In recent years, there’s been a lot of talk saying that the comics industry has shifted to making social justice a priority in its storytelling, and that “social justice warriors” are ruining comics by pressuring the industry into representing these issues.
What these folks fail to realize is that telling stories about current events and the changes we’re going through as a society has always been a part of comics – as a dated periodical, comic books are necessarily a product and reflection of the times in which they were created.
The earliest days of American comics coincided with the rise of Hitler and the beginnings of World War II, and the heroes of that era and the adventures they had are entirely reflective of that. When the war ended and the economy boomed, the stories became lighter and more imaginative. The 60’s and 70’s brought women’s liberation, the civil rights movement, and a growing sense of eco-consciousness, and characters like Diana Prince, Black Panther, and R’as al Ghul appeared in stories with those themes.
Recently, we worked with our friends at Comicazi to present examples of how comics have represented social attitudes and values, as well as how they’ve changed over the years. Called “Issues on Issues,” it was part museum-style exhibit, with comics from the golden, silver, and bronze ages on display, and part comic salon – an opportunity to discuss the books and their topics with others. Attendees were asked to consider – whose story is being told? Who is telling that story? And how would we tell it today?
Comics aren’t necessarily promoting a particular answer to social problems in America, but like all art, they reveal the hopes, fears, and dreams of the times in which they’re created. The comics displayed here are examples of how these themes have been portrayed in the medium throughout its history. Some of the books we displayed at the event have had a lasting impact, while others clearly missed the mark, or represent views we no longer ascribe to as a society. Still, others were misses in their first incarnations, but have changed and adapted from their well-intentioned but clumsy characters into nuanced, well-thought-out characters. As more people with different gender, cultural, ethnic, sexual, and religious identities are writing and drawing the stories we read, the perspectives and ideas being shown become more diverse and authentic. While this seems to dismay a small, vocal minority of fans, it’s also opening doors for new readers to fall in love with comics for the first time.
It seems only fitting that our first blog post for the Ladies is going to highlight games designed by women. Our game day is dedicated to getting women together to game and introduce little girls to gaming while being surrounded by confident women who share the hobby. There are some amazing woman-created games out there. We are going to highlight just a few for you here. Each one is highly recommended and odds are that the games are on one or both of our game shelves.
By all accounts, 2017 has been a difficult year, one plagued by natural disasters, tragedy, and a polarizing political climate. Yet, in spite of it all, or in some cases even because of it, we’ve been privy to some incredible stories this year – books that challenge, enlighten, inform and inspire. Here are a few of my favorites – some I’ve reviewed here before, some I haven’t. All of them are written by women.
At Comicazi Book Club last week, we had a new member stop by (we LOVE new members, so if you’re local to Somerville, MA – come sees us!), and we were discussing other books we’d read recently. Elfquest came up as an example of a rare book so massive we needed to break it up into two meetings – since we’d read volume one of the “Complete” edition, it was 720 pages of story. At the mention of the book, Honorary Lady Bill mentioned that he’d recently watched a documentary on Netflix that had featured Elfquest creator Wendy Pini, albeit more for her groundbreaking Red Sonja cosplay than for her comics. A documentary about women making comics? And me without a post? It was a match made in heaven. The Toyman and I sat down and watched the other night – what did we think?
In our “We Can Do It” series, we talk to women who have careers in male-dominated industries. A few weeks ago, former wrestler Melina Perez visited Comicazi to do a signing. In her career with the WWE, Perez was a two-time Women’s Champion and three-time Divas Champion, and is recognized as having one of the most impressive arrays of offensive moves in the industry. She graciously agreed to chat with The Red Menace about comics, her career, and the joys and pitfalls of being a woman in that world. Their conversation has been edited for brevity and clarity.
I once had a teacher in grade school who told me that she loved to read my essays because she could tell that I was enthusiastic about learning and the subjects I would choose to write about. There was just one problem though. If everything I wrote about was “the absolute worst” or the “absolute best” that wasn’t going to give me a lot of space or freedom to really make careful and thoughtful comparisons. So why is this little anecdote important to my recap of LadiesCon 2017? Because I’m about to throw that advice out the window and use superlatives like crazy. Wanna know why? Because LadiesCon 2017 was THE. ABSOLUTE. BEST.
