It’s been a rough week for women in comics.
First, Wonder Woman was (once again) relegated to the back burner, while a TV series for the Flash is being fast-tracked in her place. Then, during Wednesday’s Television Critics Assn. press tour panel for the new PBS docu-series “Superheroes: The Never-Ending Battle,” several comics creators said of the dearth of women and people of color in their pages, that readers are “not interested” in those characters.
Today comes a New Republic story that quotes “Kick-Ass” creator Mark Millar defending his comic book depictions of rape and sexual violence, saying “I don’t really think it matters.”
Comics creators, journalists and others of the comics community took to Twitter to respond to what they saw as blatant sexism, both in the TCA panel and in Millar’s comments.
Millar, the boundary-pushing comics writer who in recent years has become a Hollywood heavyweight thanks to film adaptations of his comics and a position as chief creative consultant for Fox’s Marvel films (“X-Men,” “Fantastic Four”), told New Republic writer Abraham Riesman that rape, when depicted in the pages of comics, is simply a storytelling device.
“The ultimate [act] that would be the taboo, to show how bad some villain is, was to have somebody being raped, you know?” Millar said. “I don’t really think it matters. It’s the same as, like, a decapitation. It’s just a horrible act to show that somebody’s a bad guy.”
The story also quoted Laura Hudson, the former editor in chief of the popular blog Comics Alliance and a senior editor at Wired, who rejected Millar’s stance.
“There’s one and only one reason that happens, and it’s to piss off the male character,” she said. “It’s using a trauma you don’t understand in a way whose implications you can’t understand, and then talking about it as though you’re doing the same thing as having someone’s head explode. You’re not. Those two things are not equivalent, and if you don’t understand, you shouldn’t be writing rape scenes.”
Famously dubbed the “women in refrigerators” syndrome by Gail Simone, the overwhelmingly disproportionate number of female comic characters who are killed, maimed, raped or stripped of their powers for the sake of advancing a male character’s plot has long been a problematic strain in the world of comics. When Simone and other writers were gathering creator responses for the “women in refrigerators” project in 1999, Millar had this to say.
“Granted, the female stuff has more of a sexual violence theme and this is something people should probably watch out for, but rape is a rare thing in comics and is seldom done in an exploitative way,” he said at the time.
Not surprisingly, his more recent comments have drawn the ire of comics creators and journalists.
“In a culture in which rape is undeniably endemic, Millar’s steadfast refusal to consider the potential ramifications of his work remains astounding, infuriating, irresponsible, and sad,” writes Joseph Hughes of Comics Alliance. “To pretend depictions of rape and sexual assault in popular fiction play absolutely no role in further informing a culture that seems largely hellbent on not dealing with these statistics is, at best, willfully ignorant, a position adopted by a writer more concerned about the money he’s making than actually improving as a creator.”
Here is a very small selection of responses from Twitter:
Millar’s comments came the day after a TCA panel for the PBS documentary “Superheroes: The Never-Ending Battle.” The panel included the documentary’s director Michael Kantor, as well as creators Todd MacFarlane (Spawn), Len Wein (Wolverine) and Gerry Conway (the Punisher).
When asked by ThinkProgress writer Alyssa Rosenberg about why there are so few women and minorities represented in comic books, McFarlane argued that aiming for more diverse characters would lead to tokenism and would come at the expense of good storytelling. Kantor said that women and minorities have been marginalized in comics because they’ve been marginalized in history.
“I think the bigger question is why readers are not interested in those characters,” Conway said. “Comics follow society. They don’t lead society, they reflect it.”
McFarlane also suggested that superhero comics are, by nature, testosterone-driven and therefore the wrong platform for messages of female empowerment.
“I’ve got two daughters, and if I wanted to do something that I thought was emboldened to a female, I probably wouldn’t choose superhero comic books to get that message across,” he said.
Conway added to the argument that superhero comics fall strictly into the realm of men and boys’ fare, and also spoke about his daughter, saying she is “not interested in the guy stories,” but rather in those by “a girl named Faith Erin Hicks.” (Never mind that Hicks is a woman, not a girl, and the author of “The Adventures of Superhero Girl,” which has garnered a following among both men and women.)
“I think it’s a mistake to sort of, like, pigeonhole superheroes, or to add so much to superheroes that you’re missing the fact it’s a genre within itself,” he said. “It’s like saying, ‘Why are there no medieval stories about female knights?’ Because there was only one, you know, Joan of Arc. … It’s an inherent limitation of that particular genre, superheroes.”
Rosenberg criticized their logic in her story, saying they “ignore that superheroes don’t actually exist, and that the production of superhero comics is not actually a biological function determined by whatever bodies we’re born with…. The decision to stay within the narrow lanes of your own fantasies is a choice, not biological determinism.”
She wasn’t the only one to speak up.
What’s your take on the controversy? Please leave your thoughts in the comments section below.
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