Invisible Girls and Phantom Ladies - The Daredevils #4 - #6, April - June 1983
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Jan. 8th, 2012 | 02:23 pm
- An article on Sexism in Comics -
Originally published in The Daredevils #4 - #6 (Marvel UK), April - June 1983.
Invisible Girls and Phantom Ladies
by Alan Moore
Originally published in The Daredevils #4 - #6 (Marvel UK, April - June 1983)
Okay. Seeing as this is such a sticky subject suppose I'd better lay my cards on the table straight away.
I'm a wimpy, indecisive, burned-out woolly-minded liberal old hippy who eats quiche, saves whales, is friendly to the Earth and subscribes to Spare Rib, The Black One-Parent Gay Catholic Gazette, and Animal Welfare Against Nuking the Nazis Quarterly and if anybody wants to make anything of it, then I'll quite cheerfully butt them in the face until their nose is flat enough to rollerskate on.
The reason I'm prepared to make such a candid confession is because I'm pretty sure that after reading the article in hand most of you will be saying pretty much the same things about me anyway and I thought it'd look better if I got in first. And the reason I'm donning my Sou’Wester in preparation for a torrent of abuse is because this feature concerns women, and women don't seem to be a very popular topic nowadays. There are a couple of possible reasons for this sad state of affairs.
The first is that a small but vocal percentage of feminists are quite obviously as mad as snakes and have hopelessly damaged personalities. They pounce with demented glee upon increasingly trivial and unimportant examples of 'sexism', they make outrageously twisted and generalised statements to the Press along the lines of "All men are rapists", and in general make themselves very difficult to like.
The problem arises when these foaming maniacs are presented in the media as being a representative cross section of the women's movement, thus reinforcing the image of feminism that most men are only too eager to accept as the truth: an army of crop-haired Amazon gargoyles who chainsmoke untipped Woodbines, shift cement blocks for a living and have a physique somewhere between that of Popeye and a Commer van.
The other reason is that men, over the last few thousand years, have come to enjoy the perks and privileges that are part and parcel of being born into the male gender and are very reluctant to give them up. Men in general are a pretty insecure bunch and when they start to feel threatened by something they tend to respond by hurling forth salvoes of scorn and contempt, or, failing that, they refuse to take the issue seriously at all.
Even generally broadminded people who believe that the abolition of slavery in America was by and large a good thing seem to get very defensive and hysterical when it's their Sunday Lunch that's being threatened by the Women's Movement. My guess is that if these gentlemen had been Southern Plantation owners they'd have felt the same reluctance in forgoing the pleasures of their Negro house-boy bringing them a Mint Julep on the veranda.
All right. So that's the basic situation, and it's one that is obscured by a lot of bluster, silliness and ratbrainery on both sides. But once you've swept away all the damned lies and statistics, it becomes plain that there really is a serious problem under there somewhere. Women in general are not really getting a fair suck of the sauce-stick, and it's not just in obvious areas like equal pay for equal work and who brings up baby.
These areas are obviously important, but they're all symptoms that spring from a central illness, an illness that affects the way it which we see women and the way we treat them in our largely male-oriented society.
The media presents us with a number of different stereotypes to choose from when forming our ideas of womanhood. There's a wide variety of different designs, and they're all about as palatable as a lobster with skin cancer.
There's the sort of top-heavy pneumatic giggling brain-wipe that Barbara Windsor has made a career out of portraying. There are the masochistic, grovelling sluts that populate the lyrics of heavy metal numbers and aftershave commercials. There are the acid-tongued drudges and tarts-with-a-heart-of-gold served up every week in Coronation Street. There are the helpless, quivering victims that populate films like He Knows You're Alone and Dressed to Kill - creatures that have no other reason for existing other than to be thrown face-first into buzzsaws by transvestite dwarf psychopaths.
I mean, imagine opening The Sun every day and finding page three adorned with a photo of a pouting specimen of masculinity clad only in his Y-fronts. Imagine naked men sprawling sensuously on the bonnets of new model cars at the motor show. Imagine having to listen to some sweaty and repugnant female version of Bernard Manning telling an endless string of Father-in-Law jokes. Sure, it's funny once. Maybe it would be funny twice. But three times? Four times? Five thousand times? Can you imagine having to live with something as insulting as that every day of your life? No wonder so many feminists are cranky.
