Fantastic Fangirls vs. the Girlfriend Lists

We started our Comic Book Club conversation about Strangers in Paradise yesterday, talking through our first impressions, including some of favorite and least favorite characters. Today, we continue by discussing the idea of SiP as a “gateway” comic.

Sigrid: Strangers in Paradise is one of those comics you always see on the Girlfriend Lists. You know. Those excruciatingly irritating, “How do I get my girlfriend to appreciate all my erudition on comic books so I can continue to get laid?” lists.


I, of course, mean to say, “How do I get my girlfriend to read comics?” Those lists. Anyway, SiP is always on those lists. Presumably because it is about women and relationships, not energy blasts. (I, personally, like my relationship comics to also be energy blast comics. This is why New Avengers is one of my favorite series of all time. Ditto Birds of Prey. Relationship stories and energy blast stories work very well together, thank you very much.) Yet . . . yet the plots of SiP tend to involve murder, the mob, contract killers, and alternate futures. How is this much different from Invincible, or Powers?

What do we think of the first volume of the Pocket edition as a gateway drug?

Anika: Okay, first of all, we should never compare comic books to drugs but certainly not in the context of asking someone we care about to give them a chance. No one outside of the comic book fandom or industry is going to appreciate the genre so long as those of us inside of it show so little pride in them. Suggesting a comic book to a loved one should be no different than suggesting a novel, a movie, an album, a television series, or even an opera or ballet. It should hinge entirely on what you want to share with them. It should not be phrased as sharing an addiction.

Second, if the idea is to get this person interested in New Avengers or Birds of Prey, I think Strangers in Paradise is a bad choice! Caroline and Jennifer both did not know how to read it; I only knew because it reminded me of manga. It would be like wanting to get someone into watching CSI with you by watching a Law and Order marathon. Sure, they are both crime dramas, but they are presented very differently. CSI is more serial and Law and Order self-contained. Your girlfriend would be confused by how colorful CSI is and how everything takes place in one week’s time — she would want to know where are the bom-boms that indicate a new scene? And even if she ended up absolutely loving Law and Order, that’s no guarantee she would have any interest in CSI — so when you ask her to watch NCIS, she’ll look at you funny, and when you bring out Fringe, well, you have no chance at all.

If you think your girlfriend will like Strangers in Paradise, share away. But not as a drug.

Jennifer: I agree with Anika. I’m not sure there is a “gateway drug” when it comes to comics, because the medium is so broad that interest in one thing won’t necessarily translate to interest in another. I love comics, but I didn’t love Strangers in Paradise; meanwhile, the friend I borrowed my copy from read and enjoyed almost all of SiP, but has never had an interest in reading any other comics. SiP is a great book to recommend to people who you think will like SiP, but I don’t think it — or any other one comic, for that matter — will necessarily lead to an interest in comics at large. And I’ll confess that I find myself somewhat bewildered by the “all girls like this!” reputation SiP has gotten. I’m pretty sure most of the fans of the book I’ve met have been men, and I think this conversation alone has proved that women don’t have monolithic tastes. Some girls will like it, just like some people will like anything, but I wouldn’t offer it as a blanket girlfriend recommendation.

That said, I’m not sure the first book alone is much to judge things on. I believe you, Sigrid, when you say that some of the issues I had with it are resolved over time, and I’d consider at least reading one more volume. I know it’s something you and a lot of other people love, and I don’t think that’s baseless! Besides, I did find Katchoo’s plot interesting, and I agree with those who mentioned the cop as a particularly intriguing thread. If nothing else, this book is a fascinating look at a writer/cartoonist coming into his own, which I think is useful for any comics fan.

Caroline: I feel like this ‘gateway’ question — and the issue of who recommends the book to whom, and why — is a good one to throw out to our readership.

My cynical explanation is that this book makes the Girlfriend Lists because it’s a comic that comes easily to mind, which has women in prominent roles. There are also plenty of other comics with women in prominent roles, but I would venture a guess that the people asking for “Girlfriend” lists don’t know what they are — except maybe Birds of Prey or Wonder Woman — because that’s not what they pay attention to when they read and discuss most comics. And yes, there’s a cynical explanation for my cynical explanation: the role of female characters in “mainstream” comics is a frequent topic of discussion on Fantastic Fangirls. And I’ve never actually seen, “Go read what some of the actual women who write about comics write about when you’re not demanding that they make Girlfriend Lists” as an answer to unraveling the mystery of What Women Want in Their Comics. But, readers, if you run into that question, feel free to send your friends our way!

