Following Marvel’s Next Big Thing, room 1E19 was turned over to a very different sort of panel. At once more important but less serious, Reimagining the Female Hero was my favorite panel at Special Edition: NYC and, judging from the reactions I’ve seen, I get the sense I wasn’t alone in that.
In a stark inversion of horror stories from previous conventions where feminist panels were trolled by attendees waiting out more traditional fare, I noticed many fans sticking around from The Next Big Thing. In fact, despite taking place in the same room as DC and Marvel’s offerings, the panel gave us reason to hope and easily held its own in terms of attendance.
Of course, it didn’t hurt that the panel had some pretty excellent creators. The line-up included Jenny Frison, a talented cover artist for series including Revival and Red Sonja; Emanuela Lupacchino, the artist on DC’s Supergirl and the Superman: Lois Lane one-shot; Marguerite Bennett, the writer of Superman: Lois Lane and Batgirl #25 and #30; Gail Simone, feminist icon and writer on Batgirl; and Amy Reeder, the artist behind Madame Xanadu and Rocket Girl, who arrived from her dedicated panel a short while into the discussion.
It’s also worth mentioning that the panel had an excellent moderator in the form of Professor Ben Saunders of the University of Oregon. While I hesitate to devote too much praise to the only man involved with the panel, Professor Saunders did an excellent job of keeping the focus on his panelists, encouraging their relevant digressions, and recognizing their celebrity while keeping the mood light yet respectful.
In short I left the room with a greater respect for everyone involved.
The panel began with a question about childhood influences and early experiences with female heroes. Jenny Frison, or Frissón as Saunders was tempted to call her, traced her experience back to a book and tape combo called Wonder Woman: Cheetah on the Prowl. As a child, Frison was obsessed with the book and it instilled a deep love of Wonder Woman that lay mostly dormant until she saw Adam Hughes’ first cover for Wonder Woman vol. 2 in high school. “My jaw hit the ground,” she said, “I was just so excited that that was a thing people could do, that you could really create an image like that and they’d put it on a comic book. I got really into comics after that.”
Emanuela Lupacchino pointed to She-Ra and the Masters of the Universe franchise. “It was the best,” she said, enthusiasm overwhelming her worries about her English. She also cited The Incredible Hulk television show as a gateway into comics and superheroes.
Marguerite Bennett also owed television a great debt, in her case Batman: The Animated Series. As a result, her answer was less about an introduction to female superheroes, but rather supervillains. “Catwoman, Poison Ivy, and Harley Quinn: that was my holy trinity,” he said, describing the three as badass women who “didn’t abide by your rules and were not going to take your consequences.” If you’ve ever spoken to Ms. Bennett, you’ve probably seen their influence already.
Gail Simone’s answer was a particularly interesting one because it wasn’t just about the first time she found female heroes but when they started to speak to her. As a child, Simone was troubled by the lack of choice in her heroines’ origins. “If they had any kind of adventure at all, it was thrust upon them, or it accidentally happened. It was never something that they chose to go out and have their own adventure.” That’s part of what made Wonder Woman so revolutionary to Simone when she discovered an old Justice League issue at a garage sale.
Simone grew up on a farm. She lived outside of a town that had no comic shop and, in fact, she quickly corrected herself by saying that she lived outside of a town outside of a town that had no comic shop. “I didn’t understand how comic stories went, I didn’t understand numbering, I understood nothing. But I did understand that this was a really strong female character that made her own decisions, that chose to leave her homeland and go out and have adventures, and that was it for me. It was a done deal.”
Amy Reeder was also a fan of She-Ra, as well as Jem. She admitted that she was just very into the concept of female protagonists as a child. The 80s was a very good time for that but “it’s sad that there are fewer now,” she noted.
Reeder then continued that Sailor Moon was the beginning of another, different awakening for her. She got really into the series, noting the strangeness in the fact that it’s often not considered a superhero story. She also praised the near gender parity among fans of the show, a theme that would show up in her thoughts throughout the panel.