And comics are, in their way, every bit as guilty as other media in presenting a distorted vision of women to their readers. Maybe more guilty in some respects. After all, comics tend to be aimed predominantly at a young audience, an audience that may very well be going through an impressionable stage of their lives and desperately trying to make sense of the world in which they find themselves.
Very often, since younger school-kids tend to associate only with people of their own gender, they may be well into their teens before they actually get to know and talk to any real women. And by that time the damage has been done.
When I was about seven and first started reading the Superman/DC family of comics, I had no reason to believe that they didn't reflect true life. Okay, so I just about had it figured out that people who tried leaping over tall buildings in single bounds were likely to do a little more than rupture themselves. I mean, I wasn't a complete idiot. But super-heroics aside, I imagined that the way human beings behaved in these strips was probably pretty accurate. And this led me to form a number of interesting, albeit thoroughly deluded conclusions.
Firstly, only men could be heroes. Superman, Batman, Green Arrow ... these were characters that one could admire. The women characters, when they emerged, were very pale and limp carbon copies of their male counterparts... Supergirl, Batwoman, Batgirl, the ludicrous and obscure Miss Arrowette... none of them were in any danger of upstaging the masculine Super-types whose books they infrequently appeared in. You get the impression that as much as anything they were there purely for comic relief.
Miss Arrowette would reduce gangs of criminals to spluttering, coughing helplessness by engulfing them in clouds of talc from her 'Powder-Puff Arrow'. Batgirl would dazzle villains by reflecting the sun's rays from the mirror contained in her Bat-Compact. Supergirl, a being of strength approximate to that of Superman himself and thus able to push planets out of orbit without working up a sweat, would spend her time either frolicking with Supercat or Superhorse, or maybe falling in love with the young men from the bottle city of Kandor who would always turn out to be villains who wanted to use her in order to revenge themselves of Superman.
Somehow she never realised this until it was too late no matter how many times it happened. Not even when all of her Kandorian boyfriends had names like E-Vill and Nars-Tee and the like.
Secondly, women who weren't endowed with special powers of abilities were uniformly spiteful, nosey, treacherous, vain and dippy ... and that was just the nice ones.
Take Lois Lane as a case in point. Here we have a woman who has an unusually responsible job for a member of her sex. She is a newspaper reporter, and had been so since the days when women newspaper reporters were very few and far between. Not only that, she is a star reporter whose byline is known and respected throughout Metropolis, if not the free world in its entirety.
Now, if you think about a character like that realistically, you'd imagine that for a woman to have come so far she'd have to be capable, determined, tough and extremely resilient, wouldn't you? As opposed to being dopey, vain, gossipy, lovesick and accident prone? Sure you would. But the people at DC at the time obviously felt otherwise.
Lois Lane was portrayed as a sort of shallow, brainless Superhero-Groupie who would go to any humiliating lengths to gain Superman's attentions. She was unlucky to the point of being near-suicidal, always managing to fall off window ledges or out of aeroplanes or getting captured by Luthor.
She would pry constantly into the Secret of Superman's true identity, more than once in the hope of blackmailing the man of steel by threatening to reveal his identity if he didn't agree to marry her. She would indulge in vicious and degrading catfights with her equally unlikeable rival, Lana Lang, over which of them had ownership of the kute and kuddly Kryptonian.
She was, in short, a royal pain in the bum, and I used to cheer along with all the other little misogynists when at the end of each story Superman would outwit her by means of his superpowers and basic male superiority, usually managing to publicly humiliate her in the process.
As you see, the general impressions that I formed of women as a species were far from salutary. The only exception to this general rule was that of Wonder Woman, although I didn't really have a lot of time for her either to be honest.
Wonder Woman was at least unique in that she was a character in her own right and not just someone wearing a male superheroes old costume that had been let out a little at the chest. That said, however, you'll notice that Wonder Woman didn't merit the spin-offs afforded to her masculine counterparts.
