. They can’t. They can inform it, but there needs to be something better under the surface.

In response to a similar question about the importance of character design in inclusion one of the female panelists told us that if we wanted our characters portrayed differently we needed to vote with our dollars (which is a bit of common sense information I got from my Economics teacher in high school), but she seemed to entirely miss the point as well. The point of these questions, and supposedly the whole panel, was that this common representation of women in the comics industry does a poor job of reflecting not only individual women, but the subset of women as a whole. What we learned throughout the hour was that at least a part of the comics industry acknowledges that people want this and will purchase it, but that they’re too lazy or bored or untalented to give it to us.

I resent being told that there are totally character driven comics with lady leads if I just dig for them. I shouldn’t have to dig for them. Fully realized women make up more than half of the population of the planet. I’m not asking for something niche and gauche that society looks down on. Or, on second thought, maybe I am. Look, I know if I just want tentacle rape and yuri with werewolves that La Blue Girl is a thing, and I find it disturbing that it’s easier for me to get my hands on that than it is to get my hands on a realistic portrayal of a woman reflected in my media. I double resent the fact that there was a woman telling me this, because when women say this to other women their opinion is often used as a way to write off legitimate complaints. We’re told, but this woman likes it, so why are you still mad? It’s almost like these writers and artists don’t see women as individuals. Oh, wait.

It wouldn’t be hard to create the kinds of characters we’re asking for. The things we love about Captain Marvel and Batwoman and Wonder Woman are not the extraordinary things about them, it’s the ordinary things. We know women like this. We know women who are strong and capable and who fight for what they love and what’s right. And yes, sometimes those women really love heels and cleavage and red lipstick and men, but it’s reductive to treat them as if these are the traits that define their character or drive their plot. A lot of comics still treat female characters as if this was the case. That is the problem. Books like Grimm’s Fairy Tales are part of the problem.

One of the men in the audience raised his hand and stated rather smugly that he didn’t know what the big deal was, because men are sexualized too. Don’t women get enjoyment out of men in spandex? Why do we complain when men get to benefit from this enjoyment as well? Half of the panel enthusiastically agreed with this statement. I tried to remain passive. I really did, but I have never rolled my eyes so far back into my head in my entire life. I think I uncovered some hidden childhood memories while they were back there. You’re reading this on the internet, some of you might even be here via Tumblr, so I don’t think I need to break down the willful ignorance of this statement for you. Instead I’m going to talk about a comic character I’ve loved for as long as I can remember: Dick Grayson.

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[From Nightwing #20, May 2013]

I have this joke with myself and a few of my friends where I will refer to Dick Grayson as a Strong Female Character. Dick Grayson spends more time swooning than poorly written Regency romance heroines who wear extra tight corsets on hot days. Dick Grayson is often drawn in that dreaded/celebrated boobs and butt pose for the sole purpose of calling attention to his assets. (They’re fine assets. If I was Dick Grayson I’d spend all of my time in front of the mirror and never get dressed enough to leave the house.) In fact, when asked about that particular Nightwing ass shot, penciler Brett Booth said:

“I thought that was required of all Nightwing pencilers? I remember seeing the Nicola Scott image and thought that was a ‘thing’ you do when drawing Nightwing. So I decided to do one and I wasn’t going to do it half…. baked. I was going all in! .. Wait, that sounds bad… Full Monty?… no… I’m very tired…”

I don’t have any such images easily accessible, but I would bet you a each cup of chai that there are completely canon images of Dick Grayson wrapped around a woman and sitting at her feet as if he was being subjugated. Dick Grayson’s milkshake brings ALL OF EVERYONE to the yard. He’s tied with Vince Noir as the greatest confuser. Dick Grayson is all of these things, but he has one advantage that your average comic book female doesn’t, and that’s that he’s Dick Grayson.

Originally brought in to the comic in 1940 as Bruce Wayne’s ward after his parents’ death left him an orphan, Dick Grayson is a complex character with over seventy years of backstory that runs the gamut from Superman fanboy to reluctant leader. At no point in time has Dick Grayson’s overtly displayed sexuality been used as a defining part of his character. Which isn’t to say that he doesn’t flaunt it or use it to his advantage–I’m looking at you, Brothers In Blood–it’s just not the thing that drives his story lines and character development. If he was to be wrapped at the feet of a woman he would still be himself. Female comic book characters are often stripped of their costumes or distinguishing characteristics when posed this way, but male characters are left alone in most instances. This way they can be seen as contextually adding strength to the woman who has enthralled them. (And in some cases, nefariously captured them, because why would a man decide on his own to support a woman?)

As your average male superhero, Dick doesn’t look the way he does because that’s what will sell comics or because a male writer or artist personally fetishized trapeze artists. He looks the way he does because he needs those muscles to perform acrobatic feats and because the idealized male body is seen as inherently heroic. It commands power. Unlike the ‘idealized’ female body which is designed to attract heroic men and make them feel strong. The ‘idealized’ female body through a man’s perspective is sexualized, because that is a woman’s worth to a man, ultimately, when boiled down through the lens of our media. Dick Grayson is not Dick Grayson because he’s sexy. Dick Grayson is sexy because he’s Dick Grayson. The difference there is not as subtle as the English language would have you believe. I’m not arguing that male comic book characters are never fetishized, I’m arguing that that’s not their default purpose and hasn’t been historically.

Things have gotten better, though. Natasha Romanoff is a woman who knows she can use her looks to her advantage, and she does, but lately her storylines have been driven by other parts of her character with that as an incidental tool in her belt. She is actually empowered (in some books, I’m not currently reading all of the titles she’s in) to be the best version of her character, physically, intellectually, and emotionally. It’s a really great thing to see. (Even if I am still bitter over the end of Black Widow Hunt.) If a woman’s wardrobe is so important, why can’t we at least create more female characters like this who understand the world around them and are smart about it? Or we could even retrofit older characters to be like this. It’s certainly not uncommon for characters to go through an editorial evolution. DC rebooted their entire universe full stop two years ago. And if I ‘m speaking of DC, the Kate Kane that I know and love is a reintroduction of an entirely different character from DC’s past. She’s just been heavily updated to reflect the time. I’m not really that picky. Dress her up however you like, but make her a whole person whose wants and desires are not defined by the men around her.

So no, random panel goer, it’s not the same thing. It’s not the same thing at all, and it’s incredibly disheartening to me when the gatekeepers and creative forces in a massive industry can’t tell the difference either. The fact that we have to have these discussions is the reason why I needed a panel about how women can rule. It’s really too bad no one was prepared to give me one. I’d like to leave this as official feedback for the panel, but I don’t think it will fit into the box on the app. It would be nice if, next year, there was another panel about women in comics that managed to carry the academic tone of the Comics and Pop Art conference as a whole, and it would be wonderful if the panelists respected their audience.

Addendum 1: The saving grace of the whole ordeal was panelist Chandra Free, who is a talented and intelligent woman. She tried many times to bring the conversation back around to context, but was more or less ignored by the other panelists. She’s just the sort of person I would love to see on the new and improved version of this panel for next year. She does great work that you should absorb and read. So, go do that. I’ll be here when you get back, ready to actually discuss women in comics. I’ll have a gold star for each of you.

Addendum 2: The abstract for the great talk I saw earlier in the weekend on feminine poses in comics in the context of Art History can be found here.

Addendum 3: In light of recent Batwoman news, I’d just like to remind the universe that I still have a lot of feelings about that character and that Plunge magazine let me write an article on it.

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