Stop telling new comics readers to read Watchmen

Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ Watchmen has a reputation for many reasons, including:

  • It’s a modern classic of superhero tales in the comics format.
  • It reflects a turn toward the gritty and critical in superhero comics that arguably revitalized the subgenre in the late 1980s.
  • Alan Moore himself is a grand old man (if a notoriously grumpy grand old man) of the format, and his work is worth reading.
  • Dave Gibbons is a landmark artist who was working at the top of his game, and his collaboration with Moore created a complex, compelling title.
  • For readers who love getting meta about their stories, this title is a targeted deconstruction of superheroes.

Lest you fear we’re disparaging a classic, please read our Classic Fantastic of Watchmen here. We get it, we really do.

Who we would argue it’s not good for? A reader who’s never read a comic or graphic novel before.

For decades now, when a reader expresses interest in trying comics, a well meaning fan inevitably recommends they read Watchmen. This recommendation was most recently noted in NPR’s solid list of recommended titles Let’s Get Graphic: 100 Favorite Comics And Graphic Novels. This list was coordinated by Petra Mayer, and judged by G. Willow Wilson, C. Spike Trotman, Maggie Thompson, Etelka Lehoczky, and Glen Weldon. We’re not here to nitpick the list, which includes titles we love, nor the selection process, which we all know from experience is complicated when you’re whittling down piles of works into a definitive list. (Seriously, don’t snark on the list or the judges.) This article was just the most recent in mention after mention, by comics fan after comics fan, that noted in its annotation for Watchmen, “There is a reason people still press it into the hands of those who’ve never read a comic before.”

We at No Flying No Tights, all of us readers’ advisers and comics enthusiasts, are here to say: please stop giving Watchmen to people who have never read a comic before.

Our reviewers weigh in on why Watchmen is not the best choice:

Allen: I think giving out Watchmen to someone who doesn’t have much experience with the superhero genre (or comics at all) isn’t that great of an idea. While Watchmen does have a good story that challenges the expectations of the superhero genre, the point could be lost on those who don’t have much experience with superhero books. It won’t have the same impact.

Roy: I absolutely 100% would *not* recommend Watchmen to someone new to comics, nor would I recommend it to someone with limited experience with superhero comics. The things that make Watchmen the most interesting, I think, are the ways that it deconstructs gold/silver age heroes, and the ways that it plays with the form. If you’re not familiar with the history of superhero comics, you miss the meat of the book; it becomes just another in a long line of dark, gritty super hero books. It’s hard to appreciate how much Watchmen changed the scene of superhero comics if you’re not familiar with them in the first place, and, especially now, over a quarter century later, when the kind of deconstruction that Watchmen engaged in has been done to death, it’s easy to miss that it was really the first.

It’d be like handing someone who had no understanding of literary fiction or western literature a copy of Nabokov’s Lolita. Sure, it’s an interesting story in its own right, but you’re missing most of the context. At worst, there’s the possibility that you’re going to be put off the medium because you’re being given something without being first given the foundation/tools to fully appreciate what is being done.

Thomas: Arbiters of good taste should always take care that their recommendations do not turn into browbeating over “if you didn’t like/understand this work then you probably do not like or have a place in the medium.” I have met plenty of adults who love all of the kinds of stories comics offer but weren’t asked what they might want to read first.

On a more specific version of the question, editor Matthew asked: Would you recommend Watchmen to someone who is familiar with comics in general, but has very limited experience with superhero comics?

Robin: No. If I want to introduce a genre to someone, I wouldn’t start with a title that requires knowledge of the tropes, characters, and clichés that were present in that genre 30 years ago. My goal in introducing someone to superhero comics would be to showcase the intelligence, adventure, and myth-making that make the stories, art, and heroes so long-lasting and enjoyable. I’d prefer to start with the well-crafted titles that show the positive side of superhero stories before recommending the darker, critical story that rips the genre apart.

Roy: if you want to give someone a grim-dark super-hero book, there are more accessible ones to give them than Watchmen (like Batman: Year One—which I love, despite its (and its creator’s) many flaws).

Thomas: Librarians know which comics are creating new comics readers, and it’s not Watchmen. As others have noted, Watchmen is great, it’s a proud flagpole of a certain comics era that is still felt today, but it’s not intro-level.

Wondering what you should recommend instead of Watchmen? Check out our next post which covers best practices for recommending titles to a new comics reader to encourage a positive, engaging experience that may make a new fan.

Thanks to Matthew Murray, Allen Kesinger, Roy MacKenzie, and Thomas Maluck for chiming in on this discussion.

Rave: The Legend of Korra

It should come as no surprise that we here at No Flying No Tights were waiting for the sequel to the beloved Avatar the Last Airbender, The Legend of Korra, just as eagerly as any of the legions of fans of the groundbreaking original series.  (We will not speak of the abominable live action film.)  The new series has appeared in numerous What’s Making Us Happy This Week posts, and as a result we all started a longer chat of how the show is living up to all the buzz and the legacy of its prequel.

Now that we’re six episodes in, read on for our reactions!

SPOILER ALERT: Be aware, there are some speculations and spoilers in this post.  Nothing major, but just in case.

Thanks to Emily, Michael, Sheli, Andrew, Jennifer H., and Jenny for joining in on the fun.

Emily: Korra seems a worthy successor to the original… other opinioms here maybe?

A small observation: I noticed that as Republic City is a multicultural city, more diverse, that there have been more diverse naming influences as well. In the original, I noticed more Chinese refs, but I’ve been noticing more Japanese and some Korean names in the new one.

Michael: I absolutely love Korra. It’s one of the best most interesting things on TV. It’s action packed, but not in a way that sacrifices good character moments. I feel like every episode is trimmed down to being the best it can be. It’s a perfectly streamlined show that is at least as good as the original series. But that’s just my opinion. Anyone else wanna throw in their two cents?

Sheli: Korra – astounding! I’d make it my weekly happy if we were allowed to have standing orders.

As wonderful as Avatar Aang is/was, Korra is more my type of character. I like brash characters that run sarcastically into danger (hence, Sokka was the BEST of characters). It’s not that Aang was bad, he just felt too young to understand the gravity of the situation for a lot of the series. Which totally helped the humor of the show….and was a perfect fit….hm.

Basically, it’s really hard to to definitively say which is better. In the end, though similar, they’re different stories. Which means we end up fighting on which one is closer to perfection, and that is an amazing problem to have.

Andrew: Yes! Loving it! I’ve been actively harassing friends and family into checking it out. Just like Sheli, I would gladly make Korra my happy over and over again. I really like the new style, which shows a great advancement from the original series, right down to the jazzier music.

They’ve clearly put some good thought into what their original world would look like with the passage of time. It’s too early to make a call over which series I like better, but I will go ahead and say that Korra, in all her awesome, will have a hard time beating out Aang in my eyes. I’m enough of a hippy idealist that I *really* dug Aang’s optimism, good will, and idealistic pacifism. His generally easygoing nature made it that much more meaningful when he realized he absolutely believed killing Ozai was wrong and insisted on finding another (totally rad) way to deal with the problem.

Jennifer H.: I will admit to losing interest in Airbender, but my son and I have been watching Korra and love it. I like spunky female characters.

Robin: I’ve been really enjoying The Legend of Korra, but I have also been struck by how much it is a show for an older audience than the original Avatar the Last Airbender.  I don’t mind (as, you know, I’m an adult) but I’ve noticed that a few folks are disappointed in how it has less humor, less immediate quest-y action, and just generally is concerned with issues that are more mature.  Conspiracies, political power struggles, and a debate about terrorism vs. freedom fighters is just not as straightforward as the original, very clear quest structure.  I personally love it, but I can see why fans expecting more of the original are taking some time to warm up to the show and its plot.

That being said, this latest episode really knocked my socks off with Lin Beifong’s absolutely badass fight sequences.  Duuuude.

Sheli: It definitely is more serious from the get go, but I don’t know how much that matters?

Any kids I’ve talked to (I work in a kids library) are pumped for it. Some gloss over the implications of older themes (Korra being terrified, the machinations of politics) and just care that there’s kick-butt fighting, an awesome sense of justice, and adorable (and sometimes giant) pets. But since I also work with teens, I get to talk to them about the depth of the show.  Korra has really Pixared their story, to the point where all ages take away exactly what they want from it.

Not only that, but Legend of Korra seems like the natural evolution of the story. A tale of a power struggle after the loss of an avatar make sense. No matter how hesitant some fans may be with Korra, I think they would be very displeased if Korra’s story went the same way Aang’s did, or if Korra was eerily similar in personality to Aang.

Besides, it’s not like the first story wasn’t dark, there was just a combination of Aang’s unfailing smiles and blanket amnesia that let them stay away from telling harsher stories till the climax. That, and changing the setting all of the time meant that Aang and co. did not have to deal with long-term implications of any community. It’s very brave for Korra to stay in one place.

