Friday, 9 August 2013

Words and pictures

I feel like I have an odd, underformed relationship with my geek side. On the one hand, I adore a lot of what the subculture produces ‒ media which introduces entire alternate universes to play in, and often the explicit mechanisms to do so, alongside a general sense of awe and excitement regarding some of the most amazing parts of our own universe. I love video games, I love fantasy and sci-fi, I have already gushed about online roleplaying. I have even had brief experiences with tabletop gaming and card games which made me wish the communities surrounding them catered to me more. Despite this affinity, however, I feel like I've never devoted the correct amount of time to reading and watching to really be a geek, whatever that means. I've written before about feeling like a general culture failure because the things I like are usually too few, too specific and too far away from the "things you must watch/read/play or you are not a proper lover of media" list that people like to compile and then wave in your face. With "geek things", the problem is compounded by the way in which men attempt to protect the subculture, which has been well documented in the phenomenon of the "fake geek girl".

So, last week, for reasons which were part semi-geek identity crisis and part "I will do a thing that I can later write a blog about, how virtuous", I asked my friends at my local comic shop which comics they would recommend for an unrepentant feminist who wants to read Things About The Womens. I mentioned my friends on Tuesday but that was a very quiet blog post so let me do so again: a couple of years ago, against the backdrop of Recession and The Death Of Local Shops and Amazon Ruining Everything, a friend of mine from school and his little brother refurbished a gorgeous 16th century shop in the middle of Huntingdon, filled it with books, comics, tabletop games, action figures and imported sweets (and a Mass Effect art book which will one day be mine...), and have been quietly and successfully running Niche Comics since the beginning of 2012. If you ever find yourself in Huntingdon for any reason, I guarantee that visiting them will be the highlight of your day, because they are amazing and because Huntingdon is... not. They are down the non-pedestrianised end of the High Street, near the Samuel Pepys pub, or whatever it has rebranded itself to these days. You should also follow them on Facebook even if you never intend to set food in Huntingdon.

