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The Patron Saint of Superheroes

Chris Gavaler Explores the Multiverse of Comics, Pop Culture, and Politics

Guest blogger, Madeleine Gavaler.

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Lynda Barry’s graphic memoir One! Hundred! Demons! is part of one of the most traditionally masculine of genres—comics. Mainstream comics are naturalistic and male focused, and Lynda Barry works against the norms of the genre by drawing in a cartoonish and scrapbook-like style, and by addressing her audience explicitly as “gals.” She presents a new type of heroine who is girlish without having a naturalistic and sexualize-able body. The childhood sexual trauma that Barry explores in her memoir deeply informs her treatment of girlness and her anti-sexualization of female bodies. Lynda Barry’s girlhood self is a superheroine, battling her demons and misogyny, as well as the superhero comics norms that further rape culture.

Women are underrepresented in comics, and when they are represented, they are sexualized and drawn in ways that play into misogynistic stereotypes. In Superwomen: Gender, Power, and Representation, comics scholar Carolyn Cocca explains the role female subjects have played in the graphic genre. She finds that in mainstream superhero comics between 1993 to 2013, women and girls make up less than a quarter of the characters, with superheroines of color far more underrepresented, “in ways that reinforce both racial and gendered stereotypes” (4). These females were portrayed as “more fearful, more supportive, more interested in romance, and more sexualized… more prone than male characters to be in revealing attire, to be nude, and to have their looks referenced by other characters” (Cocca 4).

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Comics are overwhelmingly written and drawn by white men, depict white male characters, and are assumed to be read by white males. As Walt Hickey writes in the article, “Comic Books Are Still Made By Men, For Men And About Men,” “to say the comic book industry has a slight gender skew is like saying Superman is kind of strong.” At DC and Marvel, the main comics publishers, men outnumber women nine to one, and roughly 79 percent of employees are white (Five Thirty Eight). The audience of mainstream comics is usually understood to be white men and boys.

In mainstream comics, girlness is linked to sexualization and objectification. Cocca explains that the comics genre understands the “white, male, and powerful” to be the “natural, neutral norm” (219). Over decades of comics history, many female characters have been depicted as “weak, emotional, (hetero)romance-driven caricatures of ‘feminine,’ or strident, humorless, one-note cardboard cutouts of ‘feminist’” (Cocca 220). Even when female characters have been central and powerful, this power come with aggressive sexualization, which Cocca says primes the reader to link female-ness with sex objects (221). Semi-nudity and one-dimensionality has trivialized women in the comics genre so that they are objects not meant to be empathized or identified with.

Not only are mainstream comics male-oriented, they are also drawn in a style that attempts to draw human bodies as they appear in real life. Comics scholar Joseph Witek finds that within the graphic genre, drawings fall into categories of either naturalism or cartoons. Cartoons, Witek states, grow out of caricature, based in simplification and exaggeration, while naturalism derives from realistically recreating physical appearances (28). The cartoon mode does not attempt to “create a sustained illusion of three-dimensional space by such means as shading or the use of linear perspective” (Witek 29). Cartoon conventions “include the extensive use of the icons called ‘emanata,’ such as the sweat beads, dust clouds, speed lines, and many other symbols that have become closely associated with traditional humor cartooning” (29). Witek argues that stories drawn in the cartoon mode are “fundamentally unstable” within an “infinitely mutable physical reality;” bodies are not confined to the laws of physics and instead follow an associative or emotional logic, even changing suddenly to depict emotions or circumstances (30).

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Whereas traditional superhero comics follow the naturalistic mode, Lynda Barry’s style is aggressively cartoonish. Her character’s faces are always exaggerated and anatomically impossible. The naturalistic style of mainstream superhero comics goes hand in hand with its gender bias, and Barry’s opposition against the masculine norms of the genre must be understood in both her cartoonish style and female subject matter. By not using the naturalist mode, Barry subverts the norms of drawing superheroines and refuses to play into the sexualized, misogynistic conventions that dominate representations of women in comics. Barry is not interested in drawing life-like, large, perky breasts in spandex—she is interested in a different kind of femininity and femaleness.

In One! Hundred! Demons! Barry specifically designates her audience as female. She refers to her audience as “gals” twice: “Gals, ever felt so intimidated by the idea of writing that you’ve never even given it a try?” and on the next panel, “and yes, gals—the first thing I read in the papers is still the ‘lost and found’” (216). Because the implied audience of comics is so often understood to be male, Barry must explicitly name her audience in opposition to the norms of the genre.