Basically, I’m just loving every second of Korra (the humor! all the leading ladies!) and have a difficulty seeing problems. That, and I’m firmly in the camp that kids are smarter that most cartoons give them credit for, and I’m delighted to see that Korra doesn’t back down from that challenge.

Robin: Sheli, I totally see all your points, and as I said, I don’t have a problem with it.

I also, however, have talked to my teens, and while they unreservedly love the show (and are waiting on tenterhooks every week for more episodes) I have noted them commenting on how it’s slower, not as funny, and not as immediately winning for those reasons.  I’ve heard the same reservations from adult fans, and I think it does come from the tone of the story more than anything else — it’s more serious more quickly, and more mature.  It’s not that its bad, so much as its different, and not necessarily what some viewers were expecting.

I don’t see that as a drawback, personally, but I have seen that reaction, and I wondered if other folks have either felt that or heard similar reactions.

As a reader who adores the Chaos Walking trilogy and is currently devouring Bitterblue, it should come as no surprise that I like stories with more politics, and more shades of gray, than many readers, so I’m personally just fine with the complexity and political machinations.  I also have confidence that the creators will handle it all with the aplomb and creativity they’ve always shown.

Andrew: I’ve not heard anyone complain about the slightly older, more serious tone, but I’ve really only talked to other adult fans about it. It’s been a while since I watched the last season of the original series; is Korra really much different in tone than the last handful of those episodes?

I think Sheli’s right that much of the difference comes naturally from the differences between Aang and Korra. More difference crops up in the transition from an essentially feudal society to a multicultural republic (an explanation any disappointed ten year-old is going to buy right into, I know). Basically, they’ve put some respectable effort into actually letting their world and its people evolve over the time they’ve skipped between series and the changes they’ve made dictate changes in the type of story they tell. It’s human nature to simultaneous want a sequel that gives us more of the same and a sequel that gives us something new. The smart artist ignores the pleasing-everyone trap and keeps true to their vision.

Or, alternately, some suit at Nick said, “It’s been seven years since the original series started. The eight year-olds who got hooked those first episodes are now 15. We need Korra to skew older.” Not quite as pleasingly organic an idea, but the fictitious suit isn’t wrong.

Frivolous side note: two weeks ago something in the episode made me pause the DVR to tell my wife how happy I was going to be when the cabbage man got a callback (I think it was some minor character mentioning their grandfather). Did you catch who sponsored the music on the radio in this week’s episode? Cabbage Corps! Please oh please show us a Cabbage Corps logo so that I might put it on a t-shirt! And then find an excuse for a vignette about how the cabbage man was driven to develop some sort of delivery truck that could transport his cabbages more safely.

And a quick google search reveals several plot theorists suggesting that the cabbage man, out for vengeance over all his squished produce, founded Cabbage Corps with the express purpose of developing technology that would give non-benders an edge and then used that technology to set up the Equalists. I honestly don’t know how I’ll feel if that turns out to be true.

Michael: I’m actually having a real problem with the fandom automatically assuming that any non-bending character is automatically an equalist and that either the Satos are funding them or Cabbage Corps is (or both). The wildest theory (well wildest plausible theory) I heard is that Amon is Sokka and he faked his death and now is out for revenge. I mean, come on. Sure he got amusingly picked on by his bending friends, but to assume he’d become totally evil flies in the face of all his characterization. Much though I love my fellow fans, I wish that they’d calm down and think before posting.

Bryan Konietzko's storyboard art of Amon

Andrew: It is hard not to think Amon must be someone we know, either a new character or, hopefully, someone from the original series. So that naturally lends itself to wild speculation. My current guess is Jet – nonbender, anger issues, unclear possible death – it could work!

Jenny: I’m so loving Korra!

The decision to acknowledge the passage of time within the show’s setting–and all the emotional, social, and technological changes that brings–just makes the world-building that much richer and more believable.  The Far-East-flavored Prohibition-era feel generated by the music, architecture, fashion, and technology melds wonderfully with the series’ original mythos and cultural contributions to create something unique and engaging.  Add to that the quality production values, writing, and casting, and you’ve got one swell, shiny show that appeals, as did its predecessor, to a wide audience.

Background painting by Emily Tetri

I, too, think the decision to skew a little older this time around was partly a nod to the original show’s audience having grown up a bit in the interim and partly a deliberate effort not to repeat themselves creatively (except, perhaps, in the success department, which they are clearly, happily doing).  The change surprised me at first, but it makes sense that everything about the show keeps moving forward, and it took no time at all to get me on board.

I keep trying to think of one thing that particularly stands out, but it ALL stands out.  Obviously, it’s very pretty (those backgrounds! those action scenes!).  And while the humor may be toned down since the original series, it’s definitely still there and just as wise-a**, sharp, and silly (e.g., Bolin = giggle factory! the pro-bending announcer doing a play-by-play on the situation in the booth! and Cabbage Corp.!).  And then there’s the casting / acting, which is more than worthy of the excellent writing.  (I must say, as much as I love hearing Steve Blum’s gravelly purr when he’s playing lazy, crazy, kick-puhtootey heroes, the way he turns that same quality into a cold, steely, violence-concealing growl as a legitimately scary villain makes me inordinately happy.)

As for Amon’s identity, I really hope he’s not anyone we know.  Sokka?  No way.  Jet could fit, but he had a hard enough life and change of heart in the first series.  I’d hate to see him still angry.  And as a victim of brainwashing, himself, it’d just be sad to see him doing that to others.  The cabbage man theory cracks me up, though.

Robin: Speaking of excellent voice acting, how much am I loving J. K. Simmons as Tenzin?

Jenny, I admit it took me a minute to identify Steve Blum, but then I literally facepalmed.  How could I forget his lovely growl?

Also of interest: I highly recommend checking out the Avatar the Last Air Bender Annotated tumblr, which features all manner of details and shows the research of both Avatar and Korra.  It’s fascinating, and illuminating.

Also also: Follow series co-creator Bryan Konietzko.  You will not regret it.

Roundtable: DC Comics & Superheroines

The big news in mainstream comics this fall has been the dramatic reboot of the DC Comics universe. With an aggressive marketing push behind it and the stated purpose of the reboot partially being recruiting new readers, anticpation was high.  DC Comics co-publishers Dan Didio and Jim Lee elaborated on the reasoning behind the reboot.  Comics fans speculated on just what all these new number one issues would bring: revamped characters, rejiggered costumes, and hopefully engaging new spins on beloved characters.

Before any of the number one issues hit the comics stores in September, however, there was already controversy. Fans of Barbara Gordon, who had been Oracle for over twenty years, were concerned over the discarding of one point of diversity in the DC universe.  Hellblazer fans wondered just how John Constantine was going to be integrated into the mainstream DC universe as part of Justice League Dark. (Seriously, Justice League Dark? That’s the best they could come up with?)  And just what is UP with Harley Quinn’s new look?

Then the comics started to hit the stands.  As is often the case, some were great, some were duds.  Then two new takes of fan favorite superheroines arrived, in the form of the title character in Catwoman #1 and Starfire in Red Hood and the Outlaws #1, and the @#*$% really hit the fan. Fans noted this was not a stand-alone problem (see Amanda Waller’s “sexy” reboot) and the larger issues of DC’s representation of women, female heroes, and their perceived attitude toward female fans were raised.

DC responded in a few of ways including a tweet about ratings and a reader survey.  Skeptical fans considered these reactions as PR ploys that hardly represent attention given to fans concerns.  Well-reviewed titles that represented the best points of DC’s superheroine stories, like Wonder Woman #1, were unfortunately overshadowed by the furor.

In today’s roundtable, we here at NFNT are taking a look at the controversy.  We take a look at what this storytelling, design, and attitude means to us as selectors and buyers for our libraries and where we’ll place them on our shelves.

Robin: Do you feel the accusations of imbalance and inherent sexism in DC’s published titles are justified?  How does that affect what you would purchase for your library collections, if at all?

Andrew: Imbalance? Yes, by any measure. There are more male characters, more male creators, more male fans, more male everything. That imbalance in and of itself can be taken as inherent sexism, but that’s just the start of it. Those female characters we have are more likely to be hyper-sexualized, flatly written, and murdered and stuffed into refrigerators. Through all the discussion of this I’ve heard very few people arguing that the books in question aren’t sexist. The defense I’ve heard most often is that DC’s aiming these books at young men so sexism is irrelevant.

I feel compelled to make a couple points in DC’s defense, though. First, as Robin said in the intro, they put out a few books with really great female characters. Second, no part of me thinks the sexism is intentional. It’s stupid and offensive and wrong, but I don’t think anyone there has some weird agenda to degrade women. And, finally, it’s not just DC doing these things, they’re just who we’re looking at right now. Next month we can yell at Marvel or Top Cow or everyone posting skeezy fan art on the Internet.

