Thursday, 29 September 2011

Comic Book Confidential: Sex & The Single Superhero

There are some mixed reviews of the big DC Comics reboot.  Some are liking what they're seeing, some are hating what they're seeing, while others are just confused and annoyed at what they're seeing.

The chief thing that seems to be annoying and confusing these readers is how DC is treating some of its female characters.  Chiefly they seem to be bumping up the sexy, while possibly sacrificing everything else, I'm talking character, story, and quite possibly readership.

Now I'm no prude, my family's Latin motto is Fremitus pro mamillas, or Hooray for boobies, but even I think it's getting past sleazy to ultimately destructive.

Let's look at the evidence....

Amanda Waller, was, when first introduced, a career bureaucrat behind a variety of covert government programs that involve DC superheroes and supervillains in various ways, and she looked like this...
She was supposed to symbolize the sort of covert governmental power that didn't require a hot bod clad in spandex.

However, since the reboot, she now looks like this....

Now she looks like Halle Berry's sister, but you know that she's not supposed to be a sexpot because she's only showing about three inches of cleavage.  (Which is considered demure by comic book standards.)

Then there's Harley Quinn. She was created in the early 1990s as by Bruce Timm and Paul Dini originally as just a walk-on minion for an episode of Batman: The Animated Series, but ended up becoming The Joker's on/off sidekick and girlfriend, and was incorporated into the comics regular continuity.  When she was created, she looked like this...

There are some curves, but it succeeds in creating a seemingly harmless mask to cover the fact that she's a complete psycho and far more dangerous than she looks.

Oh how things have changed, because she now looks like this...

Now she looks like a porn star that specializes in XXX parodies of Marilyn Manson videos.  As for masking the fact that she's a really dangerous psycho, forget it.

Then there's Catwoman, who was always drawn to be a sexy femme fatale, so this really isn't much of a stretch--

--Well, not much of an imaginative stretch, though that pose can't possibly be comfortable or even possible in the first place without some painful stretching.

But wait, there's more.

Instead of going for the usual "Will they or won't they?" sexual tension of the Batman/Catwoman rivalry/relationship, they just hop right into a nice final page humpfest in issue #1...
However, this isn't considered the most egregious move.

That involves the DC Comics character Starfire, a super-powered alien princess most famous for her debut in the 1980s as a member of the Teen Titans.  Back then, she looked like this...
Not exactly demure, but it's not her only look.  In fact, a lot of her younger fans know her looking like this...
Which is how she looked in a popular animated version of The Teen Titans from the 2000s.

But she doesn't look like that now.  Now she looks like this...
But that's not all.  Originally her character, and powers were based in and around her emotions, but now she doesn't seem to have any feelings other than boredom and horniness.  Plus, her massive breast implants seem to be throwing her entire spine out of whack.

When a seven year old girl called DC out on these changes,  DC Comics responded by basically telling people that "kids probably shouldn't read their comics."

That response got me thinking.

When I get thinking, I start to realize things, DC Comics should try it sometimes.

The whole attitude shown by DC Comics about this whole affair shows exactly why comics has gone from being a mass market medium into a niche market medium.  When asked about the over-sex and under-action, the usual response is something along the lines of "These are modern comics and they ain't your Daddy's comic book."

Of course it ain't my Daddy's comic book.  When my Dad read comic books individual titles had monthly sales in the millions, sometimes the tens of millions. Nowadays, if a book sells more than 100,000 copies, it's considered a massive major blockbuster event.

The comics industry is crumbling.  Readership is shrinking every year, as current readers get older and give up on comics, and newer readers (translation: Kids.) are kept from starting.

I've discussed this matter before, but they can be summed up as:

Comics are...

...Hard to get. You can only get monthly paper-copies or (floppies) of your favorite titles at a shrinking number of specialty stores. This is because mainstream retailers find them pain in the ass to stock.  You might find trade paperback collections of "graphic novels" in some of the larger bookstores, but just popping down to the corner store for the latest issue just isn't going to happen.

...Hard to understand.  Even if you do manage to find a comic book, they are not designed for casual readers.  If you don't have the background to get a reference to a plot point from the October 1965 issue, you're are just not going to get a damn thing.

There's no really budging with mainstream retailers, but e-book versions might fix the sales problem.  The DC Reboot is supposed to fix the whole confusing continuity thing, but it looks like, in the long run, it will just add to the confusion the way their last attempt Crisis On Infinite Earths did back in the 1980s.  Then there's the issue of all this rampant "fan service" which creates more problems, especially with future sales.

