[8 February 2011]
PopMatters Associate Comics Editor
The historic portrayal of female characters in comics can be summed up with any number of crude or archaic descriptions. Relegated to being damsels in distress, sexual conquests for male protagonists or the occasional femme fatale, women have rarely been the thrust of narratives. It’s not necessarily the product of sexism as comics as a medium has been notable as pre and post adolescent male fantasies. Suffice it to say that comics have been dominated by the male gaze for a long time.
Over the decades there have been of course comics geared toward women – romance comics, Archie, etc. Yet, even these have often used stereotypes and only a touch of feminist qualities. Literature, film and television have also shared in these scopophilic elements, but as with most of our popular culture, the rise of feminism in the 1970s has also infected graphic storytelling. Of course at a much slower pace, but nonetheless evidenced in the attempts by publishers to produce titles geared to a female audience.
In 2007, DC with its former imprint Minx attempted to crack the fledgling teenage girl market. The experiment failed because the economic model was not sound, but the fact that a major publisher put resources into it demonstrated the evolution of the medium. The titles published ranged in quality as with any imprint. One standout from writer Brian Wood and artist Ryan Kelly, The New York Four, enjoyed a certain cult following. Centered on the exploits of four young women during their first semester at NYU, the book felt like an authentic and genuine story about love, friendship and self-discovery. A sequel was planned, but Minx was shut down before it could be completed.
Now DC’s remaining imprint Vertigo, the home for Wood’s DMZ, Northlanders, and Demo, is publishing the follow-up as a four issue mini-series under the title The New York Five. The story picks up where it left off. The four friends, Riley, Merissa, Ren and Lona, are back from winter break and ready to enjoy the apartment they now share together and their second semester of college.
Writing authentic female characters can be a challenge for male writers. Few have the ability to present the fairer sex with intelligence and complexity. In popular fiction, author John Steinbeck was the exception. His works such as the short story “chrysanthemums” and the novel “Grapes of Wrath” presented women who were not only authentic but layered and nuanced in their portrayal. Similarly, Wood, in several titles for a diverse amount of publishers, has presented some rather genuine female protagonists. Whether in his Vertigo series DMZ (Zee Hernandez) or his other seminal work with Kelly, Local (Megan McKeenan), Wood has gone to great lengths to give all his characters strong identities and motivations. His treatment of women in his works is not necessarily a case of overt feminism, but the end result is certainly a plus for readers looking for layered and multifaceted female protagonists.
In The New York Four and now in The New York Five, Wood not only delivers one strong female lead, but four of them, with other supporting characters fairing particularly well in their intricate depictions. This is one of Wood’s strengths as a writer. His characters are for the most part more than two dimensional. They don’t just start at point A and arrive at point B. They grow and evolve as the narrative progresses. Added to that, Wood’s other strength of creating compelling short narratives; you have the starting spot for some very well produced comics.
As a creative partner, Ryan Kelly is nothing short of a magnificent artist. The diversity of Wood’s cast for “The New York Five” calls for an artist with a delicate and thoughtful pencil. These are realistic young women. Hipsters, skaters and fashionistas, all of them. They require a level of detail not typically found in female characters in comics. They need to be in the right the clothes, present a multitude of facial expressions and have the postures befitting of women learning to be on their own for first time. Kelly’s panels deliver that in spades. These young women have distinct styles, walks and personalities that move beyond the word balloons.
The concept of women coming of age through relationships is nothing new, and “The New York Four/Five” is as much informed by Felicity, My So-Called Life, Freaks & Geeks, and every Molly Ringwald movie as any female centric pop culture artifact. It’s what gives the title its relatable appeal. Wood and Kelly’s creative hands though take the book beyond its perceived core audience. This is not a solely female book. You cannot be too manly for these exploits as good stories know no specific gender appeal. Though, the foundation for our peer enforced gender roles may impede our initial acceptance, the titles’ execution certainly moves it beyond that pigeonholed audience demographic.
Certainly comics have come a long way in their portrayal of women. What were once characters relegated to subservient and minor roles, women are as much the driving force behind stories as their male counterparts. The investment in books like The New York Four/Five by a major publisher is further evidence of this. Even after the folding of the initial book’s home, the parent company found a way to publish its follow-up…even providing for a robust marketing campaign. That could be because of the talent and stature of the creative team. For whatever the reason, it’s a breath of fresh air and hopefully a sign of the continued evolution of the industry.