Tuesday, March 20, 2007

The “Girl-Standards”: Thoughts on Those Titles We Womenfolk Might Like; or, how I recently read (and watched) a lot of Hellboy

Have I ever told you how much I adore Dark Horse Comics, Gentle Reader? I know I often point to the Two Houses, both alike in Dignity in Fair New York where we Lay Our Scene, but I feel the need to look at the Alternatives, as well. And, yes, I’ve recently read most of the Hellboy trade paperbacks, and purchased issue #1 of Buffy Season 8, and watched Hellboy: Blood and Iron, so Dark Horse has been on my mind, just a bit. But Dark Horse, overall, provides a nice alternative to The Big Two, particularly in that they seem dedicated to fostering new, creator-owned talent.

Mike Mignola’s Hellboy is nothing short of genius, it’s true, but what I find Very Interesting is that it is often touted as one of the Girl-Friendly Comics About In The World. I find these lists, these “How to Get Your Girlfriend/Girl Best Friend/Wife to Read Comic Books” lists to be A Bit Odd. Mr. Reads often crows over his triumphant role in my re-indoctrination into the world of superhero comics, but it must be said, Friends, that I’ve read comics, off and on, for 20+ years. I had Lost Sight of Superhero comics sometime around the time my Wonder Woman underoos started to get a bit snug, but I had my college-years graphic novel reading to fill in the meantime: Sandman, Ghost World, Squee, The Dreaming, The Crow.

You know.

Girl-Standards.

What is it about the Comic Book Audience that, while sometimes Quite Proud of its predominantly-male community, is seemingly so determined to establish a so-called "Girl-Friendly" Canon? And what is it about titles like Sandman, Fables, Y the Last Man, and yes, Hellboy, that some readers are so convinced will help introduce womenfolk to these books-with-pictures? And, the really big question here, why do some readers/writers/etc. not understand why some women feel excluded from the comic book community, but yet remain committed to sharing their comic book love with their sisters/girlfriends/girl-friends/wives?

I find myself working this backwards, in some way, in that I am the only one of my Girl-friends who reads comic books. In fact, at a recent evening at a Dear Friend’s House, I spent most of the night chatting Captain America’s untimely demise, and Marvel’s Civil War Crisis, with said Dear Friend’s Husband. Said Dear Friend (who is, undeniably, Quite Dear Indeed!) appreciates our, well, appreciation for comics, but doesn’t, personally, like the medium.

Some of my Girl-friends have ventured Graphic Novel WayPersepolis, Veils, Box Office Poison—but few, if any, have ever read Superhero Titles. No Tights and Flights, no Capes, no Sonic Cries, no Amazons Attacking, or Villains Uniting, or Secret Wars, well, Secreting. Yet my Girl-friends tell me, again and again, that they find the Blogosphere’s Feminist Discussions of Comic Books Intriguing and, it seems, Enticing.

So believe me when I say that I understand this need to share a love, a fandom, a (Mary) Marvel. I know how it feels to want my friends and family to like and enjoy the very things I enjoy, to want to be able to discuss these things that are, in truth, Very Important to me. But when I attempt to entice my Girl-friends over Comic Book Way, I turn to titles like Fallen Angel, or Birds of Prey, or Wonder Woman, and rarely, very rarely, Sandman, or JtHM, or The Crow.

So I began to wonder: why, then, are these titles considered to be Girl-Standards? What is it about Sandman, or Fables, that seems more “female-friendly,” than, say, the Birds of Prey, or Catwoman? Specifically, I began to wonder why a title like Hellboy, almost overwhelmingly male in its choice of characters, and almost always female in its choice of villains, is considered so very “girl-friendly.” I don’t have A Definitive Answer, Friends, but I have some thoughts, Hellboy-specific.

1) Hellboy Tells Stories.
It’s a title almost solely dedicated to the spinning of yarns, the telling of tales. When you read Hellboy, you not only get action, particularly of the beat-em-up shoot-em-up variety, you get a great story, as well. These stories are also heavily influenced by somewhat familiar histories and mythologies, so there is never the feeling that one needs to catch-up if one hasn’t been reading since The Dawn Of Time. Even in The Big Two’s stand-alone titles are references to other heroes, or stories, or crises, and if one hasn’t been reading *this* title since the mid-80s, or *that* title since 1947, one probably will have no idea who X character is, or why he or she should even care.

