Women of Action
When DC Comics announced it was launching a series based on its popular Ame-Comi line of figures, I don’t think I heard a single person say, “Yes! I was hoping for that!” The Ame-Comi collectibles can be imaginative and attractive (some more than others), but no one was clamoring for a series that sexualized DC’s superheroines even more overtly than they already are. In fact, the most common responses were either head-scratching or eye-rolling, depending on how much the person thought DC has legitimately tried to reach out to female readers lately. But then the creators were announced.
Jimmy Palmiotti and Justin Gray write the series and Amanda Conner drew the first couple of installments, which were serialized digitally first, 10 pages at a time. Putting the creators of the well-regarded Power Girl series on Ame-Comi Girls was a smart move and convinced a lot of readers who otherwise would have dismissed the comic – including me – to give it at least an initial look.
Enough time has passed since the release of Phantom Lady, by Jimmy Palmiotti, Justin Gray and Cat Staggs, that I wasn’t sure I should still write about it as part of the Women of Action series. However, think it continues to be worth thinking about for a couple of reasons: First, despite it being a miniseries from last autumn, it’s part of a continuing event that’s still playing out in the DC Universe (namely, the gradual introduction of the New 52 Freedom Fighters). Second, it’s pretty good. But we’ll get to that in a minute.
I have fond memories of a couple of Freedom Fighter comics (or possibly, appearances of the team in other people’s comics) as a kid, but I don’t know a lot about the group and didn’t read the most recent series before DC shut it down to make way for Flashpoint and the New 52. I’m familiar with Phantom Lady mostly through the character’s affiliation with Matt Baker, one of my favorite artists, and I know about Doll Man (who gets his name on the cover, if not in the official indicia), primarily thanks to Craig Yoe’s old Doll Man Monday feature on the Super I.T.C.H. website. In other words, I needed an introduction.
In the back of It Girl and the Atomics #1, Jamie S. Rich talks about how he went from editing Mike Allred’s Atomics to writing this spin-off; sort of the BPRD to Madman’s Hellboy. He talks about Allred’s adoration of Silver Age superhero comics and reading that, it hit me why Madman has always been so much fun, yet simultaneously so frustrating for me.
I grew up in the ‘70s – the Bronze Age, if you like – so my childhood comics were Savage Sword of Conan, Ghost Rider and Master of Kung Fu. At DC, Batman wasn’t fighting aliens and other-dimensional imps anymore, he was going on globe-trotting adventures against Ra’as al Ghul and spy organizations. Those were fun comics, but Marvel had made its mark even on DC, and there was weight to those stories. The heroes felt like real characters.
Going back and reading DC Silver Age comics as an adult, I have a hard time with them. They’re zany and imaginative, but they were also short on characterization. To be a fan of a DC superhero in the ‘60s was mostly about being fond of his powers or costume or something equally superficial. It was hard to connect to the characters as actual people. That’s my problem with Madman and It Girl, too.
As Paul Tobin has shared his list of favorite female characters, I was especially keen to see how he’d write one of mine. I was a big fan of The Six Million Dollar Man back in the day, and 11-year-old me was deeply affected by the tragic love story of Steve Austin and Jaime Sommers. For those who don’t know, Steve and Jaime (I called them Steve and Jaime) dated before Jaime was in a skydiving accident that nearly took her life and did give her amnesia. Steve convinced his superiors at the Office of Scientific Information to save Jaime’s life with bionic implants, spinning her off into her own series, but without any memories of being in love with poor Steve and oh, the heartbreak!
My having a huge crush on actress Lindsay Wagner may have also helped my interest in The Bionic Woman, but I’m fairly certain that I fell in love with Jaime first. The question I had going into the comic book series was whether or not I’d be as haunted by comic book images as I was by those TV shows. Or if Tobin even wanted to tell that kind of story in the first place. Not knowing what to expect, I plunged in with as open a mind as possible.
Although Tobin references Jaime Sommers’ backstory (and Austin makes a cameo in the fourth issue), the focus is – in fact – not at all on them. I think that’s wise. The melodrama of the TV shows was helped by lens filters, swelling music, and actors staring longingly at the camera, but none of that’s going to play in a comic book. Instead, Tobin keeps the series focused on the spy stuff. Sommers is no longer with the Office of Scientific Intelligence, but working on her own. Her break with OSI hasn’t been completely defined, but seems amicable, even if the organization didn’t really have much input about her leaving. They’re not hunting her down at any rate. This, too, is wise.