There was no 'Wonder Boy' turning up complete with tiara, bracelets and lasso to aid her in her fight against crime. There was no pesky male reporter throwing himself off the Empire State Building in the hope that she'd swoop down in her invisible robot plane and rescue him.
Furthermore, even though she was allowed to join the Justice League of America her principal function was to sit quietly in the background at their meetings and take down the minutes as if she'd just arrived from the Temp Bureau. Clearly, she was a second-class super citizen from the word go. Perhaps that's why she used to spend so much time hanging around with her chums, the Holliday Girls, and getting tied up by arch-foe Paula Von Gunter. Who could blame her in the circumstances.
Anyway, so far I've done little more than present a brief outline of the problem and I'm already well over my word-limit for this piece. Next issue I want to look at the issue a bit more specifically and look at women in comics from Keyhole Kate to Elektra. I also want to study the curious trend in preadolescent pornography known in the trade as 'Good Girl Art' and ask the question "Is Dark Phoenix really just Minnie the Minx without her catapult?" Till then, keep those cards and letters pouring in.
Last issue you were all very patient with me as I outlined in general terms the various abuses that this wonderful funnybook business of ours has heaped upon its female protagonists. This time round I'd like to get into the specifics of the situation. Name names, face facts, shoot from the hip, point fingers and all that kind of stuff. Is that okay with you boys? Good. Then I'll begin.
What I want to try and do is break down into categories the various ways in which women are used as characters throughout the comic book medium as a whole. I suppose that the most obvious category is "Women as Decoration", so that's where we'll kick off.
Nearly every female character in comics, with the possible exceptions of Iron Man's Mrs. Arbrogast and Superboy's Ma Kent has been designed to exploit her pinup potential to the full. They all have long, willowy legs, trim waists and torsos that look as if they've had a pair of Anti-Tank rockets fired through their backs.
Their faces are all, near as dammit, identical. If-one were (for some reason which at the moment escapes me) to shave the heads of The Invisible Girl, Madame Medusa, Crystal, Alicia, The Scarlet Witch and Jane Foster, even their own mothers wouldn't be able to tell them apart.
Then of course there's body language to consider. If a comic book woman were called upon to change a fuse she would do it with her head thrown back, lips slightly parted and with one arm extended in a graceful, delicate curve. I doubt if Supergirl could change Streaky the Supercat's litter tray without looking like something from the Ziegfeld Follies.
Now, at this point some of you might be wondering if there is a commercial reason for this curious state of affairs. There is indeed. A large proportion of comic book readers are around the twelve to thirteen mark and are probably in the throes of the glandular Krakatoa known as puberty. They are starting to notice that the girl who sits across the aisle from them at school, the girl who only last year they referred to as 'Freckles' or 'Hyena Breath', is slowly metamorphosing into a different prospect altogether.
From what I can remember of my own time spent in that frenzied, pimply night-mare-world almost anything is likely to become grist to the mill of the adolescent's deranged fantasies. Me, I was nuts about Hayley Mills. All you twisted little demons out there probably feel the same way about Spiderwoman. (What a terrific character. "Hmmm. Here I am in the middle of a thermo-nuclear firefight with HYDRA. What shall I do? I know! I'll have a shower and run around in a bathrobe for six pages!")
This, in itself, is comparatively silly and harmless. After all, there's nothing wrong with women looking nice, even if this endless succession of impeccable Sindy dolls does become mind-skeweringly dull after a while. No. The really nasty stuff comes when comic book artists, writers, editors and publishers decide to go a little further in catering to adolescent fantasies. When they start dishing up evil, sordid little adult fantasies as suitable fare for the growing minds of healthy boys and girls.
The most popular of these peccadilloes seems to be that murky genre devoted to bondage. Bondage, for those of you still young and innocent enough to think that all grownups are mentally stable, is the art of deriving fun and entertainment from being tied up or from tying up your friends and loved ones. Or, in the case of comics, from looking at badly reproduced pictures of people who are tied up, preferably in unusual and uncomfortable positions. Lord knows why. If this universe were a sane place then there wouldn't be platypus ducks.
