Sexism Among Comic Book Geeks: "The Rape Pages Are In!"

Quoted from Occasional Superheroine, a blog written by a former DC comics editorial assistant, about the creative process behind the rape and murder of long-established supporting character Sue Dibny:

My theoretical comic company, which, for the theoretical purposes of my theoretical memoir, I’ll call Gilgongo! Comix, was tired of being “pushed around” in the sales wars and in the court of fanboy opinion (such as it was). So with all the red-nosed gumption and determination of Ralphie from “A Christmas Story” Gilgongo! Comix decided to go badass.

They needed a rape. Because there’s nothing quite so badass as rape, lets face it. And the victim couldn’t been from the usual suspects: “The Black Raven” (done that already plus ovaries ripped out), “Bondage Queen” (wasn’t she raped like every issue–at least mentally?), “Demon-Girl” (she was already paralyzed from the last pseudo-raping and that provided all sorts of logistical nightmares for the artist).

No, they had to find the most innocent, virginal, good-natured “nice” character they could find and ravage her not once but twice.

Theoretically, this character’s name was Vicki Victim.

A whole groundbreaking limited series would be built around Vicki Victim’s rape and murder. [...]

[This was] the crucial syzygy that began the chain of events that ended my career. That particular incident had to do with your dead friend and mine, Vicki Victim.

It started with my associate editor running gleefully into our boss’s office, several boards of art in his hand.

“The rape pages are in!”

The strategy worked, by the way. Sales went up.

The long quote above is from a series of twenty blog posts entitled “Goodbye To Comics,” which make it brutally clear that sexism at DC editorial wasn’t limited to how they decided to treat female characters. The entire series is worth reading in order – because she has a disturbing story to tell, and also because she’s an excellent writer with an appealingly dark sense of humor. You can either read the whole thing in the archives, starting with the bottom post and working your way up, or you can instead use the handy table-of-contents-style links Elayne has compiled. But be warned, a lot of it is pretty harrowing to read.

At Comics Worth Reading, Johanna — who also worked in the corporate comics industry — comments:

You put a bunch of immature men, many of whom were very sick as children or had absent fathers or both,1 and all of whom escaped into over-muscled power fantasies as a result, in charge of a publishing subgroup with no prestige and little money. Several of them have never worked anywhere else, or if they have, it was at one of the few similar companies in the same industry that behave the same way. They’re still geeks, mentally, with low self-esteem and no success with women, few of whom they actually know in person, but they’re power brokers within their little world, and there are thousands like them who desperately want to be them… and you wonder why it all ends up so twisted?

The blogger at Mountain of Judgment agrees with Johanna: “Like a terrarium, it’s a perfect closed system, with the men on either side of the equation–publishers and purchasers–reinforcing one another, bending the superhero comics sharply back toward their ancestors–not in the newspaper comics but in the violent, soft-porn dime novels.”

I haven’t been part of the corporate comics industry. But I’ve been a comics geek all my life, and I’ve run into my share of bitterly misogynistic geek guys over the years. It’s by no means a universal type, but it’s common enough to be a type. I can’t even count how often I’ve heard or read female comics fans describe walking into a comic book store only to be treated as The Woman Thing, subject to suspicious glares, leering, and maybe being hit on. (One friend of mine doesn’t read comics on the bus anymore, because it’s such a pain in the neck being hit on by male comics fans.) Valerie D’Orazio, the writer of “Goodbye To Comics,” worked in a comic book store when she was sixteen — until the much-older owner of the store made a pass at her. When she turned him down, he slimed her character among that entire group of comics fans, and most of them went along with it.

Superheroes are part of the problem. Not all superhero fans are misogynists (some of my favorite friends, including a few women, read superhero comics). But the genre attracts a lot of boys and men who are insecure about masculinity, and who need to read male-oriented power fantasies in which women are babes and men are human tanks. Some of those guys are fine; they grow up, they make female friends, they compartmentalize successfully. But some don’t. Too many comic book guys feel entitled to women’s emotions and women’s bodies, and feel bitter over what they see as an unfair denial of their due.

At the same time, I feel a little uneasy about posting this on “Alas,” where most of the readers aren’t comic book fans. I think a lot of non-fans have the impression that most male geeks are like the comic book guy on “The Simpsons.” And yeah, that type does exist (in both thin and fat varieties), and anyone who spends years in fan culture runs into some guys like that.

But let’s not forget, misogyny rooted in a frustrated sense of entitlement to women is not unique to geeks. You see it among men of all types (including some who get laid as much as anyone). But it’s easier for people to recognize misogyny in lonely male fans, for two reasons. First, because a disproportionate number of fans have poor social skills, and so aren’t good at hiding their misogyny. And second, because “lonely bitter misogynist fan” is a stereotype, so it’s what people are expecting to see.

More links: Blog@Newsarama has a post summarizing various reactions in the comics blogosphere to “Goodbye To Comics.” And When Fangirls Attack! has a list of links.

