Women with weapons, men with pens it’s a trend that recurs heavily in modern comics. Frequently, the minds behind today’s strong, female characters are none other than men. While in general that may be a counter-intuitive relationship, women written and drawn almost exclusively by men, it’s practically a given in the comics industry. Girls with guns, boys with brushes.
Examples abound. There has always been the traditional (read: token) female member in each super-team, be it the Wasp among the founding Avengers, the Black Canary at the start of the modern JLA, Wonder Woman initially no more than a glorified secretary in the Justice Society of America, or Jean Grey of the X-Men. In each case, the creative teams were almost men exclusively. And, though those titles are over decades old, the trend has changed little. There are more women today, of course, but solely as heroines, seldom as professionals. The Authority‘s metallic Engineer, Preacher‘s killer Tulip, and Planetary‘s invulnerable Jakita Wagner all come from Warren Ellis. Marvel’s prime femme fatale, Black Widow, is featured in a slew of titles, Daredevil, Marvel Knights, Before the Fantastic Four, and Avengers, that are all produced by men. Other-media transplants like Buffy, Xena, and Lara Croft each have their own male-staffed titles. And, even the most successful comics featuring both a female protagonist and audience, such as Promethea and Strangers in Paradise, they still originate from a man’s mind. Groups like Friends of Lulu and Sequential Tarts may promote female professionals and readers, respectively, but the trend remains: Like Wonder Woman, they are female ambassadors in what is, for better or for worse, a man’s world.
The rationale is a sadly simple one: For the last three decades, the main audience of comic books has been adolescent boys. And, by law of averages, more were likely to become comics creators than their marginalized female counterparts. They also became targeted as a demographic. Heroes became younger, action became pronounced, and the women became beautified and sexualized to a point of ridiculous objectification. Thus, like breeds like. Generations of readers raised on physically overdeveloped but figuratively underdeveloped women become the creators for the next generation. It becomes a difficult downward spiral from which to recover.
Two newer entries to the comic book scene have attempted to right that course. Both are from independent presses, written by men, and starring a lethal female protagonist. Further, both titles attempt to revisit this problematic paradigm in potentially refreshing ways.
Vesper, written and created by John LaFleur, focuses on the life and adventures of Sabina Reeves, a study in extremes. Expressing that there is polarity in her being a gorgeous woman and a lethal assassin would be too easy and too primitive; strong, even lethal, women are true in both the real and comic book world. But, her details stand in interesting opposition. To atone for her actions in the CIA, she works now as a social affairs officer for the local police department. The penance seems simple enough, complicated only by the obligatory missions given by the mysterious Council in exchange for her Agency release. In short, she continues to infrequently kill in order to live a life as far away from her murderous past. And, while such an arrangement should have put her in predictable conflict, Sabina, instead, enjoys her work under the guise of Vesper. She hates living under the Council thumb almost as much as she thrills in killing the rapists and misogynists they target.
All of these paradoxes help to make for an interesting character, a 3-dimensional one and not necessarily the dimensions with which most comic books seem concerned. ” I have no need to…sell comics based on breast-size,” says LaFleur. “Our women are sexy because they are strong and not simply propped up on a pair of heels waiting for the next camera flash.” Certainly, Vesper is sexy, whether it be either from LaFleur’s characterization or Chris Dibari’s curvaceous art. But, her psyche is also well-realized, a feat for a male comics writer. LaFluer adds, “the writers I admire most Neil Gaiman, Kurt Busiek, and John Ostrander do a great job at making [female characters] real for me.”
Valentine writer/artist Dan Cooney praises Jeff Loeb and Terry Moore for their portrayal of women in comics, though his motivations differ: his stories of Dana Valentine, betrayed, amnesiac assassin “could entail serious subject matter with a message or mindless action with no plot featuring a chick in a thong and carrying guns, blowing everything away. I’m still having fun, because I love to draw and, to me, there’s nothing else I’d rather do.” Since Valentine is a more visually oriented title than the pop cultural and verbal Vesper, its images are richer. Valentine never looks like a cookie-cutter comic heroine nor is she ever presented that way. And, though Cooney playfully jokes about the appeal of “throw-away, gun-toting babes” in comics, he is intensely concerned about doing right by his character. “My challenge…is for Valentine not to use a gun to settle or resolve a situation. To be every bit as effective as a man in her shoes would be,” and just as deadly.
Both creators sense a new era arriving, both for their characters and for the industry in general. Cooney is at work on the newest Valentine installment, “Red Rain”, while Vesper‘s publisher, Acetylene Comics, will be making the title available through PREVIEWS starting in November. “There is a wealth of material out there for anyone to enjoy. I believe a new renaissance is about if not already in motion,” say Cooney, who also is careful to credit the female pioneers of comics’ past. “Let’s not forget the Colleen Dorans, the Louise Simonsons who broke ground for a new generation of female writers/artists,” such as fan-favorite scribe Devin Grayson. In fact, whether it translates through his work or no, LaFleur feels that “women have it up on us. I feel we, the males, are the inferior sex…We just act in ways that are ‘cheap shots’ to maintain the supposed upper-hand.”
All things considered, though, both men suggest that it is more important for a character to be written well than to be concerned over gender. “I personally wanted my book to be read by both genders,” says Cooney. “You can’t please everyone, but you can show some of them a good time.” To that end, LaFleur adds new and deeper levels of gut-wrenching complexity to his heroine because, simply, “Misery is more interesting than bliss.” And, it would seem, being interesting, not male or female, is what matters most.