The Dark Side of the Funny Books

“Avengers Ass-semble!” (art by Kevin Bolk)

You’re never too old for comic books, but I’m too old for the same old comic books.   I grew up on superheroes but I’ve aged out of Superman, Spider-Man and The X-Men the same way I aged out of Kool-Aid, Spaghetti-O’s and Fruit Loops.   Times change.  Tastes mature.

Sexism goes on.   It’s not always obvious when you see it, but sometimes it’s all up in your face and you can’t deny it.  Comics are a visual medium first and “Good Girl Art” or “cheesecake” if you prefer to call it what it is has been around as long as there’s been comics.   The thing which makes sexism in comics so insidious is as genre dominated by male creators you’re going to get their attitudes passed on to their male consumers and some of those attitudes are decidedly overtly sexual, demeaning and violent toward women.

You’re an Avenger, Natasha! Just kick his ass and be done with it.

 

What’s wrong with this picture? Besides everything, that is?

Don’t try this at home, kids. Seriously.

Characters like Power Girl, She-Hulk or Red Sonja are so over-the-top in the depiction of hypersexuality with their scanty or barely there costumes which are totally unsuitable for fighting can’t be confused as anything but colorized eye candy.   These aren’t people as much as they are flying boobs and massive butts breaking up stuff and punching out bad guys.

It’s the sneaky type you may initially arch an eyebrow about that burrows into your brain.  Stan Lee made The Fantastic Four’s Reed Richards the Smartest Guy in the Marvel Universe, but he had the nasty habit of saying the most sexist shit to Sue Storm when she wandered into a panel.

“Just like a woman!  Everything I do is for your own good, but you’re too scatter-brained and emotional to realize it.”

Reed to Dr. Doom:  “Why battle a female, Doom when I am yet defeated?”
Dr. Doom:  “My sentiments exactly, Richards.”

“…now go make me a sandwich, woman!”

“I’ll explain later, woman! Just do as I say!

Sue:Reed, I’ve been such a fool.”
Reed: “Not a fool, Sue, but a female.  You COULDN’T have reacted differently!”

But as time when on simply being a patronizing macho dickhead wasn’t enough.  John Byrne‘s run on the title is second only to Lee and Jack Kirby‘s for longevity and quality, but Byrne, notorious for being the man who put Superman in a porn flick, took Reed far beyond mere condescension of his wife and upped the ante to straight-up verbal and physical abuse.

How do you snap your wife out of it when she’s been turned into a mind-controlled dominatrix? Slap her around a bit.

The motive for this ugliness was Reed’s master plan to free Sue from a villain’s control.  But if the biggest brain’s in comics solution is to start slapping her like a drunken brute on Saturday night kicking around the old lady because she burnt the cheeseburgers, how smart is he really?

This made me uncomfortable when I first read it in the Eighties and it’s still unpleasant.  But it wasn’t the first a superhero hubby knocked his wife around.

Hank Pym (Yellowjacket) backhanded Janet Van Dyne (Wasp) when he had enough of her lip and whacked her one.

The more things change…

Years later, Mark Millar and Brian Hitch repeated the act in The Ultimates.

,,,the more they don’t.

Super-villains have never been reluctant to hit women and kill them if the means justified the ends.   That has changed and now there seems to be a competition among writers to see which one can come up with a scene that pushes all sorts of hot buttons.   The prolific and popular Brian Michael Bendis did exactly that during his run on The Avengers in a story where Dr. Doom captures the team and tells Ms. Marvel exactly what he thinks of her.

We already knew Doom wants to rule the world by any and all means, but when did he start talking like a Men’s Rights activist?   I like Bendis, but if I had the opportunity to tell him how much I hate that scene, I wouldn’t hesitate.

Pretty soon it wasn’t enough for the super villains to want to conquer the world and make everyone bow down to them.  They had to not only be bad guys; they had to be SICK guys who when they weren’t calling women “cows” and “whores”  pushed it further into darker lands comics had never gone before.

Marginalizing women as super-powered sex toys wasn’t enough.   You had to go there.  Rape them.

And that’s exactly what the comics did.  You won’t see the Hulk’s green boner a in a PG-13 super-hero summer blockbuster, but rape has become a common plot device (for men as well)  and its gone from the implied something bad’s about to go down here…

 

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…to the leaves no doubt what’s coming next.

 

I’m an adult and I’m not unaware of the dynamics of rape.   The Bill Cosby scandal has certainly been a wake-up call how sexual violence can go for decades with no one suspecting or seemingly caring.   Comic books were an escape into fantasy where might makes right and truth, justice and the American way won out over the forces of evil.  Of course, I learned when I was a boy this was a total load of bullshit.   Hey, what can I say?  Kids like to be bullshitted.

I’m not so sure if they like women depicted in the way they often are in comic books.  It’s either helpless and needing a man to come save them or they’re balloon-breasted bimbos whose super power is they can smother an opponent with their massive mammaries and gigantic glutes.   The perpetual victim thing harkens back to the pre-Comics Code days of EC Comics where shock, lurid violence and sordid situations were the standard.   The popularity of EC faded and was replaced by mostly harmless, tame comics featuring approved stories where good triumphed and evil was vanquished with a smile and a knowing wink.

We don’t need to go back to a code or rating system for comics.   Though I am mostly out of comics, they are still a genre of art and entertainment I enjoy greatly.   My two favorite comic books are Velvet by Ed Brubaker and Steve Epting and Lazarus by Greg Rucka and Michael Lark.   Both Image Comics titles are built around a strong female protagonist and neither features heroines with huge breasts posing suggestively in revealing, but preposterous costumes waiting for a man to come along and rescue them from a murdering rapist super villain.

Women and people of color are underrepresented in the comics industry and while more of them are landing gigs at Marvel, DC and the independents, there is a marked scarcity of non-super hero characters whom are believable or function as anything more than as well-drawn props.   Brubaker and Lark are not reinventing the wheel or created something never seen before, but what they are doing is going beyond the played-out beat up the baddies before they destroy the world reruns of mainstream comics.

It would be presumptive of me to say this is the future of comic books, but it is the future direction I’d like to see comic books take.  Crudely dumb sexism in comics might be excused as the unsophisticated politics of the time, but the growing popularity of rape is a troubling trend that bears observing.

Velvet Templeton is not “Jane Bond”, but if there were one she would be it.

 

 

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One thought on “The Dark Side of the Funny Books

  1. I can’t disagree with your points, but some of your examples go back years if not decades. (Not the Spider-Woman cover; that was just a few months ago, and was roundly condemned.)

    I’m not familiar either with “Velvet” or with “Lazarus,” but both of those titles are handled by top creators with a decent track record of writing books with better characterization than most of what’s out there. There are some other, positive examples out there, if you look.

    Marvel’s had a winner with the latest incarnation of “Ms. Marvel” — the title character is a devout Muslim teenage girl whose parents are Pakistani immigrants, and in and around the superhero stuff where she’s figuring out how her powers work, she also is figuring out her responsibility to the greater good. In one issue, she consults with her imam on just that question.

    The latest “She-Hulk” series focused more on her as a lawyer and small-business woman; in the first issue, she quits a high-powered firm and starts a solo practice, and the adventures that follow are as much about navigating criminal and civil procedure as they are about hitting things. Unfortunately, it concluded with its 12th issue.

    And DC has recently retooled “Batgirl” into something fresh; she’s now a twentysomething college student who really had to start over after all her equipment was destroyed in a fire. She’s brilliantly smart, with an eidetic memory, and thinks through her crimesolving more than most other characters.

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