Last time I probably spent too much time rebutting Colin Smith’s review of The Ultimates and extrapolations about its creators and publisher made from a single comic book. I said people needed to look at things in context. I want to make something clear: no one can tell anyone else what to be offended by. If Smith or anyone else was bothered by the Boys’ Club atmosphere in The Ultimates, that’s their reaction and I can’t tell them not to be bothered. Recently commenters across the people across the Internet have been bothered by a plethora of things in the Superhero World: the prolific use of “bitch” in Arkham City, the New 52′s depiction of characters like Catwoman and Starfire, overall representation of women in comics, and probably several issues I’ve forgotten. People are entitled to be bothered by whatever they want, and I’m inclined to join them in their dismay at all of these things. But to the collected Internet Team Comics Blogosphere, I want to say one thing: It Could Be Worse.
Now, I understand that’s a loaded statement. There are three main reasons someone might say “It Could Be Worse”.
1) A variation on #firstworldproblems: This is not my intention in the least. We’re all writing about funnybooks. People have interests — really, people need interests — beyond Big Picture Social Justice. I don’t think anyone believes that Catwoman is more important than famine, disease, slavery, or oppression. The idea that you should not express displeasure unless you’re actively being murdered is insane. So no, that’s not what I’m saying.
2) Back In My Day We Walked To School Uphill in the Snow: Yes, as first worlders with first world problems, we are pampered. We have clean water to drink and food to eat and smartphones to look up where to eat that food and disposable income to buy comics and unpredecented outlets from which to conveniently broadcast opinions about said comics. Putting aside my personal White Heterosexual Male privlege for a minute, I know that many of the people who I most enjoy reading the opinions of wouldn’t have been given that outlet a few generations ago. A few more generations back, they wouldn’t be able to vote or own land or marry their chosen partner or who knows what else because society could be unfathomably, cartoonishly, shitty not that long ago. I know all of that. But again, just because you’re not being actively Jim Crowed or disenfranchised or murdered does not mean you should not express displeasure at the problems you encounter in today’s less obviously shitty environment.
3) Things Can Get Better: This is what I am trying to say.
I’ve been an active Comic Book Person for nearly a quarter of a century, and I can say with some confidence that Things Were A Lot Worse fifteen years ago. While largely a cultural relic, the Android’s Dungeon style comic book shop, a smelly and insular girl-fearing nerd warren that justifiably frightened any number of potential female (and less
Before last month’s New 52 relaunch saw the debut issues of Batgirl, Batwoman, and Wonder Woman crack the Top 20 Books of the month, the only books of the past five years which achieved such high rankings were the Blackest Night Wonder Woman mini-series, a handful of the Batwoman Detective Comics issues, and two dozen issues of Buffy the Vampire Slayer Season Eight. Scanning the rest of the 2000s are similar slim pickings: the first few issues of the mid-decade Supergirl and Wonder Woman relaunch, the first issue of a Red Sonja relaunch,and that’s about it.
But travel back to the late 1990s, and the Top Twenty Sales Chart is chock full of ladies. And what ladies they were! It was the Bad Girl Era, and books starring Angela, Darkchylde, Dawn, Fathom, Glory, Lady Death, Shi, Tomb Raider, Tomoe, Witchblade, not to mention the conspicuously buxom and undressed casts of Ascension, Battle Chasers, Danger Girl, Gen 13, and other books were major hits. Check out these covers: these were best-sellers.
This is just the tip of the iceberg. I recently stumbled across a couple issues of Previews I inexplicably kept for over fifteen years, and the sheer volume of skeezy Bad Girl content pumped out and (presumably) read is staggering. And it’s not just this sort of soft-softcore junk! I haven’t even scratched the surface of the sexually suggestive advertising! The Swimsuit/Lingerie issues! The weird photo covers! The trading cards! The statue of a robot performing cunnilingus on a naked lady! The Bad Girl comic that — I swear I am not making this up, and a copy is on its way to my house as we speak for review purposes — had an “interactive CD-ROM comic” called VIOLATION: THE RAPE OF HARI KARI.
I mention this all because all of this blew my mind when I found it, and in the comic weeks I want to write about all it. This was — at least in part — the state of things in Team Comics in 1997. None of this shit would fly in 2011, nor should it. And while that is a very low hurdle to leap, it does provide hope. The state of women in comics is better now than it was fifteen years ago, and if people keep working, it can (and should) improve further. But if anyone thinks it’s never going to improve, that it is forever a Boys’ Club cesspool, just remember that it has been worse. And hope that down the line, we can point at 2011 as a “Could Be Worse” milemarker.