Kids are being turned away, not just by parents upset by sexual content, but more by the simple fact that kids read comics for action of the "fist in the villain's face" variety, not action of the "reverse cowgirl ending in a Rusty Venture" variety.  And if their mothers finds them with an issue of Starfire frolicking in her next-to-nothing, or Catwoman in heat, those books are going in the trash, and the parents are going to work to make sure they don't buy any more.

Adult male fans don't want people to look at their comic book collection, adorned with scantily clad vamps and/or vixens, and not see the big scale action/adventure performed by mythic characters, and assume that it's some sort of pervy hand-drawn titillation for those too much of a loser to go on the internet to beat off to photographs of real girls.  When they have to hide their comics under their beds like they were skin mags during their adolescence they'll stop buying.

Then there are female fans.  Never large in number, but they are out there.  Does the comic book industry really need to promote out of this world body-image issues to go alongside the out of this world powers and story-lines? They can't relate to freakishly built characters in physically impossible poses, while acting out prurient post-pubescent male sex fantasies. In fact they will be more likely than not be insulted and/or offended, and they will stop buying.

But it's not going to stop anytime soon.

Comic Publishers won't give it up because they, like TV networks, still think that "sex sells."  And even if it doesn't, the majors have big media conglomerates as their parent companies, and all the parent companies care about is a steady supply of movie/TV franchises and related merchandise.  The books, and who buys them and why, really don't seem to matter to them anymore.

Too many Comic Creators also refuse to give it up because it allows them to be "edgy," "adult," and "daring," without actually doing anything that's particularly "edgy," "adult," and "daring."  They also seem to share network TV's mindset that if you toss enough boobage and "mature content" people will gloss over their shortcomings when it comes to character and story.  Remember, character and story are hard to do well. Sex, however, is easy to do, and doesn't really have to be done well in the first place.

It looks like the comic book industry is really content to run itself into extinction.  Which is sad.


  1. Lindazilla29/9/11 9:14 pm

    I'm pretty much just going to leave a link to your post anywhere I feel the need to comment. Mmmmkay?

  2. Feel free. I will take any plug I can get.

  3. SEX really does not sell that much anymore, when you can get it for free on the internet.

    Disney with their acquisition of MARVEL could be a savior to comics but they see it as just a property to merch off of.

    Only hope I see in comics is the indie labels, right now they are scuurying under the feet of Marvel and DC like mammals did during the age of the dinos. Right now those Dinosaur companies are living in the age 65 million years ago when the climate was changing and they were slowing choking in it, all it took was one asteroid to kill them off.

    When comics gets that KT event maybe the indies can step up and take over.

    Those specialty shops you mention do not make most of their money of comics, but on collectables and CCG games such as Pokemon and Yu-gi-oh.

  4. Dirty McDingus recollects:
    Back in the days of yoths, I recalled even wallyworld-err walmart stocked Archie at the checkout in '06~ They never carried single comicbooks, but they did have packs packed with marvel titles that you'd buy for $5 too~
    ...and they sat there on the racks and never changed.. even Archie.
    Independents was where I used to go for cool B/W comics like 'Teenage Mutant Ninja', 'Thieves and Kings' and 'Albedo'~ for Adventure [TMN], Fantasy [TaK] and Science Fiction [A].

  5. Furious,

    Why you hatin'? What is it with all your 'slut shaming' and denigrating powerful women? Can't you get enough compliant, willing, young nubile women on your own without demanding that the comics industry provide the same for your? compliant, willing, nubile,...drool...

    Sorry, where was I, oh yeah, let's not forget that women want to be horny bored sex objects for men to 'utilize'. Okay, enough fun.

    This is one more device to lower and coarsen the manners, habits, and morals of society. It actually kind of frightens me because when an activity is 'normalized' it is well on the way to becoming accepted. How much lower do the the people pushing this nihilistic vision of morality and sex want girls to go? We've already got girls kissing girls not because they want to but because they want the attention that brings from men. We've got every kind of deviant sex imaginable being touted as recreation and a no-consequence 'sex positive' culture emerging.

    I am glad I will not live to see the end of this little roller coaster ride. The one I am on now already makes me sick.

  6. Disney's actually kind of returned to comics with releasing books based upon their properties like Donald Duck, Mickey, the Incredibles and even Darkwing Duck (I've been reading that last one and it's FANTASTIC).

    And it's been running with a lot of what D's harping about - you don't need much continuity (though familiarity with the shows/sources helps a lot), they're lots of fun, funny and action packed.

    It will be interesting to see if the newish Disney line starts outselling Marvel & DC.

    Otherwise I think we should all start a betting pool: which "conservative" industry is going to finally wake up and start changing first? Comics or Hollywood?