Finally, Heidi MacDonald at The Beat comments on this story obliquely and visually, by contrasting the way that DC actually depicts Wonder Woman with an really excellent-looking approach that DC rejected.

[Crossposted at Creative Destruction. If your comments aren’t being approved here, try there.]

  1. I’m skeptical about Johanna’s “very sick as children or had absent fathers” observation. No doubt she’s right about the particular men she worked with. But is it a real pattern, or just a coincidence in the guys she ran into? For what it’s worth, I’ve also run into a lot of bitter misogynistic male fannish types over the years, and the ones I’ve known haven’t been unusually likely to have a background of sickness or absent fathers. []
This entry posted in Cartooning & comics, Feminism, sexism, etc, Whatever. Bookmark the permalink. 

17 Responses to Sexism Among Comic Book Geeks: "The Rape Pages Are In!"

  1. 1
    Kip Manley says:

    Near as I can tell, DC hasn’t rejected Tintin’s shoujo Wonder Woman proposal; it’s just that no one’s heard anything at all about it from them. Sporadic Sequential appears to be keeping the closest eye on the proposal qua proposal—aside, perhaps, from Tintin herself.

  2. 2
    ms_xeno says:

    What a coincidence. Was just visiting with some of the old (male) crowd from my cartoonist days. I got roped into coming over for a comics jam even though the host knows that I’ve barely drawn a panel of anything in nearly a decade. Four pages into somebody’s jam, there was a scene of a nubile young woman being beheaded and then the head, ahhh, performed sexually with some monster character. I handed the book back without adding anything, or saying anything. Believe me, I went over this ground in the old days with these guys a million times. They’ll never change. They’d never dream of drawing a Steppin Fetchit or Charlie Chan type, then have him being mutilated and killed, but a sexxxxeeeee woman– hey, it’s all good.

    I recall spending a lot of time in the old days trying to steer the jams to featuring more females who weren’t just brutalized Hefner fantasies. Usually it didn’t go over well. Hell, if I drew a female mad scientist with medium-length hair and a big labcoat, she’d be a man by the time the guy next to me added the next panel. Either they didn’t like having non-pinup females in the pictures, or they simply couldn’t perceive a human figure without boobs hanging out as anything other than a male. Maybe both those things are true, actually.

    While most of these guys were fans of the Alt-Comic Journal variety, and still are, many of them still came out of the superhero tradition. Most of them also freely digested the male side of the underground movement without ever questioning its misogyny.

    I can play the “one of the boys” game after all these years as well as anyone, but there are limits to how far or long I’ll go in the name of “family harmony.” mr_xeno and I left early…

  3. 3
    Decnavda says:

    But let’s not forget, misogyny rooted in a frustrated sense of entitlement to women is not unique to geeks. You see it among men of all types (including some who get laid as much as anyone). But it’s easier for people to recognize misogyny in lonely male fans, for two reasons. First, because a disproportionate number of fans have poor social skills, and so aren’t good at hiding their misogyny. And second, because “lonely bitter misogynist fan” is a stereotype, so it’s what people are expecting to see.

    Thank you for this paragraph. I have seen a significant amount of geek-bashing on feminist blogs, and I am not sure why there is a such a particular hostility or why it helps feminism for feminists to reinforce stereotypes of male geeks. Exposing sexisim in various geek circles is a very good thing, but attributing it to some special attribute of geekiness just allows feminists to join in on bashing an already unpopular group in a manner somewhat hypocritical for a movement trying to challenge social prejudices. Although your suggestion that geeks, due to poor social skills, might be less adept at HIDING misogyny might explain some disproportionate hostility to geeks on the part of women.

    Is there any evidence that geeks may be more or less misogynist than any other group of men?

  4. 4
    ms_xeno says:

    My feeling is that in some cases, they are. Geekiness, and often artistic talent, is linked in mainstream society to effeminacy, and the dreaded homosexuality. In a way, its counterpart is the cliched and pointless –but effective– negative stereotype of feminists as hairy-legged dykes, and so on. I have encountered time and time again men in the comics subculture who try and compensate for this by being more misogynistic and macho than a lot of “normal” guys would bother to be/feel the need to be in the presence of women. And they often have plenty of anti-geek bias themselves– against female geeks.

  5. 5
    Michele says:

    In an illustration class of mine, there was a guest professor who had worked a lot in the comic book and video game industries. He showed us one assignment of his with a skimpily clad, large chested video game character he had to design. According to him, the memo that came with the assignment said the character should look like “a thirteen-year-old’s wet dream.” This was the executive decision the company had made about the look of this particular character. (He also told us this was one reason he doesn’t work in these fields much anymore.) I think it might be important to open up this conversation to include video games as well, because they perpetuates much of the same misogyny as comic books, but to a much wider, non-geek audience. (And as a fan of intelligent comic books, I think it’s unecessary for feminists to take part in geek-bashing.)

