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Freakish Outliers
Excerpt from ¡Journalista! for May 11, 2007


Now that's superhero decadence. Yellowjacket and the Wasp make creative use of their shrinking powers in this actual page from Avengers #71, ©2004 Marvel Characters Inc.


What's most fascinating about the comment thread to this commentary by Johanna Draper Carlson — about modern superhero comics not being written for women — is the insane degree to which a few of Carlson's outraged correspondents ignore what Carlson says and jump on their traditional hobbyhorses in search of strawmen to kick. My favorite example, courtesy of Livia:

"Girls like princesses, boys like heroes. Anyone who thinks outside the box is a freakish outlier. Oh, but I'm saying that in a nice way." That's the entire substance of your post, seems like. When you so strictly and uncritically reproduce such silly old-fashioned gender stereotypes, what other conclusion can be drawn except that you agree with them?

Livia does her point of view no favors by jumping in with an endless series of posts meant to villify and distort a contrary point of view, rather than engaging the discussion in more lucid point/counterpoint fashion. I mean, if there's one person in this thread I wouldn't accuse of "thinking outside the box," it's Livia. The last time I saw arguments this relentlessly Manichean, I was a child sitting in the pews of a Seventh Day Adventist church service devoted to the evils of "secular debauchery."

Carlson offers a reaction to the argument in a follow-up thread, then returns again with some demographic statistics from the genre's heyday in the 1990s. It's interesting reading, all told.

In general, I agree with Carlson's argument, but I would say that the current kerfuffle is little more than a reflection of a larger problem, which isn't sexism so much as the continuing effort to wedge an adult sensibility into a genre created for children. I've taken to calling this phenomenon "superhero decadence," and it occurs to me that I should define my terms a bit. By "decadence" I don't mean sexual deviance, but rather "jaded but unwilling to move on." Readers of modern superhero comics seem to be chasing a cherished moment from childhood without quite understanding that they're no longer the people capable of enjoying that moment with the same wide-eyed wonder. Possessed of a more adult outlook, they thus insist on reading modern variants of the superhero comics that they loved as teenagers, but with a point of view more appropriate to The Sopranos than Teen Titans. The results read like an adult crime drama featuring all the excess sex, violence and a zombie-like attempt at the sophistication of an HBO television series but with a cast composed entirely of professional wrestlers. Would you watch Glengarry Glen Ross if it starred Hulk Hogan and Rowdy Roddy Piper? (Okay, I would too. That would be funny. But you get my point.)

Put it this way: My problem with this image...


All hail the Switchblade Supergirl Fuckdoll, a joke you can milk forever. Panel from Supergirl #14, ©2007 DC Comics.


...isn't that it's misogynist, but that it's fucking ridiculous. This looks like sexual-fetish material, sure, but it would have exactly the same weird-ass vibe if both of the depicted characters were men. This image isn't "sexist," it's emotionally stunted. Wrapped in the garb of teenage fantasy, it cannot help but take on an air of unreality that no infusion of sex or violence will dispel. Sixty years of accumulated kiddybook clichés won't suddenly become adult reading material if you add lesbian relationships, hardcore gore or extended scenes of chartered accountancy. The latter only throw spotlights on the childishness of the former. Sexual objectification isn't the problem. This picture would actually be more acceptable to adults if the women it depicted were naked and going after one another with knives. Genre-mandated sublimation and ritual creates the effect. The creepiness comes from the costumes. Looked at from any other perspective than that of the diehard fanboy or fangirl, these two women are wearing pervert suits.

Mandating a set of rules intended to show respect for women wouldn't make superhero decadence any more palatable to new female readers than the current comics have proven capable of fostering new male readers. For non-initiates, the majority of these comics are arcane in reference, contain a bizarre and incompatable mixture of juvenilia and adult content, and just aren't very much fun to read. These days, superhero comics are written for men between 25-35 years of age who've been reading such things for a decade or more, and their creators long ago lost sight of what once made superhero comics a mass-market genre. They aren't written for women, but neither are they written for men who don't fit the demographic. They certainly don't appeal to children. Modern superhero comics aren't anti-female: They're anti-reader. Fix that problem, and the rest will fix itself.


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