Posted by Jennifer
When I looked at the list of new DC comics coming out each week, I couldn’t help noticing that week 3 involved a lot of ladies. Not all the ladies – female solo books can be found in other weeks of the relaunch as well, which really is a testament to DC’s attempts to diversify their line. (Marvel, after all, can only boast X-23 and Ghost Rider as female-led ongoing solo titles right now.) But week 3 promised Wonder Woman, Supergirl, Catwoman, and Birds of Prey: three solo titles featuring arguably the most iconic superheroines (/supervillainesses) in all of comics, and the genre’s longest-lasting all-girl team book.
“Well, DC,” I thought to myself, “here’s your chance.” I’m a female comic book fan and a feminist, but Marvel girl that I am, I have never read any of these titles consistently in the past. The relaunch should be DC’s opportunity to grab new readers like me by presenting their iconic female characters in engaging, empowering, entertaining new titles.
Did they succeed? The results, as with every week of the relaunch so far, are mixed. But the pros and cons of each of these four titles point to the things DC is doing right when it comes to female characters and readers, and the things they’re still doing very, very wrong.
Supergirl was at the top of my stack. It’s the book I’d read most recently, having loved Kelly Sue DeConnick’s 3-issue run that capped off the last incarnation of the title, and one of my best friends is the biggest Supergirl fan in the world. I had high hopes for this one. And, thankfully, it lived up to many of those hopes. Writers Michael Green and Mike Johnson smartly went for a hard relaunch in this case, rewriting Supergirl’s origin and taking readers along for the ride. This Supergirl is lost and confused, popping out of her doomed spaceship not with instant Golden Age adaptability, but with the terror of a 16-year-old girl plopped into a totally alien environment with no memory of how she got there. It was a blast to watch Supergirl try to put the pieces of her situation together as she began to manifest the strange powers granted by Earth’s yellow sun and used them to fight off the government agents trying to capture her. The action of the issue allowed her to demonstrate her resilience and her power set, while her interior monologue gave us insight into her personality, family, and history. The book was a fantastic introduction to the character without reading like an info-dump of needless exposition, and I’m excited to see what happens next.
The only thing that gives me pause, and the only thing that would stop me from thrusting this issue into the hands of the next teenage girl I see, is the costume. Supergirl costume controversy is nothing new, with past complaints largely directed at a skirt so tiny that titillating upskirt shots became the norm, rather than the exception. Now, however, Supergirl has no skirt at all, and the results are even worse. The leotard as depicted in this issue is so high-cut that the reader can see every crease of her groin. It’s uncomfortable to even look at, a gross objectification of a character who is, may I repeat, sixteen. Even Ms. Marvel’s leotard isn’t this high-cut. Part of the blame must lie with redesign artist Jim Lee, but ultimately series artist Mahmud Asrar bears most of the responsibility. If the character’s baby face is continuously juxtaposed with a nearly-exposed vagina, I may have to drop this title no matter how good the story is.
I know more than I ever needed to about Supergirl's grooming habits.
Next up was Wonder Woman, a title about which I still haven’t sorted out my feelings. My interest in the title was largely piqued by Cliff Chiang’s art, of which I’ve long been a fan. But I found myself disappointed even on that front – it’s far from the best Chiang I’ve seen, and while I know he’s purposely going for a sketchier style than his normally hyper-clean lines, it looks more rushed than anything else. The art was also hampered by scenes that, however well-drawn, were no fun to look at – a decapitated horse, for instance, or an original civilian character, Zola, who inexplicably spends the whole issue in her underwear. Chiang can, however, draw a damn fine Wonder Woman, so I have hopes for the series’ future on the art side.
Wonder Woman is badass, but why is Zola in her underwear?
Ultimately, though, I just don’t think this book is for me. I appreciated writer Brian Azzarello’s dedication to writing a Wonder Woman plot solidly intertwined with Greek mythology, and I was never confused as a new reader who had never read a solo Wonder Woman title before. Wonder Woman’s powers and badassery were very much on display, and I had no problem with the costume, a nice middle ground between the controversial pants ensemble of the last arc and the classic costume from before. But in the end, this book is a horror book, and horror is not to my taste. Decapitations and disembowelments do nothing for me, and I feel like I’ve seen the story of a woman pregnant and hunted for the god-child in her womb one too many times. (It was done better, for instance, in the most recent arc of Peter David’s X-Factor.) From a feminist perspective, I’m glad this book exists, because women deserve horror books with female heroines (though perhaps Zola could acquire some pants at some point. Diana has a pair she isn’t using). But I don’t think I’ll be picking this up again, and I wouldn’t be surprised if long-time Wonder Woman fans are put off by this change in tone and genre.
