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An Author’s Journey, Women in Epic Fantasy (5, Comic Book Fantasy Women in the 1970s & 1980s)

3.18.14 An Author’s Journey: Some Inspirations & Influences, Part 4.10: Women in Epic Fantasy (5, The Comic Book World of the 1970s & 1980s)

Good Afternoon, Everyone!

Mike Grell's The Warlord #28 (1978)

Mike Grell’s The Warlord #28 (1978)

Doug Moench & Mike Ploog's %22Weirdworld%22 appeared in Marvel Premiere #38 (1977)

Doug Moench & Mike Ploog’s “Weirdworld” appeared in Marvel Premiere #38 (1977)

I’m continuing an assessment of depictions of females in epic fantasy, & taking a moment to reflect on how I discovered the genre and comic books about the same time as a teenager in the late 1970s and 1980s.

At the time, I had just finished reading J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, and was looking for other works that would transport me to the same kind of Middle Earth realms.   I wasn’t the only one seeking such entertainment, as can be seen across the spectrum of films, literature, and comic books.  This period saw the increased prominence of underground comix, the creation of direct-sales comic book shops, and an introduction to American audiences of fantasy from overseas, most notably in the magazine-format Heavy Metal (and its French cousin, Métal Hurlant).

"Arzach," Jean Henri Gaston Giraud Jean Henri Gaston Giraud (Moebius, d. 2012), from Métal Hurlant

“Arzach,” Jean Henri Gaston Giraud Jean Henri Gaston Giraud (Moebius, d. 2012), from Métal Hurlant

Fixtures of Comic Book Sword-and-Sorcery in 1970s & 1980s

Fixtures of Comic Book Sword-and-Sorcery in 1970s & 1980s

Red Sonja (no chain-mail bikini, but dancing in a bar... Roy Thomas & Barry Windsor-Smith, Conan #24, 1976)

Red Sonja (no chain-mail bikini, but dancing in a bar… Roy Thomas & Barry Windsor-Smith, Conan #24, 1976)

It was in this milieu during my junior-high/high school years that I voraciously grabbed any books in the burgeoning Science-Fiction & Fantasy sections of the library and bookstore, and I started collecting Marvel & DC offerings of comic books that were based on Sword-and-Sorcery novels & themes — Conan the Barbarian (both 4-color and the b & w Savage Sword of Conan magazine), Red Sonja, John Carter Warlord of Mars, & Kull the Conquerer  — as well as DC’s Sword and Sorcery, Beowulf, The Warlord, and Arak. I particularly enjoyed the brief appearance of Doug Moench, John Buscema, and Mike Ploog, and Alex Nino’s “Weird World” stories that eventually became a 3-magazine tale, Warriors of the Shadow Realm, which featured two elves, Tyndall & Velanna (and companion, Mud-Butt).

Moench, Buscema, Nino & Ploog Created "Warriors of the Shadow Realm" (1977-1978)

Moench, Buscema, Nino & Ploog Created “Warriors of the Shadow Realm” (1977-1978)

During those two decades, it seemed as if the entire publishing industry was intent on providing as much sword-and-sorcery action as the market would bear! These comic books often featured scantily clad women whose role in any given story ranged from dupe-to-trap-hero, to damsel-in-distress, to sorceress in (pick one) cavern-castle-tavern-forest-island, to seductress, etc.