My friend is also very well-informed both about comics and about women's representation, so it was no surprise when he came back with a fascinating list of things for me to try out. The most prominent feminist discussion around comic books tends to focus exclusively on female body shapes, and particularly the Strong Female Character pose, here illustrated by the Hawkeye Initiative (which redraws female superhero poses done by Hawkeye, who is... some guy. I don't know. I'm not a real geek!) but what I ended up with was a very different impression. I'm not feeling desperately prose-y (perhaps because of all these comic books rotting my mental faculties?) so I'll bullet point what I've read so far.
  • The New York Four, by Brian Wood and Ryan Kelly (the first one wrote it, the second drew it), is a quite Scott Pilgrim-esque book about four women college students at NYU. The main one is socially awkward, love texting (zeitgeist alert!) and is trying to develop a relationship with her estranged older sister. The other three are a Fiery Latina with Cleavage (and a secret heart of gold), an Asian-Canadian who starts stalking her professor after she gets a B in one of her classes, and someone from the West Coast who skates and Can't Understand Boys! Despite this all being a bit stereotypical, New York Four (and the sequel, New York Five) is actually pretty decent at giving its characters satisfyingly melodramatic but not entirely unrealistic lives. It didn't replace Scott Pilgrim in the section of my heart reserved for "fun youth life story comics" but I did enjoy it.
  • Local, also by Brian Wood and Ryan Kelly. This is supposed to be their magnum opus or something and it's therefore bound in a super fancy hardcover book (which cost me the remainder of my Shakespeare tutoring money, oh the things I do for blog). It's supposed to be twelve stories that represent twelve years in the life of Some Woman who lives in twelve different US cities during this time. All the reviews on the back say it will be the most inspiring thing I ever read but I only read the first two and was... not that hooked. Maybe I just don't understand poignant woman stories.
  • Mara, by Brian Wood (that guy again!), Ming Doyle* and Jordie Bellaire. It's about a superstar volleyball player (not beach volleyball!) in a grim dystopian future. Yes, you heard. Bad things start to happen to her, made worse by the whole grim dystopia thing, and we get to read on as her whole existence falls apart. It's actually very good, although I hated two things: first, all of the comic covers use Super Arty Colours which hide the fact that Mara is a WOC (the first one makes her face literally white, although everything else has colour). Second, the comic itself uses a lot of in-universe news reports which constantly represent her using this picture:
Grim dystopian future where women (NOT BEACH) volleyball players are super famous, but still mostly famous for being pinups. Thanks...?
  • The first book of Strangers in Paradise, one of two things on the list by Terry Moore. I started off really sceptical about this, because it appeared to be about a Hilariously Angry Lady getting unwanted stalker attention from a Nice Guy despite telling him she's a lesbian, and pressuring her Heterosexual Female Friend into a relationship. It then goes through a load of what I can only call male fear-of-women fantasies about rejection and castration and people knowing you have a small penis, which did nothing to improve my mood. Also it has Hilariously Angry Lady crying in handcuffs on the front cover. But! The fact that it managed to win me over from this beginning is probably the best recommendation I can give to anything ever. It vacillates wildly between "cute slice of life" and "everybody is getting shot by the mob wtf" which shouldn't work but does, and while the Nice Guy overstayed his character's welcome, I completely loved almost everything after the initial castration/small willy story. Conveniently, this lines up with the moment when Heterosexual Female friend puts on thirty pounds and is drawn for the rest of the strip as a canonically gorgeous woman with a bit of a double chin and realistically distributed fat and a complicated relationship with her body type that doesn't boil down to any stereotype. Because not everything is Hawkeye pose, guys. It also lines up with the point where almost everyone important to the story is female ‒ mob boss, mob boss's dapper assistant, mob boss's giant silent muscled type, Angry Lady's dead mentor figure... statistically, the character gender ratio probably isn't far off 50:50, but women get all the good parts.
This cover is only marginally less awful than the weeping handcuffs picture on the front of volume 1, but oh! Double chin, waist fat-fold and belly on woman who several other characters find gorgeous and irresistible, drawn even in the picture where we are supposed to think she is gorgeous and irresistible. I FORGIVE YOU FOR THE NICE GUY STORYLINE, MOORE (nah actually that's not actually how it works, but if it was, I would).
  • Rachel Rising, which is what Terry Moore is doing now he's finished writing about Hilariously Angry Lady and company (there is also something in between, apparently). Again wins no points by beginning with a frightened, scantily clad young woman digging herself out of her own grave, but it hits all the good points of Strangers in Paradise but more cleanly. It mixes the exploration of relationships with some seriously crazy shit, the good character roles all go to women, and the women (and the men) are all easily distinguishable from each other through drawing alone. Whilst there's a lot of violence, including scenes of violence against women which always make me instinctively wary, it's interesting that the women victims are the ones who return and continue to have agency, whereas the men who die just... die. Often brutally. I think there's a whole complicated thesis in here on gendered victimhood which is way beyond the scope of this blog, but suffice to say it's... interesting.
I also have one of the Love and Rockets books sitting here waiting to be read, but I didn't get to that one. Maybe it will have its own post later?

Anyway, those are things I read! All of them were good. If you listen to things I tell you to do, you should definitely read Strangers in Paradise. But most of you don't listen to things I tell you do to. So. What did I learn from my little comic book binge?

Well, there's no getting around it, these sure are a lot of stories about women by men. The only comic with significant female creative involvement is Mara, which has two women artists ‒ one to draw, one to colour. It's also interesting that it's the same men, although this might also be related to my friend's opinions on what I would be interested in as much as a comment on the state of the industry in general. I've got him to put some Alison Bechdel on order so I'll be rectifying my man overload soon!

That's Alison Bechdel of the Bechdel Test fame, whose comic which introduces the Bechdel Test (which only about 50% of modern movies pass, and it becomes much fewer if you have requirements for two named female characters). This picture is going to break my blog frames, watch me not care because it is important and awesome.

In general, this was OK. There were a few gratuitous "camera" angles here and there, the worst being that picture above of Mara, but most of the time women looked like actual real life different types of women ‒ not everything is Hawkeye! Everyone in Ryan Kelly's art, male and female, has big pretty eyes and luscious pouty lips, so I put that down to style rather than female stereotyping (and they do make varied facial expressions with their big facial features so that's nice.) Everybody acts like you would expect a comic book version of a real life person to act, which is pretty much like real life except everybody talks in complete clauses and sometimes bolds their important words. 