I've almost lost count of the number of comic cuties who have been featured in an ongoing gags-and-straps situation over the last couple of years. I remember a particularly charming Michael Fleischer story that appeared in DC's The Brave and The Bold during which the usually quite capable Black Canary spent almost the entire issue tied to a chair wearing only her underwear, while the villain of the piece delivered such memorable and sensitive dialogue as "You squirm so prettily, my dear." The same thing happens to The Dazzler and Red Sonja with a startling regularity. If I were a female comic character, I think I'd be inclined to dress up warm, wear three pullovers at once and never go anywhere without a pair of scissors.
The thing that some of you may find difficult to believe is that if a comic depicts somewhere in its pages a young lady, preferably wearing a torn blouse, or tied up, or wearing a torn blouse and tied up, or fighting with another girl who is also wearing a torn blouse, or tying up another girl with the torn remnants of her blouse, or indeed practically anything that involves blouses, girls, ropes or some combination thereof ... if a comic depicts this then the chances are that it is considerably more valuable. Isn't that odd?
You see, if you scan one of the current American comic book price guides you are likely to find some frighteningly inflated sums being charged for certain issues, along with a brief explanation in brackets as to why that issue should be so horrendously overpriced: It might say (Adams) or (Byrne) if it features a currently popular artist, or it might say (1st. Wolverine) or (1st Elektra) if it features a currently popular character. It might also say (GGA). (GGA) means "Good Girl Art".
Good Girl Art means ropes, blouses, etc. etc. Examples of this category range from the Phantom Lady, who wore very little and got tied up a lot, through Lee Elias' Black Cat, who wore very little and got tied up a lot, up to the Huntress who ditto ditto ditto. These prices are established by the comics dealers, responding in their typically generous and totally non-cynical way to the demands of their largely adolescent audience.
And of course, it doesn't stop with women being tied up. It's much better, after all, if the bound woman is being tortured in some way, like say being thrown against a wall or threatened with a branding iron. This is by no means restricted to western comics like the Dazzler panels reproduced here.
The Japanese, as a particularly good example, have built an entire industry upon the idea of woman-hating taken to horrifyingly physical extremes. British novelist Angela Carter in her current book Nothing Sacred, a collection of vicious, funny and entirely accurate critical writings, describes her culture-shock on coming across some of these little gems of Japanese comic art:
"What is actually going on in these pictures often looks rather odd to me because I cannot read Japanese. When a translation is provided, it usually turns out to be worse than I could have imagined. Why isn't this girl fighting back during a gang rape? Because they forethoughtfully dislocated all her limbs, first. Why is this weeping old lady in bed with this wild-eyed boy? She is his mother; she has given herself to him as rough-and-ready therapy for his persistent.. voyeurism. Can this really, truly, be a closeup of a female orifice? Yes. It can."
And those are comics to be read and enjoyed by children and adults alike. Boy. Those crazy Japanese, huh?
Comic book writers and artists have not been allowed to forget entirely that there is an increasingly vocal women's movement. On the other hand, what they've actually done about it is largely half-hearted and ineffectual if not downright damaging. The best example of this is the type of comic character that started to appear around about 1969-1970: The Liberated Woman.
The way that comic book writers and artists have approached the idea of a liberated woman is probably best summed up by someone like Valkyrie from The Defenders. Basically, what you have is a woman striding around bellowing stridently about feminine superiority and the worthlessness of weak, chauvinistic males while showing lots of bare leg and wearing a couple of goblets on her chest.
Feminism, Marvel-style, is presented as something frighteningly harsh and unattractive. Anybody remember The Femizons from the first issue of Marvel’s 'M for Mature' publication, Savage Tales? An entire society of psychotically militant and violent women with lots of strange lesbian overtones thrown in for good measure. The heroine of the story was the odd-woman-out who harboured secret longings for the days when there were still men to sew and cook for. Lord knows what Stan Lee was getting out of his system when he wrote that one, but I hope he felt okay afterwards.
