Tom Spurgeon's Web site of comics news, reviews, interviews and commentary

September 23, 2011

Breaking Comics Down Into Their Nutritional Elements

There are a couple of interesting articles out there about the portrayal of female characters in the New DC comic books, particularly (and maybe only) if you're a watcher of those kind of comics for their ongoing fascination as reflections of pop culture. Laura Hudson's lengthy, earnest piece on Comics Alliance on the sexual proclivities of Starfire and Catwoman in a pair of issues #1 gets at the difference between the portrayal of strong, even sexually aggressive women in such comics and the manipulation of that notion to re-present yet another round of male sex fantasies. Heidi MacDonald's post at The Beat about much the same thing brings in a well-received launch to Wonder Woman and features that site's usual array of revealing comments from people with odd Internet handles.

imageThe thing that pops out at me about this kind of analysis generally is that I wonder how much of this is the fact that these comics with objectionable moments just don't seem like very good comics. I recently read one of the writer Michael Pollan's books called In Defense Of Food. This is an extended essay building off of ideas introduced in his popular The Omnivore's Dilemma. Among the many things Pollan argues is that modern nutritional science and the processed food-driven food industry tend (for the ultimate purpose of maximizing profitability) to separate components of food from food itself even though doing so may be harmful to our greater understanding and health. The way some of these superheroes-having-sex arguments are developed kind of strike me as roughly the same thing, that whether or not these are simply poorly-written or lazily-executed comics isn't as important as how they engage a certain tone, how they might come across to a perceived potential audience, or what kind of portrayal they offer on various issues of identity and representation.

In other words, I'm thinking maybe these comics just sort of suck. I've been going out of town for hospital appointments once every couple of weeks, stopping in this amazing store that's bought out the previous owners (a comics shop) and is selling all the accumulated back stock for a buck a pop. This has given me the chance to check out a bunch of mainstream comics from the last 10 years I never would have read otherwise, including the opportunity to re-read a big chunk of Ed Brubaker's Catwoman run from several years back. There was sexual material in those comics as well, but those moments were in service of wider thematic points, taking on issues that people actually engage in the real world such as the complications of sex as a coping technique utilized by the emotionally devastated and the difficulty of negotiating an intense relationship when different levels of emotional involvement are in place. Execution is everything, and those comics may not do it for you, but I think making the attempt to use plot points to actually tell a story has to matter.

When I read about slutty Starfire or Catwoman humping Batman on some roof somewhere, it just doesn't seem to be about anything but -- at best -- the set-up for some potential, facile, soap opera-style payoff down the road. It's boobs in a horror movie, empty comic book calories of a slightly ickier kind but pretty much on the exact same level of an Ed Hannigan or Sal Buscema-drawn sequence where two heroes fight briefly before they team up to defeat some arbitrary super-menace. It's not about anything but itself: a plot point that's divorced from plot but instead denotes X, Y, Z difference in this character or that one. A lot of modern comic books strike me as less about a narrative and more about the constant rewriting of four-color wikipedia entries. They don't mean much of anything unless you buy into the notion that these corporate-owned characters are inherently important above and beyond the stories they tell. For me, that's not a very satisfying meal.
posted 5:00 am PST | Permalink

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