What it means to me, though, is that I'm much less likely to be sympathetic when women do start doing things that are, to me, Man-Fantasies and not actual woman things. New York Four has a bit of professor seduction by Fiery Sexy Latina, which is portrayed as her being predatory and him being weak, and the implications we are supposed to draw are 1) she is a Strong Confident Woman and 2) Strong Confident Women get what they want through preying on poor squashed men. Now I'm sure that this has happened in the history of the human race, but I'm equally sure that it happens far more in the minds of men who are afraid of women being inappropriately Strong and Sexy at them than it does in actual real life. Similarly with the castration "fantasy". I think this is why all these stories are, perhaps surprisingly, at their best when it's women talking to other women. Even with the best will in the world, it's apparently hard to escape unconscious worries of what might strong women do to men?

As you would expect (we've all seen Joss Whedon's Strong Female Character rant, right?), Terry Moore has been asked about the whole Writing About Women business more than once. His answer (in one of the relatively few interviews I read, I've no doubt there are many, many more) was not quite what I was hoping:
"Well, if you'll notice, when I write female characters, I don't have them doing anything that's actually very feminine. There's no scenes of women having lunch together or shopping or talking about guys.
So what I'm actually doing is using female characters and putting them in situations that are typically male, just because I find that that incongruous setting is so much more intriguing.
Put a man in a dangerous situation, and we automatically just assume he's either going to go commando or wimp. We've seen it so many times.
But if you put a woman in there, you're just not quite sure what's going to happen... Usually women are portrayed as victims of male predators. In my story, the woman is usually fighting against her own genre. I just find that a little more interesting. Instead of lions attacking penguins, what if penguins attacked each other?" (Source) 
There's a sympathetic and an unsympathetic reading of this quote. The unsympathetic reading would be to pick up on the "women only have lunch and shop and talk about guys, and men do literally everything else, what the hell", and that's definitely what first sprang to mind. But I think he's talking about tropes, not men and women themselves. As the "typically male" scenes he puts his women in are things like "get involved in mob shootout", it's pretty clear he's not actually equating "typically male" with "things that real men actually do regularly" (unless he's a really dangerous dude...) but instead pointing out that, yeah, we expect male characters to be in those situations and to react in one of those two boring ways, but when you write an unexpected character into the scene, the audience has fewer expectations for what might happen next. Unfortunately I cannot put a generous spin on the lions and penguins thing, but it's absurd enough that maybe it can be quietly ignored. I hope he doesn't actually think of women as penguins or men as lions?

In this metaphor, both the alarm clock and the women are penguins. Or... something. Let's really just leave it.

Stating that using women is great because it avoids stereotype is a risky business, because it risks denying that stereotypes of women can be problematic even when characters are written away from the most restrictive ones. I enjoyed learning about another little corner of geekdom, where men are creating stories of biologically accurate, well rounded human women doing awesome stuff. But while it's great that there are men who think these stories need telling, I'm not sure if I can fully get behind them as stories about women if using women is purely an act of subversion. Being a woman is not a subversive act, it's a fact about us as people, and that needs to be recognised by creators and, more fundamentally, by the gatekeepers of creative industries, because they're the ones who really make it so that the only comics my friend can recommend are men writing about women. Sort it out, geeks. And give me more comic recommendations whilst you're doing it, I may be addicted. Whoops.

Day 17. Tomorrow is probably going to be Adrienne's feminist autobiography. Sunday will be me gushing about the most important women's fantasy author ever, no arguments allowed. Mark it in your diary! Seriously. Just write "ADRIENNE'S BLOG" across all the pages. Doesn't your life look so much fuller now?


*I hate to act as if this is at all relevant because it completely isn't, but I was super amused to discover that Ming Doyle is, or was, dating Neil Cicierega, who made Potter Puppet Pals and Lemon Demon music and this thing that was super cool on the internet, like, ten years ago. That guy!)