Some of the Greatest, Most Popular Comic Books Are Feminist

Spawn creator Todd McFarlane recently claimed that comics with political messages don't make good comics. But series like Wonder Woman and Sailor Moon prove him wrong.
Sam Howzit/flickr

Mainstream superhero comics are aimed at guys. That's why Starfire, a character best known for her stint as an empowering icon for girls on Saturday morning cartoons, gets turned into a voracious, literally brain-damaged, libido-driven pin-up girl when she's translated to comics. It's why Wonder Woman, best known as an empowering icon for girls, gets turned into an excuse for buckets of bloodshed and gun play in her most recent comics incarnation. Data is hard to come by, but best guesses seem to estimate that the readership of superhero comics is between 90 and 95 percent male.

Last week, ThinkProgress's Alyssa Rosenberg confronted a bunch of mainstream comics creators about the lopsided nature of their industry. The result was predictable, if depressing. Speaking from the stage of the Television Critics Association Press Tour in support of the superhero comics documentary Superheroes: The Never-Ending Battle, some of the most celebrated and influential creators in comics dutifully ran through a list of the shoddiest and silliest excuses for their genre's consistent misogyny and myopia. Executive producer Michael Kantor, Spawn creator Todd McFarlane, The Punisher creator Gerry Conway, and Wolverine creator Len Wein replayed the greatest hits from irate comments sections the web over. "As much as we stereotype the women, we do it with the guys" (McFarlane). "There's nothing stopping the people that want to do [comics about girls] from doing it," (McFarlane). "It's like saying, 'Why are there no medieval stories about female knights?' Because there was only one, you know, Joan of Arc. It's not it's an inherent limitation of that particular genre, superheroes" (Conway). Et cetera, et cetera.

Rosenberg shoots down most of these arguments efficiently (superheroes unlike knights aren't real, so there's no reason for them not to be women) and the others have been dispatched before (stereotypical male action hero bodies are not the same as stereotypical female stripper bodies). I'd like to look at one in particular that often comes up: The "politics don't make a good story" argument. Essentially, the assertion is that including political content in your art, especially feminist political content, makes for boring stories that drive people away. Or, as Todd McFarlane put it:

There hasn't really been historically a comic book that has worked that is trying to get across a kind of message, if you will... So the female characters that work are the ones that are just strong women that actually it's good storytelling, and the odd character that is a minority that works is the one that is just a good strong character. They've tried to do minority characters and bring that label and that surrounding [debate] into it. You're aware that you're reading a minority comic book. I think it's wrong.

There are various problems with this statement. The main one is that "historically," it is complete and utter hogwash. It simply is not true that superhero narratives with political messages have been unsuccessful. On the contrary, the most lauded, and really most popular, superhero stories of recent times have embraced explicit political content and controversy. With its fake Mandarin, Iron Man 3 is explicitly about Orientalism and prejudice. The Dark Knight Rises exploited the Occupy movement and class tensions. Buffy the Vampire Slayer, perhaps the most successful new superhero of the last 20 years, was a feminist model and dealt with feminist themes throughout its run.

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Noah Berlatsky is a contributing writer for The Atlantic. He edits the online comics-and-culture website The Hooded Utilitarian and is the author of the forthcoming book Wonder Woman: Bondage and Feminism in the Marston/Peter Comics, 1941-1948.

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