Sunday, April 29, 2007

DC and its woman problem

-Greg Burgas is a brave man. Mr. Burgas seems to be under the impression that, since DC and Marvel appeal almost exclusively to adult men, that there's no problem with Michael Turner's uh, idiosyncratic depictions of women. That certainly seems to reflect DC's publishing strategy, which is basically in three parts: (1) Maintain intellectual properties so that they can be mined for use in other media. (2) Produce works featuring said intellectual properties which appeals to a narrow but devoted audience. (3) Appeal to new readers via alternate imprints targeting specific demographics. This strategy assumes that (1) and (2) are in some sort of cycle; new readers will learn about DC's superheroes via movies and cartoons, thus encouraging them to buy DC's mainline superhero titles. In turn, the stories published in these comics (2) will serve as R&D for future projects (1). Of course, there's a tremendous energy seepage involved here; a minuscule percentage the people reached by projects (1) go on to read comics (2).

I mention this strategy only because it's in such stark contrast to Marvel's. Marvel has abandoned any pretense of (3), with the exception of its kids-oriented Marvel Adventures line. But unlike Vertigo, CMX, Minx, or some of the Johnny DC titles, the goal isn't to serve a different demographic. Instead, Marvel hopes that readers of its Adventures line will grow into readers of its regular line. The mainline Marvel titles are the top of the heap in terms of sophistication; there's no parallel line such as Vertigo. DC can appeal to non-comics reading adults or adolescents readers through its various imprints; Marvel has no similar avenue. This is why events like Civil War are so important to Marvel. Civil War appealed to potential adult readers with a story alluding to real world events. Infinite Crisis did not. There was some mainstream media coverage of it, but I was under the impression that DC was targeting lapsed readers rather than trying to create new ones. (For the record, I doubt Marvel roped in too many new readers with Civil War, and I kind of think they didn't expect to do so. But they at least made a credible effort.)

The fundamental appeal of DC's superhero universe has always been that it's a rich, immersive fictional reality. In contrast, Marvel's appeal was that it reflected the real world quite a bit more. (I really think Quesada is on the level when he says that he's trying to return Marvel to this state through all the drastic changes we've seen throughout his tenure. Whether it's possible to arrest the momentum of years of continuity and fan expectation is an entirely different matter.) DC is essentially escapist, more interested in its own mythology than anything in the outside world. It appeals to readers wanting this kind of experience.

So really, I'm shocked that there isn't more of a Turnerian visual style to DC's titles. DC does seem to be angling for a 90s retro house style (if its flagship book, Justice League, is any indication). Unrealistic bodies, male or female, seem to be just what the typical DC reader wants in his comics. It reinforces the fantasy, guaranteeing that reality will not intrude on the reader's escape into comics. This sort of art also provides a degree of wish fulfillment, as the typical male reader projects himself into the ridiculously steroidal bodies of the male heroes, engaging the impossibly pneumatic female heroes as equals or (better yet) superiors.

Burgas essentially argues that there's no problem with this, since any male reader who can't discern reality from fantasy "doesn’t deserve an actual woman anyway, and they should die alone." I find this sentiment troubling, but I'll set it aside for now. What about the atypical reader? DC seems aware that there are women who read its superhero comics, yet the majority of its comics exclude them from the DC fantasy world. One might ask why women don't project themselves into the bodies of its female characters, as men do with the male characters. The reality is that male body image problems are not identical to female body image problems. This is not to say that men aren't anxious about their bodies, or that images of impossibly muscular men don't affect them; psychological studies indicate otherwise. But even if this body image anxiety affected men and women equally (and it doesn't), DC isn't sexualizing male characters in the same way that it sexualizes female characters. How many superheroes cavort in their underwear? How many of them have their costume ripped down to a G-string? Think about the wang debate of last week! But, since women are probably 5% of the readership at best, DC and its apologists choose to ignore these complaints.

What about Marvel? Well, as I mentioned above, Marvel has always tried to portray itself as a more realistic superhero universe. Tom Breevort and Joe Quesada both have recently criticized the "616" designation for its superhero universe, as it undermines the sense of reality they wish to create. Truthfully, though, the Marvel universe is really a fantasy world with a haphazardly applied veneer of reality. The initial characterization at Marvel might have prevented absolute fantasy projection; Spider-Man was a loser, Hulk a dangerous monster, the Thing an abomination, Daredevil was blind, Captain America a man out of time, etc. Over the years, however, these characters have become more and more heroic, better receptacles for the wounded psyche of the perpetually adolescent male. And Marvel certainly has its share of balloon chested super-heroines. Of course, many of the most obvious examples are decidedly non-human; it's unclear what kind of body image issues are provoked by the likes of Tigra or She-Hulk. But still, Marvel is no paragon of realistically proportioned women; this is the company that employs Greg Land and Frank Cho, after all. If the current Ultron isn't an example of pandering, what is?

Having said all that, I still think DC is currently a worse offender than Marvel. Turner is drawing covers for both companies, but his work at Marvel has been relatively understated (still bad, but not as screamingly bad). Marvel has no equivalent to Supergirl, Wondergirl, or even Stargirl; its teenage superheroines dress like Victorian schoolmarms in comparison. There's a sort of trade-off here. Marvel's superpowered women (with the possible exception of Jean Grey) lack the cultural significance of DC's. The most prominent superheroines at Marvel are cognates or confirmed B-listers; none of them are as important as Spider-Man's female supporting cast. None of them are as important as Gwen Stacy, who died before I was born! And that's exactly why Michael Turner's depiction of Power Girl is so frustrating to so many people. DC is in a much better position to produce comics featuring powerful, self-actuating superheroines. Yet it can't, since this would alienate much of its fantasy-craving readership.