Of course, we don't do so bad ourselves. Take for example the home-grown rape fantasies that populate our very own Sword-and-Sorcery genre. How many times have you opened a copy of Savage Sword of Conan to find some barbarian forcing a lithe Kothian dancing girl back into the hay, ignoring her feeble half-hearted complaints and taking his cue from the delirious ecstatic look that the artist has drawn onto her face, showing you that she doesn't mind, really. In fact, she likes this sort of treatment. Sure she does. Anyone would enjoy being sexually assaulted by an illiterate muscle-bound oaf who stinks of bear grease. That's most people's idea of a good night out.
The message of this sort of story is that women enjoy rape and that they say "No" when they mean "Yes". When one reads in the papers about some of the astonishing proclamations made by judges presiding over rape cases, one wonders if our entire judicial authorities were not given copies of 'Conan the Rapist' to read during their formative years. The other message contained in this material is that real men are good at drinking, reducing people to dog-food with their broadswords and interfering with tavern wenches.
Strange that Conan's creator, Robert E. Howard, was in reality a rather sad and lonely figure who never managed to sever his intense emotional bond with his mother. When she died he drove out to some waste land and blew his own brains out. Conan and all his other heroes were unashamed escapist fantasies of the way he would have liked to have been.
It is a great pity that he couldn't have diverted his undoubted energies into something a bit more positive and healthy. It's a greater pity that he has doomed the following generations of his fans to endless reruns of his hopelessly insecure dreams of brute sex, white slavery and mindless violence.
For a while there you couldn't open a comic put out by either company without finding some formerly totally spineless example of womanhood like the Invisible Girl ranting about Male Chauvinist pigs, or not wanting to do the washing-up any more.
This was feminism boiled down to its most meaningless level, with dialogue by writers who would not recognise a feminist if they happened to run over one on their way to see Confessions of a Driving Instructor.
At the moment however, America is thrashing in the throes of what is politely termed a 'moral revival', which basically means a return to the values and standards of 1942, with a car in every garage and a tranquilised woman in every kitchen. As a result, you don't find many comic book women shooting off their mouths about feminism these days. Of course, there was poor old Ms. Marvel, but look what happened to her.
First she gets impregnated against her will by her own son, then she loses all her powers, then she gets whisked into outer space with the X-Men only to be impregnated against her will by loathsome horrors that look like something you might find living under HR Giger's sink unit. No, girls. You're far better off staying at home and doing the dusting.
The outlook for women in comics, while it has certainly been worse in the past, is still pretty bleak.
Of course, there are a few bright spots. Some male writers do seem to have at least an elementary grasp of what women are all about and can, on occasion, come up with a convincing and non-offensive character.
Frank Miller's pretty good at this... witness his Elektra character. John Wagner has been consistently fair in his portrayal of women in Judge Dredd. But, on the other hand, Elektra still wears precious little in the way of clothing and the female judges of Mega City one are a leather-fetishists idea of heaven.
I can't think of one male artist or writer that hasn't done something pretty offensive at one time or another. I doubt you'd have to look very far in my own work to find some particularly lurid examples, probably as bad as anything I've described here. We all do it. But just because we all do it doesn't mean it's right.
Of course, a lot of things have happened since Howard's day to alter the way in which men see women and the way in which men see themselves in relation to women. This has had a certain amount of impact upon the comics field.
Next issue, I'm going to conclude this rambling, self-indulgent mess by taking a look at the relatively tiny number of women working in comics, including people like Wendy Pini, Mary Jo Duffy, underground cartoonists like Melinda Gebbie, Fanny Tribble and Aline Kominsky, and just about anybody else I happen to think of between now and then. After that, I promise I'll shut up and you can turn these pages over to centre fold-outs of Dark Phoenix in her Hellfire Club costume. Give 'em what they want, that's my motto.
Despite my reputation as bringer of smiles and sunshine, it occurs to me that the preceding two instalments of this look at the role of women in comics have been about as cheery and optimistic as the results of the last General Election. So, to end on a high note, I thought that this time round we'd have a look at something a bit more positive: namely, the growing prominence of women actually working within the medium and what effect this is likely to have upon the way in which women are treated in the comics themselves.