It was interesting to see how these women started their path towards the stories they’re telling now, but it was also essentially foreign. I, personally, have been tired of characters, male or female, just choosing to put their lives in danger and go on adventures for a long time and, though I fell out of it when the show was taken out of syndication, I was part of that male half of the fandom who woke up weekday mornings for episodes of Sailor Moon.
Saunders picked up that thread, stating that his comic classes at U of O almost universally were majority women. The findings of this academic were that girls – get this! – like action adventure and superheroes and always have but, despite this, still have to put up with various contingents that deny their presence in the comics community. In light of this, Saunders’ next question was if and how the panelists had encountered this message.
Emanuela Lupacchino asked to respond to this question, struggling both with translation and incredulity, at least to my ear. “I will say a very easy thing,” she stated simply, “we are women, not aliens.” It was an amusing remark, but a surprisingly important one. She continued, “We like rock music, heavy metal, we have feelings, we like flowers, but we like adventures as well[…]People think that girls can’t like man-centric stories or adventure because they’re not ‘girly’. In the end, it’s a matter of interests. It’s about stories. They think that superhero stories are something definitive for men, and that women cannot understand how to make them.”
Simone also had a notable experience where she ran up against this sentiment. At the start of her career, she told us, many people assumed that Gail Simone, the comic writer, was a man. Simone made a point of correcting them, warning them, where she could, that the days of male majorities among readers and creators were numbered. I expect that many took that as exaggeration at the time, but it’s seeming more and more reasonable as time goes by.
Jenny Frison chimed in, pointing out that, while still highly imperfect, Image Comics has something of a better track record with female characters. She attributed this to the individuality of the writers’ voices. In a company like Marvel or DC you have only a few people in charge with only a few sets of experiences trying to facilitate the growth of an entire universe. When they hear calls for diversity, Frison said, many executives seem to try to play a role, making comics that are for women instead of telling stories for people that respect women.
Simone also pointed out the distressing perception of equivalence between comics for women and romance comics. Saunders took issue with this, pointing out the X-Men are essentially just a romance comic with some fight scenes thrown in. Marguerite Bennett agreed heartily, stating, “Every X-Men comic is a romance between me and Mystique.”
Getting back on track, Bennett said that there was never any chance of someone mistaking her name, “an old woman’s name,” for a man’s. Even before she made the jump to comics, while she was shopping around her prose work, ‘well-meaning’ agents would tell her that it can be harder for women writers to get their start, especially in the fields she was interested in, and suggested using a pen name. “For thirty seconds, in a moment of weakness, I considered it,” she admitted, “And then I decided the hell with that. You’re going to learn that I’m a girl, and you’re going to like that I’m a girl.”
Saunders turned discussion to the first lady of comics, Lois Lane. Pulling up the first panel of Lois, Saunders cited the fullness of character in that individual panel as well as the willingness to be cruel. He asked what the panel thought of Lois’ trajectory away from that interpretation to the obsessive character of Superman’s Girlfriend: Lois Lane and back again, leading the panel to turn again to Bennett.
Bennett agreed with Saunders’ analysis, calling Lois an excellent barometer of comics’ views of women. She gave the example of a comic she’d seen featuring Lois falling from a height with Superman flying after her. In the first panel the Golden Age Lois explains that she’s rigged a trap to catch a mad scientist and get a big scoop. In the second the Lois Lane of the Silver Age smirked, “And now you’ll have to marry me.” Finally, in the third panel, the modern Lois worked on her report as she falls, not even looking at Superman as she says, “I’m fine, thanks.”
“We should talk about Batgirl,” said Saunders, leading Gail Simone to reply, “whaddaya wanna know?” Saunders practically choked on his words, leading the audience to chuckle, but he recovered quickly, adding a good-naturedly indignant “you try being up here when Gail Simone asks what you want to know about Batgirl!”
Saunders settled for the Simone’s opinion on the essence of Barbara Gordon. She answered that Barbara has always been the most intelligent member of the Bat-Family and represents hope in Gotham. Simone called Barbara a character that should inspire someone to do something.
