99.95% of the time, About.com Manga focuses on manga - mostly Japanese comics in English. But this week, something came up on the interwebs that brought my attention to the other side of the comic shop, where the superhero comics are sold. It made me think about how these two worlds are similar, and where they are so, so different. It reminded me why, as a lapsed former buyer of US-made superhero comics, I mostly buy/read manga and indie comics, and why that's probably not going to change any time soon. But first, some context.
DC COMICS REBOOTS... AND SETS OFF FEMME FAN FURY
This summer, DC Comics made waves by announcing that they would be doing something radical to their line-up of titles. They decided to do a massive reboot of all of their series, giving every one of them a new beginning, new creative teams, new stories and starting them all from issue 1 all over again. One of the goals of this move was to update the stories and characters to make them relevant and interesting to new and current fans.
They christened these titles as the "New 52," which stands for the 52 new monthly titles that make up DC's publishing line-up. The arrival of these new titles has sparked a lot of excitement, some kudos, some "mehs". Some titles have earned the praise of the critics that matter most: the fans who buy comics. An informal Twitter poll of readers of the new DC 52 titles brought up some clear winners; titles that rise to the occasion and are worth checking out, like Animal Man, Action, Batman, Batwoman, Swamp Thing, and Wonder Woman.
But with 52 new titles, odds are, not all of them were going to be equally good. In fact, some were cringe-worthy enough to draw fire from critics and fans. But it wasn't just that they weren't that great -- the backlash was mostly focused on two so-called "sexually liberated" female characters, namely Catwoman (from Catwoman #1) and Starfire (from Red Hood and the Outlaws #1).
Basically, (sorry, spoilers ahead) people are pretty upset about Catwoman being mostly shown in various states of undress, culminating in having a sex scene with Batman (in costume, on a roof of a building). Then in another comic released that week, Starfire, the buxom alien female Teen Titan who came from a planet that was much less uptight about sex than, say, Christian-Judeo culture prescribes, was depicted as a nympho who was not terribly discriminating about her uh, dating/mating habits.
Laura Hudson from Comics Alliance had this to say about these new, "sexually liberated" heroines:
"These aren't those women. They're how dudes want to imagine those women would be -- what Wire creator David Simon called writing "men with t*ts." They read like men's voices coming out of women's faces. "
"This is not about these women wanting things; it's about men wanting to see them do things, and that takes something that really should be empowering -- the idea that women can own their sexuality -- and transforms it into yet another male fantasy. It takes away the actual power of the women and turns their "sexual liberation" into just another way for dudes to get off. And that is at least ten times as gross as regular cheesecake, minimum."
And she was certainly not alone in this sentiment, and it wasn't all about female fans raging either. Here are some choice quotes from Andrew Wheeler, writing for Bleeding Cool:
"Now, when it comes to transparent attempts to pander to the sexual fantasies of fanboys, this one looks unusually progressive. The woman is clearly in control of the situation and is using the willing male for her own satisfaction. This must be what nerds think feminism looks like. The scene is dressed up as female empowerment, but it's not there for female readers. Like two straight girls making out in a bar, it's all about pandering to male hormones. "
Plus a few shots fired by Noah Berlatsky, writing for Hooded Utilitarian:
"Superhero comics are a tiny, niche market. Within that market, women are a tiny minority (10% at best, from the figures I've been able to find.) The audience for superhero comics is the small rump of 30-year-old plus men who have been reading superhero comics for 20-plus years and still want to read about the child-oriented characters of their youth -- only, you know, in a kind of skeevy, adult way."
If you're interested, there are way more critiques and commentary about these two comics, helpfully compiled by the nice folks at Comic Book Resources' Robot 6 blog.
Meanwhile, Valerie Gallaher (from MTV Geek) reminded us that piling on these books is basically 1) making them sell even more than they normally would and 2) is not really going to change things anyway.
"My final position is that if you really hate a comic book, don't talk about it endlessly on the Internet. Take that valuable time and space and talk heaps about a comic book you like."
