Friday, 17 June 2011

On Comic Books (and X-Men: First Class)

JenniPosted by Jenni

On Women and Comic Books

[Spoilers for X-Men: First Class]

This post began life as a discussion of the problems with the new X-Men film from a female perspective, but I quickly realised my canon-love showed through a bit much. So here’s an attempt to convey why comics have the potential to be a potent tool to get new ideas through, and why the lack of development in this direction bothers me.

(Now is probably the time I explain my first geek love - the good old 90s series of the X-Men animated cartoon, followed quickly by the Essential X-Men collections.)

I devoured comics as a child (okay, I still do), but mostly, my love was fixed on the X-Men. Why the X-Men, you may ask? Well, for anyone who doesn’t know much about them they’re a group of people who are hated and feared by society due to being ‘mutants’. Over the years they’ve been linked to the various equality movements – for example, gay rights (a famous plotline involved a virus thought only to be contracted by mutants also spreading to humans – sound familiar?). I used to think that the whole ‘no female comic fans!’ was ignorance, and I know from experience that it is – but I can see where it comes from, and that’s the apparent lack of good female characters.

Now, this isn’t a problem that exists solely in the comic book world by any means. I’m sure we’ve all been disappointed when reading a book or watching a film that has a female character who could be so, so interesting, if she got any screen or page time. And in fact, this post was inspired by my recent viewing of the new X-Men: First Class film. This looks great, I had naively thought, it’s got three of my favourite X-Men women in it! Of course, whilst they were in it, the characters I know weren’t. I’ll try not to go too canon-fan on you, but let’s take Emma Frost for a moment. In the comic canon, Emma Frost begins as a villain, but is a morally grey character who ends up leading the X-Men. She is self-assured, sexy (in a way that becomes apparent as she develops is for herself, not for others), sassy and interesting. In the film? She’s Shaw’s pet telepath who ends up in jail for half the film with not a single example of her dry wit to be seen. To anyone who meets her for the first time in the film, she is an incredibly shallow character. I can see why they would get the impression women in comics are stereotyped and silent.

The real shame of the film, of course, is that the women in it have the potential to be interesting in their own right, though their viewpoints are put aside so that they can play their roles for our two leads – Charles and Erik. Moira McTaggert appears to be the only female CIA agent – something I would love to see discussed - but develops primarily as a love interest for Charles. Mystique has issues with her confidence, but this is overridden by what she represents to the two male leads. Angel has a very interesting line – that she would rather men stared at her for stripping than stare at her for being a mutant – and this is never discussed again.

For me, this film explains why people are surprised to find that there are female comic book fans. All the women in the film have little to no characterisation outside of their interaction with the men, and there’s not a single one I felt I could relate to. And this is a shame, because to me, despite all their problems (the term ‘women in refrigerators’ was coined for a reason after all), comics are one of the few mediums that have stand-out female characters, who are iconic in their own right.

One issue with a lot of work is that ‘strong female character’ is often taken to mean ‘female character with no flaws’. This is as problematic as passive female roles, since they are equally stereotyped and difficult to relate to. Though comics are often guilty of this too, I can name dozens of female characters that are as well-written and fleshed out as the men. For a quick example, let’s take Kitty Pryde. She’s a staple of the X-Men universe, having joined the team as a teenager. Marvel managed to give us a young, female character who was believable, gifted but not ‘perfect’ and well-written. She has her own story, and whilst male characters were involved (in the form of both father-figures and boyfriends), they weren’t the vital parts of her story – she was.

The real shame with Kitty Pryde is that she remains in media as a whole an exception. We are far more used to characters like the on-screen Emma Frost, or the role Megan Fox takes in Transformers, than we are to women like her. And it’s no surprise then that the stereotype of ‘women aren’t geeks’ exists. After all, look at the well-known ‘geek’ things. We’ve got Star Wars (male leads), Indiana Jones (male leads), X-Men (male…yeah, do I need to keep saying this?), Inception, The Matrix, Iron Man…I could go on, but I think I’ve made my point. All of these films have interesting female characters as a background, but never the main protagonist. It speaks volumes that whilst we’ve had Superman, Batman and the Green Lantern film, we’re still waiting for Wonder Woman.

And why might this be? If the comics have these female characters just waiting around, why don’t they get used? I’d say two things – the stereotype of no women comic fans, and the circularity of this. If you don’t show us awesome female characters, we won’t be fans. If you think you have no female fans, you won’t write as many awesome female characters (it seems).

Both Marvel and DC (the two big comic companies) are having a shake-up at the moment, and what will come out of this remains to be see. They’re revamping their worlds, and one interesting move DC’s made is to apparently give all of their women trousers. I’m hoping this isn’t their attempt to fix the lack of female fans, because I’m pretty sure it’s not the costumes that are the problem. Wonder Woman’s iconic leotard makes her look downright badass in the hands of a good artist after all. No, the problem is the tendency to ignore these female characters when you get bored, or to use them for a quick and easy emotional fix for one of the males. To pass them over for films, or to give them to a bad writer. Comic books are influencing pop culture a lot currently, with all the hype over their new films, and whilst the films are disappointing with their female characters, the books themselves have the potential to point us in a better direction. They’re not perfect, but given the chance in the hands of a decent writer and an artist who doesn’t draw women in back-breakingly impossible poses, they could become a step towards something better.

So where shall I leave off with this then? Well firstly, I’ll briefly mention a project I’m involved in called Womanthology, an attempt to put together a graphic novel drawn and written by women on the theme ‘hero’. You’ll see more details of that soon, don’t you worry, but I figured it’s a good example of how women are trying to make their way into the industry, and the chance we have to use it to make a difference.

And finally? I’ll leave you with a book recommendation. It’s a somewhat bittersweet one, since it’s a book from 1986 and it’s a shame that we haven’t moved on as drastically as we could since then, but it’s also a fantastic example of a strong, well-written female character using comics as a medium. It’s called The Ballad of Halo Jones, and whether you’re a comic fan or not, I hope this will show you why I think there is just so much potential in the field.

If this has interested you, I’d suggest taking a look over at:


  1. Yay! This frustrates me so much! Also, I'd love to see something like this written about gaming, because a lot of there's the same circularity there as with comics but in a different way (and at least I've never been repeatedly asked who I'm buying a present for in a comic book shop like I get asked pretty much every time I go into gamestation).

    We should get t-shirts printed saying "girls are geeks too" or something.

  2. Trousers-not-leotards are a good starting point for this geek-girl comic book fan. One of the reasons I loved Thor so much was that the women all wore clothes appropriate for their work, whether this was fighting ice giants or scientific field work. Their clothes looked comfortable and practical for what they were doing, and no one fought in high heels. This very much helped me identify.