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Recap: June Dinner with Jenn Haines

Well, we had the odd technical difficulty, but not like that’s never happened before. And eventually we’d consumed pizza and cupcakes, given gifts and hugs, and hunkered down to learn about women in comics (literally: history to present), women in comics (as an industry), and about being a female entrepreneur in the biz. Many thanks again to Jenn Haines of The Dragon for joining us.

Our journey began in the early 20th century, pre-WWII, when — and this may surprise you — the world was often a fairly sexist place. Comics were no exception. Women were often, at best, props and set dressing in male-driven titles and storylines. And they could either be passive, virtuous apron-wearing, stand-by-your-man types, or femme fatales who would do a man wrong, or full-on lead him to his dooooom. (Comics were rarely about subtlety or nuance back then.)

This became very much exaggerated by the time WWII rolled around, when it was pretty common for attractive, very curvaceous white women to be kidnapped and threatened by evil villains, who tended to resemble people of Axis nations. (Typically horrendously racist by today’s standards.) Eventually the day (and lady) was saved by this or that superhero, who would BIFF! BAFF! POW! his way to victory for the good guys.

After the war things changed a bit, in that the bad guy wasn’t always Asian or Hitler, but depictions of bad guys were often still pretty racist, with “exotic” (and thus threatening) cultures that were portrayals as odd as they were offensive. All of these cultures appear to have had a taste for tying up very curvy and scantily clad white women with perfectly coiffed hair. Who then needed rescuing by superheroes…

However, the first Canadian superhero was actually a woman: Nelvana of the Northern Lights, debuting in 1945. Her final appearance was in 1947, so she didn’t exactly become iconic. Nelvana had fairly modest proportions, as comics women go, however, by 1948 we had characters like Phantom Lady, with her highly voluptuous (and somewhat gravity-defying) physique and seriously skimpy costume.

By 1948, women occasionally got a promotion to sidekick, as occasionally in Sub-Mariner, but they still weren’t wearing very much, and usually ended up needing rescuing, too. However, some women by that time had gone over to the dark side in the crime comics, making a living as femme fatales and the like. The overriding message was to never trust a good-looking dame.

Romance comics arrived on the scene after the war as well, with comics companies trying to figure out how to attract a female audience. The ploy worked in spades, and romance comics flew off the shelves. At one point there were over 100 titles. Of course, the stories all tended to be very similar, and the general message was that what all women wanted and needed was to look nice and act demurely to find a man and settle down. If they were “fast” or flamboyant or independent or lived any other way they were miserable as a result, and possibly doomed. (And would probably end up tied up at some point.)

Wartime themes came back and entwined with romance comics in the early 1950s when the Korean War happened, and of course good women either stayed home and pined for their men, or went to war as nurses and such to follow their men and serve their countries. (But they’d rather be home baking pie and such.)

However, all hell broke loose in 1954 with the publication of Fredric Wertham, M.D.’s Seduction of the Innocent. The book argued that comics were negative and dangerous and significantly contributed to juvenile delinquency. (They were really freaked out about “juvenile delinquency” among the “new” teenage crowd in the 50s.)

The scaremongering worked, alarming parents, launching censorship campaigns and a congressional inquiry into the industry, and resulting in the creation of the Comics Code Authority. The CCA enabled publishers to self-censor in order to earn their approval badge. (We would repeat similar hysteria in the 1980s over heavy metal music and its alleged Satanic influences.)

Things maybe seemed to be looking up in the late 1950s, with some new ladies arriving on the scene, like Supergirl and Batgirl. While they were somewhat less buxom and more active, they were still girls rather than women, were really just inferior sidekicks to the “real” superheroes, and, again, tended to need rescuing from time to time.

However, by the early 1970s, even with second wave feminism gaining momentum, women like Lois Lane were still getting themselves kidnapped and tied up, and still never managed to wear very much. Wonder Woman, who’d debuted in 1941, was still on the scene, and looked mostly like we recall her from our childhoods, but in the 70s it was hard to argue for her agency, since even she kept managing to get herself tied up. Sometimes to large explosive devices (which isn’t suggestive at all). Her foes also had a lot of issues with her origins and secret identity, hence their need to tie her up and interrogate her.

As a side note, Wonder Woman creator William Moulton Marston had always intended for her to be a feminist superhero: strong, smart, and independent while fighting for peace, love and justice. (And of course gender equality.) Given he was born in 1893, that was pretty progressive stuff.

“Not even girls want to be girls so long as our feminine archetype lacks force, strength, and power… The obvious remedy is to create a feminine character with all the strength of Superman plus all the allure of a good and beautiful woman.” – William Moulton Marston

Wonder Woman also fought the Axis powers during WWII, and had a beau who kept wanting to marry her (but she had evil and injustice to vanquish). You go, girl.

Those of us of a certain age were very much moulded by the 1975-1979 tv series starring Lynda Carter. (Seriously, make Wonder Woman Underoos for grownup ladies a thing and get very, very rich.) Mainly, though, Marston’s key message was that women must never surrender to men, as it never leads to anything good. (Oh, and that as long as women love men, the men actually really, truly, want women to master them.)