I debated about whether to include the current Worlds’ Finest as part of this project. According to the rules I set up for myself, I was only going to cover comics that were named after their female leads. I decided that because Birds of Prey was an all-female team, that would qualify, but for a lot of fans, Worlds’ Finest conjures images of Batman and Superman, not Huntress and Power Girl. Then I looked at the book’s actual logo. Although the official name of the comic is Worlds’ Finest, you can’t tell that by looking at the cover. It looks the way I’ve written it in the title of this post: Huntress/Power Girl: Worlds’ Finest. That qualifies, as far as I’m concerned.
But is it any good?
Worlds’ Finest corrects the biggest problem I had with its predecessor Huntress, also written by Paul Levitz. That miniseries had some fun stuff in it, but my complaint was that it wasn’t really about anything other than Stop That Generic Villain. The Huntress could have been switched out for any other hero without changing the story in a meaningful way. In Worlds’ Finest, Levitz makes the comic about his two heroes. As much as being about fighting bad guys, this is the story of Huntress and Power Girl’s friendship and their attempt to adjust to the new world they’ve landed in. That’s a huge improvement.
As a reflection of that, there’s a lot of banter between the two women. Unfortunately, it’s not up to the standard for that kind of thing set by Gail Simone on Birds of Prey. I’m tempted to let Levitz off the hook for not being able to perfectly replicate what worked about Black Canary and Oracle, but I don’t know if I should. As much as I realize it’s not completely fair, it’s also impossible to read Huntress and Power Girl’s quipping without comparing it to the easy relationship in Simone’s series. Black Canary and Oracle felt like real friends and their conversations felt like a natural part of their relationship. Huntress and Power Girl call each other “BFF” and say things like, “You go, girl.” I appreciate the effort, but even without the Birds of Prey comparison, their dialogue doesn’t feel real.
Michael Green, Mike Johnson and Mahmud Asrar’s Supergirl is my favorite superhero comic right now. What they’re doing on that series is remarkable. Asrar’s gotten a lot of credit for the unique look he gives the comic, and that’s justifiable: He gives the characters a lot of emotion that enhances Green and Johnson’s script. He also knows how to draw convincing teenagers, and I especially like his younger-looking Superman, who appears to be around the same age as Supergirl. I wouldn’t want that in the Superman series or Action Comics, but it makes the two characters look more like peers in Supergirl, which is important for the story these guys are telling.
The series begins with Supergirl’s emergence from some kind of pod/spaceship with no memory of how she got there. From her perspective, she was just on Krypton, getting ready to go through some kind of coming-of-age ceremony. Her cousin Kal-El was just an infant a few moments ago, so when Superman shows up at the crash site, she’s distrustful of him. He’s not so sure what to make of her either.
The rest of the series so far is largely a fish-out-of-water story in which Supergirl tries to figure out her place on Earth. Green and Johnson plot this out in a believable, kind of heartbreaking way, with Supergirl’s trying to avoid making Earth her new home. Twelve issues in and she still hasn’t mastered an Earth language. She even returns to what’s left of Krypton to test Superman’s claim that it’s been destroyed.
I’m ashamed to admit that my experience with Ted Naifeh’s Courtney Crumrin begins with the ongoing series he and Oni Press launched this year. I’ve bought some of the graphic novels – and am also buying the new, color editions – but my graphic-novel reading pile is a giant mess and I’ve simply never gotten around to Courtney, regardless of how much I think I’ll enjoy her adventures. It’s easier to squeeze in a single issue here and there, so I’m all caught up on the new series and yeah … I’ve bumped the first graphic novel toward the top of its stack.
Two things initially attracted me to Courtney Crumrin: The concept of a little girl fighting supernatural creatures is right in my wheelhouse, but even more than that is Naifeh’s very clean, expressive artistic style. In Courtney Crumrin, Polly and the Pirates and the Good Neighbors series he did with Holly Black, Naifeh creates imaginative, fully formed worlds that call out for exploration. What’s wonderful is that as a storyteller chronicling adventures in these worlds, he’s fearless. He doesn’t restrain himself, afraid of revealing too much and not leaving anything for later. Instead, he dives into the deep end and shows us what’s lurking there, confident that he’ll never run out of new characters, beasts, and magic to share.