In addition to her cartoonish style, Barry also employs a collage-style to introduce each of her chapters, which further subverts the gendered expectations of comics readers. The chapters begin with a two-page spread that resembles a scrapbook, in which she includes words and images that illuminate the themes of the chapter. For instance, the chapter “Headlice” begins with a scrapbook-like spread complete with a pink background, glitter hearts, flowers, ribbons, and adorable smiling drawings of headlice (14-15). All of Barry’s subject matter is encased within perhaps the most gendered of all artistic mediums—scrapbooking. These pages are not just collages; they evoke the cutesy scrapbooks every stay at home mom worked on while you played with Barbies on a near-by carpeted floor on playdates. No matter how universal her subject matter is, it can only be reached by passing pages with glitter hearts. Barry firmly situates her work within the traditionally feminine.

After locating her style within the feminine with scrapbooking, cartoons, and an explicit audience, Barry is able to explore the complexities of what femininity and girlness mean. In her heart-wrenching chapter “Girlness,” Barry explains her own strained relationship to femaleness and how it has been shaped by race, class, and family history. In order to reclaim girlness from its exploited form in the sexualized mainstream comics industry, Barry must determine what being a gal in comics does and should mean.

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The chapter “Girlness” fixates on how issues like class, war, and trauma play into being a girl, and how girlness is performed and worn, as opposed to being internal. This chapter harkens back to the earlier chapter “Resilience,” in which she explores the sexual trauma that occurred during her girlhood and how this forced her into teenage-hood, or rather teenage-girl-hood. The collage spread introducing “Girlness” especially brings to mind scrapbooking (182-183). It includes a tiny knit pink dress on a hanger with glitter polka dots and a flower, lace doilies, lots of floral fabrics and ribbons, drawings and bunnies doing ballet, “it’s a girl” written on ribbons, and a drawing of a pink bunny with long eyelashes holding a flower and blushing—the kind of aesthetic that has been marketed to me growing up. The word “girl” is on the spread seven times. Juxtaposed with all this is a black and white drawing of Lynda Barry as a girl, leaning against a store and looking sad, thoroughly out of place. Before the chapter even begins, you can sense her anxiety about traditional femininity and her relationship to it.

The chapter, unsurprisingly, has a pink background, and the images are colorful with lots of characters. Barry begins, “On my street there were a lot of girls, but girlish girls were few. Mostly we were tomboys. Up where the houses were nicer it was the opposite, lots of very girlish girls and only a few tomboys. What was the difference?” (184). The first image is Barry’s crowd, a group of racially diverse and freckled gals with lots of band-aids and stripes, labeled “us.” The “them” group is composed mostly of white girls, in blue and pink dresses and pigtails, each holding dolls. Behind “us,” the houses and bushes are brown, and behind “them,” the house is yellow and the bushes and grass are bright green, complete with blue and red flowers. Barry depicts class difference through the color schemes of the two backgrounds, as well as the clothes, hairs, and toys of the different groups of girls. She creates the dichotomy of “girlish girls” and “tomboys,” who differ in not only outfits but also race and class.

On the next page, Barry transitions from the group to the self, contemplating her own relationship to girlness. She writes, “I’m sure there have been studies done that can explain why this was, but if I’d been asked why at the time, I would have said clothes, toys, and hair. The girlish girls had a lot of these things. Even their dolls had pretty clothes, teeny toys and long, combable, fixable hair. If I had these things, would I have been a girlish girl too?” (185). The “us vs. them” labels become “before” and “after.” “Before” Barry has a green background, short hair, and her signature striped shirt. “After” Barry has a pink background, pigtails, a blue dress, and a doll with orange hair and freckles that looks just like her imagined girl-ed self. Girlness is often thought of in the book in terms of dolls and commodities. The doll version of herself that Barry holds in this panel is an idealized object that can be bought and sold—a direct representation of how Carolyn Cocca explains women’s bodies are treated in the comics genre.

In this chapter, Barry presents two opposing ideas of girlness in comics. She asks, “Which was worse? Girlness that was insisted upon or girlness that was forbidden? Frilly clothes you couldn’t play in or ratty clothes you were ashamed of?” (190). In this dichotomy, the female body and the objects it wears are anti-feminine, or feminine and therefore sexualized. However, Barry continues in the chapter to move past this femininity binary and see girlness in a new light as an adult. Later in Barry’s life when a little girl named Norabelle comes to stay with her, Barry writes that she loves Norabelle’s “sense of girlness,” and calls her “a true powerpuff girl” (191). When Barry refers to Norabelle as a “true power puff girl,” she is referencing another superheroine tradition interested in girlness. The Powerpuff Girls TV show is another instance of cartoonish superheroines who fight simultaneously against bad guys and the masculine, naturalistic norms of the genre. Norabelle and her Powerpuff-ness are a synthesis of the opposing ratty and frilly forms of girlness. This young girl embodies a kind of girlness that embraces femininity while staying in the cartoon mode, and not being sexualized or forced into mature-ness.