Edgar Rice Burroughs, John Carter of Mars (Boris Vallejo)

Edgar Rice Burroughs, John Carter and Dejah Thoris of Mars (Boris Vallejo)

Alan Moore's Swamp Thing #34 (with Stephen Bissette & John Totleben)

Alan Moore’s Swamp Thing #34 (with Stephen Bissette & John Totleben)

A First in Comic Books: Liz & Michael Moran's Child (Miracleman #9, Moore & Rich Veitch)

A First in Comic Books: Liz & Michael Moran’s Child (Miracleman #9, Moore & Rich Veitch)

Alan Moore broke with these traditions repeatedly in the 1980s as he demolished almost every convention in his determination to bring both parity between men and women in comics, but also present serious issues from a woman’s point-of-view that hand’t been previously engaged; Moore first did this with his reinvention of Marvelman into Miracleman (and Michael Moran’s relationship with wife, Liz, who broke all kinds of industry taboos when Moore wrote a script in the series that depicted her giving birth); then there was his reboot of DC’s Swamp Thing comic book, a run that gave serious attention and a fully realized character arc to Abigail Arcane; and, finally, the prominence Moore gave to female superheroes (Silk Spectre) in his and Dave Gibbons’s Watchmen.

Rob Reiner's adaptation of William Golding's "The Princess Bride" hilariously upended expectations of the genre

Rob Reiner’s 1987 adaptation of William Goldman’s “The Princess Bride” hilariously upended expectations of the genre

Wendy & Richard Pini: Elfquest (WaRP Graphics, 1993)

Wendy & Richard Pini: Elfquest (WaRP Graphics, 1993)

Moorcock's "Elric of Melnibone" adapted by Pacific Comics

Moorcock’s “Elric of Melnibone” adapted by Pacific Comics

During the 1980s it seemed as some form of the epic fantasy genre was in every medium, with some creators trying to work along the lines that Moore was doing & transforming expectations of the form.  Even independent comic book publishers were getting into the action, and I remember buying great titles that started emerging in the 1980s based on proto-medieval worlds — or, in the case of the now-defunct First’s Elric and Multiverse books, outright adaptations of Michael Moorcock’s works — and in shifting to the independents I discovered that there were some comic books where the creators were consciously attempting to depart from the gender stereotypes of the day.  Wendy & Richard Pini’s Elfquest introduced a wide of interesting female characters of all ages & specialties who are essential to the saga-like storyline (Leetah, Savah,Nightfall, et al); Hunter, Bast, and Niniri in Colleen Doran’s A Distant Soil transformed a sci-fi story into an Arthurian-themed epic.

Dave Sim, Cerebus the Aardvark (High Society)

Dave Sim, Cerebus the Aardvark (High Society)

Cerebus #131 ("Jaka's Story 18," Feb 1990; by Dave Sim & Gerhard)

Cerebus #131 (“Jaka’s Story 18,” Feb 1990; by Dave Sim & Gerhard)

Besides the hilariously depicted title-aardvark who existed in a sword-and-sorcery faux-medieval world, the female characters of Red Sophia, Jaka Tavers, Astoria, Joanne, and The Regency Elf in Dave Sim & Gerhard’s Cerebus were among the reasons that the comic book became one of my favorites of the period; from the fantastic art to wonderful satirical writing, Sim and Gerhard rarely missed a beat in the first five years of their collaboration (after issue #65).  With respect to depictions of females, Cerebus is an interesting case vis-a-vis female characters and a controversial male-minded creator; on the one hand, you had some of the most fully realized female characters who have ever appeared in the comic book medium, with a satirical approach to both the comic book industry and popular culture that made for compelling & entertaining reading; on the other hand, you had a creator, Dave Sim, whose letter pages & editorial essays became a battlefield during the 1980s and 1990s with other creators and fans who were incensed by Sim’s rhetorical and creative engagements of misogyny, anti-feminism, and gender roles.