Anybodyat all familiar with comics over the last fifteen, twenty years or so will have noticed that up until recently there have been practically no women working in comics as artists or writers. With the exception of the excellent Marie Severin's quirky and highly individual work on Dr Strange and The Submariner, most women are relegated to the position of either letterer or colourist.
Now, both of these professions are highly honourable ones and require a great deal of skill to execute properly. As an example, I could cite the terrific colouring job that Glynis Wein did on both The X Men and [there’s obviously a line missing from the text here.]
Like I say, both lettering and colouring are tricky and highly intricate jobs and there are lots of women around doing them very well indeed. But that's not the point.
The point is that all this starts to smack a little of the notion of 'A woman's place’, the idea that women are just naturally more suited for 'pretty' work like colouring or fancy lettering.
Just the same as the notion that women are ‘naturally’ more suited for the feminine tasks such as ironing, dusting and cooking has been exploded by the events of the last ten years, so too are we gradually seeing the elevation of women to more 'responsible' positions within the comics field. But it's a painfully slow process.
While I know of several women editors working within the field and at least one woman writer, as yet I am unaware of any woman artist working full-time within mainstream comics. Now, why should that be?
I suppose that the most obvious answer is that none of these dizzy dames can draw, although even a quick look at some of the artwork currently being done by women outside the comics mainstream shows pretty definitely that this is not the case.
I'll be talking about these women later on in this piece, but just for the moment I want to stick with what's going on in the comics mainstream, starting with women as editors.
We've seen a few of these emerging over the last few years, and, generally, they've been pretty good at what they do. Louise Jones, for example, is currently producing some of the most popular comics that Marvel have on their stands, titles like The X-Men and Ka-Zar.
Over at DC, Laurie Sutton is doing a fine editing job on the Levitz/Giffen Legion of Super Heroes, for my money the most entertaining comic that DC have out at the moment.
Reportedly, Ms Sutton has said that her job is minimal and that basically she just lets Levitz and Giffen do what the hell they like. I tend to think that this is a little self-deprecatory, as the fact that an editor knows when not to interfere does not mean that he or she is not doing their job properly. Quite the reverse. The finished product is all that an editor can be judged on, and by that standard Laurie Sutton is doing just fine.
Her, and Louise Jones and DC supremo Jeanette Kahn, are doing every bit as well as a man would do in their position, maybe a little better in some instances.
But that's all they are doing.
From where I'm standing, it doesn't look as if the fact of women at the editorial helm has made a great deal of difference to the basically male-orientated stuff that actually fills the pages, and perhaps it's naive of me to expect that it would do.
After all, the above-mentioned women are still working within a predominantly masculine world and all of them are presumably answerable to the man above them.
Even Jeanette Kahn, who, while she may be at the top of the tree as far as DC goes, still has the massive weight of Warner Communications hanging above her.
Over at Marvel, where I gather that the Editor-in-Chief does have significantly more freedom from the parent company, the said editor is Jim Shooter, and Jim Shooter is a man. Possibly even two men standing on each other's shoulders.
The point I'm trying to make in my own endearingly clumsy fashion is that women in comics, even women editors and publishers, probably don't get very many chances to make their presence felt in terms of the comic's attitude to women.
I think that it's going to take some massive structural upheavals for that to ever be achieved, and I think that the upheaval is more likely to come from below, from the readers and from the people actually working in a creative capacity on the comic books under discussion.
If, for example, a woman writer was able to make subtle progressions in this area, and if those progressions were met with increasing sales, maybe due to the fact that more girls and women would be buying the comic as a consequence, then I could see the people in charge maybe giving some thought to the issue. Until then, I'm not going to be holding my breath.