Birds of Prey was the most pleasant surprise in my stack. I’ve been a fan of Duane Swierczynski’s work in the past, particularly on Cable, and Jesus Saiz is a brilliant artist whose work I’d adored on Manhunter, making this the most appealing writer-and-artist team out of these four titles. But these men were untested on this particular title, and while I’d never read Gail Simone’s incarnation of the book, I knew that hers would be huge shoes to fill. I had no idea if the new team would pull it off, and I was glad to see that, minus a few missteps, they absolutely did.
I went into this book almost entirely cold – I had never heard of Katana and had no idea if Starling was a new character or not (apparently she is), and I only knew about Dinah and Barbara’s friendship through the fannish grapevine. But Swierczynski did an admirable job of crafting a story that was clear enough for new readers to follow, if a little heavy (and repetitive) on the exposition. I found Starling to be compelling and intriguing (and not just because she has the same first name as my mother), and the action, as depicted by Saiz, was clean and dynamic and full of suspense. He even managed to make Black Canary’s hideous new costume almost work. I appreciated that the book made an effort to include characters of color in the supporting cast, including a villain and the reporter who catalyzed the plot (and, soon, Katana), and I was happy to see the book continue the long tradition of depicting female friendship.
Starling loves her job!
The only scene that felt disruptive was the scene between Barbara and Dinah, which was entirely focused on explaining why a character would not be in the book, a confusing addition that was unnecessarily tied to older continuity and gave new readers the negative impression that the current cast is lacking. It’s the same sort of problem Caroline described in her analysis of week one: by trying to have its cake and eat it too by relaunching without cutting ties to what came before, DC is creating a storytelling mess. But overall, Birds of Prey was an exciting, thoroughly enjoyable comic, and I’ll be following it at least to the end of this arc.
And then there was Catwoman. What can I say about this title that hasn’t already been said by smart people on the internet, particularly ComicsAlliance’s Laura Hudson? As Hudson explains so eloquently, from the diamonds-spilling-over-breasts cover to the penetrative on-panel sex of the last page, this title was pure T&A from start to finish, an interpretation of “sexy” that apparently means “for men only, with the female ‘protagonist’ nothing more than a blow-up doll.” Even the other female characters in the book never stray from the sexed-up, objectified image – a former showgirl, a “whole sorority of prostitutes,” and a girl in a flashback being beaten and killed by her male lover (a man Catwoman later strips for before beating senseless). Writer Judd Winick and artist Guillem March clearly have one priority, and that priority is not female empowerment.
This is what undercover Catwoman looks like before she beats up a bad guy.
But I do have one point of difference with Hudson’s article, and that point of difference gets to the heart of the problem with this title. Hudson describes the final scene as “aggressively fanfictiony on-panel sex between Batman and Catwoman” and later says, “this does not look sexy to me; it looks like a creepy fanfiction drawing.” But fanfiction, as scholars from Henry Jenkins to Kristina Busse would be quick to point out, is part of a subculture that consists almost entirely of women writing fiction (and drawing art) to please other women. To call Catwoman #1 fanfiction is an insult to fanfiction, and misleads readers about the true problem with this art and story. Fanfiction is about forming a community of women who feel comfortable sharing their desires – from their storytelling desires to their sexual desires – with each other. If this comic was fanfiction, it would be designed to appeal to female readers. But Catwoman #1 is about a male writer and a male artist providing titillation for male readers. Women do not factor into the equation at all – not even Catwoman herself. Catwoman could be an icon for female comic book readers who like their super-women on the anti-hero side, but instead, her title may as well have a giant sign on the cover that says “NO GIRLS ALLOWED.” It is the equivalent, not of fanfiction, but of the skeevy art sold by fans in the back rows of a comic con’s Artists’ Alley. And its very difference from female-driven, community-based fanfiction points out the glaring inequity that has surrounded all discussion of the relaunch and is inescapable no matter how well the female characters are written — the almost total absence of female creators.
So there we have it. DC’s iconic women, ranging from the empowering to the objectified, well-written to horribly-written, well-drawn to grossly-costumed and contorted. There are gems hidden in this week, and I hope those writers, artists, and editors are able to continue doing what they’re doing to create fantastic comics appropriate for all audiences, female and male alike. But when books like Catwoman exist and Supergirl’s Brazilian wax is in full view, it’s clear that comic book feminism still has a long way to go.
By Jennifer Margret Smith