Saunders’ next question was for the artists and concerned their approach to drawing characters “who are frequently physically stunning” in a non-exploitative manner. Jenny Frisson has an interesting experience, in that she is almost exclusively drawing single images of pre-made characters. That path has led her to focus less on what the characters wear and more on how they think about themselves. She cited Red Sonja being strong whether she’s mad or sad or vulnerable regardless of her chainmail bikini as an element that won her over once she started drawing covers. “I probably wouldn’t draw her with her legs spread, like, sucking her thumb. To me that’s not her,” she said, “There may be other characters who…I probably just wouldn’t draw them that way.” She gave Vampirella as an example of a character who’s really indistinguishable from her sex appeal, but stated that she still tries to imbue the character with a certain strength. Simone then shared a story about sitting with a group of her female cover artists having an in depth discussion about Red Sonja’s boobs and how they would move, something she found to be thoroughly awesome.
Ema Lupacchino took a moment to address the crowd. “I want to ask you a question? Why everybody sees how sexy are the girls in comic books and no one sees how sexy are the men in comic books? I mean, seriously guys, do you think that Batman is not sexy for us?” Lupacchino said that it’s natural for comic characters to be sexy because they’re a fantasy of escapism, one that exists and should exist for men and women.
Amy Reeder pulled the two thoughts together rather eloquently, stating that the crucial difference between sexual and sexualized is “personhood” which has more to do with the artist and less to do with the design. They need to have a personality, a soul. She actually took a moment to give an example, defending Guillem March. She admitted that March “does some ridiculous covers sometimes” but praised the uniqueness of his female character designs and the care put into their personalities.
The first question for the panel was whether the writers try to hold themselves to the Bechdel Test. Simone answered that while presenting positive but realistic female interactions was a priority on books such as Birds of Prey she doesn’t sit down to pass any test or rubric. In the course of answering, Simone also admitted that she and her artists were happy to even the scales in the other direction on Secret Six, giving the men of the book an opportunity to show off their sex appeal.
For Bennett a big part of the issue boils down to how we perceive media. “[If you have a movie about two male cops it’s a buddy cop movie]. If you do a buddy cop movie about women it’s a chick flick. If you have a coming of age story about a boy it’s a coming of age story. If it’s about a girl it’s a chick flick. If you have a movie about a father and son it’s a father/son movie. If it’s a mother and daughter it’s a chick flick. And I’m tired of it.” That said while she tries not to reduce writing to checking off boxes, but that those kinds of questions are too deeply rooted in her mind not to come up from time to time.
The next question asked which female character the panelists would most like to write, ignoring any legal or editorial restriction. “I’d steal Madame Xanadu for a spell,” said Reeder with little to no need to think. The audience took a moment to realize what had happened, but then there was groaning. Simone answered that someone had asked her earlier in the day if she’d like to write Ripley from Alien and that she’d been obsessed with the idea ever since. Marguerite Bennett replied, “Vixen. I love her and I miss her.” Jenny Frisson considered Wonder Woman but wasn’t sure if she had something original to say about the iconic character. She had actually long wanted to draw Vampirella, calling her current gig doing so a dream come true. Lupacchino was certain that she wanted to draw Storm vs. Thor.
While I’d happily see any of these come to print, this is the second time I’ve heard Bennett state a desire to write Vixen. I remembered how much I loved Vixen while writing this article for my own blog and I think that would be amazing. I’m not exactly a social media genius, but if anybody wants to show DC the desire for the title, individually or in an organized fashion, Bennett says she’d happily do it.
The next questioner asked if the panelists ever had been frustrated by their editors’ changes. Lupacchino first responded that you don’t have time to get upset, but admitted that she had actually been asked to go back and redraw Supergirl’s costume to better cover her butt. Lupacchino felt that we can handle a tight costume behaving naturally, but the editor was firm on the subject. While I’ve previously noted the delicate but generally acceptable balance that Lupacchino strikes in this regard, it’s nice to hear evidence that DC is living up to their assurances that they take the sexualization of their underage characters seriously.
Simone said that she’d been pretty lucky in her career and said that one of the common problems, especially when she was starting out, was editors worrying that some of the humor or quieter character moments might dilute the power of these female characters or make them seem silly. Simone worried that, especially with characters like Wonder Woman, putting heroines on such high pedestals actually makes them boring or unrelatable to readers. It was important to Simone to show the human side of her heroines. “Once in a while female characters are going to want to go on a date, it doesn’t make them less strong. Or they’re gonna cry, it doesn’t make them less strong[…]There’s lots of kinds of strong.”