CONFESSIONS OF A FORMER SUPERHERO COMICS FAN TURNED MANGA READER
So here's where the manga part of this blog post kicks in. Since I was in elementary school, I've been reading comics, both U.S. comics and Japanese comics: everything from Archie Comics, Richie Rich, Legion of Superheroes, Wonder Woman, Teen Titans, Batman, Daredevil, Heavy Metal, X-Men, EC Comics, Mad Magazine, Astro City, Sandman, Uncle Scrooge, Doonesbury, Calvin and Hobbes, Astro City, Love and Rockets, Elfquest, Lone Wolf and Cub, Maus and RAW, Akira, and countless shojo, shonen, seinen, josei, art manga, indie comics, webcomics. I'm a comics omnivore. But for the past 10+ years, here's what I've NOT been reading: American superhero comics.
I have a lot of white "long boxes" full of "floppies" from the days I used to regularly go to my neighborhood comic shop to buy single issues of American comics. Nowadays, I mostly buy manga and indie comics. Partly it's because I grew up and lost interest in superheroes, but it's also partly because superhero comics have shown me (in ways big and small) that they weren't interested in me as a reader either.
By 1995, I noticed that the "porn star" style of drawing female characters came into vogue. Ick. I got frustrated when characters I cared about who died came back to life as... different people that I cared less about (Jean Grey/Phoenix and Elektra, for example). The stories got harder to follow unless you read a ton of crossover stories, which also made it expensive to buy floppies. Around that same time, more manga became available in English. All this and more contributed to my diminishing interest in superhero comics.
Admittedly, I haven't been keeping tabs on what happened to my favorite characters from those days when I used to care about the X-Men, Teen Titans, etc. I still have a working knowledge of who's who in superhero land, but I haven't kept up with who died, who went evil, who lost their powers, who had amnesia, who came back as a clone, who hooked up with who, and so on. Why should I? With so much to choose from in indie comics and Japanese comics, I've got more than enough to keep me entertained. I don't need superhero comics, and obviously, they don't need me.
I do look back fondly on the days when I regularly kept up with these characters and stories, kind of like how one looks back on one's high school days. Those days are long gone, but you never really forget them. So hearing about how characters that I used to care about have changed feels kind of like hearing about a high school classmate who became a stripper. It's her life -- she can be a stripper if she wants to be, but you can't help but think, "Man, what happened here?" It's sad, disturbing and somewhat off-putting.
Before this controversy, I had no intention to pick up the new DC 52 titles. After this controversy, I'm even less inclined to seek out these titles. DC could care less of course, because I'm obviously not their target audience; something that was made abundantly clear to me when they shut down their CMX Manga imprint last June. As a few tweeters pointed out to me, DC management has stated that their intention with the New 52 was to cater to readers age 18-35. To paraphrase Marvel editor Tom Brevoort, controversy sells comics. Chances are, this uproar will make both Catwoman #1 and Red Hood and the Outlaws #1 huge sellers. So big win for DC, right?
But this controversy brought up three questions: Are there superhero comics for kids anymore? Are superhero comics inherently a "no gurlz allowed" clubhouse? And what's the difference between the "fanservice" I regularly see in manga and the "fanservice" in Catwoman and Red Hood and the Outlaws that has enraged fans and critics?
ARE SUPERHERO COMICS FOR KIDS ANYMORE?
As this whole thing blew up on Twitter, I asked:
"If DC/Warner brothers are expecting to sell Batman/Superman backpacks, tshirts, toys etc, they should also have comics 4 kids too, no? What about the kids who watch the DC character cartoons on the WB? No comix for them?"