  7. As you've noted in your Playboy Club article, this isn't the conservative "michael bay's victoria's secret" attempt at sexiness. This is the shock the prudes, needles on the floor 1970s peep show kind of sexiness which won't sell. Comic books are bought by nerdy white guys. DC is marketing them to minorities and women, who mostly do not buy comic books evidenced by the drop in copies sold.
    Nerdy white guys want to see themselves in the role of the hero among a team of heroes, not promiscuous busty walking talking feminist tropes.

  8. As far as I'm concerned comics are already dead. The characters are still interesting, but it's physically impossible for a normal person to get "into" comics, for all the reasons you state.

    Therefore, the future realm of comic superheroes is going to be movies and tv.

    I don't think the indies will save the day, because they are even MORE edgy and x-treme, and adult-oriented, and won't appeal to anyone either.

    Let's do a thought experiment. You are a person who has decided to "get into" comics, because you liked the last Batman movie. So, you google Batman Comics and click on the first option ( You see a screen with the incomprehensible phrase "The New 52" and a bunch of images, including no less than six Bat-somethings. You see Batgirl, Batman, Batman & Robin, Batman: The Dark Knight, Batwing (?), and Batwoman (wait, wasn't there a Batgirl already?). You choose one of these, and go to a screen where you can order it for a mere 2.99 plus shipping. Yay, now you're in like Flint. Except that you have to remember to order it again in a month. In five minutes of looking, I couldn't even find an option to order a subscription. Or, once a month I guess I could try to find a local comic store, drop in, and ask the sneering, arrogant clerk if he has the latest Batman (because lord knows I can't find it on their shelves).

    Back in the old times, before the earth had cooled, and I was a kid, I bought all my comics at drugstores. Literally. They were on racks and everything. The comics practically fell into my lap. I'd be at the corner store, looking for the 12 cents it cost or begging my Mom for it.

    Now I have to drive to somewhere inconvenient (the nearest comic store to me is about 30 minutes away, and I live in a giant metroplex), or order online. It is frankly a mystery to me how anyone can be a comic fan today.

  9. right now my fav comic book is Preventative Maintenance Monthly, a comic series published by the US Army. It has exciting tales of SSG Half-Mast telling us about the new M855A1 round, how to properly PM the bolt carrier for your M4/M16 weapon.

    If DC and Marvel still keep this crap up, heck the military might be the only place comic book writers and artists can get employed.

  10. Sandy, you are right they are just WAY too many titles for just one superhero, heck I only really buy the graphic novels of one shot stories from smaller companies because their stories are less convoluted.

    I saw this when I first started picking up books that were leading up the the death of superman. Heck I did not know WTF was going on with the justice league or even half of these other characters, because my knowledge began and ended with the Super Friends Cartoon. Even then there were too much *Action Comics #132 labels in text boxes.

    Even worse now when some writer now wants to use some beloved character to espouse his own whacked out political/social views that turn off 50% of old readers.

    They do not care about the audience why? Because this is an industry that is owned by another company.

    "I turned Spiderman into a whiny liberal, I drew Wonder Woman as a SLUT HOBAG, Who cares if we lose readers, It's WB or Walt Disney's money, we are just a tax write off." That writer then gets patted on the back for his "courage"

    Read the book the Death of WCW, you saw this same mentality from Eric Bischoff, Who cares if I blow money of KISS Wrestlers, or concerts no one wants to see or turn them away with bad matches. It's Uncle Ted's money rasslin' is his baby we will never die. Then the AOL Time Warner merger happened and it was not Ted's money anymore and WCW was sold off.

    MARVEL got bought up by Disney because it was a bargain, the company is NOT MAKING MONEY with the comics. They saw a gold mine in the characters as licensed properties. If you look at Marvel's behavior that is the only value they see in their own characters anymore. Same for DC.

  11. Nice rant. *Applause* Alas, comic books cannot and will not be immune from the overall changes in our culture.

    "parents upset by sexual content"

    I wonder. Are all potential comic book readers shepherded by middle-class moms? I doubt the moms who guest-star (or watch) Maury Povich or those afternoon "judge" shows are all that concerned about sexy comics. Or anything else.

  12. Look Anon, we can have comics for mature reasers, but the industry needs to get new readers, like tobacco companies you have to start young and get them hooked at an early age.

    You have to do books and stories that parents will be comfortable with.

  13. There's nothing wrong with putting comics out there for all ages, but comics shouldn't be limited to Disneyfied kiddie-fare. A big reason the industry expanded in the 1980s was because they put out comics that appealed to twenty and thirty-somethings who otherwise would have quit reading kid stuff and moved on to other things. That's including Dark Knight and Watchmen.

