Four Colors to Infinity: DC A-Go-Go
Comics fans are hardly unique in having a standoffish relationship with the medium they love. (They are probably outpaced by sports fans in terms of the distance between the product on display and the character of the culture that has grown up around it, but that’s another story.) Every genre, every kind of media, every author is capable of disappointing his audience. But comics fans do have to content with one hassle that it shares only with advertising: all of the medium’s greatest missteps, disappointments and botch-jobs have come after an announcement that everything is going to change for the better.
DC Comics’ post-52 relaunch of their entire line of comics has been met with mixed reviews, as befits such a massive endeavor. Those who know the company’s editorial approach well are predicting disappointment — their history with such projects is shabby, to say the least — but the one aspect that’s gotten the most negative attention is the (literal) revamping of a number of female characters into cartoonish sex toys designed with little more than male fan service in mind. Most notably, Judd Winick’s Catwoman, after being introduced in a sequence that would embarrass Cinemax, had a creepy hook-up with her occasional nemesis Batman. But that’s not all: Madame Xanadu has been transformed into a demonic rough-sex enthusiast, Harley Quinn has had a personality transplant and become a goth pin-up, and worst of all, Starfire — only a few years removed from her celebrated depiction in the Teen Titans cartoon series as a proud, emotional, kind, and loving character that brought in millions of young female viewers — now appears in Red Hood and the Outlaws as a disconnected, dead-eyed alien cum-rag.
This trend leaves such an unpleasant taste in the mouth that it’s inspired Laura Hudson — one of the few genuinely insightful and talented female comics bloggers out there — to consider giving up on the medium altogether. (Her column on the subject itself touched off a huge controversy, inspiring thousands of responses, angry e-mails, and sub-literate comebacks like this one.) Of course, many people — including my friend Calamity Jon — rightly point out that sexism in comics is hardly a new development; but what’s especially disspiriting is the circumstances under which it’s talking place. It’s one thing to deliver fan service via scantily-clad superheroines; comics have been doing that since time immemorial. It’s not even the ringing, tone-deaf depiction of female sexuality (as depicted, of course, by male creators). It’s that all this has come at a time when the company was promising wide, sweeping change; at a time when the people in charge of the comics industry — and, lest you think that DC is alone in this, they’re following a pattern that Marvel virtually perfected — are swearing that a new wave of diversity is coming.
In practice, this ‘diversity’ has translated to seemingly random replacement of formerly Caucasian characters with ‘ethnic’ counterparts who behave no differently and express no cultural variance from their white-bread predecessors. It certainly hasn’t meant an influx of diversity on the DC creative staff; in the face of a question about why the writers and artists under his employ had been systematically stripped of women, boss Dan DiDio responded with barking, aggressive scorn. I’d even argue that the sexism being manifested is of an entirely different character than what has come before: cloaked under a blanket of condescending, defensive nth-wave feminism, it portrays what is blatant sexual pandering and misogynistic nonsense as somehow empowering or progressive. DC has only recently had to contend with the fact that their comics have become blood-soaked, gratuitously violent gorefests — a trend that reached its apogee in the comically awful Flashpoint — and now, at a time when they trumpeted to the entire world that they’d be changing things for the better, becoming more inclusive and deliveratly courting new readers, they produce a new wave of product that not only alienates existing comics fans, but offends potential female readers in its very first offerings.
That this is done under the guise of making comics more ‘adult’ and ‘sophisticated’ is nothing but a dodge, and one that does the further harm of driving an entirely arbitrary wedge between the ‘grim and gritty’ and ‘sensawunda’ contingents. Making comics more adult and sophisticated has nothing to do with adding dark, repellant sex and violence; those are just tools in a box whose purpose is to deepen characterization, increase complexity, and strengthen thematic meaning. Alan Moore didn’t set out to make comic books more violent and sexual; he just used those aspects to make them more intelligent and profound. The mistake of his inheritors has been to mistake the content for the concept; sex and violence no more make a work adult and sophisticated than not using swear words makes it morally responsible. Just as too much dedication to the ‘sensawunda’ vibe can render a work childish and stupid, the wrong approach to ‘grim and gritty’ can lead you to the conclusion that horror-movie violence and exploitative sex automatically makes your work smarter.
This really isn’t hard to figure out. The reason that manga is choking the US market, stealing its readership and expanding it vastly in the previously inaccessible young female demographic, is because they know how to write stories for girls — and it’s not by sexing up the female protagonists. Every reader you gain with Starfire being used as a penis pincushion is ten that you lose to the Japanese comics industry, who treat girls simply but respectfully. Film noir, a genre hardly aimed at kids, brought new levels of sophistication and moral complexity to movie, pushing back against the restrictive Hays Code — but it didn’t do it with quadruple-digit body counts and skin-tight outfits. It did it with subtle sexuality, deep characterization, clever story construction, and a pervasive mood of darkness that delivered meaning instead of exploitation. Femmes fatale may have been devious, evil schemers, but at least they were smart and cunning instead of just cock-rests for the men. They had a sense of agency, of independence — they had things they wanted apart from what the men wanted. Film noir wasn’t free of sexism, but it was far less misogynistic than contemporary comics — and its heyday was over 60 years ago.
Returning, this late in the game, to the men-are-good-and-women-are-trash model of genre fiction that film noir inverted is no longer possible, but revivifying it into a universe where men have desires and personalities and women are dead-eyed whores who conceal their one-dimensionality behind a mask of empowerment is no option at all. When we see Catwoman luring a curiously resistant Batman with her sexual wiles, we’re returning in a circuitous way to the stories that worked on “upstanding heroic dude resists the wily wiles of evil vagina-stink because he is decent and moral, unlike all those slutty broads who tempt weaker men into ruin” lines. Noir suggested that while there are, indeed, women who (gasp!) use sex to get what they want, they exist because 99% of men are easily manipulated morons who think with their cocks and will happily do something with the potential to wreck their whole lives for the chance at getting their dicks wet for three minutes. There are a lot of male characters in noir who live to regret what they did for pussy, but none of them act like it was some horrible burden on them that they should have been wise enough to spurn. And now, 60 years later, Dan DiDio has them high-fiving over who got to stick it to Starfire most recently. It’s a vast step backward disguised as a great leap forward.
DC, of course, is free to pander to its male fans as much as it likes. It always has. There will even be a place for that sort of thing, as there should be. But for them to cap off an era of senseless, shock-value violence and shift to an era of soft-porn sexual pandering — and do it all under the guise of ushering in a new era of diversity — is an insult to everyone who’s followed them for years, and a joke at the expense of all the new readers it promised to bring into the wonderfully rich world of comics. I can’t really afford to buy comics like I used to, and more and more, that’s beginning to look less like a hardship and more like a blessing.