Body Representation at Comic Book Conventions
Whore, a Big City Comics title, is the story of an exiled CIA agent that will “do anything for money.” I imagine I approached the booth at C2E2 like a gunslinger would make his way across an emptying saloon towards a newcomer in town. The booth was easy enough to pass by as a self-respecting feminist: the book’s blown up cover art features its protagonist, framed in a triangle by three naked dames, and its convention schtick is to offer attendees a chance at a limited edition t-shirt. The t-shirt is only obtainable one way: attendees must sit in a cage for 20 minutes. The shirt simply says “Whore.”
It’s clear Jeffrey Kaufman, the book’s author, has talked to feminists before. However, he did not seem to have an explanation prepared. I won’t get into all the details of our conversation, but I will say that he sold me on his intentions with the book, and on him as an author. Kaufman knows exactly the crowd he’s marketing to: thrill seekers that enjoy twist endings. It’s hard to be offended by Whore because the author and marketing refuse to dress it up as anything other than what it is: a story of intrigue and greed, dressed up with gorgeous dames. Jacob Mars, the book’s protagonist, uses women as a means to an end, but (without giving away too much) women use him just as much.
The author clearly believes in the quality of his book, and he gave me as much time as I needed to get a feeling for the book’s content, knowing full well I had no intention of buying it. I came away feeling pretty okay about the treatment of women by Whore, while still being entirely comfortable in the knowledge that I never wanted to read it. I’m glad Kaufman took the time to speak with me, because something he said would color the entirety of C2E2 for me. While defending his book (Kaufman is also a licensed defense attorney), he motioned to blown up cover behind him and said, “Those are some of the smallest breasted women you will see anywhere on a comic book cover.”
There was some contention over this year’s C2E2 Artist Alley slots. Granted, there is always contention from those that don’t get a spot at big cons like this one, where there is serious money to be made, and fans to be introduced. Certain artists are expected to be there, and are a huge draw for attendees. That’s why many artists whose applications are accepted for conventions run by “pop culture event producers” like ReedPop are well-established in the industry, and work for the major players. While many of these artists still fall under the category of “struggling,” they’re more likely shoe-ins for tables at big cons. Being so mainstream focused means that much of the art at conventions like C2E2 propagates the same exhausted female imagery we expect so much, we’re nearly blind to it.
That’s not to say that all artists working on big titles are the ones entities like the Hawkeye Initiative so adeptly spoof. Many of them are not. But a lot of artists that fall under the independent category at big name cons are the ones redrawing characters they did not invent over and over again, perhaps even in the style of a better known artist, because this is what sells. Walking through Artist Alley, and even just the convention floor, the slogan seems to often be, “If it’s got tits, we’ll make them bigger, or get that uniform off ‘em!” (That one’s up for grabs.)
This convention norm actually makes it uncomfortable to walk the floor. For instance, I felt so exhausted it trying to find a favorite artist on the floor, or even just a single artist doing their own characters, I abandoned artist alley for a day and a half. Over all, I probably spent about 10% of my shopping time anywhere near the artists. This is not my usual con routine.
The portrayal of women by artists copying popular characters is offensive, and straight up boring. Instead of adding a new twist to the mythos of these old standbys, artists are taking their shirts off in well-known images, or enlarging their breasts. Come on! Characters like Harley Quinn, whose presence and character has undergone an incredible amount of sexualization in recent years, needs very little enhancement to successfully pull off an erotic image. Really, what are these artists going for? Erotic or ridiculous?
It is very difficult to take an artist seriously when their selling tits next to art they claim to be of a higher cast. Take, for example, Witchblade artist John Tyler Christopher. I bought one of his prints of Spider-Woman (it was a rare example of Jessica Drew with her clothes on), and I think he’s a very cool dude. However, it was impossible to even look at his more thought-out and personal art (like his illustrations of the Seven Deadly Sins), while the composition-ruining, ginormous globular masses that were Ms. Marvel and Zatanna’s tits were eclipsing my view.
Zatanna and Spider-Woman both have established sex appeal: Zatanna as a magician-showgirl, and Spider-Woman as a pheromone slinging mutant. The sex object status of characters like Harley Quinn and Ms. Marvel has much more to do with fan culture, awful costume design, and lack of continuity when it comes to body representation. Male characters tend to have some stability when it comes to body type: Captain America is a muscly, square high school football star, Superman tends to have that barrel-chested look, despite staying in shape on earth being totally useless (he’ll still be strongest, because its magic), and quick and agile characters like Nightwing are slim. The only continuity we get in female heroes from artist to artist, no matter their skills, is hair color (in most cases).
Finally, there is the unfortunate lot of groups representing the “other” at pop culture conventions. While less and less the case, entertainment like comic books is still being marketed to a white, male set. Groups like Sugar Gamers, a catch-all organization for female gamers, comic enthusiasts, and other nerds, have to deal with being all but sandwiched between, and lumped in with porn groups like Pixel Vixens, who advertise pornography by models that are “real geeks.” It’s extremely easy to look over groups promoting inclusive nerd cultures, such as Sugar Gamers, and the table-less (this year) comic book podcast org Comic Book Queers, because of the sheer numbers of exploitative art, total lack of diversity, and tired sexualization happening in nearly every other booth.
It’s not like fans aren’t asking about the physical representation of females in comics. In last year’s Vertigo panel, a woman stood up and questioned the decision to depict Lisbeth Salander, the protagonist of the Girl with a Dragon Tattoo series, naked on the first issue of its comic book adaptation, specifically in light of the fact that she is a survivor of rape. This year, a fan asked about Wonder Woman’s romantic entanglement with Superman. The question was framed, “Doesn’t Wonder Woman gravitating toward the one man stronger than her kind of defeat her purpose?” Brian Azzarello, current writer of the Wonder Woman title jumped in quickly to say, “Who says he’s stronger than her?” but it’s valid question. A couple more questions: What is the future of female characters, and what will that future look like for cons? How can we, as entertainment consumers, support a more even-handed representation?