Re-Reading Girl Comics

Back in 2013 in “On Collecting Comics & Critical Nostalgia,” I wrote about how sometimes my scholarly work with comics is driven by a desire to critically interrogate comics that I have some kind of nostalgic feelings about, and my desire to “boost. . .the voices of those so often silenced by the nostalgia of the dominant culture.” However, while that shapes my hunt for back issues, there is another impetus that influences what contemporary comic books I buy when I discover them on the shelf: comics that—in content or intention—seems to be addressing to some degree the under-representation of women and minorities. I don’t always get a chance to spend the time I imagine I might with these comics, and they end up lost in the tightly packed short boxes stashed around my office. Years later, when storing recently acquired comics, or re-organizing the boxes to make room for comics I anticipate getting, I rediscover them. It is then that I make time to re-read them closely and write about them. This is exactly what happened recently when I came across the three issues that make up the 2010 limited series, Girl Comics.

I remember looking through these comics cursorily when I picked them up, but not being impressed with them. I didn’t buy them because I recognized most of the names of the creators or editors involved, but rather because I didn’t. Despite the increasing visibility of some of the women that work (or until recently, worked) at the Big Two, generally speaking, their work is less commonly lauded as the countless men who have. So, if Marvel was celebrating women by having a series written, drawn and edited exclusively by women, and including features on several of the unsung women in Marvel Bullpen history, then I was going to support it in the hope of encouraging new and more diverse female voices. To be honest, however, I also wanted to remain vigilant for how Marvel might inevitably fuck it up. The editorial climate at Marvel has never seemed conducive to non-white and/or non-men shaping its legendary Bullpen (though this is not exclusive to Marvel, as DC and smaller publishers have had their share of harassment and abuse). I might be disappointed, but I’m never surprised when, through male-centered cluelessness, a publisher undermines its ostensible goal of highlighting the history and talents of women comics creators.

Girl Comics was envisioned as a way to commemorate the 30th anniversary of both the first appearance of She-Hulk and of the Women’s History Project. It was also a part of a year-long Women of Marvel project, which included a series by that name (and one thoughtlessly called Her-Oes—think about it), one-shots for characters like Namora, Lady Deadpool, and Sif, and a bunch of variant covers. Unlike Girl Comics, these other initiatives were not women-only in terms of creators and editors.

The three issues of Girl Comics feature several two-to-five page stories, some pin-up art, and the aforementioned feature articles. As I said above, I did not recognize many of the names of the women who worked on this comic back in 2010. I do recognize most now.  I think this is because many of those women have reached wider success, but also because I have made an effort to diversify my comics reading. Among those now-recognized names was that of co-editor Sana Amanat, who a couple of years later would be responsible for getting G. Willow Wilson’s Ms. Marvel off the ground. This connection suggests the degree to which Amanat is dedicated to get women’s voices heard at Marvel Comics, and some success in her efforts. She is now also Director of Content and Character Development at Marvel, and has been the subject of features at the Washington Post.

When I saw Girl Comics on the shelf at my local comics shop, however, I chuckled because the name itself seemed tone deaf. “Marvel wants to honor women in comics, but then they call the series itself ‘Girl Comics’? Typical.” I imagined the series was going to be like the atrocious male-penned Marvel Divas series from 2009. At the time, I didn’t know that there was a history to the name. Girl Comics was originally a Timely Comics title that began its bi-monthly run in 1947. It was a romance comic that took a turn towards a genre called “Girls Adventure” (think Nancy Drew), and changed its name to Girl Confessions with issue #14. Turns out reviving the name was a controversial choice even among the women who made the comic book. In a Comics Alliance interview with the series’ editors, co-editor Jeanine Schaefer explains that, “A lot of people kept saying, ‘Do we have to put ‘girl’ on it?’… I know some people take issue with the word ‘girl,’ but I don’t think that there’s anything wrong with it.” Sana Amanat adds, “I feel like people get stuck on the terms ‘woman’ and ‘girl’ and on gender stereotypes, but there’s nothing wrong with being a girl.” Amanat and Schaefer come off as a little defensive in the interview. I infer that they were sincerely hurt by criticism of the name, which seems most obvious when Amanat calls the concern “over-dramatized.”  I get it. I can only imagine the varying degrees of both explicit and systemic pressure a project like this might get, and the protectiveness that comes from being criticized by other women while trying to shape comics in a positive way for women. (You can see a roundup of articles and blog posts about the tile and the project from around that time here, but the internet being what it is, a lot of the links are unfortunately broken).

