In which the author hopes for once to avoid attacking the entire enterprise of mainstream superhero comics

So over on FB Amal posted a link to this comic strip by David Willis, to which Ben responded:

the sad thing is, it’s not that DC comics is bad at math. it’s that DC and Marvel don’t see comic books as for selling; not for selling copies of.

they see them as for generating IP to sell in more lucrative media.
misogyny is just a traditional part of that package.

I think the middle two sentences are true as far as they go, but there’s something about the last sentence that irks me, and when I started trying to explain to Ben what it was, I found I needed paragraph breaks. So here we are.

So, I think it’s true that DC doesn’t have any intention with this reboot of trying to sell Red Hood to as many readers as watched Teen Titans, and to that extent, yes, the comic is not likely to change any minds at DC. But to shrug and say “misogyny is a traditional part of the package”, to me seems dismissive to the point of unhelpfulness. That much, if true, might explain the general situation of women in comics; it doesn’t in itself explain the sudden jump in misogyny at (and sudden sidelining of creative women by) DC in particular, and by treating that jump as business as usual, it discounts criticism and invites passivity. And as the comic itself points out — however incidentally — the level of extreme misogyny in the DC reboot doesn’t necessarily fly in “more lucrative media”, broadly considered.

That said — I went to the movies last weekend and saw “Moneyball”, which on the whole wasn’t bad apart from the obligatory scene showing that our hero’s ex-wife’s new husband is an effeminate twerp. And thanks to bad timing I had to sit through a raft of ads, including ads for NBC’s entire fall lineup, and through a clutch of film previews that ran the gamut from predictable to depressing. It would be an exaggeration to say that “sexism” was the pitch for NBC’s entire fall lineup, but it started with The Playboy Club and went downhill from there, culminating in some sitcom the name of which I can’t be bothered to google about a new married couple, in which the humor apparently derives entirely from the new bride’s desperate attempts to attract her husband’s attention while he treats her like a piece of furniture. And of the previews, the one that stuck in my mind was for “50/50”, which appears to take what could have been an offbeat romantic comedy starring Joseph Gordon-Leavitt and Anna Kendrick, and stir in a big greasy bucket of Seth Rogen bromance.

So contra Mr. Willis, I have to admit that misogyny sells, or at the very least that the Powers That Entertain think it sells. It’s not that DC thinks they’re going to sell comics to every Apatovian dudebro, but if they can hook enough of them with soft porn and date rape jokes, seat those brand names deeply enough, then when these properties hit the big screen, with the misogyny toned down from the embarrassingly appalling to the merely egregious, they’ll entice their bros and drag their girlfriends to the theater. Or that’s the best theory I can come up with, at any rate.

That being the case, yes, I have to say that misogyny is part of the more-lucrative-media package. But “traditionally”? That makes it sound like there’s nothing anyone can do, that it goes back to Adam West and George Reeves. And I’m pretty sure I’ve got a few mylar bags somewhere in someone else’s attic that show it doesn’t really even go back to the 80s. At least, not to the level it’s at now. The best I think you can say for DC is that they’re reflecting a broader trend; it’d be more accurate to say they’re exploiting and amplifying it. And while I don’t think anyone should expect comic books to do better than pop culture at large, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t demand it.

14 thoughts on “In which the author hopes for once to avoid attacking the entire enterprise of mainstream superhero comics

  1. I have nothing useful to add, but wanted to say: Yay! A blog entry from David!

    …And I pretty much agree with you, but have insufficient brain right now to elaborate on that agreement.

  2. (You might want to fix that link so that it goes to the specific comic and not the comic’s home page.)

    I don’t think a studio’s decision to greenlight a superhero movie or TV series has much to do with what’s currently going on in the character’s comic book. DC’s decision to reboot the comic-book Starfire into a “sex prop” doesn’t say anything about how the character would be depicted in a (hypothetical) new Teen Titans animated series; there just isn’t that level of continuity across the different media. If a producer made a good pitch for an animated series built around a more traditional Starfire, the existence of the misogynistic comic book wouldn’t be an obstacle. (By the same token, even if the Catwoman comics had contained the best depiction of a female superhero in history, that wouldn’t have kept the disastrous Halle Berry movie from being made.)

    So, I don’t think DC is closing any doors to other media with this misogyny. Nor do I think they’re deliberately sexing things up in order to cater to other media. I think it’s a bad decision, but it’s largely independent of other considerations.

  3. Link fixed.

    I can’t imagine Time Warner caring about the comic continuity, nor can I imagine them caring that the comic had been reoriented toward horndog young males if they wanted to market a cartoon to preadolescent girls. But I can imagine them trying to target the brand at the male under-25 quadrant. Maybe that’s giving them too much credit for strategy and it’s just a cabal of reactionary dickheads that’s taken over, but if so I’m sure they were helped by the prevailing film-and-TV climate.

  4. I actually haven’t been following mainstream comics closely enough to have noticed the recent bump in misogyny (though now that you mention it, it sounds vaguely familiar, so I must have read something about it). So I indeed interpreted the comic as being pointed at “the general situation of women in comics” — the hoary old spandex and girlfriend-in-a-refrigerator tropes — and not at any particular current event in comics. I expect your interpretation is the correct one.

