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The Patron Saint of Superheroes

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

Tag Archives: Carolyn Cocca

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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Superheroes Decoded

The History Channel is airing a two-part documentary Superheroes Decoded next Sunday and Monday, April 30 and May 1, at 9:00. It’s the first superhero documentary I know of since PBS produced Superhero: A Never-Ending Battle in 2013, which was basically a two-hour advertisement for the DC and Marvel film franchises. I apologized after showing it to my class and then listed the errors and misleading statements. I’m hopeful the History Channel has done significantly better.

According to their press release, superheroes “embody America’s deepest fears and greatest aspirations.” I agree—though in On the Origin of Superheroes I use slightly different adjectives: “our most nightmarish fears, our most utopian aspirations.” I have no idea what I said while on camera. Though the “interviews with dozens of experts” include me, who knows what if anything wound up in the final edit.

I started pretty low on the list, way way under George R. R. Martin—though his interview immediately preceded mine. He must have strolled past the open green room door while the make-up artist was brushing my eyelids.  She also trimmed my eyebrows, which I admit have gotten surprisingly unruly in recent years. Worse, a cyst had spontaneously blossomed on my neck a couple of days before. They assured me it wasn’t visible on camera, which I seriously doubt. It felt like it was about to start talking and contradicting me—like the evil boil in How To Get Ahead in Advertising. Another reason to tune in next Sunday.

The documentary company flew me in from Virginia and put me up overnight in Manhattan. The film set was the fifth floor of a dilapidated warehouse in Brooklyn—the kind of location where thugs tie up their kidnap victims before someone in a cape swings through one of those open windows. I suspect it will make a great backdrop. Unfortunately, the ceiling was open to the sky in places and that corner of Brooklyn is apparently under a JFK flight path. We had to stop every time the sound tech picked up too much background noise on his headphones. The rumbling elevator didn’t help either.

I spent about two hours in the interview chair, with not quite a dozen people attending literally to my every move. The make-up artist swooped in every time my forehead glistened under the spotlights. The sound tech kept reaching into my shirt to adjust the remote mic or the cord snaking down to the antennae unit clipped to my belt.  A larger mic on the end of a hand-held rod bobbed above my head. They used two cameras too. Another crew member paced back and forth, sliding one along a two-yard track. The other was stationary, and, to help interviewees speak directly into it while having a conversation with the director, they mirror-projected his face onto a see-through screen in front of the lens while he sat on a stool behind and to the side. Only then it looked like he had two faces—the second in his right armpit—so they jerry-rigged a curtain too.

The director said afterwards that I give good soundbites—though I knew they would have sounded moronically brief in any other interview situation. His voice won’t be in the film, which meant every time he asked me a question I had to include it in my answer. “How do superheroes compare to gods in ancient mythology?” “Superheroes are very different from the gods of ancient mythology.” By the end of the second hour, I was parroting gibberish. I assume they didn’t make an outtake reel, but if they did, my scholarly career could be in jeopardy.

He also complimented my lack of ums, but then said that didn’t matter since the two cameras allow them to edit them seamlessly out anyway. I’d paced for a half hour before hand, muttering calm, sensible sentences for the few questions I was expecting. I memorized what I could memorize and then just practiced speaking slowly and clearly and confidently and succinctly—and so like someone almost nothing like me. I’ll find out Sunday if it worked.

A good friend and fellow scholar interviewed right before George R. R. Martin, so we grabbed lunch before my interview. I was especially happy to see her since I’d recommended her to the documentary company when they’d asked about other “experts” to interview (and to be accurate, Carolyn’s Superwomen: Gender, Power, and Representation is the high mark in superhero gender analysis). Another good friend and fellow scholar, Pete Coogan, had done the same for me. I recognized the other experts on the interview list too, so another reason to have high hopes.

I apparently don’t wear make-up often enough, because my eyelid was infected the next morning. So I flew home with not one but two disturbingly visible growths. My other souvenirs were better: print-outs of the fan letters Martin wrote to Marvel Comics in the 60s and read on camera for the documentary. They were his first publications. I would excerpt a bit here, but I have no idea where I put them. June was a long long time ago.

Superheroes Decoded was originally slated for last November or December, and the two parts described to me were different from the two parts currently advertised, so I assume, to no surprise, all kinds of interesting things happened post-production. Maybe that includes a few, non-humiliating seconds of me.

 

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McFarlane's Angela

“We just happen to show a little more skin when we get to the ladies,” says Image Comics artist Todd McFarlane, explaining that the portrayal of women as sex objects in comics is a natural byproduct of the genre’s generally exaggerated style. “As much as we stereotype the women, we also do it with the guys. They are all beautiful. So we actually stereotype both sexes.”

