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Comics I have known and loved

2011 August 8

Team BadRep were put on the spot again this month: in the wake of SDCC Batgirl igniting the gender-and-comics conversation loud ‘n’ proud, the team were asked to take a look at their favourite comic book titles and characters – some obvious choices, some less so… here’s Sarah C’s take.

Ah, comics. Or graphic novels, if they are trying to seduce me across a pseudy coffee bar in Edinburgh, which they did – more on that later.

Dear reader, this is a tale of a long, passionate, but fractious love affair.

It started early. I noticed them, but they never seemed to be the right one for me, stocked as they were in the “boys’ section” of the magazine racks. I kept myself busy with the garish colours of the (probably) gender neutral Dandy and the Beano. Whilst being amused but ultimately concerned by the levels of naughtiness from Minnie the Minx (I was a very conscientious child), I found myself captured by a few sections from the pages of hand-me-down copies of the now-defunct “girls’ own” annual Bunty. Looking back on it, the artwork was poor and the storylines were hammy with a sprinkling of schmaltz, but some stood out: tales of mystery, adventure, aliens and heroines were hidden amidst the pages of dreary “girl stuff”. Now we’re talking!

Cover Art for Gloom Cookie Issue 7 showing a young woman walking through a gothic cemetery

Cover Art for GloomCookie Issue 7

Flash forward, and I’m at university in Edinburgh with actual money in my pocket. I’ve caught flickers of images in such hallowed sanctuaries as Forbidden Planet, which is exciting but mostly full of plastic models. Deadhead, lurking on the crooked medieval road across from the pub where I’ve just earned my actual money, is poky and rammed with paper; pleasingly reminiscment in layout and smell of old bookshops.

On the shelves I spot a beautifully painted (thank you Duncan Fegredo) issue of Mike Carey’s Lucifer, where a winged schoolgirl escapes the giant maw of a fiery demon; the first of the new Catwoman where Selina Kyle is resplendent and powerful in a jumpsuit and combat boots; and the gothic lusciousness of Serena Valentino’s GloomCookie. And that was just the covers!

promo image showing Ed Brubaker's 2001 Emma Peel inspired Catwoman, seen from above and posing in a black catsuit and goggles

Ed Brubaker's 2001 Emma Peel inspired Catwoman

The stories, oh, oh, oh the stories. Magical, fantastical, intricate and complex tales of all kinds with interesting and varied female characters being just as magical, just as fantastically intricate and complex as their male counterparts.

I am doing my level best to just not list all of them because that would be a little tedious – check the Wiki articles or better yet come round and read them – my point is that they were there, and they were so far removed from any other female heroes (or anti-heroes, or villains) that I had ever seen before, and there were just SO MANY of them.

Over the next many years I spent a lot of time and money on comics. I was in love.  Besotted. I compulsively collected every issue of the jaw-dropping Fables and Y: The Last Man (a must for any comic collection). As I tend to be when in love, I was somewhat obsessed. I wrote my dissertation on postmodernist structuralism in Grant Morrison’s The Invisibles (I know better now, it should have been postmodern superhero archetypes in Doom Patrol).

I found the most perfect fairy tale ever told in the form of Jeff Smith’s independent offering Bone. This is an epic adventure of derring do, lost princesses who need to save the kingdom, war, friendship, quiche and dragons. I cannot recommend it enough.

panel from Bone showing Grandma Ben in action: a little old lady grabbing a furry monster by reaching from one panel of the comic to the other with both fists and the sound effect 'CRASSSH'

Grandma Ben in action against the famously stupid, stupid rat creatures

The character of Grandma Ben blasts away so many female stereotypes. She is mysterious, strong, forthright, takes no nonsense and just plain funny.  She also races cows. As in, races against them. I aim to also do this when I am her age (which she refuses to tell anyone, of course).

But as I read my way through everything that caught my eye, I was spotting a change.