Before Rob Liefeld hired Joe Keatinge and Ross Campbell to relaunch Glory, my knowledge about the character was limited to her being some sort of Wonder Woman analog. Because I never had a desire to see Liefeld’s version of Wonder Woman, I’d always ignored the character and her series. However, it was impossible to ignore Campbell’s designs for her, even if I hadn’t been writing a blog series on comics named after and starring female superheroes.
I’m embarrassed to say I was unfamiliar with Keatinge’s work before Glory, but I liked Campbell’s Shadoweyes a lot and especially loved how buff his Glory was in the promo art. She’s feminine, but she’s body-builder feminine, with shoulders and upper arms that would make the Hulk think twice about tussling with her. Under Campbell’s pen, her ridiculously long hair (a product of her ‘90s origins) makes her look alien and purposely strange instead of just goofy and dated. It’s even cooler in the comic when she braids those Medusa-like tresses into pigtails that look like they could be used as weapons themselves. Glory is attractive, but weirdly so and her looks are at the bottom of the priority list not only for herself, but also for Keatinge, Campbell and the entire cast of the series.
What’s at the top is characterization, though it’s slow burning; sometimes maddeningly so. Not knowing anything about Glory before the relaunch with Issue 23, I’m not sure how much of her background is Keatinge, how much is Liefeld, and how much is from previous writers Jo Duffy and Alan Moore. But Keatinge takes what sounds like a typical origin for early-Image characters — Glory is the hybrid child of an Amazon and a demon; born to cement an alliance between the warring races — and gives it some serious emotional weight.
Keatinge and Campbell present Glory as a dangerously unpredictable warrior who serves her own agenda instead of the one chosen for her by her parents (who never really saw eye-to-eye on what they wanted her to accomplish anyway). Glory has noble goals and a desire to protect the people of her adopted Earth, but she’s also a victim of her demonic heritage and can be as much a danger to her allies as to the invading monsters that are trying to drag her back towards her destiny. She’s thoroughly alien both in appearance and action.
Bad practices in the past decades have paved over diversity we once took for granted. Instead of considering the comics industry this closed loop that can never change, how about we find those shoots trying to break through concrete and clear their path?
– Jeff Parker, on the importance of continuing to introduce comics starring diverse superheroes.
Almost as soon as the announcement was made that Marvel’s Hulk comic was becoming Red She Hulk, writer Jeff Parker started hearing that they were wasting their time on a comic with a female lead. He wrote a lengthy blog post explaining the new direction of the series and why it’s cool, but also talking about why it’s vital that creators and publishers keep pushing diversity. No one comic is going to make everyone stand up and say, “OH! A female-led superhero comic can be successful!” But the more comics that do that, the better the chances are that some of them are going to be great.
It reminds me of the article that David Brothers posted on Tuesday about guilt as a marketing tool. Publishers and creators can’t expect people to buy comics just because they’re diverse. This should be its own quote of the day:
I actually tried and then gave up on Paul Levitz and Marcus To’s Huntress before starting this tour of superhero comics featuring women, but one of the things I wanted to do with the experiment is to get a large, healthy sample of each series before passing judgment. I’d only read a couple of issues of Huntress before giving up on it, so I felt like I needed to go back for at least a couple of more. I ended up reading the entire six-issue mini-series, but that was just because it finished before I got around to catching up and I figured, “Why not?”
My problem with the series mostly has to do with lack of dramatic excitement. Marcus To draws an attractive Huntress and does a nice job of depicting the luxurious lifestyle of rich people living around the Mediterranean, but the plot is extremely basic: dictators who are also human traffickers are evil; Huntress wants to stop them because she’s a good guy. Though the story takes place mostly in Italy, there’s a Gotham connection to explain Huntress’ being on the case, but if this is your first exposure to her (which it is, because this is an all-new Huntress created especially for the New 52), just having the crimes relate to Gotham isn’t enough to know why that’s important. Does this Huntress have a Batman-like need to protect that city? Is she idly curious and chasing a rabbit down its hole (before uncovering something darker)? This comic isn’t telling.