McFarlane was trying to plug the PBS documentary Superheroes: The Never Ending Battle (it starts October 8), but his comments, and those of Kick-Ass writer Mark Millar trivializing rape (“I don’t really think it matters. It’s the same as, like, a decapitation. It’s just a horrible act to show that somebody’s a bad guy”), pissed off plenty of fans. Garth Ennis combines the two approaches—rape and lady skin—in The Boys when his Superman stand-in Homelander compels newcomer Starlight to give him and his teammates blowjobs before taking a Sharpie to her costume and drawing in navel-deep cleavage: “New costume concept for you. They want something a bit more photogenic.”

McFarlane co-founded Image in the 90s, The Boys premiered in 2006, Kick-Ass in 2008, so that might be the problem. These Cro-Magnons are behind the times. Todd thinks he’s just obeying the testosterone-driven norms that give him no choice but to draw scantily clad, super-breasted, Barbie-legged uber-women. But if that’s true, why is the comic book population of anatomically impossible porn gals in decline?

A friend of mine, Carolyn Cocca, spent her summer staring at T&A. She studied 14,599 comic book panels, adding a checkmark to her tallies only if a particular tit or ass cheek “was just about to fall out.” She didn’t count mere cleavage or skintight curves unless they included a panel-dominating breast “larger than a woman’s head.” The results? “Female characters,” she reports, “were portrayed in more panels and less likely to be objectified in the early 2010s than they were in the mid-2000s or mid-1990s in the same titles.” Carolyn is also chair of Politics, Economics & Law at SUNY’s Old Westbury College, so her expertise in quantitative analysis is larger than Todd, Mark, and Garth’s breast-sized heads combined.

Professor Cocca’s not alone in critiquing the absurd poses male artist inflict on their female subjects. The internet is busting out with parodies of McFarland inhabitants:

Alexander Salazar asks what if male superheroes were drawn like female superheroes with some very bare-chested and shorts-bulging results.

Kelly Turnbull refashions the entire Justice League in Wonder Woman style.

Steve Niles has similar fun with the Avengers.

Multiple artists take aim at Hawkeye.

Michael Lee Lunsford dares the impossible by drawing superheroines fully clothed.

John Raptor’s “reality”-based superheroine includes “practical underwear” and “legs like tree trunks.”

Ami Angelwings’s Escher Girls documents a disturbing range of anatomical impossibilities.

The list goes on, and for good reason. Though Carolyn’s sample shows a decrease in objectification, practically all of the comics she looked at show at least some. “Had I counted each depiction of cleavage or of extraordinary shapeliness in spandex or of focus on clothed curves,” she explains, “this number would have been almost exactly the same as the number of panels depicting women.”

If you’re wondering how things got so far out of proportion, you need to travel back to the Dark Age of the late 80s. This was a primitive time, when the dictates of the Comics Code still ruled the multiverse. As far as “Costume,” it decreed “Females shall be drawn realistically without undue emphasis on any physical quality.” That’s what the Comics Authority had been saying since 1954, only with the phrase “undue emphasis on” swapping out “exaggeration of” in 1971. It wasn’t much of a reboot, which might explain why the 1989 revision stripped off so much more. Under the new heading “ATTIRE AND SEXUALITY,” the update declared: “Costumes in a comic book will be considered to be acceptable if they fall within the scope of contemporary styles and fashions.”

Doesn’t sound very revolutionary till you see Wonder Woman in a 1994 thong. In his defense, artist Mike Deodato Jr. said he preferred drawing monsters.

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The superheroine bikini cut deepened again in the 2000s as the Code teetered toward collapse. Marvel dropped it in 2001. Image never had it. Either way, we’re looking at plenty of T&A for Carolyn’s tally sheets during the two decade range. Arguably, this was the multiverse before the cleavage-confining Code trussed up the free market. Breast abounded in the early 50s, enough to alarm the U.S. Senate into holding hearings and the industry to impose self-censorship.

But lest you think this is a plug for big government regulation, the current superheroine fashion trend suggests the post-Code market could be growing out of its prurient adolescence all on its own. The new changes aren’t being imposed from above but grown from below. Welcome to 21st century grassroots feminism.

Though there’s still reason to show a little skin. “Reality”-based runner Camille Herron was the first female finisher in an Oklahoma marathon last year—a feat all the more impressive since she was wearing a full-body Spider-Man suit at the time. She also beat the previous Guinness Book record holder for a women’s marathon run in a superhero costume by twenty minutes. Imagine how fast she’d be in shorts.

Camille Herron

My daughter’s running role model, 23-year-old Alexi Pappas, wins races in a Spider-Man singlet. And yet she, like any professional female runner, just happens to wear the equivalent of a bikini bottom below it.

Alexi Pappas in Spider-Man singlet

Why? I have no idea. But I don’t see male runners at my daughter’s meets in anything as revealing. You can call them all beautiful, but the female-half of her high school track team races in skintight short shorts. They’re apparently regulation-sized and yet also a violation of the school’s dress code—which means her half of the team can’t practice in the uniforms they compete in.

I bought her a Flash t-shirt for her sixteenth birthday, “fitted” because she stopped wearing baggy tops in middle school. Except now wishes she hadn’t given them all to Goodwill. Forget fashion, she says, they’re perfect for running.

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