Today, Patrick and Taylor are discussing Fearless Defenders 6, originally released July 10th, 2013.
Patrick: Hey guys: GENDER IN COMICS! If there’s one thing we get whipped into a frenzy about on a fairly regular basis over here at Retcon Punch, it’s the portrayal of women in superhero comics. And with good cause: not only is there a decades-long tradition of turning female characters into disposable subjects of the leers and catcalls of male readers, but the inequity between male and female characters continues to this day. When DC relaunched it’s line two years ago, the editors found a home for 4 different past male-Robins, but couldn’t be bothered to include Stephanie Brown in their ranks. Why? The same can be said about Earth’s Green Lanterns: Guy, John, Kyle and Hal were all zipping around the universe, but whither Jade? And even a series like Fearless Defenders, which in 6 issues has only featured one named male character, seems to be plagued with gender problems: occasionally-cheesecakey art; a hysterical, flakey lead; and now the ubiquitous woman in a refrigerator. But it is possible that we put too much responsibility on these all-women series to be paragons of gender equality?
The issues starts with Valkyrie embracing/being overcome by her raging Doom Maiden persona, Brunnhilde (I can only assume the double-N in the spelling of that name is a reference to writer Cullen Bunn’s name). The assembled Lady Heroes all fall one by one as the Doom Maiden easily dispatches them with a combination of swordplay and rage-volcanoes. The Defenders defeated, Valkyrie sets her rage-sights on a peaceful fishing village nearby – which would be totally uncool. So Dr. Annabelle Riggs (who also has a ton of double consonants in her name), decides to confront Valkyrie on her own. Annabelle has no superpowers, so she must appeal to the friend inside the rampaging monster. She’s successful in returning Valkyrie to the driver’s seat, but the Doom Maiden exacts some last-second revenge and kills Annabelle.
How much value do we place in the life and death of a fictional character? Annabelle was around for six issues, and while she’s not without agency, she’s clearly out of her element running around with superheroes. It feels crummy to lose her for all the normal reasons: we’ve been following the character for a couple months, she’s smart, she’s funny, she has a nice relationship with the other leads. But it feels even crummier to lose her because of the things she represents. I’m less concerned with allegations of ‘fridging’ this character (the act of killing a female character for the advancement of another character) because she’s a woman – they’re all women. But Annabelle is the only gay character in this line-up. Valkyrie even makes a point to bring up their first-issue kiss one last time — while laughing at her derisively, no less — before running her through.
If this scene came down to one woman confronting another from similar places of power, that would be one thing – but traditional gender dynamics start to creep in here. Annabelle is the weak, silly girl who’s going to address the situation emotionally and Valkyrie is the strong, violent man who’s going to address the situation physically. The sticky wicket here, of course, is that Valkyrie isn’t a man, so even when I’m seeing a traditional gender conflict playing out, I’m not seeing it in that tired old context. It almost seems to suggest that gender dynamics need not be dictated by the sex of the characters involved. That’s a progressive idea.
I just wish artist Will Sliney would take those same progressive cues. There are a lot of skin-tight costumes that were grandfathered into this series, and Valkyrie’s metal boobs always look silly to me, so I’m happy to pardon Sliney for these character designs. However, he takes care to pose his heroes in ways that we always see their breasts. As they’re defeated, no one lands face-down – no one curls up on the ground: they all lay splayed out on the rocks.
And there are two consecutive panels — as Valkyrie brings Annabelle’s body back to the group — where Misty’s back is so badly twisted away from the thing she’s looking at, just so her breasts are in plain view. This kind of cheesecake pushes back against any of the progressive or thoughtful ideas the issue explores in its story. It’s a shitty industry standard, and one that seems exceptionally misplaced in this title.
Confound it all! I totally didn’t mean to only talk about gender stuff this whole issue article, but I guess there’s baggage enough to fuel me for 900 words. Taylor, I’d offer to steer you into aspects of this issue that have less to do with gender, but I can totally see where it’s hard to think about anything else. In the letters page, editor Ellie Pyle offers this:
Want to have a conversation about female deaths and/or sexuality in comic books? Let’s do it!
Oh, Pyle, worry not – we’re already having that conversation.
Taylor: Gender is an issue that has become increasing more visible in the past couple years and it’s great to see meaningful conversations on the subject taking place. That’s how the road to progress starts and hopefully we’ll see it get the national debate it deserves. However, with this new dialogue there comes an acclamation process for our culture where no one is quite sure what is appropriate to say or discuss on the subject. It’s all part of the process and it needs to happen but that doesn’t make it any less awkward when someone handles the sensitive subject like a cat battling its own reflection. While I see what you’re saying about the possibly gender progressive aspects of this issue, Patrick, I think ultimately they are too subtle to contend with some of less progressive aspects of this issue.
You already mentioned how the artwork is pretty blatant in its portrayal of women’s bodies so I would rather take a look at some of plot points and staging that bothered me a bit. When Valkyrie is raging she goes on a rampage and basically beats up anyone who comes close to her. While it’s tempting to look at this as a testament to the equality of women hero’s toughness compared to their male counterparts, it’s not that simple. Whether we’ve been to college or not, we all know the legend of frat houses hosting parties that feature scantily clad ladies wrestling in oil/foam/beans. It’s one of the more demeaning things that can happen to a person and the thought of several men standing around and watching it happen is more than a little upsetting. The reason I bring it up is there’s always been an odd fantasy with many men of a certain type to see attractive women battle each other. While I wish I could explain that impulse, I can’t, but I do know it exists. Now look at this scene from this issue.
It’s basically the same concept. Attractive women battling each other while an involved viewer (you) watches from the sidelines. A good portion of this issue is devoted to scenes such as the one above and after awhile I was beginning to wonder what the point of it all was. Are they trying to show Valkyrie’s strength or is something else going on? Is this advancing female superhero prowess or demoting them to a spectacle to be ogled?
There is the possibility that it’s meant to function as parody, but it doesn’t seem to be played up enough for that to be the case. There is surprisingly good and smart movie called Bitch Slap which is all about women beating each other up and tearing each other’s clothes off. While that premise is obviously sexist the whole affair is played up to a level that makes you more than aware of how ridiculous the action is. It even has Kevin Sorbo playing a secret agent running in front of blue screen backgrounds. It’s clear that the makers of the film meant to point out how women are degraded in Hollywood by exaggerating aspects gender roles in movies that pass as common fair in today’s movies. However, such a thing never happens in this issue. While we do get a bunch of attractive women fighting, it never reaches the level of parody that makes it a commentary on comic books in general. The result is something else that feels a little like exploitation rather than commentary.
For a complete list of what we’re reading, head on over to our Pull List page. Whenever possible, buy your comics from your local mom and pop comic bookstore. If you want to rock digital copies, head on over to DC’s website and download issues there. There’s no need to pirate, right?