Feminist Comics Starter Pack: How Graphic Novelists are Subverting Patriarchy and Gender-Normativity, Buffy and Beyond
Lets talk about some badass anti-sexist comics & characters! Buffy! Runaways! Y-the last man! the Young Avengers!! American Virgin!!! and so many things written by Grant Morrison (esp. the Invisibles)!!!! I flaked out on posting some of these thoughts a long time ago…
Oh, if this isn’t the era of making good on old promises, I don’t know what is. As I’m fond of doing whenever we tread dangerously close to the annuls of geekdom, I’m hereby warning you that its gonna get priiiitty-darn geeky in a hurry, so suspend your usual aplomb, check over your shoulder for nosey co-workers who might report you to the nerd Gestapo, and if you’re an insider, check your self-reproach at the search window- cuz we’re going to feminist nerdville, population, nosotr@s!
We’ve alluded previously (“we” ya know, royally speaking), to emergent feminisms withinmic/ graphic novel genre, and I’ve been angling to give that theme a little more exploration…
The veritable 10,000 lbs gorilla in the room of course is Ms. Buffy Summers, since she provided such a crucial opening. So lets just get that out of the way before airing any reflections on new challenges to male supremacy, gender normativity, and heterosexism (and believe me, we’ll only manage to barely tip our hat to that iceberg on this post).
[I should warn you of spoiler alerts, even though I’m not writing on any super recent content on any of the titles. Just, if you don’t wanna know who’s transgender or who has a gay crush on whom, or any major plot arcs, then you’d best skim for the recommended titles and not read this till después]
Buffy the Vampire Slayer (the project, not just the character), both on the television, and most certainly beyond in the season 8 comics, has been bold, imaginative, and inspirational, (even if a bit 2.5 wave-ish, IMHO), in its championing of a popular feminism. That last attribute, its accessibility and high public profile, are perhaps its greatest contributions. Anyone who’s taken the time to listen to the commentary on seasons six and seven of Buffy (dorks!) understands how explicitly the writers (and especially creator/ writer Joss Whedon) set up sexism/male supremacy as the villain for the prime time show (groundbreaking, obvi), and the totally awesome seachange of women sharing power with women, embodied by the army of slayers from the TV finale and season eight.
Whats awesome, is hearing some of the female-identified writers from the show speak about this explosion of Whedon’s original idea of a single heroine with tons of latent power, to an organic realization of a truly feminist ideal, when every ‘potential’ slayer is given full slayer powers through the goddess-like witchcraft of everyone’s favorite red-headed lesbian witch, Willow. Fucking righteous.
Okay, lets not get too abstract. What was Whedon’s initial anti-sexist set up? A reaction to the unavoidable paranoia of women alone in the dark in the city… their vulnerabilities, the objectification of women as objects (specifically vampire dinner), and the bizarre displacement of men’s fucked up/ violent/ entitled-feeling desires as the fault of women who “dress like they want it” (that line in particular was used in the show where scantly clad femmes are blamed for attracting vampires- WTF). Right, so that was Joss’s reaction.
By season eight, Buffy transcended patriarchy not only making men yearn for the kind of power that women so ferociously wielded on the show (from Anya, to Ms.Calendar, to Faith, Tara, Glory and Kennedy, not to mention the original Scoobies themselves), such that by the end of the television run of the show, the entire paradigm shifted from “how do we show women being defiant of men’s power and violence” to “how do we envision women sharing the power they build through relationships as a community of anti-sexist feminist praxis”?
Okay, the feminist praxis bit is my own cherry on top, but you get the picture. By time there are thousands of slayers being trained up in Buffy’s European castle, we’re in a different world from the predatory un-dead men of the hellmouth. I can’t believe I have a blog where I can write a sentence like that, and where people like you can read that. Some corners of this world are just it seems (:
and we live in world where comics that were being written post 2003 have that as a pop-feminist foundation, beyond which we get all kinds of serious (by which I mean totally badass-ferocia).
Next up is Runaways, which is awesome for many reasons (chiefly, the superb writing by creator Brian K Vaughan, and the astounding & witty character development), but is worth mentioning here for a couple reasons. First, taking a cue from Whedon, the Runaways quickly settle on Nico Minoru as their leader, one of very few super hero (anti-hero?) teams that is fronted by a woman of color. She’s a fierce fashionista of substantial power, who has a goth-streak and who struggles very realistically with her sexuality. Totally crush-worthy…
which is why Karolina Dean spends part of volume two coming out, through exploring her crush on Nico. Ultimately though, its not Karolina’s chronicle of queerness that proves the ulitmate stroke of subversion (this arc was published after the L-word had already broken ground- although it was still unique in the world of mainstream comic books).
More groundbreaking was the revelation that Karolina’s betrothed, Xavin (a shapeshifting skrull, who initially appears as a black teenage alien- wait thats redundant… a skrull is a type of alien), comfortably changes genders and pursues their feelings for Karolina as a transgender lesbian. This was just five or six years ago, all playing out in Marvel comics so- Wow! Xavin’s friends switch which pronouns they use for hir/them as their gender expression/presentation shifts from comic issue to issue, though Xavin mostly interacts with Karolina as a fem lesbian once she (Xavin) realizes that Karolina prefers women (sexually speaking).
Brian K Vaughan moves past the quotidian politics of generation Y teens by taking a feminist bend to the apocalyptic crisis of September 11th, 2001 in his other graphic novel, Y the Last Man, which was published by the edgy DC/Vertigo Comics.