Will this affect what I buy for my library’s collection? No, not directly. I buy lots of books that I find offensive or just don’t care for because I pick materials based on whether or not our patrons want to read them. At no point do I say “this is too sexist for the library.”

Sheli: How can you start a relaunch with the promise of a broad appeal to audiences and then forget to hire and write about women? Sure, in 52 titles there’s a smattering of women, and some of them are well written, but most of them are in teams, or are girlfriends or wives. I have to say that Wonder Woman was great and Supergirl’s plight was touching. Then again, when your good titles can be immediately cancelled out with your titles that star hookers and nymphomaniacs, you’ve lost the advantage of saying you’re appealing to women.

As my best plug for DC writing women is a bathing suit clad, well-endowed, Amazon that’s naked in most of her scenes, you may be picking up on the idea that DC is still writing with a different audience in mind. Like Andrew, I don’t think there’s a decree in DC offices that pushes writers to write woman ignorantly. Whether or not it’s intentional, it is definitely a problem that comics has. Instead of defending DC by pointing out that they’re not the only offenders, I’d prefer we just expect more of all comics publishers.

When it comes to ordering comics, the sexism in these books won’t stop me from buying them. In a popular lending library a book really just needs to be popular to be considered. Hopefully, the titles that garnered attention for their shock value, or inconsiderate writing, have had their time in the sun, and six months from now I can just add the stronger titles to come out from the DC New 52.

Robin: While I agree that there’s no cabal of folks at DC Comics (or at any of the other mainstream publishers) plotting to objectify and insult women, I do wonder how many times fans (both men and women) have to complain about this before there’s any constructive response.  That’s where the true problem is for me — the dismissal of the complaint that I see in the tweeted response and, well, in how they’ve been reacting for years now.

I can see the argument that Wonder Woman is a counter example — indeed it is — as, to me, is Batgirl.  The problem for me arises in the long-standing pattern.  I’ve met and talked to a number of guys in the industry, and while there is definitely no malice towards women, there is a general lack of awareness that there is a problem to be addressed.  Even if they hear there’s a problem, they don’t get one, what we really mean when we discuss the problems of objectification, and two, what they should do about it.  If I illustrate the complaint by comparing Catwoman’s sexy displays to, say, seeing Batman running around fighting crime in nothing but a banana hammock, there’s a general of reaction of, “Aaaah! I don’t want to see THAT!”  My reply can only be, “Well yes.  Thank you for making my point.”

Sadie: Well, on the one hand, I have to admit I do kind of enjoy the ridiculous. Pages of a headless woman who doesn’t turn out to be a corpse? Bruce Willis style dialogue and a lady whipping around pollution-ridden seawater (seriously people, don’t swim in the ocean, it just isn’t all that healthy)? That’s funny, right? Oh, and insulting. In the case of Catwoman, I definitely think they knew what they were doing and flat didn’t care.

I’m also getting a bit annoyed with the argument that we should all just be quiet about Catwoman and raise some kind of parade for Wonder Woman. Not saying that anyone here is really saying that but I have heard it around the internet. I haven’t read Wonder Woman, sounds like a great comic, and it’s actually getting a lot of print. But here’s the thing – I don’t care about Wonder Woman. I like the Bat, especially Bat villianesses. Wonder Woman and Catwoman are not interchangeable. If Batman suddenly ran around in a banana hammock and men lost their minds (not that they necessarily would) there wouldn’t be entire blog posts saying ‘oh shut up, at least Green Lantern is being written well. Go play with him.’ But that’s sort of the catch-22 of talking about these issues, you kind of have to treat all characters as representatives of a “cause” until the day when writing good female characters just becomes writing good characters.

As for collecting, of course, I wouldn’t let personal opinion or tastes dictate my purchases. We don’t buy floppies, for lots of reasons, but we will probably try to get at least the best reviewed trades of the 52..

Matt Morrison: Do I think there’s imbalance in The New 52?  Yes.  Do I believe the complaints are justified?  To a point.

The problem lies not in the companies or the revamp but in the writers.  Judd Winick has been taken to task for sexist writing before, particularly his handling of Black Canary in Green Arrow/Black Canary.  It took a while for his sexism to be noticed or extensively commented upon by the comics community as he spent most of the last decade writing Batman stories without any female characters at all.  And Scott Lobdell fled Twitter in a huff, just before the first issue of Red Hood And The Outlaws hit the street, after an argument with another writer revealed that most of his fan base disagreed with his… shall we say quaint views on women and wasn’t shy in telling him off.

Were these books terrible?  Yes, but for reasons far and beyond the sexism, though that was a part of why they were terrible.  The new Catwoman book portrayed Selina Kyle as too short-sighted to save any of her ill-gotten gains (being desperate for work and a place to stay after her apartment was destroyed) and too unprofessional to maintain her disguise once she had a new undercover gig.  That is as great a crime against the character as overly-sexualized artwork.  Catwoman should be smart.  Catwoman should be controlled.  Catwoman should as much a professional criminal as Batman is a professional crimefighter.  And in all the discussion about Starfire’s new personality, I saw precious few complaints about how awful the revamp of Roy Harper was… but I digress.

My point is that these comics were bad for being sexist but they were just bad comics, period.  I think the community has taken notice and that the market will reflect that most of the people reading comics don’t think this is acceptable.

Sheli: Bad comics happen all the time, but that’s not the point. Hawk and Dove and Superman weren’t very good comics, but they also didn’t feature naked women bouncing around for the readers enjoyment. There is a marked difference between lack of talent in writing and blatant ignorance. I’ll take a character misstep before I’ll read comics that talk down to anyone, every day of the week.

Andrew: I agree that the writers, Winick or Loebell, originally scripted the sexist works in question and may deserve the lion’s share of blame, but that doesn’t excuse the artists, editors, and other folks at DC who thought the books were ok to publish.

That brings be back around to something I wrote above: my wife rightly pointed out that I’d set up a strawman with the idea of some editor at DC who was actively working to demean women. Maybe no one went into work thinking “How can I be sexist today?,” but they did completely fail to respond to repeated criticism over the years, which isn’t much different.

Robin: Yep. Andrew, that’s my complaint right there.  How many times does this issue have to be brought up (and it has been, numerous times) to make an impact?  That’s why I get tired.  And that’s why I have to be really courted to believe I should pick up another superhero book.  Last week I did buy Wonder Woman (and Animal Man and Stormwatch) because I’d heard good things about all three.  Good reviews WILL get my attention.  But that doesn’t mean I let the negative slide.

Traci:  I guess my big complaint is that DC was openly (supposedly) courting a bigger and broader audience – they actively said they wanted to bring in lapsed readers or readers who hadn’t picked up comics before.  It goes back to what Sheli said about if you want broader appeal, you need to admit that maybe to bring in new readers, you’ll need to tweak things just a bit – bring in more women writers, artists, show women as they really are.  I’m really annoyed that Catwoman, who to me, is really strong, powerful, smart, is reduced to her body – that’s what we see first, her body parts.  I was disappointed when I heard that Judd Winick was going to be doing Catwoman, but I thought I’d give it a chance.  I’m not sure if I feel so angry as I do disappointed.  I want to be represented in the comics I read.

Matt: The biggest tragedy in all the ranting about Catwoman and Starfire is the number of posts I saw on various blogs from people – men and women – who decided to completely write off The New 52 and DC Comics solely on those books, ignoring all of the good books that came out that same week.  Sadly, I believe there were more people shouting about the evils of Catwoman and Red Hood than there were people speaking out about all the books that came out that same week – Wonder Woman, Supergirl and Birds of Prey – that did present strong, intelligent, capable heroines.

Having read all of the New 52 titles myself, this controversy isn’t likely to influence what I do or do not add to our collection at all.  I already make it a point to try and pick up graphic novels with strong female characters as I am trying to prove to the many teenage girls at my library who will only read manga that there are SOME American comics that aren’t “stupid”.  It’s going to be a long battle but maybe in 10 years they and Gail Simone can take over the industry.  We can hope, right?

Traci: Here’s a topic that came up when I brought this up at my local comic book shop the other day.  The two men working there commented on all the controversy surrounding the Catwoman book.  When I said that I’d like to see women characters without bodies that resemble Barbie, they said – “What about Batman?  He’s super pumped up and muscled, we don’t look like that.  Maybe that makes us feel bad about ourselves.”  Hmm.  What do others think about that statement?  They caught me off guard.  Can certain male readers feel that they don’t live up to the standard held by certain male superhero characters?  I felt that it was different because they’re not using Batman as eye candy.  I guess if they showed him in skimpy underwear the first few pages of the book or it was mainly women reading the comics, it might be a similar argument.  Winick is showing Catwoman as a sex object; Batman exercises a lot because he doesn’t use guns.  That said, I’m not writing off DC – I want to believe they want me as a reader; I love me some Batgirl and Wonder Woman; I couldn’t ever give them up.

Lest we forget, sometimes Robin aka Dick Grayson is just as much of a pinup (at least in terms of the angle and those pixie pants.) From Birds of Prey, art by Ed Benes.

Robin: I always explain the difference in terms of the art — Batman is unrealistic, sure, but he’s unrealistic in a way that emphasizes his physical strength: rippling muscles, towering stature, solid presence.  Superheroines, on the other hand, are exaggerated in their sexual characteristics — their breasts and their behinds on display for all to see.

All you have to do is turn to manga to see equal opportunity objectification — but the big difference with manga, at least, is that they have such a diversity of titles aimed a wide range of audiences that every range is represented.  In the US mainstream industry, the folks being catered to as an audience are straight teen to adult men.  As Andrew Wheeler said it best in the Bleeding Cool article:

“The problem DC has right now is that too many of their creators decided that their book was going to be the one targeted to that all-important horny adolescent boys niche, and someone else could deal with stuff like ‘women’. Somehow the reboot seems to have set DC back about twenty years. A diverse landscape is a key part of DC’s strategy to find new readers. If they can build that landscape I hope there will still be a place in it for silly teen-friendly sexploitation comics like Catwoman. It just won’t stand out so much next to 26 books about strong, independent crime-fighting women with pants on.”

Matt: Which just goes back to what I said about how the real crime in the Catwoman book was how the writing made her look incompetent and how the artwork just aggravated that point – i.e. that she looks pretty but can’t plan her way out of a wet paper bag.

Andrew: In some ways I’m frustrated that so much of the discussion about these comics has ended up being about sex and sexiness, as it’s a bit of a red herring. I’m not adverse to Catwoman being sexy, I’m adverse to that being her only defining characteristic. I’m not adverse to Starfire having sex (even weird unhealthy sex) if it’s presented as an integral part of a strong story.

Robin: Matt, I do understand how upsetting it is to see folks dismiss the entire new catalog of titles just because of a couple of missteps. For me, however, it hasn’t been a couple of missteps.  I gave up on reading Birds of Prey, when it was being written well by Gail Simone, because I got so very tired of staring at the cheesecake art.

Example: To recap: Breasts, bottom, bottom, breasts, faces, crotch + breasts, breasts, bottom, bottom, faces, faces, bottom. That's what's in all of those panels, folks. Imagine if this were a Batman comic and that's what you saw on every panel: bottom, package, bottom, bottom, package..face! Also from Birds of Prey, with Ed Benes art.

This has been building for years, and has been a problem for me for years, not just with the new 52.  This has been a catalyst to bring up a lot of pent up feelings, I think, and I don’t think bringing up the criticism is denying the strength of other titles in the mix.  It IS pointing out something that feels endemic to mainstream comics culture, and something that is at best overlooked and at worst violently ridiculed as a valid concern by creators, editors, and readers.

For comparison, this is how the same artist, Ed Benes, draws Batman (from Batman: Long Shadows.)

To that end, I don’t mind that the discussion is taking place.  I think it’s high time.  Laura Husdon’s Comics Alliance piece perfectly encapsulated why I had given up on many superheroine comics a while ago, although hope springs eternal that somehow, someday, the culture will shift away from these problems.

Matt: I understand those feelings, Robin.  I personally can deal with bad artwork for the sake of a good story but I know a lot of comic fans can’t just as some can ignore a dull story if the artwork is great.  And while I roll my eyes at every single Ed Benes booty shot in the first two collections, it doesn’t negate my enjoyment of the larger story of Birds of Prey.

Robin: To me, at least, it’s not bad artwork.  It’s artwork that denies me or anyone like me as an audience for these titles.  It’s the only kind of artwork I see, and I’m expected to read it and not object.  It’s such a lost opportunity. On NPR’s Pop Culture Happy Hour, Glen Weldon (I think correctly) pointed out that the purpose for DC’s reboot is not so much to get brand new readers but to lure back the lapsed DC readers.  I am a lapsed DC reader.  And…they just failed in winning me back.

Matt: And that’s a judgement call that each librarian has to make on their own, regardless of the reviews.  I personally love Garth Ennis but because I work in a very conservative community full of people who only read Christian fiction and scour the shelves looking for anything that might fit their bill, there is no way in Heaven or Hell I am ever buying Preacher for our collection.

Robin: What about DC’s reaction to the ratings issue?  I, for one, shelve Wonder Woman in my Teen Room and have shelved Catwoman in my adult section due to reader interest.  What do you think of DCs ratings for these titles and their attitude about who their main audience is or could be?

We’ve all said that we’ll likely collect whatever trades our patrons request.  I, for one, have let issues like fanservice decide whether I purchase a title.  Most of the time, it comes up with manga titles, and I aim to be even-handed. If a series has great reviews and also has lots of fan service, I’ll buy it.  If it has mediocre reviews and lots of fan service, I may not buy it.  I do let this kind of consideration decide where I place a title in my collection.  If I feel the fanservice is too much for our teen collection (as I’d say Catwoman likely is, once we get the whole series collected), I’d place that in adult rather than teen despite it’s official Teen Plus rating from DC.

Andrew: This gets back to what I was saying about sexual content looming too large in some people’s understanding of this controversy. I don’t think there was a “ratings issue” in that no one was saying “These books contain material inappropriate for their rating.” People were saying “These books contain offensively sexist material.” For DC to respond “These books aren’t for kids” totally misses the point and implies that they think sexism is fine as long as it’s aimed at adults. Michelle Lee didn’t complain that she’d shown Red Hood to her daughter and her daughter was scarred. She complained that she’d shown the book to her daughter and even her daughter could tell Starfire was just a piece of meat.

As for reader interest, sure, these books are aimed at young men and some young men will buy a cheesecake book no matter how bad or sexist it is. But why pander to that? Why not put in the extra effort to make the book actually good and not sexist? Surely that would enlarge the market. I don’t think those young men are going to lose interest in the book because some character development gets mixed in with the leather bodysuits.

Sheli: If DC is trying to corner a niche market…that they already had…they’re doing a good job. When DC (or anyone) hides behind the, “This book wasn’t written for you”, it feels completely unwelcoming and a little irresponsible. Everyone is someone’s favorite character. So to just ignore that and plow ahead with a Starfire book meant for “mature males”, they’re just asking to annoy previous fans and attract few new ones.

No one (well, I’m not) is saying that Catwoman shouldn’t have sex. Same with any adult woman. You just make sure those stories have a mature rating. Ratings and sex is not the crux of the problem. It’s that these woman are placed in comics just to have sex- that’s the problem.

What does it say about what comics thinks of its readers when they release books like Catwoman, and then defend them?

Matt: In fairness, the infamous “This book wasn’t written for you” line was spoken by Marvel Comics EIC Joe Quesada in response to a female reader’s complaint about sexism.  It had nothing to do with DC Comics, who are the focus of this discussion. DC Comics EIC Dan Didio has said plenty of boneheaded things but to the best of my knowledge he’s never outright told anyone to stop reading their comics.

Traci:  I like the idea of a mature line, too.  Like in movies where you see the ambiguous “Adult Situations”, I know there are situations that kids or teens just aren’t interested in, and it doesn’t have to do with sex, necessarily.  But, when all that makes a book “risque”, “edgy” or “mature” is sex, you’re doing a disservice to the millions of comic readers that would like character development.

Robin: Just to chime in — Vertigo was DC’s mature line, officially.  Such a line did exist.  They’ve just never comfortably (in my mind) figured out how to distinguish what Vertigo does from what they also include in their superheroe titles.  They keep chasing the myth of titles that appeal to as broad an age range as possible without acknowledging too well what different age ranges actually read or can handle.

Matt: I agree with what Andrew said above about how there is no ratings issue.  Apart from a few Silver Age purists, I haven’t seen anyone decry the idea of Catwoman or Starfire having sex.  The issue is how the sex was presented.  Before the revamp, it was established that Bruce and Selina had a sexual relationship based on their long attraction to one another and the mutual respect that had developed between them.   Here they are total strangers, who have never seen each other without masks, having hot, steamy (and presumably unprotected) sex.

Sadie: So, how much cheesecake is ok? Some? None? Like Robin mentioned, she was enjoying Birds of Prey but it just became too much. Character development can’t be a mask. To clarify, for me, cheesecake is as Robin said, exaggerated sexual characteristics and I would also add the camera gaze into it. Like, overly large breasts and a panel devoted to looking down the shirt. It’s a fine line but I don’t wrap sexual expression or sexuality into cheesecake but it crosses the line when the character is being sexually expressive for the sake of the reader – fanservice.

Andrew: I’d argue that cheesecake is ok when it’s actually tied to the story and overall themes in some way (which it was absolutely not in Birds of Prey). Adam Warren’s Empowered comes to mind. It’s full of cheesecake and sex but does several things right with it, not least of which is that the cheesecake is both male and female. Moreover, it’s thematically tied in to the rest of the comic, which is a parody of hyper-sexual superheroes.

Matt: To give another recent example of a book where the fan service actually did aid the plot, Power Girl by Jimmy Palmiotti and Amanda Conner.  Conner’s art is full of fan service but since the book was written in the style of a screwball comedy and the main character is always shown to be in a position of strength, it works.  Well, it worked for me, anyway…

Sheli: While I agree with Andrew, in that the narrative should call for it, I can’t imagine many scenes that would go, “We must hurry! The universe is in danger! Look, down her shirt!”

Andrew: Exactly! That’s the sort of situation where fanservice distracts and alienate readers and hurts the narrative, even if it does play well to the teenage boys.

Matt: And here’s a question I haven’t seen anybody ask – how bad does this make Batman look that he’s apparently willing to drop his war on crime and ignore the oath he took on his parents’ graves to bring all criminals to justice for a few hours of mindless pleasure?

Robin: Matt, I agree that it devalues the male characters as much as it does the female ones.  Batman doesn’t come off as particularly admirable in that whole sequence — just a guy being led around totally by his hormones.  Which is a valid choice for a character, sure, but it lacks what I love to see between Batman and Catwoman: banter, respect, and sexual tension (emphasis on the tension.)  It’s just…lazy storytelling.

Here’s another question for the group — fanservice is something I’ve grown used to much more in manga (in stories aimed at both genders, with fanservice appealing to both genders depending on the title).  So, is there a particular tension between fanservice tied to superheroes?  Is it the contradiction of “Yes, I’m a superhero!” plus “Yes, I’m a sex bomb!” that makes it problematic when it’s presented without a sense of humor (as I agree Empowered and Power Girl do)?

Sadie: Sorry, I sort of hijacked the word fanservice to mean having a sexual encounter that’s clearly just for the readers, like in Catwoman, which read like some bizarre shipper’s paranoid dream. Fanservice in manga can get annoying to me but most, not all, but most of the time the reader is in on the joke or the male protagonist is made fun of a bit after the service. Panel upskirt, next panel boy looking stupid, glaze eyed and getting a bloody nose. There’s sort of a wink/wink there, an acknowledgment that yes this is happening and yes you do look kind of silly drooling over it. I think the tension that comes from superheroes, at least for me, is that there’s no acknowledgement that what’s happening is exploitation. It’s almost like there’s almost a culture of pretending that it isn’t.

Matt: There certainly are a number of publishers and editors who are in serious denial over this point but I think, slowly but surely, progress is being made.  In the last five years, I’ve seen the number of blogs and websites written by and/or devoted to female comic readers in specific and “geek girls” in general grow much larger.  And those geek girls and like-minded geek guys?  They’re becoming much more vocal about how they like superheroes but they don’t like being condescended to.  The likes of Joe Quesada may plug their ears but they can’t hold out forever.  The market won’t let them.

Ironically, I think the increasing number of books centered on superheroines with quality writing have made the fan service artwork dominating the genre more obvious.  It’s far easier for us to dismiss something like Jim Balent’s Tarot: Witch Of The Black Rose than the Justice League of America books written by Dwayne McDuffie with art by Ed Benes.  Personally, my method for dealing with this is to just get the stories I like, regardless of the artwork, and be sure to discuss these issues with my graphic-novel reading teens when I’m talking about new titles.

Andrew: I don’t feel like fanservice in manga is any more likely to avoid sexism than western cheesecake, nor is it any more interested in doing so. Some manga has strong female characters and whatever fanservice is included is equal opportunity or self-aware or otherwise inoffensive. Some manga is more on par with Red Hood. I do think some readers are less inclined to call foul on sexism in manga than in western comics, dismissing fanservice as a slightly embarrassing but generally harmless quirk of manga culture. Perhaps we give manga a pass because it comes from a foreign culture with different ideas about what is and isn’t appropriate.

Sheli: Manga escapes scot-free because they’re not American. Not to say that cheesecake is fine in manga, but that’s not a culture we answer for. But we do feel responsible for our caped heroes. Whether or not you pick up every issue, even a layman knows what a Superman is. They’re a fixture of American culture, and if we don’t seek equality in these books, that is what the next generation will end up reading. As comics readers, and librarians, I think this effects us keenly.

Robin: I don’t actually feel like manga gets away with it — at least, with my readers it doesn’t.  Too much fan service is just as likely to make my teen girls (and a good many of my teen guys) roll their eyes. However, I agree that in Japanese manga there’s an up front attitude about it that both the creators and the readers know precisely what they’re doing AND they publish a great many books that DON’T have fan service.  I still say that’s the biggest difference — they have those other titles.  We don’t.

Back to library ordering, do you order series as they’re collected without waiting for patron requests, in this kind of massive reboot?  How do you decide what you will get and what you won’t?

Andrew: I just don’t have the budget to commit to these series without either patron requests or really good reviews. As we get closer to publication of the trades I’ll try to see which series have maintained a positive buzz and work from there. Basically, it’s too early to tell.

Matt: Having read all the New 52 titles personally, I actually feel better equipped to make decisions about these books in trade paperback format than I do most of the other items I purchase based on reviews alone.  I know my regular graphic novel readers and what circulates in our collection very well and I’ve yet to receive any complaints about what I’ve selected

Sheli: It’s funny how this game works. I read the 52, and there’s quality stuff in there. But I know right now that there are two camps: the patrons who want the quality, lesser known titles, and the patrons that will check out based on name recognition alone. So personally, I may not want to put down money on the new Superman, or Tony Daniel’s Detective Comics (if the choice comes down to it, I’m taking Snyder) but what will circulate (AKA lead back to more ordering of comics) will be Superman, and Detective Comics.

I’m just going to do my best to budget in these next few months so I can order a good number of books for both camps.

Robin: What would you collect, either from DC comics or from other publishers, that return the balance to the collection?  Does getting, say, Wonder Woman and Animal Man balance out the fanservice aspects of also getting Catwoman and Red Hood and the Outlaws?  Do you even think about balancing your collection in that way?

Andrew: You know, I hadn’t thought about that sort of balance in our graphic novel collection, though maybe I should. I certainly take a similar approach with, say, political books. Books like Buffy and Wonder Woman could help offset things like Catwoman. But owning one non-sexist book for every sexist book doesn’t really fix the problem, it just makes us feel a little better.

Matt: I fear that’s something of a tilted question.  Do we really need to balance it in the first place?  I can’t speak for the rest of you, but I haven’t been receiving any lot of demand from my patrons to pick up Catwoman or Red Hood and The Outlaws for our collection once they are available.  Why should we taint our shelves with this kind of book to begin with when there is nothing to redeem it?  If there was a good story underneath the cheesy artwork – as in, Dwayne McDuffie & Ed Benes’ Justice League – then I would get the book but endeavor to point out to my teen male charges that I disapprove of the artwork but think the story overshadows it.  As it is, I see no reason to purchase Judd Winick’s Catwoman or Red Hood and The Outlaws in the first place.

Andrew: I would put Catwoman or Red Hood on the shelf here if my patrons asked for it because it’s not my job to dictate taste or decide what is or isn’t good enough to go in the library. I wouldn’t be thrilled about spending my limited budget on books I don’t think are very good, but if there was clear demand for them I would feel compelled to do so.

Traci:  Ditto what everyone else said – Winick is popular in my library, so I’ll buy Catwoman, but like Andrew said, I’ll be buying Batgirl and Wonder Woman, too, which I’ll actually love recommending to my patrons.  That’s what I love about being a librarian, I’ll put things in my collection which I absolutely loathe, but I’ll also be there when patrons ask my opinion about it or ask for recommendations – I get to tell them how I feel.  Explaining to a teen or the adult comics readers that use the teen section “Hey, you know, this title generated a lot of controversy…” will lead to great discussions and will let them hear a new perspective, if they already know what they think.

Sheli: I’m just hoping that Red Hood and Catwoman fall flat on their face so I don’t have to spend money on them. If they don’t, I’m on board with everyone else. The librarian shtick means we don’t get to censor, because censoring is the death knell of books.

I wouldn’t buy Wonder Woman or Batgirl to “balance” my collection, I’d buy them because I value them as good books. The choice comes down to what’s popular/what’s quality. In comics, I feel a lot of those times those descriptions align, so I haven’t made many “Catwoman decisions” in my collection.

Matt: Well, come to that if there was an overwhelming demand for Judd Winick’s Catwoman, I suppose I would give in…  after making sure that every other patron request was filled and that there wasn’t a way to ILL the title from elsewhere, of course.  Must be careful with my budget. 😉

Andrew: Let’s just hope the overwhelming demand never materializes. One of these days the comics community as a whole is might grow out of its tolerance for bad writing accompanied by cheesecake.

Robin: What, if anything, do you hope will be the outcome of this controversy?  Will DC notice?  Will fans notice?  What would you like to see DC, readers, and creators take away from this experience?

Matt:  I would like to see Judd Winick let go by DC Comics to languish in obscurity like everyone else who starred on The Real World but that may be wishful thinking.  I think DC has noticed the complaints, else they wouldn’t have put effort into defusing them.  I know the fans have noticed because they are the ones complaining.  I would like to see this lead to a true renaissance of the genre, where all people are respected equally and I will never, ever have to complain about an up-skirt shot of Supergirl ever again.  What can I say?  I’m a dreamer.  But I’m not the only one, as the song says.

Andrew: To link yet another thing from Comics Alliance, what I’d like DC and other companies to learn was expressed pretty well by a bunch of creators here. It can all be summed up roughly as “Take a second to think about what you’re writing and drawing and whether or not the women are interesting characters.” I think DC is coming to realize that this is an issue they’ll need to address, try as they might to ignore it or willfully misunderstand it. Once DC and others fully realize the fans’ desire for change I’m sure they’ll do what they can to make things just not-bad enough that fans aren’t quite driven to complain publicly.

Traci:  I guess I’d just like DC to care about this.  I know they’ve been responding, but I feel like its just been so defensive on their part, and then I get defensive because they’re getting defensive, and then it’s just a never ending defensive circle.  I think I’d also like to see Judd Winick get the boot, but all my wishing up to this point has come to nothing.  I also really liked reading the Comics Alliance roundtable that Andrew links to – just another example that creators get it…DC just needs to catch up!

Define classic

When I was considering speaking at New York Comic-Con, and in general considering what titles every library should stock, I began to think about how folks think of classics. A few articles, (this list of unfinishable books from The Guardian and this article about the worst films to win Oscars) started stewing in my brain the other day, and I began to wonder how classics are made, over time, and why we cling to defining the “best” titles with only a few time-tested titles.

For example, I thoroughly believe that while there are titles that are considered classics now (Watchmen, Maus) that will always be classics, I do think that as the market shifts away from the direct, fan-driven market and moves over to a broader, reader-driven market, some titles will fall away.

That being said, I also think judging a title’s ability to stand the test of time is remarkably difficult because (and yes, this is blindingly obvious) not enough time has passed to call something a classic that just came out last year. So many classics, as we name them (Dickens, for example) started off so far from what was deemed literary quality at the time that no one at the time would’ve called those works a classic.

I’m happy to try to identify the best books of the past year, but the ones that will be around 25 years from now? That’s a bit harder, and in a way, I’m not sure it’s an exercise that’s particularly helpful in judging a title’s quality, readability, or impact.

While I’m just as fond of making lists as anyone, I do wonder why we as a culture insist that only something of “literary” quality will be around. Another fun article to take a look at considers what movies have won awards versus what movies people actually want to watch. And so I ask — why do we keep pretending all titles, of whatever format, can be whittled down to only a few standout classics?

I don’t know about you, but I can find a graphic novel, or book, or film, or TV show that will be great for my mood, but not great all the time. When I want Sandman, Maus isn’t going to work for me. I don’t think that diminishes the quality of either of those titles. By the same token, I will watch Two Weeks Notice every time it’s on — does that make it a high quality movie? No, not really. But the fact that I watch it over and over does say something about its potential longevity.

Then there’s my other problem: I keep running up against what Mark Twain identified as a classic: A book which people praise and don’t read. Perhaps I’m being harsh, but there are a fair number of graphic novels out there that may well be extraordinarily well crafted — but can anyone read them? (Yes, I’ll be honest, I’m looking at you, Chris Ware.) It is a storytelling medium, after all — if no one can piece together a story, then why is it quality? Because the five people who actually made it through thought it was brilliant?

I feel a bit like that about some modern art: whatever the process or the comment about the process or the significance of creating art the way you did, if I can’t walk up to a piece of art and get something out of it without needing someone to explain it to me, is it really successful, let alone good? On top of that, if I can’t feel something about the story, then is it quality? Does sheer artistry, or cleverness, or innovation automatically raise a title to a higher level?

In the library world, there’s something called reader’s advisory. It’s all about matching the reader with the right book. Not the best book, or the most revered book, but the right book specifically for them. If the world at large paid more attention to that facet of reading, that we all read according to whim and mood as much as awards and bestsellers, we might have more helpful lists floating out there.

The S Word: A Censorship Rant

As a librarian and a comics fan, I know how hard it’s been for comics to achieve their newfound legitimacy in libraries. Most of the resistance actually comes from librarians, not from the public, but that could change. Now that Wal Mart’s discovered yaoi, can the book-banners be far behind? The recent controversy over Susan Patron’s The Higher Power of Lucky, the Newbery winner (or, as I like to call it, the “Scrotum Kerfluffle”), reminded me that we’re already living in a climate of fear where librarians become their own worst enemies.

Just as comics can’t seem to escape their youth-corrupting reputation, librarians can’t seem to escape the “old prune in bun and glasses” image. The New York Times article saddened me, because it made the knee-jerk reactions of a few librarians seem representative of the field. If you missed it in such diverse news sources as the Times, on The View, Best Week Ever, or Bookslut, some librarians won’t buy the latest Newbery winner because it uses the word “scrotum” right on page one. Never mind that the word is used in a totally believable, age-appropriate way with no sexual implications (it’s a dog’s scrotum…honestly, any child who ever had a dog has seen one!).

The Colorado librarian who spoke to the Times (the one who said that “you won’t find men’s genitalia in quality literature”…snort!) came off sounding like a prune-faced bun-wearer, although some librarians are complaining that the article quoted them out of context. This was noted on Neil Gaiman’s blog, where Gaiman wondered incredulously that the Newbery Award wasn’t enough to protect a book from censorship. But I would bet the majority of librarians who aren’t buying Lucky aren’t offended by “genitalia.” They’re afraid, and rightly so, because they know that book banners don’t care about context, or redeeming social importance, or the millions of people who are happy to let their children explore the world through literature unhindered. Although the situation seems to be improving (fewer book challenges were reported this year than ever before), people can still lose their jobs over teaching, buying, or just defending a book in a school environment.

Yet librarians doom themselves when they base their collection decisions on fear. Some of the most publicized challenges of the past year were defeated simply because they were so obviously ridiculous, and I hope and trust that people will feel the same way about Lucky (check out this recently-compiled list of children’s books with “the s-word”). I’m more worried that the people who flip out over a single word will make it impossible for librarians to buy anything that pushes the envelope…what would they say if they knew I put Same-Cell Organism in my library’s young adult collection? Even here in liberal New England, I might have to fight for it—and it doesn’t even discuss genitalia.

Why We Like Manga

Via Mangablog, I discovered today a very nicely done post about why manga has taken off, and perhaps more sadly, why U.S. comics are not catching on. The author works in a comics store, and so has a lot of backup from anecdotal and sales evidence.

Now, I heartily agree with most everything halifax_slasher has to say. It’s a trend I’ve observed in my own library, especially as I noticed in recent circulation stats that manga makes up a whopping 70% of the circulation in my teen graphic novel section. And that count includes what gets pulled off the shelf and read (rather than actually taken home.)

Despite the fact that I have been, in recent years, a pretty rabid manga fan, that does not mean I do not still love all graphic novels. I sincerely hope that someday, everything will just be comics, and that having a good story will matter more than where it comes from.

That being said, I want to add my voice to a few of halifax_slasher‘s points that I think bear repeating and discussion.

To the “satisfying chunk” idea: the idea that manga is read more because you get a sizeable chunk of the story in your paperback rather than the tiny bit of story you get in reading it from a comic book.

I certainly agree with this idea — but it’s also interesting to notice the simple shift away from the direct market (i.e. comics stores and thus comics books) to the reader market (bookstores, and by extension, libraries.) I don’t read comic books, and didn’t get any satisfaction out of them when I did for precisely the above reason — there wasn’t enough story in there to tide me over until the next installment came out.

I do read graphic novels and TPBs — so when I get the latest Gotham Central or Fables, I get a whole chunk of story. I’m perfectly happy to wait for it to get published in book format. I think more and more comics readers are thinking this way, and thus the industry at large might think about how to do this. DC has already gotten started with this with their new Minx line (all snarkiness about the name aside). Perhaps the time has come to really acknowledge the shift away from the collector market and go after the reader market as it’s forming.

Also, one thing I think that’s been interesting to watch is the strange attempts of the U.S. industry to capitalize on manga’s popularity. It’s odd to me that it took so long for the industry to realize that it isn’t all about the style (which lead to far too many unfortunate manga-style comics that were too terrible to even mention) and it isn’t about the size so much either (just because it’s a small, stout paperback does not mean the manga readers will automatically pick it up, especially if it’s just a superhero story repackaged so it’s muddy looking and too tiny to read.) It’s the stories manga tells.

The reason, for example, that Runaways has done so well, I would argue, is not because of it’s trim size, but because it’s a damned good story. The trim size makes the colors murky and the text quite hard to read. The other titles of that size don’t go out in my library because of their size — if they’re not well-told, they sit on the shelf as much as anything else crappy.

So please, comics industry folks? Get it into your heads that manga works more because of the stories than anything else.
halifax_slasher also talks a bit about the idea that girls read manga, but girls don’t read comics. I don’t really want to quibble with the point that girls do read comics — while they do, they don’t en masse in the way that guys have and still do.

What he never quite articulates (and perhaps doesn’t feel he needs to) is something I feel is vital: manga actually has comics girls want to read. Girls want to read manga ’cause, well, for too long there’s been very few comics aimed at girls here in the U.S.

This is further elucidated when he talks about the appeal of the sex/romance aspect of manga. Manga tends to acknowledge sex and sexual desire more bluntly than U.S. comics, and in some ways this is refreshing. As he points out, U.S. comics have also been about sex for a long time, given female superheroes pin-up poses and costumes. What isn’t quite said, though, is again a point I’ve made a few times in my own presentations: while U.S. comics are about sex, they are about sex for a male audience. Not for a female audience, or any audience that finds men attractive rather than women. Batman is not in a pin up pose, nor do we get extraneous close-ups of his butt or package, nor is he in his underwear for the benefit of ogling. I’m not sure I want to see that — for one thing, it’s entirely out of character — but then again, why is it considered in character for all the female superheroes who’s attitudes and brains are much more akin to Batman’s than a femme fatale?

I remember distinctly a few years back speaking with librarians and industry folks about the prevalence of pin-ups featuring female characters, especially in series that I had once enjoyed but now found difficult to read (i.e. Birds of Prey) precisely because of the art. I love some the strong, smart, and kick-butt female characters that are in superhero comics — except for the way they’re all too often drawn. You can’t tell me how feminist and forward-thinking it is to have Black Canary, for example, and then show me a comic full of breast and butt close-ups on every page.

It doesn’t work, and it isn’t helping the lack of more female comics characters, not to mention female writers, artists, and industry folks in general. The very fact that people will start rattling off the names of the women in the industry is disappointing — there needs to so many that you can’t name them all. There needs to be so many that you can’t make a list of women in the industry in the same way that it would be ludicrous to make a list of men in the industry because, really, there would be too many to make it worth it.

In a way, I admire Japanese manga for at least being equal opportunity — since they’ve acknowledged that women make up half the population and thus are reasonable to target as a market, they’ve also gone that extra step and acknowledged that, wonder of wonders, girls like ogling pretty boys as much as boys like ogling pretty girls. Otherwise shojo manga would not be quite so full of pretty boys as it is.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, if we must have objectification, at least have it be equal opportunity.

To end on a slightly up note, I’m glad to see that both bookstores and librarires have become places for kids and teens to discover comics — much like the dime stores and grocery stores of old. When I grew up I never saw a comic book anywhere. No one gave me one, though I took cartooning classes and I wanted to be a Disney animator. I read comics strips, sure, and those I had in books, but comic books were nowhere. I’m glad today kids are seeing them in their local bookstores and libraries — it means to discover a different way of telling a story no longer means you have to have a comics fan in your life to take you to the comics store.

Comics are becoming a larger part of culture, a more ordinary part of culture, and the kids and teens that are growing up with comics today are not going to give up on them. So there’s hope for the future.

Adventures in Mangaland: Two Genders in One!

Is it just me, or have manga creators recently discovered hermaphrodites? (OK, so I know it’s probably just me, and that this has been around for a while, but whatever — I’m noticing it now.)

There have always been differently gendered characters in manga, and in fact that is one of its many charms. In the particular manga fantasy way such characters, in grand Shakespearean tradition, usually end up back in the “correct” gender identity by the close of the curtains.

Recently, though, I’ve run across a few more hermaphroditic characters in manga — specifically Kei/Megumi in The Day of Revolution and Ichijou in After School Nightmare. In The Day of Revolution, pretty boy Kei discovers in the middle of his teenhood that he is, in fact, both boy and girl (though just how this presents anatomically is unclear). Not sure what to do, he decides to become a girl instead of staying a boy. He returns to his same school six months later (having presumably gone through some sort of surgery or process that has him now presenting as a girl, though again, circumstances are unclear) as Megumi, an awkward but masculinely forward cutie who’s winning all kinds of attention. His four guy pals decide to pursue Megumi, and their newfound desire doesn’t falter once they discover she was once their best guy friend. Romantic wackiness ensues.

After School Nightmare paints a much grimmer and, in the end, more interesting picture. Ichijou has determinedly gone through life as a boy, and will not acknowledge his female aspects. Described as a boy on top and a girl on the bottom (which made me wonder, can that actually happen?), it’s only when he gets his first period that he’s forced to admit that he’s more female than other boys. His greatest fear is that his true gender will be revealed to his classmates, branding him a freak, and more importantly, a weak girl fated to be relegated to the background.

Of course, this is all happening in what I call Mangaland, or that skewed vision of the world that allows all manner of things to happen without the need for explanatory details or necessarily the expected repercussions. In The Day of Revolution, the gender differences are played mostly for humor, expected in a comedy, while After School Nightmare takes a much more serious look at gender, gender roles, and the continuing imbalance between men and women in society.

In The Day of Revolution, the comedy outweighs the serious consideration of just what it might mean to switch genders, starting at the very beginning. The idea that Kei decides to become a girl only because he thought he had to, and then continued the shifting process only because his parents made him stick to his decision when he tried to take it back, dismisses the actual emotions and sense of identity that most transgendered people feel. The process to make a transition, not to mention the usual battery of psychological testing necessary to even start transitioning, are neatly ignored. It’s not that I want the story to get bogged down by going into every detail, but I can’t help but wonder what anyone who has no idea of trans issues will take away from such a story.

On top of that, once Kei becomes Megumi, the problems of being a girl, and a guy trying to train himself to be more girly, mainly come from the fact that he is too forward, too independent, and too argmentative to be a “good” girl. His/her strength may be what attracts his once-friends to his new form, but when he’s challenged to the point of almost-rape by a nasty guy, his reaction is troubling to say the least. Being a girl, in his head, means letting rape happen, and at least momentarily not fighting back. This soured the comedy for me. Sure, a guy trying to act like a girl would be difficult, but…that being a girl means being weak and submissive, and somehow this is all being a girl means is a less than compelling message.

After School Nightmare is much more obviously a way to tackle gender issues more than trans issues. Ichijou’s fear of being more female than male has much more to do with what being a girl means in society than the internal identity that makes him a guy or a girl. Being a girl in Ichijou’s head (much like Kei’s) means being weak, and a lack of opportunities, and he wants neither. Speaking as a woman who’s often wondered how the world would treat me differently if I looked like a man, it’s an intriguing question and I look forward to seeing this series and author explore. In this series, unlike The Day of Revolution, it’s treated as a question, and possibly a societal problem to poke at, rather than just treated as a part of being a girl that must be accepted to be convincing.

They are different series, with different intents, but they both highlight the continuing struggle of a fan of manga who sometimes runs smack into the cultural divide in less that pleasant ways. It makes me wonder — how much that troubles me do I dismiss because, in the end, I like the manga, or the art, or the character? I know very well that in manga fantasy is fantasy and reality and reality and never the twain shall meet. But I still can’t help but wonder at the lines I draw — what I will forgive and what I won’t when reading manga.

While, admittedly, I likely think about these issues far more than many readers, I can’t help but wonder — what do readers who don’t think too hard about gender issues think about these stories? Do they think about it at all? Is that a bad thing? What do they internalize as impressions of gender that they don’t even realize?

A Tale of Two Robins

guest rant by petra and please, pardon the bad pun…

I like Bill Willigham as an author. I love the work he’s done on Fables. I was excited when I heard he was going to be writing Batman. I was even more excited when I heard that he was going to be writing a female Robin to replace Tim. Yes, there are plenty of female superheroes in the Batman universe–Batgirl, Oracle, Black Canary, Huntress, Catwoman . . . but Robin is iconic. Robin was part of the original Bat legend before DC’s stable of heroes multiplied, so I was fascinated when I heard rumors that Willingham was going to make the next Robin female, because really, way to go with girl power and equal opportunity for women in the US comic market.

Except in execution, not so much. I have no issue with Tim leaving his role as Robin. I get why he did it. I find it fascinating that he can walk away from being Robin in a way that Batman, or Nightwing, or Batgirl would never be able to do. I’m even reasonably okay with the idea that even though Batman has told Spoiler (Stephanie Brown) to stop vigiliantying in his town because she lacks the appropriate perspective and focus he takes her on as the new Robin because he admires her for standing up to him and insisting on being a part of that life. What infuriates me is that she gets reduced to a plot device.

By all rights Stephanie Brown should be a fascinating character. Her father was a costumed villain and she is driven to becoming a costumed hero because she wants to make amends. She got pregnant, dropped out of high school, had the baby and gave it up for adoption, and then went right back to being Spoiler. Previous appearances of Spoiler indicate that she’s a little willful, and that she lacks the focus of the Bat team, but she isn’t stupid and she isn’t ineffective. She works with Robin. She dates Tim. And, she’s friends with Batgirl. None of them are people who tolerate inanity or ineptitude, which makes her personality shift in Willigham’s hands hard to buy.

Whereas before she was headstrong and brash, here she has become a giggling busty pin-up of a sidekick. In War Drums she gets hired and then fired as the new Robin. In War Games: Act 1 she tries to get back into Batman’s good graces by implementing a highly flawed plan to clean up Gotham. And, in the end, she gets murdered by a psycho-sexual killer who ties her up and tortures her while everyone else is too busy trying to clean up the mess she’s made of Gotham to even notice she’s missing. She’s a plot device.

If the point of the War Drums/War Games plot arc was to reintroduce Tim as Robin there were other ways to achieve it. Batman vehemently protests the idea that Spoiler as Robin is a way to lure Tim back, but that’s exactly what Bill Willingham is doing. Stephanie is held up as an example of everything that a Robin shouldn’t be. Tim was stronger, faster, smarter and more loyal than Stephanie. And, although it’s never said outright, most importantly he wasn’t a girl. In the end Tim realizes that he can’t turn off being Robin and, her usefulness outlived, Stephanie becomes another name on the roster of victims that Batman couldn’t save.

Where the Girls Aren’t: A Rant about Female Audiences and Creators in the world of Comics

As I grew up, I did not consider myself a girly girl. I did not like dolls, nor ever have the desire to own a baby doll for playing house. For lack of a better term, I was a tomboy from my peers I learned girliness meant weakness and stupidity (usually a mask, but always worn), and I wanted to be strong, smart, and respected, like boys. My independence expressed itself through the rejection of all the trappings of girlishness, from batting eyelashes to frilly clothes to makeup.Of course, I grew up and discovered that girliness did not necessarily equal weakness. Ironically, once I began attending Bryn Mawr, a women’s college full of feminists who commonly went to classes in their pajamas, I began doing my nails (though always in unnatural colors), experimenting with hair ornamentation, and investigating the satisfaction of a swirly skirt.

Once I hit the workplace, the expressions of femininity multiplied – for better or worse, this is what is expected of me as a professional. Pajamas are not acceptable attire, and neither are jeans. I began to actually wear makeup. I pride myself on maintaining my own personal style — patterns are anathema to me, and no prim blouses with foofy collars are hiding in my closet — but I am definitely more comfortable with my stereotypically feminine side.

Now, all of this is leading up to comics (really!). I’m just going about it in a roundabout way.

Lately I’ve been pondering the stereotypes that surround men and women, and which are based in truth and which are just long-held notions in need of revision. One stereotype about girls is in how we play — we like a story, we like puzzles, and we like identifying with the story. In terms of computer games, I remember a flurry of discussion when Myst first arrived — it was a “girl’s” game, with no shooting, no violence — heck, there weren’t even people in the game except for cryptic recordings. The game was solving puzzles, not racking up points, and there was a story to be discovered along the way. I’d never understood why the computer guys I knew spent hours playing Doom, but I played Myst into the wee hours of the morning.

In terms of stories we get, in film, TV, books, and comics, there is the understanding that girls like character development, complicated plots, and a focus on emotions. Thus, we get great piles of “chick flicks” and romantic comedies that supposedly give us what we want.

A friend of mine recently expressed his disdain for romantic comedies, and asked what the appeal was. After considering it for a while, I responded that we ladies can’t help but want a few fairytales in our grown up lives. We know it’s all make believe, but we want to see the lady fair and the knight in shining armor get together in the end. We’re taught from an early age to want to be the princess, and even I, in all my protestations of discarding girlishness, succumb to that dream for a little while.

Then it occurred to me just why my friend might not see the story the same way — what boys are taught to want to be the prince? Not the boy’s version of a prince, fighting battles and slaying dragons, but the girl’s version, the elegant, pretty young man who kneels before his lady love and spouts poetry. Not too many.

There are typically “male” genres that I don’t particularly care for — gory, slasher horror and brainless action tales, to name a few. I find that I’m bored at action movies that are nothing but one long chase scene (see the Terminator movies.) At the same time, I am as entertained as the next guy by Indiana Jones, James Bond, or serial killer movies. Then there are those genres I’m not the main audience for, including most science fiction and smart action movies, which I adore. Give me Blade Runner or The Hunt for Red October any day.

So yes, I admit it, I like girly movies like Two Weeks Notice, but I also hate movies that ignore all common sense or character truth for the sake of romance (see Kate and Leopold). I want people to fall in love because they would and should, not because it’s convenient for the plot. In the same way, I hate action or sci-fi movies that have things explode just so they can squeeze in one more special effect rather than because the story needs a dramatic moment.

Story itself seems to be lost in so much of modern storytelling — now it’s too much about rote plot arcs and special effects. It’s also too much about what “we” (whether that’s women or men or teens or kids) are supposed to want according to these industries’ statistics and test audiences. I’m sure men feel just as trapped as women do, though, because of the trends in our history, men get a better deal as they’ve always been the storytellers while women are only just now breaking into the creators’ realm.

I get disappointed over and over again by comics that are supposedly something I want to read. I get bitter when I realize the few female characters I’ve really embraced over time are still written and drawn by men: Buffy from Joss Whedon’s universe, Tara Chace from Queen & Country, Oracle from the Batverse. I’d just like to see not only more female writers, but female artists who don’t have to stick to the pin-up code, and female editors who might bring a different spin to a series. I’d love to see more women designing those costumes. Where are the superhero titles that are actually what a girl wants to read? What she needs to read? Where are the role models who aren’t in skimpy outfits?

The few examples I can think of come from independent presses — I know whole crowds of girls and women who have embraced the Hopeless-Savage family from Oni Press’ Hopeless-Savages books, particularly daughters Zero and Arsenal, as beloved new female characters with smarts and sass. Oni can also claim Courtney Crumrin, and Tara Chace. Joss Whedon’s Fray featured an amazing heroine who was instructed by her writer not to be busty — thus, she looked almost normal — and I loved her both for that and her fierce strength. I know there are more women creators out there, but where are they in the mainstream comic world? Is there any awareness of the female audience? It sure doesn’t seem like it from where I sit.

Of course, the buzz and the news lately has been all about how manga has become the hot item for female comics readers. It’s getting girls into comics (of course, we’ve been around for years and years, but the industry didn’t seem to really notice us before.)

Girls have become a market to pursue. Except that no one’s pursuing us here in the States.

My favorite superhero world is Gotham, full of seething emotions and darkness that no one wants to dig to deeply into — and believe me, I enjoy Birds of Prey. I do, however, get angry when I pick up a Birds of Prey title and am faced with good characters, plot, and dialogue, but artwork and pinup poses that make it clear the intended audience is still teenage boys and men, not girls or women. I get angrier when I realize I’m not supposed to make a fuss.

In a conversation with a fellow manga fan, I showed him the first few pages of a new Revolutionary Girl Utena book that featured an essentially naked pretty boy (with convenient drapery). He looked and yelped out, “Ah! I don’t want to see that!” I chuckled and agreed that’s how you can tell it’s a girl’s comic, or shojo manga.

Later that night I found myself mulling over his reaction — he’s a swell guy, and cannot be targeted for his reaction — but it made me realize one important fact — we women are treated with scenes of scantily clad, sensually posed women all the time in comics aimed at boys, and we are expected to want to see it. At least, we’re expected to put up with it. And we do.

But boys, oh no, boys are not supposed to have to see male characters like that. Except in Japanese manga. Even then, I know Western boys and men are unlikely to admit if they read Utena. I also hear a lot of jokes that dismiss the traditional “girl” manga — snickers about schoolgirls and magic — which in and of itself shows just what the men in the business, and in the fanbase, think traditional shojo manga is worth.

The thing about manga, I finally realized, is that the Japanese output in general still seems to concentrate on those stereotypically girly plot elements: emotion, character development, and complicated plots. Also, news flash: many of the shojo comics are actually written by women. So, yes, these comics are for girls. Women and girls are embracing these titles en masse. On top of that, we’re buying up manga in droves — making that industry a good pile of money. Just recently, the few yaoi manga titles (romances about two men falling in love written by women and for women) available rocketed up into the top 10 manga sellers on

Even when the title is a boys’ comic, or shonen manga, like Naruto, there’s a concentration on emotional consequences. It’s difficult to find such worry over everyone’s feelings in Western action comics.

And that’s a great pity. If the Western industry would wake up now, please, and realize that the female market is worth creating for I would first, faint away in shock, and second, be very very happy. I love superhero stories. I love the artwork that the West creates. I love the ideas we play with. I want it to have more character development, more plot, and more women who are not so obviously for the boys. Is that too much to ask?

Otherwise, I will keep in the pattern I’m falling into now — reading more manga than anything else, and being sad that I’m apparently not important enough to listen to in the comics industry.