Women In Comics: A Look at DC’s New 52

2 Oct

September is over, and all 52 titles of the DC relaunch have been released. Given the furor surrounding the lack of women writers and the lack of visible female characters before the comics were available, how do things actually stack up? The answer is: not very differently than in the old DC universe. After reading 32 of the new titles (including all the titles with female leads) and reading multiple reviews of the remaining 20, the simple truth is that the balance of women in DC’s titles is pretty close to what it was.

While holding the status quo is better than a reduction, DC has really missed an opportunity. One stated purpose behind the New 52 was to make the comics more accessible and appealing to new readers. Given the fact that, despite stereotypes, there are plenty of women and girls who read comics, this was a perfect time to broaden the appeal of DC’s offerings. Instead, they opted to hold steady and, in some ways, reinforce the stereotype of mainstream comics as a boy’s world. Let’s take a look.

First, by the numbers:

  • 29 titles are solo male characters or male duos and groups
  • 11 titles are groups with mixed membership, most of which are predominantly male
  • 7 titles are female leads (including the team book Birds of Prey)
  • 5 are something else altogether, usually supernatural titles

A few of the ostensibly male-dominated comics have pleasant surprises in the supporting cast. Animal Man may feature Buddy Baker as its lead, but his wife, Ellen, is an important character in the story and is actually more thoroughly developed than many of the women who are leads in their own titles. Superboy also features a strong co-lead in the unfortunately unnamed woman who is the scientist overseeing the lab where he is being supervised (he’s a recently grown clone). Mr. Terrific, a mediocre relaunch of one of my favorite DC characters, also features Karen (Power Girl) Starr in a strong supporting turn.

In the team books, it’s a very mixed bag.

  • Justice League and Stormwatch are very male-dominated. The first issue of JL doesn’t even include the one female character (Wonder Woman). The Stormwatch cast is (so far) mostly men and the visible female characters are poorly developed. Green Lantern and the New Guardians has a slightly better ratio at this point, but the final makeup of the team is unclear; the writing is also distressingly macho, with a number of “scream like a girl” lines.
  • Justice League International, Teen Titans, Hawk & Dove, and Justice League Dark are much better balanced. The Wonder Girl in TT is a complex, promising character and Dove is a much more interesting counterpoint to Hawk than the previous version (although she has grown mysteriously more buxom). JLD features a number of strong women, including the very powerful villain and one of my favorites, Zatanna.
  • My longstanding favorite, the Legion of Super-Heroes, has two titles, the latest Legion of Super-Heroes title and Legion Lost. Of the 42 (really!) pre-relaunch Legionnaires,  13 were women. Eleven of the 27 members in the two books so far are women, including an impressive four out of five new members.
  • Suicide Squad and Red Hood & the Outlaws are moderately balanced, but feature some truly bad plot and character decisions that I’ll look at shortly.

And how are those seven books that feature women characters as leads?

  • Batgirl and Batwoman, both reviewed on TSM earlier, are outstanding. They are complex stories, well told, with strong characters.
  • Birds of Prey continues in its original vein, with strong female leads and promising plot points. Even without the wonderful Gail Simone writing the book, it is one of the more interesting books of the relaunch.
  • Supergirl and Wonder Woman are very interesting new interpretations of very longstanding characters. Supergirl is scripted as a very convincing teenager cast into a confusing situation. Wonder Woman’s world is creepy and mysterious, featuring the Greek deities who populated her previous incarnations; it’s also one of the most strikingly drawn books in the relaunch.
  • Voodoo, a character with whom I was unfamiliar, is an interesting mess. The lead character turns out to be a violent alien (who may not even be female?) and the plot is a bit sluggish. Interestingly, although the bulk of the story takes place in a strip club, the female supporting cast is well written and reasonable free of stereotypes and pointless titillation.
  • Last, but by no means least, there’s Catwoman. In many regards, this title is much like the two Bat-ladies. Selina Kyle is a complex, interesting, powerful woman. The overall story is interesting and well-paced. Unfortunately, the last several pages have become quickly infamous. Batman appears in Catwoman’s room and the two engage in a pointlessly drawn-out sex scene. While the clarification of the love-hate relationship between the two as a physical relationship is fine, the presentation is frankly bizarre. The best overall analysis of this gratuitous plot point is brilliantly provided by Savage Critic.

Catwoman’s soft-core porn (with costumes remaining on) is one of the major disappointments in the treatment of women in the New 52. Another is the treatment of the two female leads in Suicide Squad. Harley Quinn’s jester costume is replaced with a pointless bustier-dominated costume and the character is reduced from intriguing obsessive to stereotypical psychopath. Far more disturbing is the redesign of Amanda Waller. Originally a short, heavyset, African-American woman, Waller has long been a fan favorite for her strength of character, her guile, and her indomitable will. The fact that she did not have a typical super-hero hourglass figure made her an outstanding exception in DC’s cast. Sadly, the new Amanda Waller looks like a busty Halle Berry. What kind of message does that send?