I can understand the desire to reclaim the title in order to empower it. There can be value in taking a term that might be used pejoratively by male comics fans­­­­—who think of their favored comics as “real” comics as opposed to “for girls”—in order to lessen its sting.  In this case, however, I am not sure that it works given the comic’s context on the shelf among countless male-dominated comics or the unsurprisingly uneven work within its covers. I say, “unsurprisingly” not because it was created by women, but because most anthology comics are uneven, and let’s face it, most comics—like examples of any other media—are not very good. The difference for a case like this is in potential reception. Male creators are allowed to be mediocre longer, and are sometimes even rewarded for it. A woman writer or artist, on the other hand, has a much smaller window than her male counterpart to establish herself. And, in too many cases, need simply exist to draw the ire of male “fans.” In other words, there is little in these three issues that represents the amazing work women comics can and do create, so as a representation of what “girl comics” can be it falls short.

An example of Coover’s introductory art (from Girl Comics #1)

Furthermore, I am not sure that Marvel did very much to promote this limited series. I just happened to find it on the shelf. I don’t remember any house ads in other comics coming out at the time, or any promotions inside or outside of the comic shop environment. The fact that the first issue only sold about 13.5k issues (dropping down to 8k by the third issue) reflects that lack of promotion as much as it reflects any resistance to something called “Girl Comics.” The hardcover collection of all three issues that came out in September of 2010 sold fewer than 600 copies in that month. And, though presumably it could have sold a lot more since then, we also have to keep in mind that all these numbers represent not how many got into readers’ hands, but how many were ordered by shops. Who knows how many ended up in back issue bins or up on the clearance shelf?

Welcome to “Girly Drinks” Kitty Pryde, hope you survive the experience!

Worst of all, the goal of the series seems muddled. When in the same interview cited above, Amanat goes on to talk about making comics “girl-friendly” the potential confusions that come when you don’t make a clear distinction between girls and women start to appear. For the most part, the material in the Girl Comics limited series is not kid-friendly, and girls (and boys) are kids. For example, there is a To Catch a Predator-style Punisher story by Valerie d’Orazio and Nikki Cook in issue #1, and stories involving a coming-of-age visit to a sex worker-cum-lifeforce vampire by Kelly Sue DeConnick, Adriana Melo, and Mariah Benes, and a peek in at Wolverine taking Kitty Pryde for her first drink at 21 written by Carla Speed McNeil in issue #3. At the same time, Girl Comics #2 features a picture book style story—and overloaded with cramped text—by Robin Furth, Agnes Garbowska, and Kristyn Ferretti, starring Franklin and Valeria Richards, so it is really hard to tell who this series is supposed to be for, given the range of material. Who did the editors hope to reach with this series?

Yet, there is a lot to like about what is inside Girl Comics.

Colleen Coover contributes beautifully rendered pages that introduce each issue. She has the kind of comic art style I tend to favor in contemporary cape books. I’d never heard of her, but looking her up I see she’s done work on a handful of Marvel books in the late 00s, focusing on creator-owned work since then. I need to check it out. These pages are less a story and more a kind of survey of female superheroes, each dominating in their own small panel, but finishing each other’s aphoristic reasons (or lack thereof) for entering the superhero game. Ultimately, the reasons are no different than those of male superheroes, and I appreciate how none of the reasons or goals focus on the female heroes in relation to male heroes. Their reasons and goals are their own. The full-page splashes of the superheroines in action that end each of her contributions are particularly lovely, and the one in Girl Comics #3 is a self-portrait of Coover herself at her drawing table, visually aligning women creators with the heroes, and explaining, “We do it because we love it.” Coover also contributes the art on “Good to Be Lucky,” the Shamrock-starring story in issue #2, which finds the ethnically-defined Irish heroine, retired from the superhero biz and running a hair salon. Unfortunately, Katheryn Immonen’s dialogue has Molly spending a little too much time bemoaning the size of her ass, which along with a handful of other choices by other contributors throughout the three issues, does more to reinforce what are stereotypical womanly concerns than to do their part to provide diverse alternatives. I guess, I could read it as a Maggie Chascarillo-like moment (and she is drawn lovingly with that Maggie cuteness), but it feels unnecessary, especially in an otherwise fun story imagining friendships among Marvel’s super women (and beating up Paste-Pot Pete).

Trina Robbins and Stephanie Buscema return Venus to her romance comics roots.

