The introduction to this week’s NYT Graphic Books Best Seller lists notes the rise of Gotham City Sirens, a new series from DC Comics featuring the misadventures of iconic female antagonists: Catwoman, Poison Ivy, and the Joker’s main squeeze, Harley Quinn. DC Comics frequently feature enticing female characters who are also strong, smart, independent, and well able to stand up to the big boys of the DC Universe including Batman, Superman, and the whole host of Justice League men. Birds of Prey, a long-running series following the crime-fighting trio of Oracle (Barbara Gordon, once Batgirl), Black Canary, and the Huntress, remains one of the few titles to feature an all-female team bristling with both smarts and fighting skills.
You’d think that these series would be a natural place to engage with a female audience. Strong female characters? Check. Action crime plots? Check. All of these women, as written by writers including Greg Rucka, Gail Simone, and Chuck Dixon, are well able to give Buffy Summers a run for her money. The big difference? Take a look at the cover for Gotham City Sirens. The image is clearly, overwhelmingly intended for readers who want to ogle women: teenage and adult guys. It’s not just the cover, either (click for a preview of the first issue from Newsarama.) Female superheroes not only have to contend with ridiculous costumes (check out Project Runway guru Tim Gunn smartly tearing apart the costumes designs in this priceless video), but are drawn in poses that defy logic to emphasize actual physical prowess. Good girl art, as such sexualized, pin-up style comic art has been termed, is still a frequent style in superheroine tales. Women may deduce right alongside Batman, but their body shapes and fighting contortions make it very clear their purpose is to be on display.
Of course, manga has its fair share of pin-ups too. Rosario+Vampire, currently occupying the top spot on the NYT manga list, is a fine example of scantily clad young ladies squarely aimed at a male audience. However, manga balances out such titles with two things: comics for girls, like Gentlemen’s Alliance, Black Butler, and Nightschool on this week’s list, and comics that cater to girls’s desires to ogle pretty boys, as with Gentlemen’s Alliance and Alice in the Country of Hearts. Harem manga, aimed at young male readers in Japan, features a hapless young man surrounded by a bevvy of buxom young ladies who all want to date him. Think Judd Apatow comedies with about ten bombshell starlets instead of just one. Reverse harems feature instead an ordinary girl suddenly gaining the romantic attention of a wide array of gorgeous young men, and Alice in the Country of Hearts is a classic example. In the manga publishing world, there is at least that balance, while in the U.S. mainstream comics world, comics for girls are almost nonexistent and comics for those who like a little male eye candy are even more scarce.
So what’s a woman who wants female heroes to do? Mainstream superhero comics give you very little choice: either you ignore the cheesecake pin-up art and read for the stories or you stop reading and go find your superheroines with more normal body types somewhere else. Comics outside mainstream continuity feature a plethora of excellent, intriguing female heroes who need not fit the spandex suit. For younger readers there’s Emily Edison
, Alison Dare
, Rose from the world of Bone
, and GoGirl!
. For adults there’s Tara Chace in Queen and Country
, Liz Sherman in Hellboy
, Maya Antares from Red Star
, and Jenny Sparks in The Authority
. Many female readers, teens and adults alike, turn to manga for their kick-butt women. Favorites include Nausicaä from Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind
, Nobara in Crimson Hero
, Miura Ito from W Juliet
, Arena Pendleton from Train + Train,
Nana Osaki in Nana,
Alice Malvin in Pumpkin Scissors,
and Rukia from Bleach.
I’m all for readers enjoying the sexiness where they find it, but as a reader, I get tired of conflicting messages. If there aren’t fully-realized characters to balance out the sex bombs and vixens, we’re left with the message that sexy posing is all women are good for in the superhero world. To those who claim that the men are just as exaggerated and sexualized, I say until there’s a comic where Batman periodically preens in his bedroom and then runs around fighting crime in only a speedo, there’s nothing in the portrayal of male heroes that compares. Do these pin-up comics sell in the short term? Of course. Do they lose a potentially large audience? Speaking for the many women open to reading comics who glance at such covers and immediately turn away, I’d say, yes.