Several tweeters had this to say in response:
"Nope--kids buy the games/see the movies. Comics are marginal in comparison." - David Brothers (@hermanos)
"AS A RETAILER, I CAN PROMISE YOU LITTLE BOYS AND GIRLS PLAY VIDEOGAMES. THEY DO NOT READ. ALL MY CUSTOMERS ARE ADULTS." - RAINBOW SATAN (@TPHD)
This perspective from the comics retail world was confirmed by Elin Winkler (@doronjosama)
"All this talk of the DC New 52 has me thinking about who is coming in & buying them at the DayJob: mostly men, mostly older. No children. Um. We do have female customers buying them also, but they are in their 20's-30's. No little girls, no tweens."
"What comics do kids/young girls buy in our store? Tiny Titans, Sonic, Yotsuba&!, Archie titles, Megaman, Godzilla, Disney Fairies. No capes! Oh, also any manga based on a video game franchise. Legend of Zelda, Phoenix Wright, Pokemon all do well w/ kids/girls. Naturally!"
And as many peeps on Twitter reminded me, the new DC 52 does include titles for kids, like Tiny Titans and Batman: Brave and the Bold. But titles expressly for young girls? Not really, although Elin Winkler (@doronjosama) also had this idea to offer:
"My friends @roboyokai & @willworks & I have wished for a Japanese-style anthology of DC girl heroes that'd work for kids. A big, chunky book with a Supergirl story, Wonder Woman, Batgirl, Amethyst, etc. Having adventures & shoujo romances. It'd rock."
Nice idea. Could it be done? Perhaps. There's certainly no shortage of up-and-coming creators who can draw in a style that manga-savvy young girls would enjoy reading. Could it sell? Maybe. But is DC interested in catering to this group of readers? After shutting down CMX Manga, DC Comics gave me the impression that prospects for a young girl-centric DC comics series are slim at this time. I'd love to be proven wrong, though.
NO GURLZ ALLOWED: DO SUPERHERO COMICS HAVE TO BE FEMALE-FRIENDLY?
In Japan, shonen manga is expressly created for young boys. In North America, one could argue that superhero comics are basically a U.S. equivalent of shonen manga. Just as there are some Japanese shonen and seinen (men's) manga that are female-friendly (and many are created by female creators), I know that there are many American superhero comics titles that don't make female readers feel icky after reading them.
Frankly, I'm OK that many U.S. comics or Japanese manga aren't very female-friendly. Demanding that books like Conan the Barbarian or Golgo 13 be less male-centric is absurd. They are what they are, and they cater to a certain readership.
"Tween testosterone has been the dynamo of superhero genre since Superman lifted his first Ford Packard. Granted I''m not talking about comics in general. Insert obligatory "manga: it's for girls too!" argument here. And we've all LOLed at Marvel/DC's hilariously clueless dude-attempts to catch a female market. Just salt their earth already."
To turn this argument around, I wondered, do men get pissy because yaoi manga isn't "male-friendly?" Not really, because guys who aren't comfortable with the guy-on-guy sex scenes don't bother to read boys love manga. It's not for them, so (for the most part), they don't buy it or read it.
Fandom is what it is and it wants what it wants. Comics are essentially fantasy entertainment. Boys love manga is what it is because certain kinds of stories cater to, and sell to a specific fanbase. "Offensive" comics like Catwoman #1 and Red Hood and the Outlaws #1 exist because they sell to another type of fan.
Comics publishers don't put out "sexist" & "offensive" comics just for kicks -- if it sells, they'll make more of it. When they stop selling... then maybe these types of stories will stop being created? Who knows?
Gabby Schulz (@mrfaulty) had this to add about the situation:
"What's fascinating in this case is masochism of fangirls still holding out for (that) magic storied day when Marvel/DC won't be sexist."
Despite Schulz' skepticism, this "magic storied day" isn't as far-fetched as he makes it sound. Look at Weekly Shonen Jump, one of the best selling manga, nay comics, magazines in the world. Even on a bad week, it outsells most U.S. superhero comics titles by a ratio of 30:1 (or more).
While it was once the home of "just for teen boys" stories full of manly guts and glory, Shonen Jump attracts a significant female readership, in addition to its male fanbase. More than a few Shonen Jump manga creators are female too. (Including Kazue Kato, creator of Blue Exorcist and Katsura Hoshino, creator of D.Gray Man).