When I wrote about Birds of Prey, I caught a little flack in the comments for complaining that there are no personal stakes for the heroes of that series. Most of the commenters understood though that I wasn’t suggesting that every villain has to have a personal connection with the hero. That gets unbelievable really fast and I’m not suggesting it for Huntress. But I do want to feel like there’s a reason for a story to be told other than just, “So there’s this bad guy and he needs to be stopped.” Why does this particular hero need to be the one to do it?
The Grumpy Old Fan/Women of Action crossover continues. In our first installment, Tom and I agreed that there are some interesting things going on in Catwoman and tried to fit Winick’s characterization into the context of Catwoman’s history (or rather, our limited understandings of Catwoman’s history). When we left off, I was trying to decide whether or not I trust Judd Winick to be telling The Last Self-Destructive Catwoman story and take the character into a positive direction. As we pick up, Tom helps me with that.
TOM: I agree that the ’60s TV show was a big influence on the character’s perception, although I’m not sure how much it really changed in the comics. There is certainly a lot of “crazy” in Michelle Pfeiffer’s 1992 Batman Returns performance, and I think a lot of that is an extension of the TV show more than, say, taking off from Batman: Year One. Maybe that’s part of what we’re seeing in the current series’ self-destructive aspects, although that could just be a coincidence.
That’s a good point about Gail Simone’s “Last Hostage Story,” and it would be a good time for the New-52 Catwoman to break out of a downward spiral. Selina’s flashes of extreme violence are presented as outbursts of deeply-repressed rage, like she’s ultimately mad at the world for trying to take away what she perceives as having gotten fairly. She talks herself into spending easily-traceable cash because she figures she deserves it, even though she knows she’s flirting with disaster. Similarly, in #6 she tells Batman she’s earned that money, and besides it would just go to very bad people. Conversely, when Bone tells Catwoman his own philosophy, she really lets him have it, because he killed her friend for daring to steal the property he prized so highly. For all her talk about “earnings,” she really does value her relationships more, but it’s almost like she doesn’t think she deserves them and ends up trying to satisfy herself materially (and sexually with Batman, of course). That’s a lot of emotional baggage to unpack, although from an historical perspective it makes this Catwoman less mature.
Anyway, the violence: as with issue #1′s sex scene, I didn’t really need to see Selina bite off Reach’s ear in issue #6. I suppose that shows us just how far gone Selina was at that moment, and it was arguably in keeping with #1′s eye-gouging, #3′s baseball-bat-beating, and #5′s fight, but maybe a little more discretion was in order. Actually, I say “maybe” without much sarcasm, because to me — as bad as it sounds — the violence almost needs to be as explicit as the sex, both to show their “importance” in Selina’s life and so that one doesn’t overwhelm the other. These six issues show an arc full of extremes (in the classical sense, not the ’90s sense), because that’s where Winick and March have put Selina. Contrast page 2 of issue #6 with the last panel of the last page. In both, Selina is wearing only her catsuit, sitting barefoot with her knees pulled up to her chest. On page 2, it’s because she’s in police custody, her gear’s been taken from her, and her hands are cuffed behind her back. There she’s trying to maintain a defensive pose, staring at the world with bug-eyed defiance. She’s vulnerable physically and trying to stay composed mentally. On the last page, though, it’s the opposite: having taken off her gear herself, her outward vulnerability shows Gwen she’s ready to open up inwardly, and her pose is more relaxed as a result.
[In a happy accident, Michael May and I were both planning to examine the current Catwoman series, so we decided to join forces for a special two-parter.]
TOM: For a little while last September, the first New-52 issue of Catwoman was one of DC’s more infamous books. It started literally with a shot of Selina Kyle’s bra, and it ended with her and Batman doing it, as they used to say, like they do on the Discovery Channel. Back then, Catwoman #1 was yet another example of DC Doing It Wrong, trading on cheesecake to sell comics, and ignoring what the likes of Ed Brubaker, Darwyn Cooke, and Will Pfeifer had done with the character in the process.
When I read Catwoman #1 along with every other New-52 first issue, honestly, the sex scene bothered me. It seemed unnecessary in the context of a pretty decent first issue, and it did seem like writer Judd Winick and artist Guillem March were taking a characterization shortcut by establishing Selina firmly in relation to Batman. Granted, it was presented as Selina practically willing Batman into the act — she notes that he “protests,” then “gives in” — but all things being equal, I’m still not sure you want your first issue to end with “and then I seduced the heck out of Batman.”