    There is a middle ground between gratuitous sex and violence and G-rated material. If you simply attack adult content, then you're no better than the people who attacked horror comics back in the "Seduction of the Innocent" phase. Focus on criticizing why the stories don't work, because that is the main reason comics are suffering.

    Supergirl #1 was free of sexual content but was a mindless, plotless slugfest. I finished it in 5 minutes and was bored out of my mind. Catwoman #1 had a somewhat cliched plot, but the plot wasn't the focus. It developed the main character very well via internal monologue. It held my interest. The Batman sex scene was part of her life. Why would I want that censored out? And it's not anything the same audience doesn't see on TV on shows like Battlestar Galactica.

    The rating is on the front cover of the comic book for parents to see. It'd be better if more adults realized there is content for them in comics, because they are still largely viewed as kid stuff, which is a huge bane to expanding readership in the industry. Watchmen keeps selling because the industry isn't putting out enough truly mature, intelligent content to compete for the same audience. If this sex stuff actually caused a huge controversy in the media, that would be great publicity for the New 52 line and not a negative at all. Any suggestion that it's hurting comic sales is pure speculation. You don't even have a shred of ANECDOTAL evidence to back up your theory.

    As for the idea that these drawings affect women's body images, at least they're not anorexic stick figures. Entertainment is entertainment and it's not going to start starring unattractive, ugly people any time soon. I can guarantee you a lot of the comic book geeks don't have the square-jaws and buff physiques of the male superheroes, and they don't seem to be worried about their body image that much. You can decide if that's a good thing for the world or not.

    I agree the books need better writing. And comics out there rated for both younger and older audiences are fine. Maybe there shouldn't be such a flood of titles out there, especially when the company can't handle quality control on that many and you get junk with no thought put into it like Supergirl #1.

    Do comics need to be filled with kiddified slugfests though? No. Give me an actual story with believable dialogue and characters I can relate to that seem to have real feelings. Then you don't need a fight scene on every other page. The first couple Spider-Man and Superman movies did that and were hugely acclaimed hits with the mass audience. Arguably, Catwoman #1 did that the best of the few New 52 titles I've read.

    In truth, comics aren't suffering in sales all that horribly. Trade paperbacks are picking up the slack and bringing combined sales of comics and TPBs about where comic sales were in the 1980s. See the Comichron site for the numbers. But the industry hasn't grown. If you look at the sales of "real" books, those have about doubled since the 1970s according to census figures. So comics should be doing better. And how much of those TPB sales are riding on old material and not recent stuff may be an important factor to look at too. Bottom line is we need more wholesome material for kids and more intelligent material for adults, but NOT content police or censorship.

  14. The hole in the argument about how 'adults deserve comics too' is fairly obvious to me -

    If a 24 year old male wants to read about a woman who is nothing more than a sexual object, he is NOT an adult, whatever his age might be.

    To be honest, there are several comics in the reboot that are actually highly enjoyable. Yes, there is the fact that none of the good one really depended on the conceit of rebooting the world, and would have been fine just going on in the old continuity, but that is *so* a separate issue - the point is, there is good writing going on at DC, and there are even good portrayals of women. They do not even come close, though, to making up for the fetishization going on in others - for very specific reasons.

    Now, I'll admit, I've *never* really liked Starfire. She's always had this free-love thing going on. Some geeks found it charming, but I always thought it was way-too-often used as an excuse for inevitably-male writers to have her act in a titillating manner, then wag her finger at Earth's 'puritan ways'. IMO, tiresome, but hey, it had fans, and I really am willing to agree to disagree on stuff like this.

    The version in 'Red Hood', however, is so incompetently written that she's an *even worse* character. You can tell because there are people on the web, fans of Normal Starfire, who have given examples of ways she *could* have solicited sex in the issue that they would have found entertaining. However, this leaves out a third 'character', that being, Starfire from the cartoon. From what I know of her, she was basically like an Alien Girlfriend out of an old anime, but instead of just flying around being confused about Earth culture while her boyfriend gets beaten up by walruses or whatever, she was actually proactive, cared about her friends, etc, etc. This is, technically speaking, the most pop-culturally relevant version of her. The point of the reboot, supposedly, is to get new readers. And yet, the version of this particular character we get is something that appeals to a specific subset of a specific subset - ie, the most immature manboys who read Teen Titans back in the day but never bothered growing up enough to treat women as people.