But none of that has anything to do with SiP — which I really did enjoy, and will probably read more of when I can get my hands on it. I know that different women have different reasons for liking the books they like, but the fact that there are female protagonists definitely factors into my enjoyment of this book. This is particularly true in the crime-related plots. In substance, though not in tone, Katchoo’s story in the second volume isn’t that different from what you’d see in an arc of Ed Brubaker’s Criminal. But instead of involving one femme fatale and a bunch of men double-crossing each other, most of the players here are women. David, the only significant male (besides the cop), is the traitorous spy in the house of love. That’s pretty cool, now that I think about it. But I’m pretty sure I’m only paying attention to the role reversals because I’ve absorbed so much hard-boiled crime fiction in my life — and that’s not “supposed to be” for women, either. It gets messy when readers won’t stay in their designated boxes, doesn’t it? Messy, but much more fun.

Let me throw the question back at Sigrid, and then I think we can wrap up. Have you tried Strangers as a gateway comic, and if so, what’s it a gateway to? What kind of readers does it seem to click with, and why do you think that is?

Sigrid: My partner, J, has read about six comic book series or graphic novels, ever. (She’s started a lot more, but keeps stopping because “it would be so much easier if the stories didn’t have those distracting pictures in the way.”) J has read Maus, Fun Home, Strangers in Paradise, Sandman, Y: The Last Man, and Order of the Stick. Does anything strike you as familiar about that list? Does it not look a lot like the Girlfriend Lists? I asked J how it was she got through those comics, and not others. She replied, “The stories are quite good. And the art isn’t complicated. They don’t do weird things with the panels, except for Sandman, and I had trouble with that. Those comics do a lot of the storytelling with text, which is easier to read. And except for Sandman, they have the same artist all the way through, so I could recognize the characters.”

Food for thought.

Caroline: And that’s funny to me because one of the things I kept thinking reading SiP was (as much as I love Terry Moore’s art), “Why are there so many words?” Including a whole chapter of text, in fact, which is one thing we didn’t even touch on.

But that’s enough from us. I’d love to get some comments from the gallery. Readers, has somebody (besides us) recommended SiP to you? Have you recommended it to others, and if so what was your thought process? How did you sell it? Do you have any thoughts on Girlfriend Lists? How different is SiP from “mainstream” comics? In what ways are they alike?

  • Ugh, Girlfriend Lists. I *hate* Girlfriend Lists, and SiP is a prime example of why.

    I know a lot of male comics fans who love SiP and hold it up as a great example of comics that are accessible to women.

    I know a paucity of female fans who love SiP. That either don’t like it or just haven’t read it.

    Girlfriend Lists don’t ‘get it’ because they treat the Girlfriend in question as some sort of goddamn alien when her barrier to entry has nothing to do with her gender or relationship status and everything to do, as Sigrid illustrates perfectly, with not being lifelong comic book readers and not knowing how to approach the texts.

    If I were going to give comics to my girlfriend, I’d probably hand her Secret Six, Batman and Robin and Daytripper – three comics that are coming out right now by a whole big bunch of really great creators telling interesting and captivating stories. The mainstream books on that list use continuity to their advantage but don’t create entertainment for the reader strictly based on that, which is the real accessibility problem in the ouroborous of fan-pandering that Big Two superhero comics have turned into or are turning into.

  • sigrid

    Jeff — maybe that’s a big part of the Girlfriend Lists, a term which you may note I find incredibly distasteful, recommending things that are not continuity-soaked. But I recommend comics all the time, to PEOPLE, not to categories, and unlike the Lists I try to think what a person will like. One friend is now a huge Warren Ellis fan because I recommended TRANSMETROPOLITAN.

    And, backing up a bit to the comics-as-drugs thing. The friends I recommend comics to all refer to me as their pusher. They all refer to comics as a habit-forming behavior. I hear people frequently talking about cutting back, or quitting comics. I don’t think it’s just me that maps comics onto an addiction metaphor. I personally don’t mind the comparison, I view it as a humorous acknowledgment of the INTENSE level of investment many comic fans have in their weekly reading. (And I usually call it my weekly fix.) We start out reading one or two titles, many of us escalate to more titles and more investment of time and money and intellectual energy. Some don’t, and remain casual readers. Some go further, immersing themselves in a social world devoted to comics. Etc., etc., I could keep pulling the metaphor along.