Frank Miller's Sin City: "A Dame to Kill For" #5 (1994)

Frank Miller’s Sin City: “A Dame to Kill For” #5 (1994)

Frank Miller's Sin City: "Hell and Back, A Love Story" #8

Frank Miller’s Sin City: “Hell and Back, A Love Story” #8

Miller's direction to Current DC Comics Co-Publisher Jim Lee for a panel of Vicki Vale in "All-Star Batman & Robin")

Frank Miller’s direction to Current DC Comics Co-Publisher Jim Lee for a panel of Vicki Vale in “All-Star Batman & Robin”)

Charges of misogynistic impulses also fell on Dark Horse Comics during this time, because in Frank Miller’s film-noir based black-and-white comic book series, Sin City, females rarely ranged far from the roles of strippers or prostitutes or murderers; from the exotic dancer, Nancy Callahan (The Hard Goodbye and The Yellow Bastard) to the collection of prostitute “Girls of Old Town,” to the dominatrix Gail (The Big Fat Kill), Miller’s women featured “gravity-defying breasts” and almost always were trying to save themselves (or dying) from the fallout of the men who tried to protect them.  Miller will always be among my favorite comic book creators for his ground-breaking storytelling & artwork in Daredevil and The Dark Knight Returns, but because of Sin City and other works he’s remained in hot water with critics through to the present, with his recent All-Star Batman & Robin coming under fire both because of the depiction of the main character, but also the treatment of female characters Black Canary, Vicky Vale, and Catwoman.

Pin-Up or Real Mary Jane Watson? (ASM #601, art by J.Scott Campbell & other artists)

Critics are starting to demand change in comic book presentations of women; here the 2nd & 3rd panels are an attempt to demonstrate how a real woman might show concern for a departing superhero boyfriend…”Pin-Up or Real Mary Jane Watson?” (Amazing Spider-Man #601, art by J.Scott Campbell & other artists)

Newest Iteration of Captain Marvel (by Kelly Sue DeConnick, Marvel Comics)

Newest Iteration of Captain Marvel (by Kelly Sue DeConnick, Marvel Comics)

The Hawkeye Initiative tries to encourage change by satirizing the pin-up approach to comic book storytelling:  replace every female pose with Hawkeye to show absurdity!

The Hawkeye Initiative tries to encourage change by satirizing the pin-up approach to comic book storytelling: replace every female pose with Hawkeye to show absurdity!

Unfortunately, the past 38 years since I began reading comic books still hasn’t changed things as much as we’d hope with respect to women’s portrayals in comic books; although, because I tend towards a “glass half full” view of things, there are some current characters  who offer promise for the form: the eponymous Fatale, Kitty Pryde of the X-Men, Barbara Gordon (as Oracle or Batgirl), Captain Marvel (Carol Danvers, under writer Kelly Sue DeConnick), Hawkeye (Kate Bishop), Sif (under Kathyrn Immonen), Alana & Hazel in Brian K. Vaughn’s Saga, Jennifer Walters (She-Hulk), and the rebooted Wonder Woman.  However, for all of these positive aspects, many, many problems remain with the form, perhaps best summed by the blogger & film-maker Jehanzeb Dar in a 2008 article:

Ladies (or Men in unitards), don't try this at home...Frank Miller & Jim Lee's Black Canary in "All-Star Batman & Robin"

Hyper-sexualized battle:  Ladies (or Men in unitards), don’t try this at home…Frank Miller & Jim Lee’s Black Canary in “All-Star Batman & Robin”

Ashley R. Guillory's Critique of DC Comics' Starfire: What if a many posed as she does? (DC Comics, Red Hood & the Outlaws #1, art on left by Kenneth Rocafort)

Ashley R. Guillory’s Critique of DC Comics’ Starfire: What if a man posed as she does? (DC Comics, Red Hood & the Outlaws #1, art on left by Kenneth Rocafort)

…today, women [in comic books] are becoming more and more sexualized. As described by Jones and Jacobs (2005):  “Females, perpetually bending over, arching their backs, and heaving their anti-gravity breasts into readers’ faces, defied all laws of physics… the Victoria’s Secret catalogue became the Bible of every super-hero artist, an endless source of stilted poses ripe for swiping by boys who wanted their fantasies of women far removed from any human reality.” 

So while changes are occurring in the comic book world at a slow pace, how are things progressing with realistic & human depictions of women in epic fantasy literature? Not glacially, but not great, either!