    And despite ALL of that, Starfire is only the barest freaking fraction of the problem. Because then, there's the (incredibly badly written) Catwoman comic, which decided that the best way to introduce the character was just to show her breasts flopping about for two pages before showing her face. And the Suicide Squad comic, with a fairly bad costume, *and* an incredibly offensive change to Amanda Waller (who has gone from 'the Wall' to 'the Rail'). There's Hawk and Dove, where a man spends the entire issue insulting his new partner because she has breasts. And so on.

    [To Be Continued]

  15. [Continued]

    What makes this really bad is, a few months before the reboot, people noticed the fact that there is *only one female writer* involved in the whole thing. A good amount of noise was made about this. At Comic Con, a mother and daughter, both clearly devoted fans (they showed up dressed as Batwoman and Spoiler), asked the co-editors of DC about the portrayal of women in their comics. The response of Jim Lee and Dan Didio was to say 'we hear you'. They said that women would see the issue addressed.

    And then we got this. So, basically, they said that there wouldn't be any more treating women like sex objects...and then there was. They lied. And their only response, the whole 'watch the rating' thing, applies to exactly ONE complaining article, about exactly ONE comic, conveniently ignoring all the rest - though certainly confusing the issue, by making everyone concentrate on it, and getting them a lot of defenders who are more confused about the issue than they think.

    I understand that some comic fans want to treat this like it's a matter of free speech, or people getting hung up on sexual issues. I respect that. But that's not what this is about. It's about supporting a worldview that points at one half of the human race and chants 'show us your boobs'. It's about people throwing foot-stomping tantrums as they complain about the girls in the club house. It's about a cadre of writers who claim they want to get new people interested in comics, but then turn around and appeal to the most fetishised fraction of their fanbase without even the decency to justify their actions by openly saying 'sex sells'.

    Worst of all, it's just plain bad writing.

  16. Look I'm perfectly willing to have SOME COMICS have male-fantasy half-naked babes prancing through their pages. But do ALL COMICS have to do it? In the bad old E.C. censorship days there were non-horror comics available. No one had to read the E.C. stuff.

    And you can look through my arguments all you like and you won't find any point at which I argue for censorship. There are plenty of both anecdotal and statistical evidence for the massive failure of modern comics.

    1) I can't FIND the comics, because they're only at specialty shops.

    2) I can't UNDERSTAND the comics because the plotlines aren't about fighting bad guys. They're about balling Catwoman.

    3) I don't want to READ the comics because they're not "adult". They're some 14-year-old's idea of prurience. "Hey wouldn't it be cool if Catwoman actually balled Batman instead of just taunting him." What kind of movies sell the best to adults today? What kind of books do adults read?

    I am angry at comics, because when I look at them, I see an artform with a huge amount of potential, combining text and illustration in a dynamic fashion. But almost all that potential is completely wasted. What a crock.

  17. I think all these oversexed content is the result of writers and artists who are emotionally stunted at 15.
    Also because much of the writers cannot write a good story anymore, they do not care about winning over fans because sales to not fund their paychecks, It's all someones elses money from their parent conglomerate.

  18. Gary, you're right that the industry is filled with writers who write for their peers, much like the "literary" publishing industry.
    But I also think that 15 year olds know the difference between a James Bond get the girl story and James Bond share the slut story.
    Look at Hellboy 1: Hellboy realizes his identity as an American despite his origin as a demon. Hellboy 2: Shit all over the people that took care of him since birth (shit all over America by proxy) because the director wanted to insert anti-iraq, pro-environmentalist themes in a story about a demon from hell.
    Ignore the audience at your peril.

  19. Anon, with Hellboy are they making a Hellboy 3 after that? Why ass that anti-war crap in the film because the audience does not matter because it is not ticket sales or comic book purchases funding their paychecks.

    If these studios were independent entities like the early days of cinema, that is their revenue was solely tied to ticket sales. What films get greenlit would be much different.

    We saw this with the string of anti-Iraq war films a few years back and they all TANKED. I am surprised that with Obama taking a hammering that HW is not making a bunch of "courageous" pro-Obama films. Or maybe things in the economy are so bad even his buddies cannot waste money trying to save his political ass.

    Now the last entertainment that still cares about the audience and is dependent on their money is Video Games. Does Infinity Ward make more money on Call of Duty related MERCH than the games? NO. So they have to create a product that the audience will be happy with.

    Look at DC and MARVEL, their iconic characters are still popular, The last two BATMAN films make a killing in the BO. But book sales stagnate. Because people see the film and check out the books at say "WTF is this?" This is not the superhero I saw on the screen. Many of the films are based on the older classic version of the said superhero not the current one which is more than a mouth piece of the writers personal views. That alienates the reader and drives them away.

  20. Dave Willis' take on this cracked me up.