For those of you familiar with our event last year, the first LadiesCon was essentially a testing ground to see if our vision of an inclusive Con would even be something that the community wanted to see. In a donated office space, we managed to catch lightning in a bottle and learned just how dedicated the Boston comics community was to making an event that was for everyone.
This year, we took that to a whole new level. We tripled the number of panels and doubled our space, guests, and vendors. We reached out to artists and creators who were making things that were original, beautiful, and even a little terrifying. The response from the community was once again warm and enthusiastic, and together we created a colorful and vibrant Con.
Friends, I’m going to be honest – this isn’t the post I want to write this week. I was planning to tell you all about the delightful manga series I’ve been reading lately, but it will have to wait, because once again, Twitter went insane over women in the comics industry, and it feels necessary to unpack that a bit.
If you haven’t been following the story, you can read all about it here, but the gist is that Marvel editor Heather Antos posted a selfie with a bunch of her fellow Marvel lady friends, holding milkshakes. The caption was “The Marvel Milkshake Crew #fabulousflo.” (More on that hashtag in a minute.) What she got in return were a bunch of nasty tweets and direct messages, complaining that the women were fake geek girls (yawn), who are responsible for Marvel’s flagging sales because of their “SJW agenda.”
Now, there were plenty of folks who jumped to Antos’s defense, creating the #makeminemilkshake tag to show solidarity with Antos and women in comics in general. I think the supporters vastly outnumber the haters, and that’s a wonderful thing. What troubles me with this whole foolish business is that it keeps happening, and I can’t help but ponder the series of bizarre conclusions the haters need to have drawn in order to make the comments they did; the crazy leaps of logic that lead someone to speak with abject cruelty to strangers. It does no good to attempt to understand internet trolls, but I can’t help it – I strive for understanding.
What it seems like is that there are three major issues at play here:
1. These people believe that women making comics is a recent phenomenon.
2. They equate these “new” women with story lines that promote a social justice agenda at the expense of storytelling, art, and the beliefs of the readers.
3. They believe that Marvel as a company is complicit in actively promoting said agenda.
So let’s break these down in order.
1. Women in comics is a new thing: Remember that hashtag, #fabulousflo? It’s a reference to Flo Steinberg, who passed away at the end of July from an aneurysm. Flo was one of the earliest members of the Marvel bullpen, hired by Stan Lee as a secretary, but taking on so much more in running the Marvel fan club, wrangling temperamental artists, and sending artwork to be approved by the Comics Code authority. After she left Marvel, she published Big Apple Comix, one of the earliest examples of “indie comics” – a bridge between the underground work that preceded it and the glossy mainstream work. She returned to Marvel in the 1990s, and worked as a proofreader until this year. Flo was truly a comics industry legend – and she was there from the beginning of the publisher that these trolls are lamenting is being ruined by women. And she’s just one example – women at Marvel and DC are not a new thing, even if they’ve been more behind the scenes than they are today.
Which leads us to:
2. The trolls believe women (and pretty much everyone who isn’t a white man) are promoting a liberal agenda. Spiderman’s a black kid sometimes! Iceman is gay! They made Thor a lady! What’s weird about these accusations is that writers on all of the stories are white men. Perhaps the women in the milkshake picture are manipulating everything behind the scenes! Hmm, that doesn’t seem super likely, does it? What makes more sense is the fact that you have characters who are, on average, 50-100 years old, with whom you’ve been telling stories continuously for most of that time. It seems inevitable that changing up who wears the mantle will happen sometimes, and if that change is a dud, they’ll either change back or into something entirely different yet again. Yes, you can make NEW characters who are women or Muslim or gay or trans, but that doesn’t entirely give you a new direction for your old characters. So it goes.