Greg said...

It's notthat I have "no problem," just less of a problem than most people, it seems. I still think it's awful art and disturbing in what it reveals about Turner's idea of beauty.

Anonymous said...

Burgas' columns make me deeply, deeply depressed.

This is why I never read them.

LurkerWithout said...

Not to dispute any of the rest of your essay, but I'd say that Marvel's Icon line (even with only 2 titles curently) is meant to harken back to the old Epic imprint. And might be considered an early attempt to recreate what DC has with Vertigo...

Bill said...

Two qualifications:

The Invisible Woman and Storm (after the movies) are more important that Gwen Stacy at Marvel.

Marvel's "real world" approach has one tangible result you don't discuss--Marvel has had much more success with black characters.

Dick Hyacinth said...

Anonymous, I like Greg. I just frequently disagree with him, and he's good natured enough to actually respond to criticism instead of lashing out blindly or dismissing the criticisms out of hand.

Lurkerwithout, I thought about the Icon line as I wrote this. I think Quesada and Buckley (or maybe Jemas?) started it just to appease exclusive writers who wanted to do creator-owned work. I think it's just now threatening to become something more than that, although I don't get the sense that Quesada is really trying to develop it right now. It's too bad, because I think it's a great opportunity for Marvel and the direct market in general.

Bill, I guess I'd agree with you, although I would credit Marvel's recent comics with pushing Storm to the forefront (albeit in the most ham-fisted way possible). I hadn't really thought about the impact of Marvel's quasi-realistic style on Black characters, but I think I agree. Marvel was quicker to introduce them in the 60s and early 70s, giving them the kind of publishing history that seems necessary for readers to accept characters. It didn't help that DC's best effort, John Stewart, got thrown into the weird Green Lantern morass.

Matt Brady said...

Marvel also has their Dabel Brothers line, which seems to be reaching out to a wider, non-superhero audience. Especially the Anita Blake book.

Dick Hyacinth said...

That's a good point. If Minx and the Dabel Brothers lines become a bigger part of their respective publishing plans, maybe DC and Marvel will consider producing some comics which appeal to adult women as well. Or maybe these hypothetical readers will pick up comics from other publishers instead.

Matt Brady said...

Yeah, I imagine the hypothetical adult women are busy reading manga, or Fun Home, or Blankets, or Epileptic, and stuff like that.

jnr said...

neat analysis. thanks.

Joe Willy said...

I think you illuminated the reason I can hardly look at most DC comics outside of Vertigo or projects like Solo. I don't really care for Marvel much either given their preference for stroke mag-lightboxed art but I find it better than the continuity porn and rape storylines DC offers. Nice analysis. I would also point out DC's house style for drawing women seems to be (ala Michaelangelo) male bodies with round things attached in the front.

Red Stapler said...

Power Girl and She-Hulk are my favorite superheroines.

While both are depicted with exaggerated -ahem- features, the writing for both of them focuses heavily on their identities, both related and unrelated to their appearances.

In the Power Girl graphic novel, there is a lot of discussion about her personality, her past, etc. While her appearance is mentioned, it is usually discussed under the framing device of "I want to be seen as more than these boobs."

The entirety of the Dan Slott She-Hulk series is Shulkie trying to reconcile all parts of herself. She wants to be seen as a superhero, a lawyer, a woman, and a sexual being. Sadly, she keeps running into walls with all of these issues.

A recurring theme that just about breaks my heart is that she wants to be as free with her sexuality as her male comrades, but keeps getting derision for it.

Most importantly, to me anyway, is that while both characters have incredible bodies, they don't have the Michael Turner "superwaif" look. They are brickhouses, in every sense of the term. Thankfully, most artists who depict them understand and respect that.

wordswordswords said...

It's interesting to me that you use Turner as the "tipping point", if you will, for Marvel over DC at this moment in time. I agree with your assessment of his work for each of them, and, more to the point IMO, I wonder why both companies are so enamored of him that they keep using him so frequently for their major books.
Assuming that either company wants in any small way to attract new audiences, why not use an artist whose style is more similar to what people see in advertising (as was the case when Alex Ross was all the rage in the 90s)? For me, Turner isn't much more than this generation's Liefeld--embodier of a style that will be looked upon as very dated in years hence. Ross's style--in large part because it so closely mimics what's seen in advertising media (from the uber-dramatic lighting to the subject's poses themselves)--hasn't taken on that dated feeling yet, and I don't think it will. Which isn't to say it's superior or more "artful" (it's not), only that his style would make more sense for either company if they're seeking new readers. So perhaps Turner's prevalence really is the telling evidence that each company has no actual interest in new readers. I think I just made your point for you....

gene phillips said...

Dick, speaking just to your realism vs. escapism comparison of Marvel and DC--

I think that the basic notion accords with most people's overall impressions of the two companies, and I don't want to get into a game of "exception, exception, who's got the exception."

HOWEVER-- even good generalizations depend heavily on what you choose to generalize about. Yes, Silver-Age Spider-Man is more "realistic" than S-A Superman. But is S-A Sgt. Fury more "realistic" than Sgt. Rock?

The era makes a difference, too. The early 70s saw Marvel trying a lot of things (including giving a black hero his own title) that made DC seem slow to catch up. Yet ten years later (early 80s), Marvel retrenched into a more escapist mode under Shooter and DC introduced the "sophisticated suspense" of SWAMP THING, which could be said to have influenced greater realism at DC in the form of the Vertigo line. As someone who was a fan during that era, I can tell that it was weird to see stodgy old DC take the forefront in terms of greater realistic depiction, even over Marvel's roughly-comparable EPIC line.

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