    But I didn’t mean to argue for complacency, and the question of whether the misogyny is at a stable level of horribly-intolerable, or recently bumped up, does not seem to me germane to the question of “should we demand better from comics?” — except, perhaps, in a limited tactical sense. The answer is yes, we should.

    I largely agree with your analysis of DC’s motives and indeed it is the analysis I meant to suggest. I think entertainment giants have figured out a currently effective strategy with regards to “fantastic media” which allows them to employ geeks as a vanguard.

    Geeks, otaku, people with obsessive interests, lots of disposable income, and too much time on their hands, are not a mainstream market, but they can be a strategically critical segment. They spend a modest amount of money in total but a large amount per capita, they spread information like crazy among themselves — they are ridiculously easy to reach through cheap guerilla marketing compared to mainstream viewers. They are not a good test market in an accurately-representing-the-average-consumer sense, but they are a powerful test market in another sense. Usually they distribute their crazy affections among a broad range of obscure items, but if one property gets momentum, with lots of geeks massing behind it, that is (I expect) a good indicator of its having momentum enough to reach the positive-feedback-loop “I’m reading/watching it because everyone is reading/watching it” phase. Impassioned, vocal geeks can serve as a canary-in-the-coal-mine signal for whether your property is losing cool points and about to become ridiculous. Et cetera.

    This I think is the commerical role of the geek audience in 2011. In the superhero comics, there is — I use the term advisedly — a strong tradition of misogyny in marketing to this
    segment. It doesn’t go back to Bob Kane. It emerged at the demise of the comics code and intensified in the late 1980s and early nineties, Watchmen/Dark Knight/Sin City era. There are two purposes it serves, I think, one intrinsic, the other extrinsic. The intrinsic one is that a lot of these obsessive core-geeks, the ones who have money, are male and single. Misogyny, vigilante violence, sexist fantasies of omnipotence and conquest — these are comfort food to them. The extrinsic reason is that misogyny gets employed as a marker of being “edgy”, grown-up, dark. It’s a reply to people rolling their eyes at your still reading comics and living in mom’s basement; THESE aren’t kiddie comics. They’re full of rape! That’s not for kids!!!

    Just as you say, I think the recipe involves distilling an intense brew for the cognoscenti, then watering it down for presentation to a mass audience. I have no idea what “Red Hood” is, so I have no idea whether it’s at Frank Miller levels of sexist awful, or somewhere down the curve from there. As you say, by the time it gets to the big screen, the sexist awful will be toned down to numbingly headache-inducing rather than electrifyingly nauseating: tittering airheads will replace dismemberment.

    I do not think this tradition is good. I think it’s revolting. It’s largely what’s turned me off superhero comics. I don’t think it’s the only alternative either — comics work just fine without it, there are many brilliant feminist comics, even feminist superhero comics (Love & Rockets ftw). It’s not an intrinsic fact of nature. Like other oppressive mechanisms, it is an evolutionarily successful memetic structure, a historical accident which found a way to exploit a niche. It can be fought and defeated. I merely offer this analysis in the spirit of knowing your enemy.

  5. It also occurs to me that I may be overstating the case to say ” it is the analysis I meant to suggest” — you were talking about the dudebro in general, and I am above more focussed on geek-cred and its relation to misogyny. But I think the arguments are complimentary, anyway…

  6. I think there’s a difference in flavor between what’s going on in DC right now and the old Frank Miller sadism. (Sorry, the whole conversation about DC seems to have happened over Twitter; I’m trying to find links.) It’s less The Killer Inside Me and more The 40-Year-Old Virgin. In some ways I think this is actually worse, because at least if some fanboy’s put on the spot about the walk-in fridge full of dead women in Sin City, or Selina Kyle fat, old, bound, gagged, dressed up as Wonder Woman and beaten half to death by the Joker in The Dark Knight Returns there’s a chance someone might ask “What the fuck is wrong with you?”

  7. And now I’m starting to womder what was going on in the broader culture of the time, or perhaps just the broader adult male culture of the time, that made Miller’s violent misogyny so marketable. Because I suspect it was a reflection of something broader — the way his indictment of the city and of civil society as a joke and a failure had its roots in white flight, “Feds to New York: Drop Dead,” Iran-Contra, the crack epidemic, etc. There’s a persistent nerd fallacy that sees nerd culture as autonomous, and I think if we assume comic-book misogyny is just about marketing to the power fantasies of pasty fat white boys who watch a lot of tentacle porn, we’re committing that fallacy.

  8. My point is, I don’t think the attraction of the geekboy audience to misogyny, vigilante violence and sexist fantasies of omnipotence and conquest can be explained autonomously as a symptom of their threatened masculinity. If it weren’t the drug of choice to numb the pain of threatened masculinity across the culture at large, it wouldn’t be that in nerd culture either. You can see the same dynamic of fantasy compensation for falling well short of society’s masculine ideal in Golden Age comics and for that matter in C.S. Lewis, but it doesn’t take the same form.

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