Next Time:  Idols of Perversity, or Carlisle Channels Bram Dijkstra when Assessing Late 20th and Early 21st Century Women in Epic Fantasy!

 For those interested in reading more on the subject of depiction of women in comic books, check out the following sites:

Monika Bartyzel’s “Girls on Film: How sexism is destroying the comic book industry,” The Week.com http://theweek.com/article/index/248288/

BBC Magazine’s Lynsea Garrison’s article on Jim Hines, “The battle against ‘sexist’ sci-fi and fantasy book covers” http://www.bbc.com/news/

Jehanzeb Dar’s article, “The Objectification of Women in Comic Books,” Fantasy Magazine (2008) http://www.fantasy-magazine.com/

The Hawkeye Initiative: Meaningful critiques of comic-book posing (“How to fix every Strong Female Character pose in superhero comics; replace the character with Hawkeye doing the same thing”) http://thehawkeyeinitiative.com

Suzanne Scott, “Fangirls in refrigerators: The politics of (in)visibility in comic book culture,” in Matthew J. Costello, ed., Appropriating, Interpreting, and Transforming Comic Books (2013): http://journal.transformativeworks.org/

Wikipedia overview (w/links), “Portrayal of women in comics” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/

Next Time:  Idols of Perversity, or Carlisle Channels Bram Dijkstra when Assessing Late 20th and Early 21st Century Women in Epic Fantasy!

4 Comments Post a comment
  1. steph #

    Urm, im a girl…and i make stances like that when i take pictures. I dont think being sexy, or feminine is an evil in and of itself. I also dont think you are really catering to straight women with parody images. Just a stereotype of a gay guy.

    As for the J.Scott images of Mary Jane worrying over spiderman: the one in the middle seems about right. The one on the far right, however, is overkill. The girl is hunched over, and looks really rough. Where-as spiderman is still drawn super hunky, with a perfect butt/bod. Isn’t that unfair too ? Its like slouchy nerd girls deserve super dreamy guys i guess. Mary jane is a model/actress…it would make sense that she is somewhat attractive even when in her own home. Plus…its a comic cover.

    Finally id just like to say…us artist look down on painting over someone elses work. Perhaps that artist that made mary jane look like my sloppy ex-rommate atleast do her own cover from scratch. Art isn’t as easy as it seems. But criticizing it…has never been easier given the popularity of blogs & social media platforms these days 🙂

    June 28, 2015
    • Hi, Steph!
      Thanks for reading, and you present an appreciated point of view. Thoughts or comments, anyone?
      Best,
      AJ

      June 28, 2015
  2. I don’t understand why pin up art is looked down so much in today’s society.
    Hawkeye Initiative sounds silly, and I mean after all women are a different genre
    to man, and have a different body language. And as many point out why is the exaggerated
    body language of female in comics so bad, when we see the same thing with males? I mean
    if we were to take the same attitude Superman and Batman would have beer bellies.
    or a nerdish look, or whatever non heroic style you wish to give them. yet we don’t want Superman or Batman to be any different to what they have always have been. and aren’t this character supposed to represent, at some point, the the highest aspiration of humanity and as
    the greeks did with sculpture this characters are supposed to be above the average to full fill that role. without that you take the “Super” out of superheroes, and in that case I rather go watch CSI reruns or any other police drama to get my dose of non- super heroes.

    July 29, 2015
    • Hey, masterkrakken! Thanks for taking the time to read my thoughts on depictions of women in epic fantasy during the 1970s & 1980s. Actually, given the prevalence of pinup art & continued popularity of these kinds of depictions of women — and, to your point, heroic portrayals of men — I think that your opinion may be a majority one that’s still governing the marketplace. Thankfully, there’s enough variety appearing in comics and popular sf/f media that there’s plenty of artistic expression for all tastes. Thoughts, anyone? Thx, A.J.

      July 31, 2015

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