In Girl Comics #1, Stephanie Buscema (John Buscema’s granddaughter) and the legendary Trina Robbins revisit Venus (who most recently appeared in Agents of Atlas) with a call back to her days starring in her own romance comic book in the 1950s. She returns to her old job to discover both how things have changed and how they’ve remained the same for the workplace. Buscema’s art style is very different, not only from the Marvel house style that her grandfather and great-uncle helped shape, but from what you’d find in any superhero books today. It is very painterly in a way that evinces a bright cartoony expressiveness. She also contributes word and pictures to a story featuring the Thing and Human Torch prank-calling Dr.Doom, evoking the playfulness of the Lee/Kirby era of the Fantastic Four.

Doc Ock’s dream girl? (from Girl Comics #1)

Lucy Knisley’s two-page comic, “Doc Shop,” (Girl Comics #1) presents a sympathetic Dr. Octopus long before Dan Slott ever sought to, and Jill Thompson’s “Dogged Pursuit” in Girl Comics #3—featuring bath time for everybody’s favorite Inhuman, Lockjaw—is cute as heck. Faith Erin Hicks (with the help of Cris Peter on coloring) has Elsa Bloodstone and Boom-Boom (made famous in their appearances in NEXTWave) contemplating turning supervillain in response to the typical attitudes of young men when the latter overhears some talking about how they’d use X-ray vision to spy on unsuspecting girls.

Boom Boom overhears boys being gross. (from Girl Comics #2)

Carla Speed McNeil (who works on one of my favorite current ongoing Image series, No Mercy) contributes the aforementioned story about Kitty Pryde’s birthday, and Wolverine’s penchant for buying her “girly” drinks. It is the kind of X-Men story I miss. There is no earth-shattering event to draw them all together—something Kitty even notes—just friendship, and bonding with some other folks from the superhero community.

The greatest delight for me personally was seeing Louise Simonson and June Brigman teaming back up in Girl Comics #3 to bring Power Pack back to life for a story based back when they were hanging out with X-Factor, and the former X-Men were living in the Apocalypse-supplied Celestial sentient ship, named “Ship.” Admittedly, the story is meant to just stoke nostalgia and isn’t too significant or even especially inventive, but whatever, nostalgia stoked. Mission Accomplished. It’s just fun to see the Power kids trying to get through babysitting the baby-that-would-be-Cable while being attacked by Snarks. I went back and re-read some of my favorite issues of Power Pack of that era as a result, which I had not done since writing about the series’ “Crack Trilogy.” I never fail to enjoy them. Both of these women, but Simonson especially, don’t get enough credit for their roles in Marvel comics of that era.

Ann Nocenti’s contribution in the same issue, on the other hand, didn’t feel indicative of her best work or the weight of her influence. The story (if you can call it that) features her creation, Typhoid Mary, at a bar, going through different personalities, but it is hard to follow, and Molly Crabapple’s art is so dark and discordantly raw that the whole thing is hard to read. There are also other stories that I did not like, but feel timid about actually criticizing them too much. This isn’t because I don’t think women can or should handle tough criticism, but because the stories are no worse than plenty of things in Big Two comics written or drawn by men, and I don’t want my criticism to seem based on gender, or taken by those looking to bolster their trollish anti-woman opinions about comics with my words.

I will say, however, that some of the choices do seem weird, like the inclusion of She-Hulk bondage pin-up by Sana Takeda (who currently does the beautiful and much more sophisticated art on Monstress) meant to evoke the infamous naked She-Hulk jumping rope issue of Sensational She-Hulk (#40) by John Byrne, with its premise that readers were clamoring to see her naked.

Sana Takeda’s art has improved dramatically in style between Girl Comics #3 (2010) and Monstress #1 (2015)

Flo Steinberg as depicted in What If #11: “What If the Fantastic Four Were the Original Marvel Bullpen?” (Oct 1978)

The best choice, by far, however, are the features on women behind the scenes in Marvel history: Flo Steinberg, June Tarpe Mills, Valerie Barclay, Marie Severin, Linda Fite, Louise Simonson, Ann Nocenti, and Glynis Oliver. My only complaint is I wish their stories were in comics form (though I do appreciate that as Marvel’s in-house proofreader, Steinberg proofed the copy on her own feature). There is no feature, however, for Ramona Fradon, who started working in superhero comics in the 1950s, created Metamorpho and the Wonder Twins for DC comics, and contributes a pin-up of Miss America in Girl Comics #2.