One fan asked if the perception of many female characters as mere distaff counterparts to male heroes weakened their appeal or kept them from being viewed as equal heroes, citing Ms. Marvel and She-Hulk as examples. Bennett happily replied that she felt Carol Danvers had long since eclipsed Mar-Vell, earning a cheer from the audience. Simone felt that it had a lot to do with writing, but Amy Reeder wondered, and I mean wondered, if it wouldn’t be better to have female heroes who are not cast from the mold of a preexisting hero. “Now I want more of that.”
Reeder would later praise DC’s handling of the Batwoman character and her long, strange transformation from Batman’s beard to independent character and LGBTQ comics icon.
The next question came from a young woman who asked if the panelists had any feelings about the recent representation of people of color in comics. Simone answered that things are getting better but not quickly enough. Reeder then cut in somewhat hesitantly, admitting that, despite the number of new and original stories coming out of Image at the moment, the stories feature a distressingly small number of non-white characters. “You can do that, you know…” Reeder was uncomfortable calling out the publisher but a round of solid applause from the crowd confirmed both that the issue had not gone unnoticed but that the sentiment was shared. I personally found Reeder’s willingness to speak her mind rather inspiring.
Simone then summed up her thoughts by reminding us to create something new when given the chance to tell a story. I rather liked that way of looking at it.
Noticing the conversation leaning towards mentions of DC heroines, one fan asked if the panelists agreed that DC seems to have a larger stable of popular female heroines and, if so, why that might be. While Simone admitted that this was probably at least partially skewed by the writers present working for DC, Professor Saunders had his own theory. He quickly rattled off evidence of
his great love for Jack Kirby, but eventually admitted “Stan and Jack really didn’t write women well.” Interestingly, Professor Saunders was quick to point out that Marvel was, in his view, stronger in representing characters of different races, but that DC has generally done better at producing enduring female characters. “Before anyone misunderstands what I’m saying: I love Jack Kirby,” he reiterated, “but really they found it easier to identify with Skrulls than with women.” He paused for a moment and then added, “Skrulls could be women, they didn’t think of that…”
A fan in a Captain Marvel shirt asked if the panelists thought that female supervillains should be set up against male heroes more often, drawing an extremely enthusiastic head nod from Marguerite Bennett but a more hesitant response from Ema Lupacchino, who worried that readers are troubled by the image of a man hitting a woman. Gail Simone wondered if it would be more acceptable if the villains in question weren’t presented as sexual figures or potential romantic options for the hero.
Saunders cited early Wonder Woman comics that frequently didn’t reach the same levels of violence as Diana’s male contemporaries and praised Simone’s habit of treating her female characters like equal combatants. Simone said that she wants her heroines to get bloody and scarred, just like the boys, but that can be very difficult for her artists, who are trained to draw the most beautiful versions of these characters. And, with that, the panel came to a close.
This was honestly my favorite panel of SE: NYC. Saunders was an excellent moderator and the panel featured some tremendously talented creators but, above all, I really appreciated the honesty of it all. Obviously this wasn’t a ‘corporate’ panel, so that sense of being sold to wasn’t present, but even beyond that, there was a certain sense of freedom in the room.
Discourse about feminism is so often about silence, about having no forum for discussion or about defending your credibility. There was no one interested or, more importantly, capable of silencing these women and they each brought their own views to the table. Whether it was Frison’s insistence that she only spoke for herself, or Lupacchino’s appreciation of tasteful sex appeal, or Reeder’s willingness to question conventions not only of the status quo but of feminism, the panel was free of that awful pressure to present a monolithic united front of capital f Feminism. Following Simone’s advice, the panelists stepped away from pedestals to talk directly and honestly to the audience.
I expect that most of those attending were already sympathetic to the issues at hand when they came in, but I almost hope that someone in the audience entered a skeptic because it’s rare that you get such a respectful, well-argued, and self-evident case for why greater diversity in comic books and comic companies builds better stories.