Wonder Woman didn’t have a lot of good company, though. In the 1960s, the Avengers just had Wasp, who, though she was a founding member and the one who named the group, apparently was more interested in fixing her makeup than fighting crime, much to the consternation of her male co-superheroes. (Of course, our modern-day Natasha Romanov always has flawless hair and makeup…)

On the flip side, there were also flame-haired, rage-a-holic, uber-feminist, man-hating options, slovenly, overweight, unattractive uber-“feminist” options, and attempts like the short-lived The Claws of the Cat. (Le sigh.) In response, women started doing their own thing, creating independent comics that mocked traditional female portrayals, or were outright hostile to them.

In the 80s and 90s, things got dark and fairly ugly in comics, particularly where women were concerned. For every Death on the “indie” side of things, there was Silk Spectre getting raped by one of her own team in The Watchmen, or Batgirl Barbara Gordon getting shot and left paraplegic, or the bootylicious Gen 13 (which, despite appearances, actually had a smart, strong, leading woman).

But slowly… slowly… things began to take a turn. By the mid-2000s we had Spider-Man Loves Mary Jane (originally Mary Jane Loves Spider-Man, but it wouldn’t sell with her name first…) And she had something of a normal person appearance. The New York Four came out in 2008, and featured four teenage girls, who, again, wore normal clothes, were university students, and looked like people rather than sex dolls.

Wonder Woman got a new outfit and got to wear pants (and spurs?) at that point, Batwoman came into the world, and the art was really cool. Ok, Supergirl was still fairly lame, as was Power Girl, and when Emma Frost turned into the White Queen, she looked like she stepped off a porn set with “costumes” that tended to defy physics.

By 2010 interesting things were coming along, like Birds of Prey, which was full of ass-kicking ladies (with the odd dude…) Wonder Woman was the highest ranked comic featuring a woman, and it was only 135th out of the top 1000. By 2014, Harley Quinn was 31st, and there was also Superman and Wonder Woman (45th) and Ms. Marvel (106th) above 135th place. This year so far, Princess Leia is 10th in the Top 50 for sales. Spider-Gwen (11th), Harley Quinn (15th), Silk (24th), and Wonder Woman (46th), all make it in that list, too.

The top-selling comic this February was Orphan Black. In March it was Princess Leia. In May the all-female A-Force #1 was 6th. Other interesting things are happening, too. In December 2014 Thor became female, which was a first (no word on how that may affect Chris Hemsworth’s career…) And the teenage and Muslim Ms. Marvel debuted in February 2014.

We’ve got titles like Bitch Planet that are inspiring women to get symbolic tattoos of their non-compliance, Rat Queens being anything but tied-up window dressing, and the rebooted Jem and the Holograms that has thoroughly changed to reflect modern teenage life in the age of YouTube and SnapChat. (Those of us familiar with the 80s cartoon will be left scratching our heads over both the comic and the upcoming film. Truly outrageous? Not so sure…)

Now, by this time last year, women still only had 10.1% and 12% of credits in the comics coming from DC and Marvel, respectively, so we have as much work to do on the creative side as on the consumer side. That said, those are the big imprints, and there’s a lot of interesting stuff going on around the fringes, and, particularly, online. There’s also really good work being done that’s targeted to kids and young adults to get them hooked on quality content at a young age, hopefully making them lifelong fans.

Of course, speaking of the internet, a certain “fan” base doesn’t like the status quo changing, and for women to refuse to stay in their refrigerators. The typical rape and death threats are to be found regularly. However…

“The fans that want to scare women off with rape threats are doing the reverse: We are digging in our heels and shouting from the rooftops that we will not leave.” – Janelle Asselin

Jenn talked a bit about being a woman in the comics biz, and a business owner as well. She has had plenty of experience being the only woman in the room, and with people assuming that the business was her husband’s, and she just “helps out”. (Nope, 17 years in it’s still all hers.) She did note, though, that being the only woman, people tend to remember her, which can lead to some great networking and opportunities. (And an award for how she does business!)

Making her shop friendly and welcoming isn’t rocket science. Clean and bright is good, with aisles wide enough for strollers or wheelchairs. Stock a wide variety of materials, and have a knowledgeable staff who can discuss and recommend all kinds of things. Carry comics and merchandise for kids, and having female staff may be less intimidating for a new female reader to approach.

If you’re curious about getting more into comics, head over to Guelph and chat with Jenn in her store, have a look at her recommendations below, or take a spin to your local library or online. Women are doing some great things online and off, like Noelle Stephenson, Alison Bechdel, Kate Beaton, or Allie Brosh. (Here’s a cool list of female web comics artists, though a bit older.)

For some supplementary material, here’s a couple of articles, as well as a two-part podcast on the history of women in the comics biz:

The Secret History of Ultimate Marvel, the Experiment That Changed Superheroes Forever

Denver ComicCon’s all-male Women in Comics panel explains ‘girls get bored with comics easily’

Stuff Mom Never Told You: Women in Comics, Part 1

Stuff Mom Never Told You: Women in Comics, Part 2

Jenn’s picks:

Strangers in Paradise – Terry Moore
Wet Moon / Shadoweyes – Sophie (Ross) Campbell
Whiteout / Gotham Central / Lazarus / Batwoman Elegy – Greg Rucka
Saga / Y: The Last Man – Brian K. Vaughn
New York Five – Brian Wood
Rat Queens – Kurtis Wiebe
Ms. Marvel – G. Willow Wilson
This One Summer / Skim / Emiko Superstar – Mariko Tamaki
Sex Criminals – Matt Fraction

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