Comics Needs Women

Why Marvel and DC Should Have Been at Geek Girl Con

by Shaun Huston

18 October 2011

There is goodwill to be spent and good faith conversations to be had about the place of women and female characters in the DC and Marvel universes, and an event like Geek Girl Con is an ideal place for that kind of dialogue.
cover art

Geek Girl Con

: Seattle Center — Seattle, Washington

The weekend of 8-9 October I, my wife and daughter attended the first annual Geek Girl Con in Seattle, Washington, and while the event sold out, missing from the panels and exhibitors were representatives from the two major American comics publishers, Marvel and DC. Individual artists and writers—Gail Simone, Jen Van Meter, Greg Rucka—were in attendance, but no one from the publishing companies showed up in an official capacity to unveil new stories, answer questions, or talk about their plans.

In one sense this is understandable. It would be nearly impossible for DC and Marvel officials to attend every convention, especially not every (smallish) first-year event. Taking place just a week before New York Comic Con, the timing was perhaps not the best. In fact, the big two were hardly alone in not having a formal presence at Geek Girl Con.

On the other hand, not attending this event was also a missed opportunity for the publishers to speak to a segment of fans who, at other cons, are all too often marginalized, and approached as a “special interest” rather than as part of the “normal”, that is, male, readership. DC, in particular, has had a difficult time lately maintaining a positive connection with its more critical and engaged women and girl readers since launching the DCnU.

The initial creative line-up for DC’s new line included only two headlining women as writers or artists, Gail Simone and Amy Reeder, and while subsequent examinations show that further behind the scenes women are working in editorial and on creative jobs like cover art and coloring, according to Tim Hanley at Bleeding Cool, in the first month of the DC relaunch, there were no women working on pencils, inks, or letters, and only two writing credits (see “Gendercrunching The DC New 52 Relaunch of September 2011””, Bleeding Cool, 2 October 2011).

The character landscape also seemed foreboding for anyone hoping that the reboot would update the DC line to reflect a more diverse readership, with some new female-headed titles, but the loss of others. The exclusion of Secret Six, a book that sold well and featured not only a diverse cast, but characters subversive of gender norms, was mostly keenly felt by gender conscious fans and readers. Emblematic of what the DCnU seemed to mean for women characters is the resetting of Barbara Gordon as the one and only Batgirl, while including multiple male Robins.

As the titles were rolled out, new issues and concerns were easy to note, particularly in the representation of female characters and their sexuality. Catwoman #1, Red Hood and the Outlaws #1, and Voodoo #1 all feature female protagonists drawn, posed and placed in stories that can easily be seen as soft core pornography for, particularly, young, heterosexual men. Similarly, in Suicide Squad #1, Amanda Waller is reimagined from heavy-set, professional, and approaching middle age to thin, “sexy”, and youthful. In this context, “nu” appears to mean a retrenchment for old habits in American superhero comics.

Comics and American pop culture conventions routinely schedule panels on women in comics and other media, but, according to the Geek Girl Con FAQS page, it was just such a panel that sparked the organizers’ interest in a convention dedicated to women in the geek world.

When individuals of a particular position or identity have their interests, images, and stories routinely suppressed and marginalized by others, it is often necessary to create “safe” spaces where those individuals can share their interests, images, and stories without mockery, ridicule, or dismissal by individuals of privilege, which in the realm of American superhero comics means white, heterosexual males, particularly from the 18-34 demographic. Geek Girl Con is meant to be that kind of space for women and girls.

And it could have been a friendly stage for DC (and Marvel) to address female fans and readers, too.

One of the things I noticed at the convention were women and girls dressed as their favorite male characters. In one short period around the exhibit hall and the outdoor plaza in front of the main convention building, I saw women and girls dressed as Captain Hammer (from Dr. Horrible), multiple Star Wars characters who are traditionally male, a girl dressed as a version of The Flash, and a woman as Spike from Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

While there are multiple reasons why people engage in gender swapped or bent cosplay, I think that one common reason for this act is to lay claim to a character as one’s own. Most of the women and girls that I saw dressed as male characters were not performing feminized versions of those characters, but were performing as those characters. In other words, not “Lady Captain Hammer”, and certainly not “Sex-ay Lady Captain Hammer”, but “Captain Hammer”.

What this means for editors and executives at DC and Marvel is that while questions at a hypothetical Geek Girl Con panel would be tough, and even combative, they would still come from a place of fandom. There is goodwill to be spent and good faith conversations to be had about the place of women and female characters in the DC and Marvel universes, and an event like Geek Girl Con is an ideal place for that kind of dialogue. Honest conversations are more likely to happen in a context where women and girls feel free to talk than they are in contexts where those same individuals would fear being attacked or accused of ruining everyone else’s fun. The publishers would also benefit from this same freedom to talk about gender and from having a space to talk directly and specifically to women and girls.

And it’s not as if Geek Girl Con wasn’t welcoming for men and boys, because it was. There were plenty of fathers, brothers, boyfriends, friend-boys, and male allies, both in attendance and among the volunteers and panelists, at the convention. These were, presumably, men and boys who do not find the presence of women amongst the geeks as a threat to their ongoing privilege. The first Geek Girl Con was a place for all fans to discuss, celebrate, critique, and participate in games, fictions, storyworlds, maths and science. It was not a place where women were on display for the pleasure of men, or where harassment was welcome or tolerated. That’s not a bar that seems set especially high for men to meet.

DC did have Gail Simone in attendance, and her schedule was full. Simone has been the publisher’s best marketer when it comes to gender and the DCnU. On her Twitter feed, and elsewhere,  Simone has responded to fan questions, worries, alienation, and anger with empathy and reassurance, while also promoting the new titles. On questions of gender, she’s DC’s best representative.

Only she doesn’t formally represent the company. As an individual creator, she really only represents herself, which is why having an official presence could have made a difference for DC and Marvel. If nothing else, it would have been a dramatic show of support for the event. To be at the first Geek Girl Con would have been a significant gesture from the publishers to women and girl readers, and to men and boys who are also tired of superhero comics being a closed club.

One of the lines of argument in the discussion about the low number of female writers and artists initially listed for the DCnU is that there is, actually, no shortage of women in comics; they’re just not working for the big superhero publishers. They are on the web, and doing creator-owned work for smaller presses, or collaborating on independent projects. At Geek Girl Con it was evident that comics are only one part of the geek girl world, and superhero comics occupy only one region of that media-space. Ultimately, the reason that Marvel and DC should have been at Geek Girl Con is that the publishers need girls and women more than girls and women need Marvel and DC.

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