The Danger of ‘Girl Comics’

Among the cross-title events from Marvel Comics this year is a spotlight on the “Women of Marvel”, both on and off the page. This event has included: an anthology, Girl Comics, with short stories set in the Marvel Universe by women creators, one-shots and mini-series focused on female characters with writing and art largely by women, and special “Women of Marvel” covers for many of the publisher’s most popular titles, such as The Invincible Iron Man and Uncanny X-Men.

The year has also been used to launch new ongoing series with women leads, notably Black Widow and the forthcoming X-23. Most of the “Women of Marvel” books are supplemented with interviews and profiles of female writers, artists, and editors. The event reached a kind of apex at the end of July with the release of a 240-page handbook of women characters, and a trade paper back collection of comics covering seven decades of the “Women of Marvel”.

I have been pulling many of the titles associated with this ‘celebration’, and one of my primary reactions is likely one not intended by the publisher. For me, this special effort to draw attention to female characters and women creators has underscored how marginal both are to the Marvel Universe. Featured characters, which have included Rescue, better known as Pepper Potts from Iron Man, Sif, Pixie, and Firestar, have been pulled out of the vault or from the background of other books. While some of the creators, like writers Marjorie Liu and Kathryn Immonen, are currently Marvel regulars, many more are either just beginning to work with the publisher, are just now being spotlighted, or are working with Marvel for the first time. This paradoxical aspect of the event is neatly encapsulated by the Girl Comics anthology.

Looking at the “Creator Biographies” for issues one and two – as I write this, I am still waiting on my copy of number three – 18 of the 33 different contributors have prior credits with the publisher, some as lead writers or artists, many as inkers, colorists, letterers and cover artists. Some, such as cartoonist Stephanie Buscema, have extensive credits with the company, while others, such as writer Robin Furth, have only one or two listed credits. The remaining contributors, which include writer Trina Robbins (GoGirl!, Image, From Girls to Grrrlz: A History of Women’s Comics from Teens to Zines, Diane Publishing Co., 1999) and writer-artist Lucy Kinsley (French Milk, Simon and Schuster, 2008), have no credits cited.

It seems fair enough to admire Marvel’s outreach to women writers and artists for this project. They approached both industry professionals and notable independents, and allowed everyone creative license to experiment and play within the Marvel Universe. However, it seems equally fair to note that in an anthology dedicated to the “Women of Marvel”, just under half of the contributors to the first two issues had no noted professional connection to the publisher prior to Girl Comics.

Of the just over half who did have such a connection, there are, at least, as many whose credits are limited in scope as there are women who had worked extensively with the publisher before contributing to the anthology. Only if you count the fact that most, and likely all, of the contributors were readers of Marvel comics prior to participating in this project would it be accurate to say that they were all also among the “Women of Marvel”.

Looking at the broader event, and not just at Girl Comics, it is notable that none of the one-shots or limited series have been written or drawn by anyone from the anthology who could be considered Marvel outsiders. The “Women of Marvel” event has clearly created additional opportunities for creators already in the publisher’s orbit, such as artist Emma Rios and writer Kelly Sue DeConnick, and that is all for the good, but there have not been opportunities for the newcomers, many of whom are used to working independently, to apply their talents to longer works with Marvel characters, and particularly not on projects that would fall into ‘continuity’, that is, into the official history of the publisher’s storyworld.

On one level, this is fine and to be expected. Not all comics writers or artists want, or are inclined, to work with corporate properties, and not all of the Girl Comics stories are suggestive of work that could be translated into a regular series. Yet that doesn’t stop me from wondering what Faith Erin Hicks might be able to do with one of the X titles, or how good a Jill Thompson run on Marvel Adventures could be.

What goes without saying about the event is that there is no need for the “Men of Marvel” to be given special notice, no need for Boy Comics, because men and boys are already in creative control and in the foreground of the publisher’s universe. Women and girls are not. Though hardly framed this way by Marvel press releases, a concerted effort at inclusion like this year’s “Women of Marvel” is a means for going against the grain, or for disrupting the normal course of things wherein women, as writers, artists, and characters, are marginalized.

Seen in that light, the important question to ask about the event is, “What happens next?” What kinds of lasting opportunities will there be for women creators at Marvel? What life for female characters and titles headlined by women?

There’s always the risk that efforts like the “Women of Marvel” are token exercises, small measures taken in lieu of further reaching commitments to change in how women are regarded, as characters, as creators, and, ultimately, as readers. The official language of “celebration” is not encouraging on this point, as it implies commemorating what has already been achieved more than it does laying groundwork for the future, and, as seen in the ironies of Girl Comics, the past is checkered at best.

On the other hand, the announcement of ongoing series does suggest an attempt to look forward, and a commitment to support the development of female characters within the Marvel Universe. Though unrelated to the “Women of Marvel”, other new titles, notably Avengers Academy and Young Allies, at the outset at least, promise to place women characters at the fore of their narratives.

The most significant line to be crossed for female creators at Marvel, and in mainstream American comics more generally, is in the writing of men. Marjorie Liu (Black Widow, X-23) has already done this with Dark Wolverine, and Kelly Sue DeConnick and Emma Rios have a Norman Osborn mini-series coming this fall. However, a world where women creators have an equal chance to regularly (re)make male characters does not appear to be on the horizon. A world where they have the same chance as their male counterparts at marquee titles like The Avengers, Spider-Man, and Captain America seems even further away.

One fears with a title like Girl Comics is that it signifies a way of thinking about the medium that sequesters women to a special sandbox in the Marvel playground, reserving the bigger field for men and boys. Discussions of women and comics, especially women and superhero comics, often revolve around the idea that female readers are an untapped or undeveloped market for Marvel. “Girl Comics” reads as a way to signal to that market, “Hey, these are for you!”, as opposed, it would seem, to most of the publisher’s catalog.

While there are undoubtedly girls and women who read genre fiction or other kinds of comics who might be persuaded to start buying and reading Marvel titles by the right kinds of stories or creators, and good marketing, this notion devalues the women and girls who are already reading Marvel Comics, and not just the few titles that are ‘meant for them’, but the books that any Marvel geek wants to read.

It’s easy to take these readers for granted. After all, they buy and read without much special effort from the publisher, and they do so despite the thoughtless sexism, misogyny, and objectification of women that is all too common in the pages of American superhero comics. They are, nonetheless, part of Marvel’s loyal readership, and merit being catered to at least as much as, if not more than, any hypothetical, potential readers.

There isn’t any one way to capture the needs and desires of all the girls and women who read Marvel’s comics, anymore than there is one way to do so for men and boys, but treating and imagining female characters, creators, and readers as full human beings, and not as background, or afterthoughts, or always as special projects, seems like a reasonable starting point.

Many of the girls now growing up on Marvel will, like many of the boys, want to write and draw their favorite characters, or make their own, unique contributions to the Marvel universe. If 2010’s “Women of Marvel” event is to mean anything, let it mean that those girls get the chance to do just that, whether on a Kitty Pryde mini-series or The Amazing Spider-Man.

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