And here we come to:
3. They think Marvel will ruin the company in order to promote a liberal agenda.
Publishing is a business. The trolls point to these character changes, and point to Marvel’s dropping direct market sales, and then lament that if only the publisher saw the error of its terrible liberal ways, they could FIX this! But because Marvel is so dedicated to this SJW message, they say, the company just won’t do it.
There are two main problems with this thought-train. One simple one is that it doesn’t really take into account how comic sales have changed. While direct market sales are still really important, they don’t track digital sales on things like Comixology. So a book might not be doing well physically, but we don’t really know its total reach.
But the part that puzzles me even more than that is the idea that people believe that a corporation would ever put beliefs over profit. For me, a liberal who IS invested in social justice, that’s a really nice thought. It’s also utter horseshit. Marvel cancels books with flagging sales all the time, without ceremony. They don’t exist to promote an agenda, they’re here to sell you comics, and if the troll-dollars matter as much as they seem to think they do, then the stories will change again in due time. We shall see.
In the meantime, this makes me feel that projects like LadiesCon are more important than ever, not because women, non-binary folks, people of color, and LGBT folks are a new thing, but because we’ve all always been here. We make comics. We read comics. We buy comics. And we drink milkshakes and take selfies, and we don’t need to apologize for it.
NB: This post will contain spoilers for both Margaret Atwood’s novel and Hulu’s adaptation of it through episode 3. It also assumes familiarity with the basic plot of the book.
I have a confession to make. Despite being a feminist of a certain age, I had never read Margaret Atwood’s story of women living under an oppressive patriarchal regime until last week. The Handmaid’s Tale was forever on my to-read list, but somehow it never quite crept to the top. But with Hulu’s adaptation coming out and the state of the world being what it is at the moment, the time had finally come.
Having read other Atwood and found it a bit of a slow burn, I was a bit surprised to find the novel compulsively readable, despite being incredibly bleak. I finished it in two days, marveling over the eerie and disturbing parallels in our current sociopolitical climate and delighting in Atwood’s prose (and spot on description of Harvard Square). The book is a damnation of the power dynamic between men and women, of course, but it touches on so much more than that – the way that fear causes us to exchange freedom for the illusion of safety, the damage of white supremacy, religious hypocrisy, and the pain of post-traumatic stress disorder. I was interested to see which of these would surface in the series – I knew going in that they’d removed the race elements, but what else would change?
Let me start by saying that, after watching the first three episodes, the show overall is incredibly well done. There are certainly changes and updates, both major and minor; some I agree with and some I don’t. But on the whole, the creative team has done an amazing job of setting the right tone and message. Like the novel, the show makes liberal use of narration and flashbacks, though it rearranges the timeline of the entire novel. The flashbacks help establish both how new and foreign the position of women in this society is, and how they struggle to survive it. As Aunt Lydia helpfully reminds the handmaids-to-be in the Red Center, “Ordinary is just what you’re used to. This may not feel ordinary now but after a time it will. This will become ordinary.” Women aren’t used to being chattel anymore, she’s telling them, but in a few generations no one will remember another way.
The show also makes excellent, unnerving use of music. Most of it is instrumental, humming quietly in the backgrounds of scenes, imparting an air of menace and tension. However, when a song does come to the forefront, they are often even more jarring – a combination of 80’s classics, remakes of the same, and newer songs with similar new wave sounds. This choice both nods to the book’s original time and setting, while providing a creepy counterpoint to the nearly Colonial-style dress and mannerisms of the future it depicts. It’s a reminder that although it may look like the past, it’s the near future we’re watching.
The actors also give excellent performances. You can feel the strain in every interaction our narrator Offred (Elisabeth Moss) has with other characters in the present day scenes – no one is saying what they mean, no one can be trusted, and kindness always has some sort of strings attached. You can see it in her face and body language. This tension is complemented by the total ease in her memories of her former life before the government takeover. Her scenes with her best friend Moira (Samira Wiley) are particularly good – you feel their closeness, and how they’ve influenced each other’s lives.