I love finding out more about these women because they so often seem like footnotes (at best) in the history and narrative of the Marvel Bullpen. The features also made me wonder how many other women were involved in the making of some of our favorite comics that we don’t know about. We must critically consider the expectations on women to discuss their time at Marvel in a genial way. (Ultimately, Girl Comics also serves as a way for Marvel Comics to pat itself on the back with minimal effort). The features made me wonder what these women could not say, and what unnamed and unremembered women that might have felt less willing to swallow the “Boys Club” environment of the Bullpen might have said if that geniality was not an unspoken condition of being featured. When Severin mentions that the male artists did not see her as “competition” and that “sometimes [she] wanted to rip people’s heads off,” I read it as carefully measured criticism covering over gender-based frustration. Severin’s restraint suggests more than simple annoyance.

And that is what this series mostly has me thinking about: the invisibility of women in the industry; thinking about the very need for such a series and how it must inevitably fail regardless of the editors’ noble goals, not only because of the lack of support beyond the minimum required to back such a one-off ultimately forgettable project, but because of the inevitable burden of representing “women in comics.” It might be unfair to call this series a failure, but only because it is impossible to know what this series was supposed to accomplish. The format alone made sure that even those few thousands that got to see the work did not have much by which to judge the creators. Yes, as I mentioned at the outset, a lot of the names I did not recognize back when I first read through Girl Comics are now much better known, and many have moved through the Big Two to go on to their own creator-owned projects. Kelly Sue DeConnick and Marjorie Liu, for example, have successful series over at Image—Bitch Planet and Monstress, respectively. Thanks to Ms. Marvel, G. Willow Wilson is well-known, but she should be one of many female Marvel Comics superstars, shaping that universe, but I don’t see much of that at all.  The success of Ms. Marvel has not led to Wilson getting even close to the support and influence that someone like Brian Michael Bendis has as reward for his successes, or even the opportunities that mid-tier Marvel writers like Al Ewing and Charles Soule, who are doing mediocre work, but seem to always get a chance to do lots of it.

The area in which Girl Comics does roundly fail is in casting a spotlight on women of color through being more inclusive of them in this project. While the contributors are diverse in style, they are mostly heterogeneous in demographic representation. Of the 46 individual artists and writers involved, as best as I could determine, 38 are white women, five are Asian or Asian-American, three are non-Black Latinas, and none are Black. Those are unacceptable numbers, and reinforces how even the best-intentioned projects can recapitulate the very forces they seek to counteract through a failure to consider the intersectionality of multiple identities.

“Dogged Pursuit” from Girl Comics #3.

There are degrees of invisibility, but to whatever degree it affects the careers of women in comics the majority of mainstream comics readers are responsible for not knowing these women’s names and their work, because we have not done the necessary work to make sure we sample widely enough to make sure we are at least trying out the work of women writers and artists. And yet, it remains work because of the institutional bias and the frequent toxicity of work environments, factors that overwhelmingly favor men, and support their mediocrity. As many women in comics as there may seem to be now in relation to just seven years ago, they are still a drop in the bucket compared to the number of men making comics with institutional support. A recent Bleeding Cool article by Tim Hanley crunches the numbers of gender representation and creators at Marvel and DC only reinforces this. Only 16.3% and 17.1% of credited creators at DC and Marvel respectively are women. Furthermore, while male writers write male and female led titles at about equal rates, women writers are overwhelmingly put on female-led books. These numbers are unacceptable. Most of the stories in Girl Comics focus on women characters, but several focus on male characters ranging from Nightcrawler to the Punisher to Doctor Strange and the Thing, which is how it should be. Supporting women creators means not relegating them to only writing about women, but allowing them the full range of expression and characters as any man.

Each issue of Girl Comics ends with a few pages of biographical blurbs about writers and artists providing the information readers need to find their other work. It is such a neat idea, I wonder why normal monthly comics don’t do this, especially for fill-in artists and/or writers. Even this little bit of extra support could go a long way for those writers and artists who get work less regularly, or are new in the mainstream. This is especially true when the contributors are from groups under-represented in comics.

Ultimately, I cannot recommend Girl Comics even if I can recommend many of the writers and artists whose work is included within. However, it is notable as an example of both the commendable efforts of women working as editors at Marvel trying to shape the output of their company in a positive way, and the obvious failure of Marvel publishing to invest in the actual diversity they often purport to have when convenient for marketing purposes (and quick to blame for the same reasons). Yes, since 2010 there have been a number of women writing and drawing at Marvel, but Marvel’s recent sales woes suggest not only that Marvel sees diversity as a liability, but that they are not really interested in adopting new marketing strategies to make use of this pool of talent. It is as if to some degree to Marvel there is a such thing as “girl comics,” and they will always be distinct from what they see as their core focus. And that’s a shame.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s