The best panel I saw all weekend was titled “Men are from Krypton, Women are from Paradise Island.” Moderated by Barbara Randall Kesel, and featuring Jimmy Palmiotti, Colleen Doran, Abby Denson, Jamal Igle and Randy Stradley, the panel was designed to discuss whether both men and women were being served properly by comics.
That may sound dry, but what ensued was a lively discussion that touched on all sorts of subjects relating to gender in comics. The panelists wisecracked and disagreed with one another, but the conversation stayed civil and more than that: it stayed productive.
The panelists started off discussing the common assumption that girls will read books featuring boy characters, but that boys won’t read books starring a female. Doran corrected, “Boys will read comics featuring girl characters if they get an upskirt shot.”
She continued, noting that “Fantasy is usually narcissistic in nature,” and that people want to read about characters they can identify with.
Kesel pointed out that she’s seen the depictions of women in comics stretch dramatically, and noted that the con atmosphere is different now. “I have to share my private restroom,” she joked, and indeed, her panel was so full that the aisles were lined with people sitting on the floor, and the door was held open so that those who couldn’t fit in the room could stand in the hallway and listen.
The best part of the debate, for me, though, was that the panel and the crowd were diverse. After all, gender issues affect men and women, gay and straight, and everyone.
Igle noted the need to “recognize that there is more than one type of girl. People are not so easily quantified.”
Palmiotti agreed, and said that “Painkiller Jane was our reaction to characters based on big boobs…I don’t want to do it about her body. I was just writing something that I wanted to see.”
Doran noted that Palmiotti, and other male writers who do a good job with women characters, actually like women as people. “Only men who love their mothers should be able to write women,” she cracked.
Doran spoke about her earlier experiences with A Distant Soil when it first came out, noting that “I went out of my way to make the men attractive to women and I was excoriated for it.”
Kesel asked the panel if they agreed with the gross generalization that women are more interested in how the events of a comic affect the characters. Palmiotti and Denson both disagreed, and Stradley noted that he asks all his writers to give him one sentence on plot, one on characters, and one on story. “Story is why we care,” he said.
Kesel agreed. “If you create strongly evocative, complicated characters, people can get into it.”
“I don’t necessarily want to see muyself in it. I just don’t want to see anything stupid,” Doran said.
An audience member asked about Y the Last Man as a good example of women in comics, but Kesel actually disagreed. “Y the Last Man put on the table every possible annoying cliche of what women are. It was fascinating and wrong.”
(As a personal aside, I agree with Kesel about Y and I see it most often put forth as men’s idea of what women want to see in comics, and that’s missing the point. We don’t need books to be 100-to-1 female-to-male characters if the male character is still the focal point and best character.)
The panel was then asked if the artist has a responsibility to project a positive image.
Igle said, “It depends on the story. I never want to see Supergirl‘s panties again.” He noted that when he first took over the book, the first thing he did was to change her uniform.
The panelists joked about Power Girl and her…assets, and Kesel joked “You can use that against villains! If their eyes are going right there…”
Doran said, “I feel absolutely no responsibility to uphold somebody else’s values…I do what is appropriate for the story. People bring their own baggage.”
She also noted, “Just because somebody doesn’t buy your book, that’s not censorship.” All fans have the right to vote with their dollars, to read what they like and avoid what they don’t.
Kesel noted that with characters like Supergirl, “You have character and commodity, and you have a corporation that is very protective of the commodity.”
Another audience member asked about the portrayal of transgender and bisexual characters, now that gay and lesbian characters are starting to break into mainstream comics. Kesel pointed out that there is one category of comics that don’t deal with sexuality at all, and so the presumption of heterosexuality covers all of that.
The panel agreed that as the field of comics writers and artists gets more diverse, more diverse characters get into the books and get treated as normal–and that this is excellent for comics. Beyond different categories of characters, different styles of art and writing, comics can widen perceptions of what is normal and introduce readers to people and places they’ve never been.
“This is how we start,” Igle said. “We have these conversations about gender and about sexuality.”
And if this panel was any indication, there is not only an audience hungry for those conversations (and willing to stand in the hallway to hear them) but every possibility of having them and having them be productive, helpful, supportive, pleasant environments to exchange ideas.
Bravo to all the panelists. I would LOVE to see more discussions like this in comics.