“The vast majority of dudes [are] doing this high testosterone sort of storytelling, and so we put our fantasy on the plate on the pages,” Spawn creator Todd McFarlane said at the Television Critics Association press tour on Wednesday, where he was promoting Superheroes: The Never-Ending Battle, a long-gestating documentary about history of American comics. “As much as we stereotype the women, we do it with the guys. The guys are all good looking, not too many ugly superheroes. They’ve all got their hair gelled back. They have got perfect pecs on them. They have no hair on their chest. I mean, they are Ryan Gosling on steroids. Right? They are all beautiful. So we actually stereotype and do it to both sexes. We just happen to show a little more skin when we get to the ladies.”
That McFarlane would say this isn’t exactly surprising. It’s an ancient canard that male heroes are as idealized as women, an idea that ignores their costumes, the difference between a fantasy of power you want to inhabit and sexual ability you want to take advantage of, and the contrast between admiring what someone can do with their body, and what you can do to theirs. But when I followed up with McFarlane, Wolverine creator Len Wein, and The Punisher creator Gerry Conway, the presentation became a showcase for a kind of attitude that’s far from universal in comics, but that still exerts considerable power among both creators and consumers of comics. In Conway’s words, “the comics follow society. They don’t lead society.” And the society they follow is all too comfortable with McFarlane the fantasies of artists like him dominating superhero comics.
“There’s nothing stopping the people that want to do those from doing it,” McFarlane said when I asked if the dominance of the kinds of images he’s produced suggests a creative stagnation in superhero comics. Conway agreed, saying that “There may be some people who are actually very, very passionate to do that themselves, and they should. I mean, I don’t think there’s a barrier necessarily in the field. There’s certainly a barrier at the two main companies for new talent,” in a nod to my point to McFarlane that the employment levels of women and people of color at major comics companies are extraordinarily low. I agree it would be dandy if people who appear to be systematically excluded from mainstream superhero comics could simply start their own successful imprints, but that ignores the considerable advantages of publishing your work through and with the support of a major comics house.
And Conway, McFarlane, and Wein all defaulted to another line of argument: that anyone asking for more diverse superhero comics is effectively asking for an entitlement that won’t produce good storytelling.
“There hasn’t really been historically a comic book that has worked that is trying to get across a kind of message, if you will,” McFarlane insisted. “So the female characters that work are the ones that are just strong women that actually it’s good storytelling, and the odd character that is a minority that works is the one that is just a good strong character. They’ve tried to do minority characters and bring that label and that surrounding [debate] into it. You’re aware that you’re reading a minority comic book. I think it’s wrong.”
Wein took the position that the best way to pursue equality in comics was through strict race neutrality.
“I think every time you take a female character, a black character, a Hispanic character, a gay character, and make that the point of the character, you are minimalizing the character,” he said. “I have written anything you can possibly think of. I have created Storm who was the first black female superhero. I created a number of other characters, and it never matters to me what the color of their skin was. I was writing about who they were as human beings, and it wasn’t Black Storm. She was Storm.”
Eric Jerome Dickey, who wrote a Storm arc in which she married Black Panther and becomes co-ruler of Wakanda, an independent African nation that stands in explicit resistance to Western imperialism, might have a few things to say about the possibilities of acknowledging Storm’s origins while foregrounding her personality had he been present. But it wasn’t a balancing act any of the comics creators on the dias seemed prepared to acknowledge.
“And, now, this is not to say you’re confusing superheroes with the industry, because there are a lot of comic books,” Conway told me. “My daughter — the only actual comic books she will read is by a girl named Faith Erin Hicks, who writes stories that speak to her. So she’s not interested in the guy stories. She’s interested in this woman’s stories. And I think it’s a mistake to sort of, like, pigeonhole superheroes, or to add so much to superheroes that you’re missing the fact it’s a genre within itself. It’s like saying, ‘Why are there no medieval stories about female knights?’ Because there was only one, you know, Joan of Arc. It’s not it’s an inherent limitation of that particular genre, superheroes.” (It’s odd that Conway suggests that Hicks’ comics, which include The Adventures of Superhero Girl, are somehow separate from superhero comics.)
And McFarlane suggested that he’d steer his own daughters in a different direction to empower them — not because superhero comics promote damaging images of women, but because they are the natural preserve of men.
“It might not be the right platform,” he said. “I’ve got two daughters, and if I wanted to do something that I thought was emboldened to a female, I probably wouldn’t choose superhero comic books to get that message across. I would do it in either a TV show, a movie, a novel, or a book. It wouldn’t be superheroes because I know that’s heavily testosterone — driven, and it’s a certain kind of group of people. That’s not where I would go get this kind of message, so it might not be the right platform for some of this.”
And his and McFarlane’s arguments, of course, ignore that superheroes don’t actually exist, and that the production of superhero comics is not actually a biological function determined by whatever bodies we’re born with. A lack of equality in the nobility’s ranks in the medieval military hasn’t kept Tamora Pierce from writing dozens of fantasy novels involving female knights, because that is a thing that you can do in fiction. If superheroes actually existed, and their ranks were exclusively male, writing fantastical fiction to consider how women might handle that sort of power, and how the world might react to their use of it would be a perfectly legitimate subject for superhero fiction to explore. And having two X chromosomes hasn’t actually kept women like Gail Simone from writing wonderful characters of both sexes for decades — nor has possession of a Y chromosome kept men like Dan Slott and Jeff Parker from doing well by characters like She-Hulk and Red She-Hulk. The decision to stay within the narrow lanes of your own fantasies is a choice, not biological determinism.
When the creators weren’t suggesting that comics are in some way biologically determined, they were suggesting that the failure of more diverse representations of superheroes was on readers, not on the companies that decide what kinds of images to promote and what kinds of artists they want to employ.
“I think the bigger question is why are readers not interested in those?” Conway asked.
What’s a shame about the panel is that it doesn’t represent anything close to the breadth of perspectives in the documentary itself, which as executive producer Michael Kantor pointed out, includes women like Jenette Kahn, who as head of DC Comics was one of the youngest presidents ever of a Fortune 500 company, and in the sections I’ve seen, is thoughtful about why the comics industry has shrunk.
It’s a shame because there are good and nuanced arguments to be had about tokenism in comics. “When Stan Lee introduces Luke Cage and the Black Panther in the ’60s, there’s a level of tokenism to that, but it also reflects the growing Civil Rights movement,” Kantor suggested, drawing out the fact that the desire to reflect a historical moment can coexist with less attractive commercial impulses. But wanting a greater breadth of storytelling, and hoping a medium reaches its full storytelling potential is not the same thing as tokenism.
And it’s a shame because these men clearly are capable of thinking critically about genre if not about gender.
“I think part of the issue is that the people who are making these movies feel that the basic that the origin story is the story, that there is no other story that you can tell about a superhero,” Conway said at one point in the panel before I jumped in, making an argument I’ve made frequently in this space, and that I wholeheartedly agree with. “I think they missed the point that these characters can be plugged into almost any story structure. They are focused on the origin story because that’s sort of what they think superheroes are. You know, their these little mythic creations that are about an unempowered person becoming empowered. But of course they are not. They are symbolic of a larger story telling structure. They are modern myths so they can tell any story you want to. They can tell about the story of the fall of a good man.”
But there he was, saying that superhero comics couldn’t get out ahead of society. “That seems like an unambitious position,” I told him. One might even say it’s decidedly less than superheroic.