Filthy Assistant number two Yelena Rossini romped her way through Warren Ellis’ Transmetropolitan and stole my heart somewhat with her hard smoking, futuristic gumshoe gonzo journalism and attack womb. Zee Hernandez from Brian Wood’s spectacular DMZ played Beatrice to the lost photographer and guided both him and the reader through a ghastly vision of New York as the Gaza Strip.

Yelena Rossini from Transmetropolitan, a white, scruffily-purple-haired young woman smoking moodily

Yelena Rossini from Transmetropolitan

These women were still good, still interesting, but they were second fiddle, playing traditional (albeit revamped and turbo-boosted) support roles such as healers and helpmeets whilst also filling the “minority quota”, especially in the case of Zee who is both non-white and non-male. Naturally all of them end up sleeping with or as love interests for the male protagonists, although at least the storylines of those titles made up for the stereotypes.

Somewhere along the way, it started to go wrong. Bit by bit by bit, even these characters faded away. The series that I loved ended (I cried at the end of Lucifer) and were replaced with weaker, less interesting versions. Costumes became smaller, boobs bigger. I started my “never buy a comic where the cover art has a woman with breasts bigger than her head” campaign, and found myself wealthier but with a lot less comics.

Female characters and their stories became less widely available. There were still some bright sparks but these were increasingly ghettoised in the narrow “independent” section of the store or as part of autobiographical works such as the excellent Persepolis. The lack of new work meant that shops began pushing long-standing books like Strangers in Paradise or reprints of classics  obviously aimed at women such as Dykes to Watch Out For.

There were still good stories in comic book world, with great artwork, but the women I had come to love had gone missing from the mainstream. Titles such as Wonder Woman or Lady Death looked like bad pornography, and the artwork for some of my favourite writers became downright ridiculous to the point of offensive. My relationship with comics was getting rocky.

I can pinpoint the exact moment that caused us to break up. It was Ignition City by Warren Ellis, specifically the way that almost every page had a massive pair of tits or tight (female) bottom in it, regardless of whether that was particularly appropriate or relevant. The male characters, of course, could be as fat, wrinkly, gross, old, multicultural and multidimensional as actual people. The female characters only existed to ensure that there were toned body parts for the consumption of the reader (who obviously wasn’t meant to be me).

What happened to my love?  What changed? I don’t know. I have moved to pastures new – online comics such as Freak Angels, Girl Genius, Sinfest and XKCD fulfill my panel-related addiction, but every now and then I look longingly at my groaning bookshelf with all those beautiful trade paperbacks, wondering when, if ever, there might be a return to form.

Come back, baby. I miss you.

8 Responses leave one →
  1. August 8, 2011

    You mean you haven’t read Secret Six? Oh you totally should.

  2. Stephen B permalink
    August 8, 2011

    Oh man, Lucifer.
    Jill Presto… some GREAT female characters who were stars of their own storylines, even if the series was named after the famous guy.

    God: You’ve been unhappy because you’ve desired things that cannot be.
    Lucifer: That’s what desire is. The need for what we can’t have. The need for what’s readily available is called greed.

    ….And now I need to re-read all of it again, thanks for that.

  3. August 8, 2011

    Sarah, were you on the Invisilist back in the day? Mention of Barbalith always makes me do a double-take. And it makes me nostalgic for intellectual comics discussion without rampant sexism.

  4. Markgraf permalink
    August 9, 2011

    Dude, you ENJOYED Y: The Last Man? I wanted to throw it across the room like a frisbee!

    • Sarah Cook permalink
      August 16, 2011

      I did, actually, overall. Some issues were better than others, be really interested to get your take on it, maybe for a pros and cons type chatette?

      I’ll cook…

      • Miranda permalink*
        August 16, 2011

        At some point I want to do a roundtable discussion and use the transcript as a post (not on Y, though, as I think we might talk about that in a post anyway soon). Having seen us all in the pub, I think it’d be really entertaining reading.

        Everything I say will be faithfully transcribed with the caps lock on, as is only right and proper.

  5. Stu_N permalink
    August 9, 2011

    A few recommendations for you:

    Locke & Key

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