2) Hellboy Doesn’t Believe In Essentialism.
Hellboy, the character, is a demon. From Hell. But because of love and nurturing and free will and, in no small part, pancakes, he denies what so many assume to be his Natural Self, his Destiny, his Born Purpose to do and be what *he* wants. Women so often suffer under Essentialist Expectations. That is to say, so many in our society, and in societies long past, believe that because a woman has a uterus, or 2 x-chromosomes, or breasts, or 2 eyes and a mouth, then she must be weak/maternal/sneaky/sexy/super-skinny/catty/etc. Hellboy belies that very idea of essentialism—that we Are What We Are and That’s That—and the entire series is based on this very thing.

3) The Evil In Hellboy Is Often Old-School.
So very often in this title, Those That Commit Evil are often Those From An Older Time. Nazis, Old World Vampires or Witches, people, monsters, or things that try to bring the world back to The Way It Was Before (whatever time that was, Gentle Reader!) are The Bad Guys. Hellboy and the Bureau are about promoting change in the world. They look forwards, not backwards, and are not frightened by new ideas but by old ones. In This Humble Author’s Very Humble Opinion, old ideas are often the scariest because old ideas are often the ones rooted in oppression.

4) Hellboy Is About Equal-Opportunity Chivalry And Challenge.
Hellboy, the character, doesn’t try to save women, specifically, nor does he coddle evil just because that particular evil in that particular story happens to be female. Instead, lines are drawn between Good and Evil, not Men and Women.

5) Hellboy Is Just Good. Period.
This is a point I Can’t Stress Enough, Gentle Reader! The Comic Book Industry shouldn’t have to ask for a female audience, nor should it mollycoddle its female audience. It needs to offer great stories, with interesting and complex characters that women can relate to. Yes, sometimes that character is a woman, but sometimes that character is a man.

Or a boy.

A Hell-Boy, even.

6 comments:

Chris said...

I had similar thoughts when reading this blog. I think what makes certain comics "girl comics" is the presence of a captivating story. Unfortunately, in today's world, if a book has more of a story than blood or guts, it's just not macho enough. That goes with movies and (regular) books as well. This is very unfortunate. I'm thinking of Sandman in particular and can see why that would appeal to a more feminine or "in touch with their feminine side" audience. Gaiman has a way of making words beautiful, and unfortunately there's only a few of us guys that can appreciate that. Though come to think of it, I know just as many Sandman fanboys as Sandman fangirls. I don't know if this made any sense....long day :p

Scott said...

There were some books I recommended to a lady friend because I thought they were "feminist" or "empowering." But that wasn't really a priority for her--she just wanted a good story.

There are lots of comics out there that I would call "entertaining," but so few that I would actually call "good." Most of the writers that I read faithfully I consider "good" (Busiek, PAD, Waid, Slott, Simone, Vaughan, Kirkman, etc.). Theirs would be the first books I recommended. Others (Bendis, Brubaker, Johns, Loeb) I just find "entertaining." I blame Neil Gaiman for this, because Sandman raised my standards for comics.

Anyway, yes, Hellboy is a wonderful series. Even more so because it is so plainly distinctive. Hellboy tales are told (and shown) with true artistry. And thanks to this blog, I want to go and read them again.

Amy Reads said...

Hi Chris,
I had similar thoughts when reading this blog. I think what makes certain comics "girl comics" is the presence of a captivating story. Unfortunately, in today's world, if a book has more of a story than blood or guts, it's just not macho enough. That goes with movies and (regular) books as well. This is very unfortunate. I'm thinking of Sandman in particular and can see why that would appeal to a more feminine or "in touch with their feminine side" audience. Gaiman has a way of making words beautiful, and unfortunately there's only a few of us guys that can appreciate that. Though come to think of it, I know just as many Sandman fanboys as Sandman fangirls. I don't know if this made any sense....long day :p

It makes perfect sense, and I think you're right in that we, as a society, tend to associate "blood and guts" with masculine and introspection and good storytelling with feminine. What I find really interesting are the people actively trying to combat those dichotomies, particularly from the storytelling angle. Like Hellboy :)
Ciao,
Amy

Amy Reads said...

Hi Scott,
There were some books I recommended to a lady friend because I thought they were "feminist" or "empowering." But that wasn't really a priority for her--she just wanted a good story.

I don't actively seek out books with feminist agendas, particularly because most of what I read from the 19th century has no feminist agenda at all, even those books written by women. And honestly, I don't really like overtly political stories/movies/tv shows/etc. I like my subtext subtle. Buffy subtle.