I once attended a writing workshop by a popular, big-name comics writer in the 1990s who revealed a Dirty Secret that’s haunted me ever since. I’m paraphrasing, but he admitted that writers of corporate-owned superheroes rely heavily on fans’ pre-existing attachment to those characters. Obviously, the extent to which he was able to speak for his peers is questionable, but the implication was that he felt he could sneak sloppy work by readers, confident that their love for the characters would keep them buying the comics anyway.
Please please please don’t think that I’m accusing Duane Swierczynski of that. I have no reason to think that he’s doing anything less than his best work. It’s just that that Dirty Secret occasionally pops back into my head as I’m reading comics I’m not enjoying about characters that I like. And the New 52 Birds of Prey is one of those comics.
I discovered Black Canary through Green Arrow. I’ve been a Robin Hood fan my whole life, so it was an easy jump to digging Green Arrow, but I admit that I didn’t care for Black Canary at first. My intro to these characters was all post-Mike Grell, and all I knew about Canary was that – early in Grell’s Green Arrow run – she accused Green Arrow of cheating on her and left him. At the time I was learning about this history, there was a huge debate among Green Arrow fans about how justified Black Canary’s complaints were. But either way, Green Arrow’s reputation as a philanderer stuck. Eventually, it became apparent to me that – whether or not he’d been that way before – Green Arrow’s writers now considered commitment-phobia and infidelity to be important parts of his character. I began to lose interest in him and gave Black Canary a second look instead. I checked out Birds of Prey and dug it.
Women of Action is an experiment exploring superhero series starring and named after women. Which are worth supporting, which aren’t, and why?
Batwoman’s blessing and its curse is its stunning art and design by JH Williams III. I know it’s weird to call it a curse, but in my case, when every mention I hear about a comic begins and ends with the art, it gets me wondering about the story, and not in a good way. Pair that apprehension with a start date that got pushed back several times and I was downright skittish, so it took me a while to check out Batwoman. I probably never would have except for my decision to read more comics starring and named after female superheroes.
I don’t know why more people don’t mention the story in Batwoman (well, I do – see: The Art – but the story’s still not mentioned as much as it should be), because it’s amazing. Williams’ contribution to the comic is more than imaginative page layouts and long, flowing hair. Everyone knows that he’s also a co-writer, but I’m not talking about that either. It’s how the mood of the comic perfectly matches the gothic, spooky tone of the ghost story that Williams and other co-writer W. Haden Blackman chose for their introductory arc. It’s one thing to say that comics are a mixture of story and art; it’s quite another thing to see those two elements work together as well as they do in Batwoman.
I have to think of a better title for this project than “Female Superheroes.” That doesn’t describe very well what I’m hoping to do. I explained the experiment’s concept last week, but the gist of it is to take a close look at superhero comics named after female characters and determine which are worth supporting and which aren’t. First up: Gail Simone and Ardian Syaf’s Batgirl.
I grew up on Adam West Batman reruns, so I expect certain things from Batgirl. She needs to be smart, she needs to be brave, and she needs to brighten up the joint whenever she’s around. Batgirl as I learned her isn’t driven by a dark quest for justice; she fights crime partly because it’s fun; mostly because it’s just the right thing to do. Because I learned her that way, it’s been difficult for me to get interested in the post-Barbara Gordon versions of the character.
I know some of you are already getting ready to tell me about Stephanie Brown, but I do know about her and you’re right. My problem is that I never gave her a chance after Cassandra Cain. I liked Cass as a character, especially when Dylan Horrocks was writing her series, but she never felt like Batgirl to me. Her darkness made her interesting (though I’d argue no more interesting than Barbara Gordon), but it also made me uneasy about her using that name. She was alright as a Batgirl, but she was going to have to lighten up considerably before she could be the Batgirl.
Stephanie Brown had her own obstacles when she stepped into the role, what with being killed in an extremely controversial way and then made the poster-child for proper treatment of female superheroes. I’m not saying that she shouldn’t have been the symbol of that campaign; I’m just saying that the justifiable frustration around how she was treated leaked into my reading of her as a character. It was aces that she was getting to be the new Batgirl – good for her – but though it was a great move for Stephanie, I didn’t want to read about another Batgirl who had that much baggage.
You see where I’m going with this.