The fascinating and diverse female casts of Bleach and Naruto are a big part of these series' appeal to both male and female readers. Yes, there are some busty babes in both series -- but Soul Reaper Rangiku Matsumoto is a commanding officer in the Soul Society in Bleach, and Tsunade is a strong and dynamic Hokage (leader) of Naruto's ninja village to name just a few.
There's also a vast array of female characters, young, old, mature, immature, shy, assertive, eccentric, sweet, evil, and yes, even flat-chested girls. The female characters in these series are more than pin-ups, love interests, or cannon fodder; they are just as interesting, complex and integral to the story as the male characters.
Fantasy fulfillment is a big part of comics, and I'm okay that comics with "fanservice" are published as long as other kinds of comics are published too. It's these "other kinds of comics" is what I enjoy and buy/support.
I'm reluctant to condemn "sexist" stories and cry out that they shouldn't exist, because sometimes, there's a thin line between moral outrage/disapproval and censorship. Remember, as we speak, there's an American comics fan facing criminal charges and possible jail time in Canada because he had comics on his laptop hard drive that the authorities deemed to be obscene.
To me, superhero comics are kind of like Hooters. I don't have to go to Hooters if I feel uncomfortable in Hooters -- there are plenty of other bars that I can go to for a drink and chicken wings, just as there's a lot of great comics out there that don't rely on ridiculous displays of T&A to tell a story.
To be fair, I haven't bought or read Red Hood and the Outlaws #1 or Catwoman #1. Based on the furor, I probably never will. It feels unfair to react to only a few panels of a comic book that I haven't read in its entirety; it's like reacting to an out-of-context soundbite in a news story. I know that I'm mostly responding to the reaction that these few pages and panels have set off in the interwebz.
If you've been around comics for a while, you know that the whole business of "Superhero comics: why are they so obnoxious to women sometimes?" is nothing new. At this point, the subject is like dry brush -- just a spark sets off flames. However, each "Comix are sexist!" forest fire just leaves some scorched earth, then the trees grow right back again until the next fire. While it's amusing to think that this DC 52 Starfire/Catwoman furor could be a tipping point that turns things around... it probably won't.
While I'm skeptical about any big sea change that will occur in comics as a result of this controversy, I'll settle for a few small ones. For example, comics writer Brandon Seifert (creator of Witch Doctor, with Lukas Ketner) took recent events to heart, as expressed in an essay that he posted on his Google Plus page.
"I can't speak for anybody else, but this whole situation with the DC relaunch is making me seriously question the way I write women in my work and my plans for female characters in upcoming stories. It especially points out the ways in which I plan to approach female sexuality in my work and the weight I've intended to put on it. And maybe there's some stuff I need to change."
"Because it doesn't matter what my intention was when I wrote the story. It matters what the people who read the story think my intention was. Creepy is in the eye of the beholder. So is chauvinist."
FANSERVICE OR DISSERVICE? DC 52 vs. TENJO TENGE AND HIGH SCHOOL OF THE DEAD
As fans raged about the bimbo-itis in some DC titles, I thought about similar manga titles that are more sexual explicit and boob-centric: Tenjo Tenge by Oh! Great (VIZ Media) and High School of the Dead by Daisuke Sato and Shoji Sato (Yen Press).
Gratuitous nudity? Check. Gratuitous violence? Check. Female characters with relatively loose definitions of when it's appropriate to have sex? Check. So why doesn't it bug me that much when I encounter these things in TenTen or HSotD?
Maybe it's because I'm not as emotionally invested in who these characters once were or what they represent. I never had memories or expected the characters in TenTen or HSotD to act a certain, more virtuous way. These characters are never concurrently marketed as 'kiddy versions' for younger readers.
"There is no way I am letting my 9 year old bro pick up that Red Hood title. He knows Starfire from the Teen Titans cartoon and really...Yeah. I rather not bust his bubble about her."
