DC and Marvel have caused a lot of controversy lately around their female-led titles, with Marvel dropping the last two female solo ongoings and DC releasing some very questionable rebooted titles, the most notorious being Catwoman.
Over the past few years, I’ve dabbled with different publishers, but I always find myself looking at the Big Two for something to read. I enjoy reading the female-centric comics, and the latest events have got me torn. I love superhero comics, or at least the principle behind them. I can get past many of the tropes and clichés that they come with, whether it’s an unrealistic resilience to explosions or conveniently indestructible-around-the-crotch costumes, but I struggle with the way women are frequently represented. DC are both the best for it, but also the worst, whereas Marvel are generally somewhat consistent in their portrayals.
DC currently have Batwoman, Wonder Woman, Supergirl, Birds of Prey, Batgirl – some really good titles with brilliant female characters, Batwoman being notable for its positive and tasteful attitude towards sexuality, but these characters were contrasted by three notable titles from the reboot: Catwoman, Suicide Squad and Red Hood And The Outlaws. These titles brought with them ridiculous costumes, hypersexualisation and questionable plot events. We saw Catwoman have her way with Batman, Harley Quinn walk around in a costume that almost makes Emma Frost (X-Men) look prudish and Starfire walk around in a bikini whilst making sexual comments. The latter might not seem controversial to some, but it’s worth bearing in mind that the issue was rated Teen, ie for ages twelve or above. io9 ran a story when that issue came out which centred around a seven year old girl. Obviously, she was below the story’s target rating, but it’s worth bearing in mind that she – like some other comics fans her age – had been exposed to DC’s Teen Titans series, and as such was familiar with Starfire and even looked up to her. Her reaction can be summed up as “she’s just after attention” but also she didn’t want to be like this new version. I find that utterly shocking, the fact that a young girl can pick up on DC’s changes and point out (almost) everything that’s wrong with them without even fully understanding what the meaning is.
I’ve also got to bring up Babs. For over twenty years we knew her as Oracle, one of the most inspiring and empowering characters to ever exist in comics, and before that she was Batgirl. She was not only a positive role model to women, but she was one of the few disabled superheroes to have a prominent place in a mainstream series. My main experience with her as Oracle is in the Batgirl (Stephanie Brown) trades, and I felt she was a brilliantly written character. In the reboot, by making her Batgirl again, they took a massive misstep. It worked as an issue, but I was gobsmacked that it happened as well as the “oh, you know, I just kind of got over it” explanation. I won’t say I felt insulted, but I was almost disgusted by how twenty years of Oracle got brushed aside without even an up-front explanation. Babs should have been left in her chair, because that’s what allowed her to become something else, something better. DC did her and her fans a disservice by “healing” her. That’s not to say she’s problem-free, of course, as she has paralysing fears and doubts, but compared to her history it seems very weak and feeble, perhaps even wrong.
On the other hand, Marvel seem to be on a straight line with how their women are portrayed. Big breasts with (at least) moderately sexualised figures as a standard, and there a couple of characters with absolutely ridiculous costumes – namely Emma Frost. They don’t seem to go as extreme as DC have in either direction, and they seem to focus little on the female characters anyway, with their emphasis being more on teams. Even though groups are more common in Marvel, it doesn’t stop their representations being poor at times. They have some potentially excellent characters in their stable, many of whom go vastly underused, especially with regards to the X-Men. They did do the Women Of Marvel event, but it was shortlived and consisted of titles that generally weren’t anything great. They’ve dropped X-23 in the past month, which I found to be quite shocking as I was under the impression it did well, but I went out and bought an issue (#17) and I found myself suprised that Marvel would drop such a well-drawn and written series.
Marvel don’t seem to have as many prominent women as DC, in my experience. They tend to sit in the background or appear as parts of teams rather than lead and command. You’ll get the odd one making waves, but largely the men rule the roost. That annoys me a bit, especially with the frequency at which Marvel recycle the same plot points and events. Wolverine and Cyclops falling out, the Avengers coming together, a spinoff of a team here, the Hulk going a bit loopy once more. It’s like they’re not giving anyone a chance to lead anything unless they’re Captain America, Iron Man, Wolverine or Spider-Man. They have no real equivalent to the Birds Of Prey, their big teams seem to lack any real sense of diversity and are instead just a conglomerate of who happened to be stood around nearby, and it puts me off, if I’m honest. That’s not to say women haven’t had big roles – in the past years, Emma Frost has been leading parts of the X-Men and I’ve been told that Storm also took command at one point – but largely they’re just below the top at best.
I feel I should also mention costumes and art styles, as they can be rather poor. I have nothing against the typical lycra/PVC/latex/spandex catsuit or its variants. I think they’re actually great, and are really practical when one thinks about physical combat, and they’re not really sexualised unless drawn that way, such as the zipper being undone halfway down Rogue’s ample bosom. The art is also a problem, as there’s little consistency across titles and artists, something I feel Marvel and DC need to work on. As an example, I’ll focus on Pixie. In Pixie Strikes Back, she was depicted as having a fairly modest figure, but in the Free Comic Book Day 2008 issue (collected in Uncanny X-Men: Manifest Destiny), she’d become much more busty and wore some questionable outfits. It’s happened to many characters from both publishers, and I wish it’d stop.
What I want, personally, is for Marvel and DC to wake up. There are women who read comics, and there are people out there who want more realistic figures and characters. We’re not asking for major changes, but simply for the artists to be reigned in and for some more focus on women. I’ll also say I think the male characters often suffer from exaggerated art styles, but it’s much less noticeable and perhaps a little less of a problem. There are some excellent titles coming out now, and they should be the standard, not the cream of the crop. I hope that within the coming years that both DC and Marvel shift to more positive representations, but also that Marvel in particular really begin to give women some of the spotlight again