With all of that said, the show makes a few changes that I don’t entirely agree with, changes that affect how we see Offred and the other women in relation to each other. Keep an eye out for part two, where I’ll explore those changes.
Have you been watching The Handmaid’s Tale on Hulu? What do you think? Let me know in the comments.
I’ve been writing a lot about zombies lately, so I was going to change it up this month and write about some great comics I’ve been reading. But then I read this strange review of the new Netflix Original Series, Santa Clarita Diet, (SCD) from Esquire by a woman named Katie Van Brunt, and frankly, it demanded a response.
LadiesCon 2016 may be over, but we’re still thinking about what made it such a great time. One of the things that I was really excited about was the opportunity to speak directly to so many creators and artists about their original works. One of the creators I was most excited about was Mildred Louis, who writes and draws a comic called Agents of the Realm. I hadn’t heard of her work before the con, but when she contacted us about having a table, I looked at her work and knew I’d be paying her a visit. I had the supreme good fortune (thanks to a huge assist from Smalerie) of snagging the last copy of her book, which collects the first volume of an ambitious work which, luckily for me, continues online.
The premise is a twist on the classic magical girl genre of manga (see Crystal Cadets for a more standard version): five young women discover that they are the protectors of our world, which is being threatened by strange beasts entering our realm from a sister dimension. In the classic magical girl style, Norah, Adele, Kendall, Paige, and Jordan have special brooches that transform them into uniform-wearing warriors, each with her own weapon, powers, and attendant element. Through the magic of the brooches, they find each other and begin to learn about their powers, the other realm, and why and how they were chosen to protect the world.
The twist comes in from the fact that in standard magical girl stories, there is an emphasis on girl – the protagonists are typically tweens or young teenagers, and part of the transformation is that they become an adult version of themselves. They’re all Mary Marvel, if her posse were other girls instead of two boys and talking tiger. The Agents are all adults already – young adults, to be fair, but in college and of legal age. This immediately has different implications about how they make the choice to accept their roles and for how Louis is able to explore the relationships between the characters and the problems that they face. When you’re watching or reading Sailor Moon, you know that while Sailor Moon is presented as an adult, Usagi Tsukino is really still a kid, and her concerns when she isn’t saving the planet are appropriately childish. The Agents, on the other hand, are young adults, and they have concerns that an adult can relate to, in addition to fighting off giant spirit birds.
Another thing that makes the series great is the level of representation of both people of color and of LBGTQ folks. Most of the characters, including 4 of the 5 Agents, are not white. They also have a wide range of body types – and they keep them after they transform. They do not become “idealized” versions of themselves. This is a powerful message delivered with subtlety – that they are already good enough, already powerful just as they are. They are also beautiful, and feminine, without needing to all fit into the white, western ideal shape.
The orientations of the various characters are handled with that same grace – we’re shown characters who have loving relationships of all types, completely integrated into the story. It doesn’t feel like anything that’s being called attention to, a lesson we’re meant to learn – these are just people, and people have many different approaches to sex and love and romance.
Norah, Adele, Kendall, Paige, and Jordan feel like real people – they have strengths, but also flaws – and not just “oh, she’s such a klutz.” It’s apparent even in the first issue that Norah struggles with social anxiety. Paige is driven and ambitious to the point of being rude at times. Kendall is a peacemaker. It’s refreshing to see the trope of the “chosen ones” applied to characters who feel like more than a cardboard cutout.
Finally, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the art. As you can see from the pictures here, it’s gorgeous and dynamic. There’s a clear progression as Louis’ style evolves – I think that she continually improves her panel layout and visual storytelling – but the technical excellence is on display from the beginning.
Do you read Agents of the Realm? Tell me what you think in the comments!
Recommended age: Teen to adult. The content is far from racy, but the website does have a trigger warning that suggests that not all of it might be suitable for younger readers.
You might like it if: You like realistic ladies kicking fantastical butt.
Bonus features: If you’re local, Mildred Louis will be at MICE! So if you missed getting a physical book at LadiesCon, you might have another shot.