Here, Yorick Brown and his magician’s assistant/ pet monkey, Ampersand are the only surviving mammals with a Y chromosome. I can do the novel no justice here, buy its worth skipping around to some feminist touchstones that come up in the witty writing of Y the Last Man, including militant Amazon feminist separatists (who ritually cut off one of their breasts in political solidarity, and who burn all the world’s sperm banks), a planet of ubiquitous/normalized F-M transgenderism (and the sexwork that comes with it!), a little S&M rite of passage stuff, queer/co-parenting, a secret all female-run spy network (dating back to the Revolutionary War), and a whole lot of girl-on-girl lovin.
Basically, Y the Last Man is a realistic take on the “what if” concept of a gendered apocalypse, where virtually all the power-hoarding men (ie, all men) die out overnight, and the world wakes up to a dystopia where: 1) the American highways don’t work cuz all the truck drivers are men and they all died on the highway, leaving the wreckage of sixteen-wheelers everywhere, 2) the highest ranked woman in the entire US Government is the secretary of agriculture (anyone else having Laura Roslin/ Battlestar Galactica flashbacks??!) who then assumes the office of the presidency, oh and 3) the strongest military in the world becomes that of Israel, which, as you know, is the only army where women are fully 50% of trained harbingers of destruction. Shit makes for an interesting read! No super-heroes here!
Young Avengers. Not much to say. The hot leading men are gay lovers. BFD. Its a welcome change, but we were ready for that ceiling to be shattered like 30 years ago. Still, Hulkling and Wiccan are key-yute together!
Jumping tracks, Vertigo’s American Virgin “follows the life of Adam, a teenager who is a born-again Christian preacher, and his struggle with issues of his sexuality and faith as he plods step by step toward a lascivious world of desire, temptation, and cultural taboo. In exploring such faux-pas of protestantism, American Virgin whisks readers along a non-stop journey that takes us everywhere from homo-social groups in southern Africa to Phallic worship ceremonies in Japan, the Gay Games in Australia, and an Indian marriage ceremony where Adam and his girlfriend learn about the traditional roles of intersex hijra in sexual rites of passage. Throughout the whirlwind tour, Adam’s near constant companion is his stepsister, Cyndi, who is sexually liberal”, which is to say she’s a sex worker, and super-not ashamed of it, who ends up dating a sketchy Australian guy, who turns out to be trans and maybe not that sketchy? I dunno, I stopped
working at a comic shop reading around then and don’t quite know how the story panned out, but shit was cancelled last year which is a huge bummer since writer Steven T. Seagle was taking American Virgin and its readers to new and unexplored levels. Le sigh…
Ya know, next I was gonna grapple with Marjane Satrape, whom you have prolly either read first-hand, or seen a film adaptation of Persepolis- but I decided its not even worth a whole spiel here. Long story short, the implication that liberation for Persian women can only come from accessing an escape valve to the West is a dangerous concept, (ooh la la, I’m in France, now I can be a strong feminist artist with political clout), even if those aren’t her real politics and its just her own story and not a world-view she espouses. Which is not to say I shun the work entirely. It was very worthwhile for me and is for most people- I just want to append it with some critical thinking (which the film does not entreat). From what I hear from friends who’ve seen her, Satrape is an engaging thinker and speaker, and has pretty good politics, so lets just leave it at that…
Great. So last, and possibly my favorite is The Invisibles, where legendary characters like Lord Fanny explode gender, identity, race/ ethnicity, fucking witchcraft and of course sexuality in myriad dimensions (often literally). There is no effing way I can do the Invisibles justice in a paragraph or two, so I may just have to blog about it more fully on another occasion, but but but, a cursory mention of the fag-identified, super tranny ferocia, Lord Fanny is in order.
Lord Fanny may be my favorite comic book character of all time. Of the 5 members in the invisibles cell that form the core of the graphic novel, Lord Fanny embodies Grant Morrison’s project of anarchistic destruction of all normativities. She is a brazilian witch (of mexican ancenstry), who was supposed to be born female. Coming from a long line of witch-priestess women, Fanny’s grandmother takes matters into her own hands and insists that fate-be-damned, this baby boy will be raised as a girl and continue the lineage of family witches. Dude. Badass Granny even slits Fanny’s inner thigh in order to fool the gods into believing that Lord Fanny has finally menstruated and become a woman worthy of their blessings and powers!
Like Xavin of the Runaways (only 10 years earlier), Lord Fanny unapologetically oscillates between male and female pronouns, can be seen trying on silicone tits in a London sex shop, and beyond simply sporting butch or femme clothing, she splashes the pages with cameos of fallatio in almost every city the Invisibles visit. Her nonchalant confrontations with homophobes is reason enough to read the Invisibles, but stick around for the invisibles crew as a whole: feminist power-sharing, leather fetishes, über dyke combatants, san francisco sex parties, and a grand scheme to sabotage the US Military’s attempt to hide the AIDS vaccine deep underground in the American Southwest!
I think the main theme in these graphic novels is not only who these writers and protagonists are, nor what they do or represent, but the ways in which these characters and plots provoke new relationships within the comic book universe. Who these women, trannies, fags, and dykes are in relation to their team mates, their enemies, their world, and the reader is the real feminist push behind books. We are forced to see things relationally, and not just follow a bunch of jacked up men from battle to battle kicking each other’s asses.
oh boy. now I’m all excited about re-reading all of these gems! Check ’em out! Let me know what you think! And next time, I’ll try and highlight some of the great contributions of independent comics to our bold feminist world…
This post would not be complete if I did not address the obvious elephant in the room: serialobjectification of female bodies in comic books. Voilá: