Long Beach Comic Con: Lois Lane and the advancement of women in comics

Sept. 29, 2014 | 9:00 a.m.
loislane 75years dc comic Long Beach Comic Con: Lois Lane and the advancement of women in comics

Lois Lane is a "superhero without any powers," Amanda Conner says. The character is seen on the cover of last year's "Lois Lane: A Celebration of 75 Years" retrospective hardcover. (DC Entertainment)

amandaconner Long Beach Comic Con: Lois Lane and the advancement of women in comics

Amanda Conner's work has included Power Girl comics and "Before Watchmen: Silk Spectre." (DC Entertainment)

batgirl35p11 Long Beach Comic Con: Lois Lane and the advancement of women in comics

Babs Tarr's artwork is seen on a page from the upcoming "Batgirl" No. 35, her debut on the title. (DC Entertainment)

Lois Lane may be the most famous woman in comics, and the fearless Daily Planet journalist got her due from several “Ladies First: The Impact of Women in Comics” panelists during a wide-ranging discussion Saturday.

Barbara Randall Kesel, a writer and editor who has worked at DC Comics, said the character’s portrayal “rises and falls with what is happening with women in the real world” – from being a “spitfire” like new career women in the ’30s and ’40s, to being diminished to “comedic foil” for Superman as women were being encouraged to relinquish jobs and focus on their husbands in the ’50s, to becoming a more feminist character as the equality movement has advanced.

Lane is “a superhero without any powers,” popular artist Amanda Conner, who co-writes DC’s “Harley Quinn” series, said.

“She’s got that assumption of authority – ‘Of course it’s going to work out,’” Kesel noted.

“And you know that [Superman] is going to think that’s really hot,” Conner added.

Cecil Castellucci, writer of the Eisner Award-nominated “Odd Duck,” said she’d been trying to pitch a miniseries about the hard-charging reporter for years because she’s “obsessed with Lois Lane for the very reasons that you’re saying,” and agreed that the spitfire aspect of the character’s personality is what would appeal to Clark Kent.

In current DC stories, though, it’s not Lois who Superman is dating, but Wonder Woman.

Kesel called that “a step down” to some crowd laughter and applause.

The panel, moderated by Hero Complex’s Noelene Clark, also included writer Corinna Bechko (“Star Wars: Legacy”), writer-artist Esther Pearl Watson (“Unlovable”), artist Babs Tarr (“Batgirl”) and film producer and comics editor Sandy King Carpenter (“They Live,” “In the Mouth of Madness” and many more as the former, “John Carpenter’s Asylum” as the latter). Their conversation touched on depictions of female body types in mainstream and indie comics, treatment of women in the comics industry, representations of women in their own works, the prospects for more diverse female leads on-screen – and what can be done.

One size doesn’t fit all

An audience member, who said she’s an artist and a longtime comics fan, told panelists that the industry has failed her with oversexualized and unrealistic representations of women and asked if they thought there’s a movement in the medium to show more realistic women.

Cecil Castellucci is the author of "Odd Duck." (First Second)

Cecil Castellucci is the author of “Odd Duck.” (First Second)

Castellucci replied that in her 2007 graphic novel “The Plain Janes,” she and artist Jim Rugg gave girls varied body types. In its 2008 sequel “Janes in Love,” there’s a part where the characters “don’t fit into their prom dresses because they’re … too big at the bust or it’s too tight at the bust. They’re all about doing art attacks, so they do an art attack with all these dresses that are different sizes, and they say, ‘One size doesn’t fit all.’”

There are more and better options for readers now than in the past, Conner said, criticizing early ’90s comics for being “cookie-cutter” when it came to women characters, who she said all had “the model pout.”

Kesel noted that it helps when there are multiple female characters in a title – rather than Wonder Woman being the only female in the Justice League – because then they can all stand for different ideas rather than having to carry all of femininity “in one suitcase.”

Realistic portrayals of women are more common in indie comics than in superhero comics, Watson said, citing the works of Vanessa Davis (“Make Me a Woman”) and Lynda Barry (the Eisner-winning “What It Is”). Castellucci added stories by Roberta Gregory (“Naughty Bits”), the Hernandez brothers (“Love & Rockets”) and the cousins Tamaki (“This One Summer”) to the list.

Watson recalled mini comics by Allison Cole that featured gender-less characters.

“I’d find myself going, ‘Oh, is this a girl? Because it’s written by Allison. Is she kissing another girl?’” she said. “And then I would catch myself thinking that, ask myself, ‘Why is that important? Why does that matter’? I really appreciate comics that force you to reevaluate our expectations that we grew up with.”

Working women in the comics industry

Asked by the moderator whether the current climate for diversity in the business had led them to take risks they wouldn’t have previously.

Bechko answered, ““I’m still doing what I would normally be doing, but people are paying more attention now.”

Noting that the atmosphere for women in the industry has changed since her comics career began in the late 1980s, Conner said, “Basically, I would make sure that I told my writers and editors not to pull any punches with me. I was actually trying to get out of a Barbie comics pigeonhole that I was in. It was really hard to get me out of that pigeonhole for many years. And when I did ‘The Pro’” – she snapped her fingers upon mentioning the ribald 2002 Garth Ennis-written story about a prostitute who gets superpowers – “gone. No one ever called me ‘that Barbie artist’ again.”

Tarr, who makes her mainstream comics debut with next month’s “Batgirl” No. 35, said she felt welcome in the industry, and that the series’ co-writers, Cameron Stewart and Brenden Fletcher, often incorporate her suggested changes into the script.

“They know that I’m a girl and it’s like a girl story for girls,” she said.

Barbara Kesel wrote "Meridian." (CrossGen Comics)

Barbara Kesel wrote “Meridian.” (CrossGen Comics)

Kesel, who wrote “Meridian” at CrossGen, called herself a longtime “obnoxious voice of diversity” in the business and said, to applause, “We’re not done with the subject until we don’t have a women-in-comics panel.”

Charging ahead thinking of yourself as a creator – not a female creator – is the way to go, King Carpenter said: “I don’t do girl stories. I do stories. I’ve never tried to be accepted anywhere and consequently got accepted everywhere.”

An audience member asked if the panelists had mentors in comics.

Tarr drew knowing groans from the crowd when she talked about someone who was not a mentor: an ex-boyfriend. She had been reading manga for years and dated a guy who loved comics – but she didn’t like to read what he liked. The ex, a big Batman fan, “now claims that he started my interest in it,” she said.

Other panelists did have mentors. Castellucci said that Shelly Bond, executive editor of DC’s mature readers Vertigo imprint, had years ago reached out to the novelist to ask if she wanted to write comics and continues to be a mentor. Conner told the crowd that she learned much about what to do and what not to do as an artist by working as an assistant to Eisner winner Bill Sienkiewicz (“The New Mutants”).

Watson said she was encouraged to continue with her self-published “Unlovable” by a famous customer. At the Alternative Press Expo one year, “The Simpsons” creator Matt Groening came up to buy Issue 2 and asked if there would be a 3.

She hadn’t been planning to make another one because of the considerable printing costs, but she told him yes.

“He said, ‘I’ll be back here next year to buy Issue 3.’ So I wouldn’t have kept going [without that].”

And, yes, Watson said, Groening kept his word.

Writing and drawing diversity

Prejudice in comics isn’t just limited to gender, ethnicity and sexuality.

A zoologist by training, Bechko said that in responses to her sci-fi writing she’d seen species bias. In working on “Planet of the Apes” comics for Boom Studios, she and Gabriel Hardman “went to great pains to make sure we had a diversity of apes, that we had female apes – working scientists who were mentoring other females – and nobody notices because they’re all apes.”

The cover for "Batgirl" No. 35 is by Cameron Stewart, who is also co-writing the series. (DC Entertainment)

The cover for “Batgirl” No. 35 is by Cameron Stewart, who is also co-writing the series. (DC Entertainment)

Tarr – sporting a Batgirl jacket her cousin made for her – said she and her collaborators are trying to pull the character out of the shadow of Batman by placing her in a new neighborhood and pitting her against new villains. It’s an effort that extended to changes she made during the costume redesign process.

“Her suit’s not provided by Batman, she made it herself,” Tarr said, suggesting that Barbara Gordon would piece it together from thrift stores.

Responding to a moderator question about taking on female characters who have been viewed as sex objects, Conner said, “The more you pour into a character personality-wise, the less people think, ‘Oh, she’s just a sex object.’”

She described the personality that she and co-writer Jimmy Palmiotti (also her husband) strive to give Harley Quinn in that disturbed character’s popular series: “She always has to have a sense of fun when we write it. The other thing we were worried about was her knowing that she’s a villain. She’s not exactly a villain. She’s not an antihero, but an antivillain maybe…. She’s nuts. In her own head, she’s a hero. She’s a superhero in her head, and Batman’s a bad guy, and she’s helping to protect the world from people like that…. We try to make her as lovable as possible, in spite of her being a psycho killer.”

King Carpenter told Conner about Quinn, “That’s what’s making her rock right now.”

Very human errors are key to the relatability of teenager Tammy Pierce in Watson’s “Unlovable,” now in its third volume from Fantagaphics. The comic, based on a discarded diary she and her husband found in a gas station in Death Valley, is drawn in a “faux grotesque style,” to look like a 15-year-old girl drawing in her diary, and shows Pierce making “all the mistakes you remember making when you were starting high school” – including bad hair, too much makeup for a job application and having a jerk for a best friend.

“When we found the diary,” Watson said, “the real girl had a friend that – Mark and I were yelling at the diary, like … ‘Why would you shoplift with Kim?’ It’s not going to work out. Don’t do that!”

In the creation of the comic, though, Watson grew to love Kim being a jerk, finding it refreshing to have a female character behave like that.

Bechko’s upcoming Image Comics series “Invisible Republic” deals with a woman who’s been through her male cousin’s ascent from rebel leader to dictator. Most people know little about him, but she “knew too much about him, so she’s been written out, as happens to a lot of women throughout history.”

Tula Bane, the star of Castellucci’s novel “Tin Star” and the upcoming sequel “Stone in the Sky,” defies the trend of super-skilled heroines. The girl “is not like a perfect archer or [someone who] can beat people up,” the writer said. “She’s just like, ‘Aah, I don’t know how to overthrow a galactic [empire].’”

In editing comic book artists, King Carpenter said, “I have to write reminder notes in: ‘This is Los Angeles. We have all ethnicities. Make sure your background has Hispanic and Asian [people].’”

Widescreen visions

An audience member asked when minority female protagonists would be the stars of films and TV shows.

Conner is craving one in particular: “I want to see a Daughters of the Dragon movie so bad,” she said, referring to the Marvel Comics duo of Misty Knight, who is black, and Colleen Wing, who is white.

The characters, who debuted in a 1977 issue of “Deadly Hands of Kung-Fu,” have costarred with Iron Fist and Luke Cage in various titles and had their own limited series in 2006, co-written by Palmiotti.

Who's missing in the new movie? You won't see the weather-controlling mutant Storm who was played by Oscar-winner Halle Berry in three X-films. (20th Century Fox)

Halle Berry as Storm. (20th Century Fox)

Several panelists agreed that Marvel’s Storm – who’s been a fixture in the “X-Men” films played by Halle Berry – could carry a solo film.

King Carpenter noted that she thinks the day the audience member awaits is soon, but noted that it takes longer in Hollywood than in comics because of the years-long development process for films.

Castellucci, noting the success of “The Hunger Games” and “Frozen,” called the lack of a Wonder Woman movie “a shocker.”

“The audience does rule what’s happening,” King Carpenter said, “and now that they’ve proven they’ll go, they’ve proven that they’ll spend the money, they’ve proven that these things will work, I think that [minority-female-led Hollywood movies are] in the near future.”

Taking action

Kesel encouraged attendees to make more and better representations of women on comics pages and movie screens happen by creating their own work.

That sort of encouragement pushed Castellucci toward becoming a writer.

When she was 25 and gigging as a musician, she wrote “A Wrinkle in Time” author Madeleine L’Engle a letter, saying she related to that novel’s protagonist, Meg Murry, who also has “mousy brown hair and glasses,” scientist parents and a brilliant younger brother (“and then she goes and saves the universe through her mousiness”).

Castellucci thanked the author for writing it and noted that she might like to write a book someday.

L’Engle wrote back, “Well, why don’t you sit down and write a book?”

“And I was like, ‘You know what? She’s right,’” Castellucci said. “And I sat down and wrote a book” – “Boy Proof” – “which is about a nerdy girl, and that was my first novel.”

Hero Complex was a sponsor of the convention.

Blake Hennon | Google+ | @LATHeroComplex


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One Response to Long Beach Comic Con: Lois Lane and the advancement of women in comics

  1. comicwatcher says:

    Well, I listed an itemized account of why Lois Lane was made a very lame character. http://comicwatcher.wordpress.com/2011/12/12/comi

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