    But, as I said, I use the metaphor with humor, with a wry acknowledgment that comics are absorbing, and as a reminder to myself that they are NOT the be-all and end-all of my life. Thoughts?

  • Jo

    A friend of mine recommended SiP to me, saying she thought I would like it, but I was already into comics. The only thing was I read superhero comics *only*, and only ones in color. So reading SiP was a surprise – a pleasant one, but one that I wasn’t excited about at first.

    But she was right, and I was wrong. It still, however, doesn’t make me want to read B&W comics or non-superhero comics — it only makes me want to read comics written by Terry Moore.

    I’ve recommended it to male friends I figured would like the relationship aspect of it all, and they did. However, my heart will always be with DC Comics (mainly Titans-related comics), which has a lot of the drama/relationship/soap opera aspects, I suppose. Just with aliens and powers. :)

  • sigrid

    Jo- Like I said, relationship comics WITH energy blasts!!

  • Caroline

    Nicely said, Jeff. And Jo, I agree, those relationship dramas are everywhere!

    About the drug metaphor — when my friend Kelly at the Murmur site posted about figuring out how to read comics, I brought that metaphor up in my answer — it’s like telling someone who smokes crack that, while they seem to have a lot of fun with it, the stuff seems overpriced and the high is over really fast. I used the comparison because I think a lot of us are not really making rational consumption decisions when we read comics (which is also true of people who are into movies or TV or, you know, ‘Twilight’ — or for that matter ballet or opera). I’m sure some people DO make rational consumption decisions but that’s not everybody’s baseline.

  • Anika

    It is not at all just you, Sigrid, many people talk about comics in terms of addiction. But I think they mean it is a compulsion, if anything. Actual addiction is chemical and I believe it is disingenuous to both comic readers and persons dealing with true addictions to liken an enjoyment of comics to a chemical dependence. Yes, I am up on my soapbox, and yes, I am up on my high horse, and I believe that you and Caroline and most of those many people are using it as a reasonable colloquialism. I still consider it to be inappropriate.

    ETA: Compulsions can be chemical, too, but are not chemical dependence — they are imbalances of our own natural chemicals/bodies.

  • I understand what addiction is, and I also think most people understand what a metaphor is.
    Sigrid and I have explained why we think it’s a useful metaphor, and I understand why you think it’s an inappropriate one.

    I appreciate your putting the thought out there, but let’s not get derailed with this, okay? (Appealing to everyone, not just Anika).

  • handyhunter

    I had SiP* recommended to me when I was just reading Whedon’s Astonishing X-Men (before getting into other parts of the Marvelverse and beyond). I flipped through SiP and did not read it then because it didn’t have any superheroes or colour. I kind of forgot about it until you guys decided to read & discuss it.

    *And Y: The Last Man, which I didn’t read then either, but did try a little later on (after BKV’s Runaways), and didn’t like that much. (After these recs, I stopped asking one of my comicstore people for suggestions.)

  • sigrid

    Handyhunter It sounds like you were getting the Girlfriend List recommendations . . .

  • handyhunter

    That is possible! I didn’t know the Girlfriend List existed at the time, so I figured we just had very different tastes in comics. A different guy, at the same store, tried to sell me the entire Ultimate X-Men collection, after I said I wasn’t interested in them. “No, really, I’m just here for ‘Cable & Deadpool’.” 😀

    Luckily, the main two people who work there (one man and one woman — this store seems to have a lot of female customers, so IDK if they’ve had success with the Girlfriend List? I suspect it’s hit-and-miss, but I’m not the one trying to sell comics) don’t try quite so hard to sell me stuff I’m not interested in. And they were right about Bendis’ ‘Alias’…

  • Caroline

    I don’t know why Bendis doesn’t make more Girlfriend Lists. I mean, he’s not for everybody, and he’s not perfect, but if the point is stories about women, between Jessica Jones and Deena Pilgrim from “Powers”, he does heroines a lot of us can relate to — a lot in common with Katchoo, really. I’m sure Sigrid would agree ;).

  • Girlfriend lists irritate me for reasons that are not at all original or unique to me, so I won’t even… arrrg. I wrote something along those lines here:

    As for SiP, my gut says that what Caroline suggests above is a large part of why it’s recommended (regardless of whether or not lists work or are offensive). SiP is largely a story about relationships between women; that’s something I, personally, am going to look for in any medium. I think the assumption is that women in general are more likely to want stories about women. But it didn’t work for me as a gateway into comics. (Though that wasn’t how I was introduced to it, thankfully.)