If Superboy dressed like Power Girl...

An unfortunate trend in the new books is a superfluity of nude and lingerie scenes. At least six titles feature women in various states of undress. While there are reasonable circumstances (arising from sleep, changing clothes, being strippers) in each case, it is interesting to note that the male characters do not experience the same level of on-panel undress. (Two notable exceptions are Hawkman, who is discretely nude for several panels and Superboy, who spends much of his debut issue floating in a tank wearing a pair of bike shorts.)

Even when not in various states of undress, the female characters also tend to have much skimpier costumes than their male counterparts. In a world where all four of the Robin characters are allowed to wear long pants, it’s curious that the shorts and tank tops are so predominantly female. (Void-Star.net postulated a revised Superboy costume some time ago which underscores this point nicely.) There is nothing wrong with presenting the human body in a comic book (and it can be handled tastefully like the costume changing scene in Batwoman), but the imbalance smacks of objectification at best.

That leads us to the very worst moment for female characters in the relaunch. Frankly, it’s one of the worst-written characterizations I have ever seen in a comic. Starfire, a long-standing member of the Teen Titans, has always been a sensual woman comfortable with her body and sexuality. As originally written, however, she was independent, strong-willed, and though a bit naïve (she is from another planet, after all), intelligent and engaging. The new Starfire is nothing more than an animated toy for the male characters. Unable to distinguish between Earthlings and devoid of long-term memory, she pursues sex partners wantonly and without any apparent pleasure. A buxom, energetic, no strings attached sexpot, she is the worst stereotype of a straight teenage boy’s dream character. Readers (even those not long-term fans of the character) are justifiably outraged at this misogyny. Let’s hope the editorial team can find a way to write themselves out of this mess quickly.

The whole relaunch is a mix of the traditional, the unexpected, the sad misstep, and the pleasant surprise. The male-dominated books that I read featured some blunders not unlike those described in this post. The tragic difference is that a handful of badly-written male characters get lost in the very masculine mix. The exploitation and shallow characterization of a significant percentage of the limited female characters, on the other hand, sends a bad message to all readers, both male and female. Let’s hope that as the New DC progresses, the writers will take a lesson from Batgirl, Batwoman, Birds of Prey, and Supergirl and find ways to present strong, varied, interesting female characters. After all, art is supposed to imitate life, isn’t it?

9 Responses to “Women In Comics: A Look at DC’s New 52”

  1. James Queale October 2, 2011 at 1:25 pm #

    A great article, a thorough look at the new lineup of comics. This is still sadly a male dominated world. I always admired the female characters, one of my favourite toys growing up was a Leia toy from Star Wars: Return of the Jedi. When I would play video games (I am a huge nerd) I would usually play the female character. In multi-player games, I often beat my brother or friends with a female character, destroying their uber-masculine characters.🙂

    • Michael Hulshof-Schmidt October 2, 2011 at 3:51 pm #

      I love that you would play the female characters! You are wonderful proof of how we need to celebrate gender non-conformity!

      • James Queale October 2, 2011 at 3:59 pm #

        Thanks!🙂 It’s alright that they chose the masculine characters, it just means I keep on kicking their butts with the female ones. Yay!🙂

        I think being a real man is being able to celebrate the male and female aspects of yourself. I have never understood the male philosophy of showing zero emotion, etc.

      • Michael Hulshof-Schmidt October 2, 2011 at 4:15 pm #

        Jamie, that was beautifully said! If only we lived in a society and culture where we encouraged people to celebrate both their feminine and masculine qualities.

  2. James Queale October 2, 2011 at 4:21 pm #

    Sadly, we still live in a society that values gender roles. I once said to my mother, “why can’t the roles be reversed?” She looked at me like I was crazy and said, “they just can’t, that is wrong.” Her philosophy is exactly like society. They don’t know why the roles are there, but they always have been, so they must stay that way. What nonsense!

    • Michael Hulshof-Schmidt October 2, 2011 at 5:21 pm #

      Yes, it is quite sad that thinking of gender roles as fluid or as a construct scares people so very much.

  3. James Queale October 2, 2011 at 4:23 pm #

    It is odd that I turned out the way I did, especially in the home I grew up in. I am the black sheep, I am gay, non-religious, and liberal. AHHHH! LOL

    • Michael Hulshof-Schmidt October 2, 2011 at 5:22 pm #

      I’m quite glad you turned out to be sane, compassionate, and intelligent.

      • James Queale October 2, 2011 at 6:57 pm #

        Thanks! I appreciate the compliment.🙂

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