In the end of the chapter “Girlness,” Barry explicitly brings together girlness and her medium for writing. Barry and Norabelle go shopping together, and Barry finds “a little box of Japanese stationary that brought back such painful memories I had to put it back. It was too frivolous, too girlish, too late.” (192). The image underneath this caption does not contain the Japanese stationary, instead showing a later interaction between Barry and Norabelle. The girlish, frivolous stationary is notably absent in the drawing, perhaps meant to be represented by One! Hundred! Demons! itself. Instead of the girlish stationary, Barry ends up buying Super Monkey Head stationary after Norabelle reminds her that “the war was over, and that it’s never too late for Super Monkey Head and her pals” (192). The last image in the Girlness chapter is a letter on the stationary to Norabelle, saying: “Dear Norabelle, Thank you so much for helping me pick this stationary! It means so much to me. Someday I’ll tell you why.” Here, Barry reconciles with girlness in its new form: Powerpuff Girls and Super Monkey Head, joyful, childish characters who embrace femininity without being forced into growing up too fast.

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Barry’s exploration of her childhood sexual trauma illuminates the book’s efforts to subvert the mainstream comics norms that sexualize girls for a profit. In the chapter “Resilience,” Barry explores the relationship between girlness, sexuality, and trauma, as she depicts her transition from girl to teenager. At some point during Barry’s girlhood, she was sexually abused by a male figure. She says, “When I was still little, bad things had gone on, things too awful to remember but impossible to forget. When you put something out of your mind, where does it go? Dark ghosts in limbo moved me around. I didn’t know how to fight them” (65). Barry’s sexual trauma haunts her as she fails at fully repressing or dealing with it.

In the last panel of the chapter, words fail Barry, and the image delivers the strongest message. The caption trails off: “it was the closest I could come to… to… I don’t remember” (72). The image below is of Barry as a young girl, in a dress and holding a doll, which is an unusual depiction of her girlhood as we see in the later Girlness chapter. She sits among flowers, and a man looms above her, his body cut off by the caption at his waistline. A speech bubble comes from his crotch, reading: “Hey there, sweetheart. Do you and your dolly want to go for a ride?” Most his body is cut off by the framing, making him unidentifiable. Barry’s discussion of her childhood sexual trauma is critical to understanding her book’s agenda against sexualizing superheroines and girls in comics. The unseen man is everyone who perpetuates the culture that allowed her trauma to happen, and everyone who exploits and sexualizes female bodies in comics market to men and boys and make a profit.

At the end of her book, Barry reflects on the types of things she read as a girl. Her family didn’t own books, so she read the newspaper, and especially loved the classifieds and “lost and found ads” (208). She reflects on other writers telling her about their favorite childhood novels, classic stories that Barry never had a chance to read growing up (212). Barry had three books as a kid, but she admits that she loved Reader’s Digest stories just as much (213). These untraditional children’s stories shaped her growing up. She never fit into her college literature classes, because she “loved the wrong kind of story,” but things changed when she started making comics (215). It is at this point in the narrative that she addresses the “gals” reading her graphic memoir, and asks if we ever feel intimidated and unwelcome in the (read: male) world of writing. She reassures us that the first thing she reads is still the lost and found—she did not have to change herself to be published in the male word of comics.

Barry’s work presents a new kind of superhero comic: for girls, about girls battling demons in their own girlish way. Through her cartoonish style and scrapbooking, Barry subverts the naturalistic, gender-biased norms of the genre, and creates a new kind of superheroine who actively resists sexualization and objectification. Embodied by Norabelle the Powerpuff Girl, this new superheroine is free to embrace her childish, innocent femininity that does not revolve around her body or maturity.

Works Cited:

Cocca, Carolyn. Superwomen: Gender, Power, and Representation. Bloomsbury: 2016.

Hickey, Walt. “Comic Books Are Still Made By Men, For Men And About Men,” Five Thirty Eight. October 13, 2014.

Witek, Joseph. “Comics Modes: Caricature and Illustration in the Crumb Family’s Dirty Laundry.” Critical Approaches to Comics: Theories and Methods. Routledge: 2011.

 

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