    I own all of the pocket editions (I’m the friend Jen borrowed from, in fact) and I’m not into comics at all. I read SiP in middle school originally, re-read it in college, and enjoyed it enough that I still own it — but that’s *despite* it being a comic. It didn’t act as a gateway; it didn’t give me any urge or interest in picking up other comic books. I like SiP as a story. (And, for the record, I like superhero stories.) But merely being shown good material isn’t enough for me, because I don’t like comics *as a medium*. It’s not one that’s going to work for me, no matter how many lists people make.

  • Caroline

    Interesting, Rebecca, thanks for sharing!

    When you say you don’t like comics as a medium, do you mean you don’t like most comics but you liked this one? Or that you were reading this the whole time and wishing it were — prose? a movie? TV? I’m curious.

    And I don’t mean to dismiss the idea that relationships between women are important to a lot of women in choosing fiction. (Though not all — the people who were up in arms about girls being added to the cast of ‘Supernatural’ were largely, as far as I know, female). I’ve just noticed that a lot of male comics readers/reviewers don’t tend to notice — or at least don’t comment on — how important or well-portrayed female characters are in most stories, and I assume that’s because it’s not an area that they focus on or are even aware of.

  • I like SiP (and a few select others) *despite* them being graphic novels. My problem is rarely with the story or characters, it’s with the format where pictures convey a lot of the action and meaning within the story. (And tell you who is speaking, for that matter.)

    My brain just basically skips over visuals, both IRL and in things I read. (I usually have to meet someone five or six times before I know what his or her hair color is, for example.) So with comics, the medium just doesn’t work for me — I don’t notice what’s happening in the pictures, and without that piece of information I’ll have no idea what’s happening, trouble figuring out who’s speaking, etc. I am not in any way against the medium! I just have a very hard time reading it.

    About SiP and other comics I’ve read, I have no idea whether they would work in other formats and that doesn’t tend to be my concern. (I assume creators are telling they story in what *they* think is the best format for it, so I’m not going to question that).

    (My other issues with comics tend to be with serialized story telling that has a goal of keeping characters or story lines going basically indefinitely — I am a very, very structure-based reader, so I like to be able to look at how characters have changed and then close the book on them. I also don’t like coming in to something with lots of continuity behind it; it feels like starting in the middle or later part of a story, which again, is just not how I work as a reader. So even though I tend to *like* things like superhero stories — I own most of B:TAS and the Justice League animated series on DVD — the medium and the stories it lends itself to well *don’t* work for me.)

  • D’oh, also, because I haven’t rambled in your comments enough, as for relationships between female characters, maybe I’m giving too much credit to the people who make girlfriend lists…

    I know that’s not something every female reader (or watcher, with your SPN example) values, but I certainly do. Regardless, though, I still *think* the assumption of list-makers is “angry girls on the internet complain that there aren’t enough girls in comics, so lists for girls should have comics with girl characters.” (Which, of course, totally ignores all of the actual reasons and nuance that female comics readers have tried to explain.)

  • Caroline

    Got it — I just really meant to ask what you meant by reading it in spite of the medium. I don’t know if I could stick with something long-term if I didn’t like the medium (like, unlike most of the comics fans I know, haven’t seen very many superhero cartoons, because I have trouble sticking with animation for any length of time even when I think the stories are good. If I’m watching a moving screen, I want to be watching people). So I think it says a lot for the story if you’ve come back to it that many times when you didn’t enjoy the medium.

    Continuity, now, that’s it’s own can of worms.

    Thanks again for your thoughts.

  • Caroline

    Rebecca — Re: the second comment, I completely agree. I just mean to say that there are, and have been for a long time, superhero comics that do a good job with female characters, I just don’t know that readers are particularly conscious of which ones those are if it’s not something they’re looking for as they read.

  • handyhunter

    Re comics vs other storytelling mediums: I have a hard time staying interested in Greg Rucka’s novels – I’ve tried one of the Atticus Finch books and one with Tara as the main character – but I really like the graphic novels of his that I’ve read. IDK if this would’ve been the other way around if I’d come across his novels first, then comics, especially if it was before I learned how to read with the pictures.

    @Caroline, I thought it was just me who didn’t like (most) animated series!

  • handyhunter

    *And by Atticus Finch, I mean Atticus Kodiak.