In a related note, David Willis, creator of Shortpacked! expressed similar sentiments, albeit in webcomic form in this comic strip.
No-Stances Emperor (@sdshamshel) added:
"I think part of it is that DC's characters all have to share a universe, and as a result, a cumulative message. HOTD girls were built from the ground up to be cheesecake and fanservice, and they don't impact the titles around them."
And Omari's Sister (@Omarissister) chimed in:
"Because TenTen never claimed to be sexually liberated. You know going into that one that it's a violent skinfest."
Or maybe it's because stories like TenTen and HSotD that cater to male fantasies co-exist with manga content that is written by and for female readers, vs. being the dominant voice/house style of the medium in their country of origin.
Japan-based manga translator William Flanagan (@WilliamFlanagan) added this perspective:
"(It's) because American comics doesn't have a corresponding popular women-oriented demographic. But no matter how bad manga can get, the entire shojo, josei, and other women-oriented manga make up for it. To make the two on equal footing, you'd have to discount the roughly half of manga that is written by and for women."
To bring this point into focus consider this: For every hyper-violent/hyper-sexualized story like Tenjo Tenge, we have sweet and sensitive romances like Kimi ni Todoke. For every trash-tastic horror fest like High School of the Dead, we have slice-of-life tales like Bunny Drop. Manga readers in Japan (and the US) have a lot of choices.
To make it comparable to the U.S. situation, imagine a world where most of the vast majority of manga in Japan was endless variations on Ultraman, Power Rangers, Gundam, Gantz, and Tenjo Tenge, and there was little to no shojo, josei or boys love manga available. Weird, right? But that's pretty much what we have here in the U.S.... now.
Can this, will this change eventually? Given that there's a generation or two of North American readers and aspiring comics creators who grew up with manga, things are already changing. How and when this new generation will change the comics status quo remains to be seen, but perhaps this online uproar is a sign of the change that's in the air.
ARE FEMALE-FRIENDLY SUPERHERO STORIES AN OXYMORON?
Short answer? No. Or at least they don't have to be. Many tweeters mentioned DC 52 stories with female protagonists that they enjoyed, like Batwoman and Wonder Woman. I haven't read either, so I can't speak to their merits, but I can mention two examples of the possibilities.
For women who are bummed about how some of DC 52 stories aren't female-friendly or young girl-friendly, I say go watch Tiger & Bunny or pick up a copy of the newly-republished Sailor Moon / Codename Sailor V. These series are great examples of superhero fare that are fun, entertaining and most importantly, not cringe-inducing.
Tiger & Bunny is available for free, online streaming on VIZAnime.com and Hulu.com (sorry, U.S. only). The story is about a group of superheroes who have mutant-type powers they call NEXT, mostly focusing on a slightly inept veteran hero named Wild Tiger and his flashy and suave new partner, Barnaby, a.k.a. "Bunny."
The pair, along with a diverse cast of male and female heroes, are the stars of a reality TV series that films their crime-fighting exploits and awards them points for capturing criminals. The heroes are like treated like pro athletes, with costumes that have corporate logos for soft drinks, cell phone companies and restaurant chains, kind of like NASCAR racing cars. The concept is a fun, engaging hybrid of US and Japanese superhero stories. Think Astro City meets Bubblegum Crisis with a dash of X-Men / Legion of Superheroes.
The character designs for the heroes were created by Masakazu Katsura (creator of Video Girl Ai and I"s), and the series was produced by Sunrise, the anime studio that brought us InuYasha and the Gundam series, so the production values are pretty decent and the 25-episode story moves along at a good clip.
Since its debut in Spring 2011, Tiger and Bunny has been a ratings and fan hit with both male and female fans in the U.S. and Japan. So why do both male and female fans respond to Tiger & Bunny? Possibly because this superhero series offers something for everyone. It has hot guys/cute girls cheesecake for both male and female fans, as well as action, drama, interesting relationships, social commentary & humor. It's also pretty self-aware of its inherent silliness -- I mean, the title alone! What a goofy title!