For one thing, there aren't that many women writers. There's Tamsyn O’Flynn who did some better-than-average stuff on Lois Lane. There's Laurie Sutton who, before her switch to editorial duties was producing some whimsical and very readable material on the short-lived Adam Strange strip for DC and there's Mary Jo Duffy, probably the most accomplished of the three in terms of actual writing. For those of you not in the know, Ms Duffy was until recently handling the writing on Marvel's Power Man and Iron Fist title, and was responsible for some of the only issues during the entire run of that title that I've found even remotely interesting. Her plots were intriguing, her characters nicely delineated and above all there was a sense of lightness and humour in her writing that came as a breath of fresh air after a stream of writers who seemed intent on portraying Power Man as a Type 'B' comic-book negro: Mean, stupid, jive-talking and socially deprived.
For me, the best thing about her tenure as scriptwriter was that Luke Cage is one of Marvel's most aggressively masculine characters and that under her handling we were able to witness some gentle fun being poked at those attitudes. Sure, it wasn't anything earth-shattering but it was a step in the right direction.
You'll notice I say "was". Mary Jo Duffy has recently either given up or been taken off the book in favour of Denny O’Neill. Why this should be I have no idea, but so much for women writers in comics, eh?
So what does that leave us? Well, rather a lot, actually, once we step outside the confines of the world of mainstream comics and take a look at what else is being done.
The 'Alternative' comics field has been chugging along now for many years in one form or another, but for the purposes of this discussion we'll assume that it really kicked into first gear with the Underground comics movement during the mid-sixties. Now, in those early days, the underground comics scene, while radically different to what the major companies were doing at the time, was still a field largely dominated by men. This showed in the finished product.
Whatever their other merits, I doubt anyone would hold up any of S. Clay Wilson's panoramas of abused and dismembered women as a blow for feminism. Around the early seventies, however, that started to change.
Firstly, there were an increasing number of women becoming involved as writer/artists in the production of underground comics themselves. Women like Trina Robbins, Shary Flenniken and Harvey Kurtzman's daughter Meredith Kurtzman.
Comics produced entirely by women began to appear, ranging from the fairly political Wimmen's Comics through to the more open Wet Satin and Twisted Sisters.
Poor though some of those early efforts are in retrospect, they've opened up a lot of doors and at the present time there seem to be almost as many women working in the undergrounds as men.
There's Melinda Gebbie, who uses her very delicate stippling technique to depict some of the most unnerving and violent psycho-sexual visions one is likely to come across anywhere. There's Diane Noomin, who through her main character, the neurotic and tasteless Di Di Glitz, has explored the American wasteland of suburbia and singles' bars to devastating comic effect.
There's the dreamy surrealism of Mary K. Brown, the stinging urban observation of Mimi Pond, and, in my opinion the best of the bunch, the liberal serving of slapstick and self-hatred served up in the comic work of Aline Kominsky.
Aline Kominsky is the wife of funnybook legend Robert Crumb, although a style more different to Crumb's polished and rubbery cartooning would be difficult to conceive.
Kominsky's work is incredibly murky and crude-looking, but somehow she gets a sense of expression into it that would be lost if she were a more accomplished artist.
Her portrayal of characters and situations is both savage and acute, and she seems to reserve all of her most vicious observations for herself. She portrays herself as a blimp-like hook-nosed acne-sufferer and takes great delight in exaggerating all the negative sides of her character until we are left with a portrait of a vulgar, aggressive and loud-mouthed Jewess known as The Bunch.
You don't come across many people who are prepared to be so unsparingly honest about themselves and when you do it's a real treat, believe me. I'm sure that part of the appeal is the vast sense of relief that she's not turning her nasty and satirical gaze upon you, the reader.
But of course, as with most of the women mentioned above, there's about as much chance of her finding work in the comics mainstream as there is of me winning next year's Miss World contest.
This is less the case with the second category of alternative publishing, what has been termed the ground-level comic. Ground-Level comics are just about sex-free enough to appear on the news-stands without censure, and enjoy the benefits of not being answerable to a higher authority.
The term was coined with the emergence of Mike Friedrich's Now Defunct Star Reach comic line, which, while giving plenty of space to established comic artists like Barry Smith and P. Craig Russell, also made room for talented newcomers like the excellent Lee Marrs.
Marrs is the talent responsible for the semi-autobiographical Pudge, Girl Blimp strip that Star Reach used to publish, along with more serious adventure fare.