  • Caroline

    @handyhunter I should read the Queen & Country novel that I own for a one-on-one comparison. I like the Atticus books pretty well, but I think it’s in comics that Rucka’s work really sings, especially paired with a great artist like Lark on Gotham Central, or Lieber in Whiteout.

  • Marfisa

    Do people who make Girlfriend Lists still include the Hernandez Brothers’ “Love and Rockets” on them? Because back when SiP first came out, it struck me as basically a less multicultural, less magical-realist version of Jaime Hernandez’s “Locas” storylines focusing on Maggie and Hopey and their crowd. Of course, then SiP got into all that Mafia drama and “Locas” became much more punk rock and Mexican wrestling-oriented (and eventually drifted away from that, too). So after the first few years the two series wound up diverging from each other a lot more noticeably, to the point where even the central relationship between the bad-ass not-interested-in-men-at-all lesbian (Katchoo in SiP/Hopey in “Locas”) and the much more conventional, mostly-straight “nice girl” she loves (SiP’s Francine/”Locas” ‘ Maggie) that was the most striking thing SiP and “Locas” had in common isn’t particularly central in “Locas” anymore.

  • Caroline

    @Marfisa Good question! I’ve only read a bit of ‘Locas’ fairly recently, but I’ve noticed the (surface, at least) similarities. I don’t think I see L&R on nearly as many Girlfriend Lists, but that might be because it skews more toward an ‘art comics’ audience.

  • handyhunter

    @Caroline As I was reading the third volume of Q&C, I thought there was a jump in the timeline and sort of a missing part of the story; wiki tells me ‘A Gentleman’s Game’ takes place between issue 28 and 29, so now I want to retry reading it, to fill in the gap — there’s enough in the comic itself to pick up what happened, but not the details. And the other novel, ‘Private Wars’, takes place after the comics. I think I might like them better now that I know who Tara Chase is.

  • Caroline

    Confession: I have a lot of unread ‘Queen & Country’ in my house. I love the series, it’s just not one I think to sit down and spend time with and those books are so thick!

  • handyhunter

    Heh. I think it took me 4 months to read the 4 volumes (well, 3.5, because I’m not done 4 yet, which isn’t about Tara anyway; it’s backstory of some of the other characters). It’s definitely a series I read slowly.

  • Gregory

    A friend of mine started reading comics a few years ago when her them-boyfriend loaned her his New X-Men and Astonishing X-Men books, both because he loved them and because he knew she liked the X-Men from the movies.

    Though she reads only X-Men to this day (she *hated* Sandman), the comics were a perfect fit for her. It didn’t occur to me to think that her boyfriend was doing anything special by treating her as a person instead of a girl. Maybe it helps to not want to share comics in general so much as certain characters or stories.

    My girlfriend and I like to read to each other, and, though we mostly read books, I read Kingdom Come to her a few years ago, and she quite liked it. But I didn’t aim to help her develop a love of comics, just of Kingdom Come, which I’d come to enjoy, too, as an amazing story.

    I don’t really follow the logic of trying to attract someone’s interest to a medium more than a single work within it. Maybe I’m odd in that regard. I’ve never been a music lover, either, though there’s a good deal of music I love.

  • My husband and i got quite satisfied Raymond could deal with his investigations while using the ideas he had while using the site. It’s not at all simplistic to just be making a gift of tips that many some other people have been making money from. And we all do know we have got the writer to appreciate because of that. The entire illustrations you made, the straightforward web site menu, the friendships your site help to foster – it’s got everything powerful, and it’s aiding our son and our family do think that issue is enjoyable, and that is particularly fundamental. Many thanks for everything!

  • Crystal

    Why not just ask a girl who recently got into comics, what got her into comics? Following the explostion of anime, I started reading manga like InuYasha, Fullmetal Alchemist, Fruits Basket, and Death Note. Although even after the comic book movies that had been coming out, I was never motivated to read American comic books until Buffy continued its story in comic book form. Now I’m starting to expand into comic books series like The Walking Dead, X-men, and more in the future.

    It’s pretty easy; just take whatever they already have an interest in and introduce them to the comic book form, or the closest thing to it. Hopefully they will exand their reading into other comics that you like. But if superheroes aren’t their thing, they aren’t going to like superhero comic books; and it won’t matter that you got them to read a volume of SiP or whatever else.

  • Caroline

    Crystal — thanks for the comment, and I’m glad you found this older post. You may notice we have developed a vocal ‘Fullmetal Alchemist’ cheering section at FF :).