Yes, there's a female character who wears a skimpy outfit, but Blue Rose's outfit doesn't bug me as much because of her backstory, as a teen girl who's trying to get into show biz. Within that context, Blue Rose is grappling w/ what Britney and Miley have to deal with -- that her industry demands that she must show skin to be a star. To counter Blue Rose, there's also Dragon Kid, a tomboy female character who dresses androgynously and doesn't feel the need to flash cleavage to fight crime.
Tiger and Bunny isn't especially deep or brilliant, nor is it perfect, but it's a fun series that shows that it's possible to have superheroes that can appeal to both male and female fans without being boring and bland.
Are superhero comics only for young boys and older men? If you look at Sailor Moon, the answer is, "not necessarily." Sailor Moon and Codename Sailor V (both recently re-released in the U.S. by Kodansha Comics) are classic examples of superhero stories geared for girls. Yes, the Sailor Scouts wear short skirts, but they're fun and flirty in a way that's not totally off-putting to girls. To a grown-up's eyes, the Sailor Moon stories may seem a little silly, but the Sailor Scouts take their responsibilities as heroes seriously and never sacrifice their femininity or self-respect in the process.
Sailor Moon is one of the most popular comics series in the world, earning the love of fans throughout Europe, Asia and of course, North America. Yes, the fans are mostly female, but Sailor Moon also has male fans too. While it's not the greatest comic ever created, Sailor Moon is an example of a superhero story that is both entertaining and inspiring for young girls without being preachy, shallow or drab.
USE YOUR SUPERPOWERS: BUY AND SUPPORT GREAT COMICS
I'm not saying that all manga released in the U.S. are great and all superhero comics suck. There are gems and clunkers on both sides of the comic shop. Not every title is created for all readers, and not all titles will please every reader.
It's not just about blaming comics publishers, criticizing comics creators or fans who you disagree with -- some of the responsibility for good comics lies with being a good reader. As Twitter user Gollancz (@Gollancz) wisely said:
"We all spend more time complaining about publishers not taking more chances than we do reading something we don't think we'll like."
As readers, we have lots of opportunities to "vote" when we buy comics that we like. Comics companies aren't out to put out sucky comics -- they are mostly interested in publishing what sells. The theory is, if you buy good comics, then comics companies will publish more good comics. If you are adventurous and pick up comics that are doing something new and different than what you normally buy, then you're telling comics publishers that you are willing to support them when they publish stuff that isn't more of the 'same ole, same ole.'
Sure, sucky comics will still get made, but if you support the stuff that you like, both by buying it and by telling your friends to check it out, you've made your voice heard in the way that matters most to comics publishers.
Want some suggestions of worthwhile titles to broaden your graphic novel horizons? Check out comics scribe Joe Keatinge's list of 52 comics worth buying and check out some of our picks from the best / worst manga panel from Comic-Con 2011.
I've ranted quite a bit here, so thanks for sticking with me and reading this far. I'll leave you with this: as comics fans, we have a responsibility to support the comics we want to read, so we'll get more of the kind of comics we want to read (or at least comics that are less embarrassing). In the end, it's really up to you.
Now it's your turn! What do you think about this whole controversy? Add your comments below!
Image credits: TM and © DC Comics, TM and © 2011 Marvel Characters, Inc., © 2011 Nintendo/Pokemon., © SAITO PRODUCTION 2006 © 2000 Shogakukan Inc., GINTAMA © 2003 by Hideaki Sorachi/SHUEISHA Inc., TENJHO TENGE © 1997 by Oh!great/SHUEISHA Inc., HIGHSCHOOL OF THE DEAD ©2011 DAISUKE SATO ©2011 SHOUJI SATO / FUJIMISHOBO, © SUNRISE/T&B PARTNERS, MBS, © Naoko Takeuchi