  6. 6
    Chris says:

    In a video game which features armoured characters / fast paced action increasing the differences between male and female characters makes them more easily identified in the action. In most video games there are a lack of “average” men as well, most being tall, well proportioned etc…

    I would take Metal Gear Solid as a much better representation (barring the “bonus” in the special missions disc) of women in games, the four main female characters were all proportionally modelled and generally treated with respect (Acts of disrespect in game brought admonishment from other characters and indeed damage in game). While not all games are balanced in their perspective I don’t think you can really look at an industry as a whole and say its bad when it has both terrible and great aspects (though realistically why the gender of a model in armour matters I will never know).

  7. 7
    mandolin says:

    “While not all games are balanced in their perspective I don’t think you can really look at an industry as a whole and say its bad when it has both terrible and great aspects”

    …about feminism? Somehow, I think it would be difficult to prove that there are a whole bunch of “great” aspects of mainstream video games as they deal with the kinds of feminist issues which were outlined in the post.

    FWIW, I don’t really think “females were proportional” and “not disrespected” is great. First off, I doubt we’d agree on what sexist representations were, “proportional” or otherwise. Second, what you mean by “disrespect” isn’t clear.

  8. 8
    Zenmasterw says:

    In a video game which features armoured characters / fast paced action increasing the differences between male and female characters makes them more easily identified in the action.

    And that might be all well and good, except that for the most part the armoured characters come in two varieties – male characters armed to the teeth and female characters in chainmail bikinis and various other male-sexual-fantasy-costumes.

  9. 9
    Chris says:

    Realistically as I noted male and female characters would look pretty much identical in armour / modern combat equipment, to therefore make the gender differences obvious we have heroic scale characters and “sexed” armours.

    By not disrespect I was implying that the characters are treated as intelligent human beings rather than sex objects or characters who act as brick walls to allow the main character to bounce explainations off of as plot devices (male characters also get this, though its generally treated in a more focused way – look a Jack O’Neill in Stargate as an example, his lack of technical knowledge is used in a humerous way rather than as just a sounding board).

    The chainmail bikini aspect is one thats very much driven by culture, thats the way it is thus thats the way it will be kindof mentality. Ok there are exceptions to this rule however in general I believe its driven by the idea that people want to generally see idealised versions of people and indeed would like to see well toned “bodies” in preference to normal ones. Indeed it is influenced by male sexuality since in the majority of gamers are male (I think this is fairly well covered in the comic book thread). It may not be appropriate however when I see ads for perfume etc I don’t see a normal person, I see a “hunk” or a “babe”, airbrushed and posed to create an image they want and indeed we expect now.

    I don’t know how to change this culture, in fact I can’t say it really worries me, I tend to go with the theory that if its not harming anyone then there isn’t a major problem. If you are using video games as an idea for body image or personality I think there may be a deeper issue rather than the video game itself. Look at Grand theft auto, I have played it and surprisingly I haven’t killed anyone yet, stolen any cars or any of the other items, indeed to simply blame games which reflect the culture which created them seems to focus on the wrong aspect, the messenger rather than the sender.

  10. 10
    Michele says:

    Chris,

    Well, let’s not get too broad here. It is more realistic to better video games than it is to better our entire cultural standpoint, even if it is the root problem. By using the excuse that games simply “reflect the culture,” you’re protecting everything misogynistic that “reflects the culture.” The “culture” needs to be examined from all entry points, and video games are unfortunately one of them.

    That being said, I know you want to defend video games, and that’s fine with me. I love video games, including Grand Theft Auto, and I’ve never stolen a car either. But I’m not talking about video games CAUSING misogyny; I’m talking about them perpetuating, and even reinforcing the problems that already exist. And I feel it’s a little naive to say that the male-fantasy female characters exist for practical purposes only. After all, why do the males/females have to be so easily distinguished? And while there are exceptions, there is a serious lack of positive female video game characters to choose from (even Tony Hawk got rid of its few female skaters.) The women are typically victims to be killed, or victims to be saved, and both are clad just as skimpily.

  11. 11
    mythago says:

    Do we need to derail a thread about comics entirely into video games?

  12. Pingback: Flutterby™! : Goodbye to Comics 2006-12-15 08:41:36.677625-08

  13. Pingback: DC’s Strategy to Raise Sales » Comics Worth Reading

  14. 13
    Mike says:

    I wanted to say that I really enjoy your deconstruction of ‘nerd’ culture because there’s this misogyny that pervades in subcultures who feel marginalized and thus don’t feel guilty. Judd Apatow films, I feel, celebrate a similar ethos. I know I’m being vague here and probably not really contributing much to the discourse, but I really appreciated the analysis.

  15. Pingback: deanna zandt » More on #AmazonFAIL: Hackers, misogyny, homophobia and you

  16. Pingback: Gender and Comics: Artists at Work Panel Redux « Democracy Guest List