There are lots of comics out there that I would call "entertaining," but so few that I would actually call "good." Most of the writers that I read faithfully I consider "good" (Busiek, PAD, Waid, Slott, Simone, Vaughan, Kirkman, etc.). Theirs would be the first books I recommended. Others (Bendis, Brubaker, Johns, Loeb) I just find "entertaining." I blame Neil Gaiman for this, because Sandman raised my standards for comics.

Gaiman truly is a master of his craft, although I think he really fell into a good novel groove with American Gods (still one of the best books I've ever read, period). I, too, find myself differentiating between books that are "good" and books that I read "just for fun," although I'm trying, real hard, not to make that distinction. Now granted, given my profession, I have to differentiate between books read for work, and books read for pleasure (I don't, for example, read Neil Gaiman with a pencil in my hand, although I have written on and will teach Coraline). But I've believe, sincerely, that if we comic book fans want the world to take us seriously, then we need to take comics seriously. They are a serious medium with a long tradition (*waves at William Blake*).

Anyway, yes, Hellboy is a wonderful series. Even more so because it is so plainly distinctive. Hellboy tales are told (and shown) with true artistry. And thanks to this blog, I want to go and read them again.

Huzzah! That was the most important part of this! What a great series, no? Mr. Reads, too, is on the reread. Keep me updated!
Ciao,
Amy

Scott said...

I like my subtext subtle. Buffy subtle.

I am amazed at Joss Whedon's subtlety. I'm almost ashamed to admit that I hadn't considered the feminist agenda in Buffy until Whedon spoke about it in DVD commentaries. At the time, I hadn't trained my mind to look for such things. When I realized what he was doing, the show felt a whole lot more important. (I think one of the reasons I didn't catch on right away was because I didn't think a female superhero was so unusual. I did, however, realize that what made Buffy "sexy" was different from what made most female superheroes/femme fatales sexy. Here was a character where I cared more about her emotional journey than about how hot she looked stabbing monsters with Mr. Pointy. And can you believe it? Most of her fights, her clothes never got ripped in suggestive places! Amazing.)

Gaiman truly is a master of his craft, although I think he really fell into a good novel groove with American Gods (still one of the best books I've ever read, period).

Loved American Gods. Loved all his novels, but I think American Gods was the only book that I considered to be Sandman quality.

But I've believe, sincerely, that if we comic book fans want the world to take us seriously, then we need to take comics seriously. They are a serious medium with a long tradition (*waves at William Blake*).

Absolutely. I've started reading some older works recently, to finally get a sense of some of that rich history. In fact, I think I'm more interested in older stuff than I am in what's coming out today. (Peter and Gwen make such a cute couple. Hope everything works out.)

Amy Reads said...

Hi Scott,
I am amazed at Joss Whedon's subtlety. I'm almost ashamed to admit that I hadn't considered the feminist agenda in Buffy until Whedon spoke about it in DVD commentaries. At the time, I hadn't trained my mind to look for such things. When I realized what he was doing, the show felt a whole lot more important. (I think one of the reasons I didn't catch on right away was because I didn't think a female superhero was so unusual. I did, however, realize that what made Buffy "sexy" was different from what made most female superheroes/femme fatales sexy. Here was a character where I cared more about her emotional journey than about how hot she looked stabbing monsters with Mr. Pointy. And can you believe it? Most of her fights, her clothes never got ripped in suggestive places! Amazing.)

And what I think is really smart about Buffy is that there really *isn't* a "feminist agenda," or a "pro-weirdness agenda," yet there are all of those things and more. What makes BtVS so smart is that everyone can take something away from it. My father, even, who has No Interest in things like BtVS, enjoyed watching it, even.

Loved American Gods. Loved all his novels, but I think American Gods was the only book that I considered to be Sandman quality.

Shadow's my heart, truly. He gets me where it hurts, like Batman, or Atticus Kodiak, or Harry Dresden, or Faith, or Spike, or any of the other thousands of broken characters I love so much (Darcy, Jane Eyre, Huntress, Elektra, the list goes on!). But the *writing* is truly wonderful, I agree.

Absolutely. I've started reading some older works recently, to finally get a sense of some of that rich history. In fact, I think I'm more interested in older stuff than I am in what's coming out today. (Peter and Gwen make such a cute couple. Hope everything works out.)

Yes, Scott, let me know how that Peter/Gwen relationship turns out ;)

I feel bad that I can't get into the comics that I enjoyed as the kid because honestly, they're not aesthetically appealing to me. Pretty art goes very far in my eyes. I swoon for Jim Lee, John Cassaday, Adam Hughes, etc.
Ciao,
Amy