This later stuff is, to me, very interesting in that it demonstrates how it is possible to have an exciting storyline without resorting to such popular male obsessions as power-mania and mindless violence in order to spice up the plot.
Another woman in this category, one who has also emerged from what could be called the ground level comic scene, is Wendy Pini. Along with husband Richard, Wendy produces the excellent Elfquest comic which has already run to some thirteen book-length episodes and is probably one of the most confident uses of graphic storytelling produced by people of either gender available at the moment.
I could easily devote an entire article to Wendy Pini, as indeed I could to most of the women above. Suffice to say that it's well worth checking out as lively and entertaining stuff in its own right, as well as being an optimistic glance at what sort of influences might be seen in mainstream comics in the non-too distant future.
Pini and Marrs have both had work published in such largely male-dominated preserves as Epic magazine, and it looked as if, despite the fact that women in general seem to have an approach to art that is vastly different to what we have come to expect from the standard boy's adventure fare, there may be a chance that we will see women gradually infiltrating the comic book business and hopefully enriching it in the process.
You'll notice that most of the people mentioned above are American, so what's the state of women's comics this side of the pond? Well, due to the relative sizes of Britain and America are considerably fewer women working in the medium, but that do tend to compensate in quality for what they lack in numbers.
A good example is Fanny Tribble, who I believe first appeared in the Sour Cream compilations before graduating to her own solo books, Heavy Periods and Funny Trouble, both published by, the feminist-orientated Sheba books.
As with a lot of the women already covered, the emphasis of her cartoons is more upon honesty and directness rather than a preoccupation with detailed inking and flawless anatomy.
Personally, I like Tribble's stuff a lot, largely because she seems to feel confident enough to laugh at the more ludicrous aspects of feminism at the same time as she's laughing at herself and the people around her.
Then there's Posy Simmons, whose work appears regularly in The Guardian. Again, the approach to characterization is both flawless and absorbing, especially in her portrayal of woolly-minded bohemian middle class housewife Wendy Weber.
It's one of those strips that relentlessly lampoons its own audience, and yet does it so well that everyone who reads it, including the real Wendy Webers in her audience, are convinced that she's laughing at somebody else.
Of course, I suppose that the last word in this piece should go to the 'Woman In Comics' who happens to be at the editorial helm of this magazine, the brutal, tough and domineering Ms. Bernie Jaye who I just happen to have with me here in the studio at the moment.
Bernie, as an editor, is there much that you can do about the way women are treated in comics? Particularly as the editor of something like Savage Sword of Conan?
“Well, with Conan it's all reprint material so there's very little you can do to change that. Where I can make my presence felt is when it comes to producing original magazines, in so much as I can choose who's working on it to a certain extent and I needn't commission anybody who I think is going to take a sexist approach.”
Fair enough. But bearing in mind what I said earlier, do you really think that there's much opportunity for a single woman in a male preserve being able to actually make for any major changes? How optimistic are you about the future of women in comics?
“Not very. Not in the immediate future. See, the entire thing is related to the whole social structure, so while it might change eventually it's going to be a pretty slow process. For one thing, women, as a part of society, are just as wrapped up in sexism as anybody else. The difference is that because women are oppressed by sexism they are more likely to want to do something to change the situation. At any one time women know what they want and they know what they're getting. I think that's the area that we need to explore... the gap between what women want and what women get. It's a kind of ‘dissatisfaction gap' and primarily a point of power and change or despair.”
And I think that upon that vaguely sombre note we should wrap up this article. Three issues of guilty male-liberal breast-beating is enough for anybody, right?
If there's anybody out there who has actually managed to wade through all this verbiage and come out the other side with their marbles intact, I'd very much like to hear what you think either for or against. Is there a problem here, or am I exaggerating? Does anything need doing about it and if so what? Write and let me know.
Take six pages explaining exactly why I'm the most boring and arrogant scumbag ever to walk the face of the earth if you must, but write. You, after all, are the reader. You pay the wages. And on the strength of that alone I reckon you've got some say in what sort of attitudes the comic industry is shoving down your throats. Look forward to hearing from you.