Monday, June 19, 2006

Looking To The Stars - Gaysploitation!

Hello. Happy to see you all here. Been a while for some of you, hasn’t it?

Well, for those of you who are wondering why there’s been no column for two weeks, please read last week’s A-Kon Convention Report, which was mysteriously posted on Wednesday without much fanfare.

There were also some problems with my ISP which have now, thankfully, been worked out.

Still, despite all this, its’ been two weeks without a regular monthly column. Lots of things happened in the comics world in those to weeks though, and there’s a lot of news I have to cover in my own inimitable fashion. But with all the things that happened in the past three weeks since I wrote a regular column, one story stands above all others.

Frank Cho To Write 4-Issue Red Sonja Mini-Series

Now, I know what you’re thinking. Ol’ Unca Starman must have eaten some bad Pocky while at A-KON to think that this is all that important a story. Well, this story is more important than you think when you consider that it is a dark mirror of the attitudes shaping our business today.

Long time fans will remember my taking Mr. Cho to task for his Shanna: The She-Devil mini-series. (Those who don’t remember it can read it here.)

The short version is that Frank took a character who had been created as a feminist and environmentalist hero back in the 70’s and cut all of her character in order to create what would have been a T&A extravaganza had Marvel not wised up and made him put a costume on his creation at the last minute. Indeed, Cho’s exact comments when questioned upon the feminist background of Shanna, according to a recent Wizard Magazine Interview, were...

”When I signed on, Marvel sent me a bunch of those old issues, and let me tell you—I’m not sure what the hell was happening in the ’70s, but all of those damn hippies were smoking crack when they wrote those comics. It was such a B.S., feminist, environmental message! I was so pissed off when I finished reading them. That’s two hours of my life that I’ll never get back. It wasn’t a comic, it was more like a “Green Party” propaganda thing”

Yes. Because Steven Gerber is such a well-known crack-smoker.

In all seriousness, Cho, while being a talented artist, has shown himself to have little to no interest in doing his homework as a writer. He couldn’t write a character properly, so he created something new using the same name. And this attitude, this pandemic is become typical of far too many writers today.

That is why I as a Red Sonja fan, and the boyfriend of a fanatical Red Sonja fan, I am rather worried about Frank Cho getting his hands on everyone’s favorite amazon... metaphorically speaking.

Yes, Cho can draw a beautiful woman. If he were capable of drawing more than one face, he might be one of the greatest artists in the business. But there’s a reason why he mostly sticks to pin-ups and cute animals and that is he just isn’t strong enough to sustain a realistic series. And that’s a problem in a series like Red Sonja which, giant monsters and magic aside, is fairly well grounded in realistic characters and real-world physics.

This is not to say that there is not some creative license with the character. Scanty chainmail is not the warmest of garments but thankfully Sonja’s homeland in the Robert E. Howard world is a fairly large and warm land. And of course her armor doesn’t protect much physically but it serves another purpose.

As Sonja herself put it in one issue, “Men are easily distracted”. Throw in the fact that her speed is her greatest advantage in a fight and it makes sense she’d choose not to be weighed down with full-plate. Still, there is a fine line between showing a hint of exposed buttcheek and the chainmail thong that Cho and artists like him are so fond of drawing.

This creates an interesting problem for those of us in the business of bringing new readers into the comic book game. I know Sonja isn’t an empty-headed bimbo but a strong woman who uses her body as a weapon in more ways than one. But how does it look to the new reader? I can ramble on and on about the feminist underpinnings of the character and how she is a strong, independent woman in a world dominated by evil men and dark sorcery and it won’t do a thing for those who are going “Why does she have ass cleavage?”

And this leads us to consider a larger issue – at what point does cheesecake artwork stop being fun and start becoming exploitation. For that matter, at what point does the existence of beautiful women in comics start being exploitive?

Take the new Batwoman for example. I had several people e-mail to ask me what my opinion was of the fact that the new Batwoman was a lesbian. And my opinion was; why is this news?

Actually, it probably IS news to the readers of the New York Times, which broke the story, so let me rephrase that. WHY IS THIS A BIG DEAL?

There have been lesbian characters in comic books before. Hell, Rene Montoya... one of the main characters of DC’s 52... is a lesbian. Maggie Sawyer, the head cop in Metropolis for years and late of the much missed Gotham Central? Lesbian, who managed to get her life-partner snuck into an episode of Superman: The Animated Series, no less.

Of course, the big deal is that this is a mainstream character... sort of... who is being outed. But as amused as I am that the Batwoman character, who was originally created along with Batgirl in the 50’s to counter charges made in the book Seduction of the Innocent that Batman and Robin were homosexual lovers, is now being used to promote the gay lifestyle, I am more disturbed by the wording used to describe the character.

To quote The New York Times Article Kathy Kane is “…is a wealthy (socialite), buxom lipstick lesbian”. Now, on the odd chance that someone out there is unfamiliar with the term, a lipstick lesbian, at least in popular culture, is a slang term for any lesbian character whose homosexuality exists primarily to titillate heterosexual males. For an in depth example of this, see most of the characters on the Showtime series “The L-Word”, most of the women in a Girls Gone Wild video and indeed any bit of mainstream lesbian pornography.

It’s called the Internet. There’s tons of it out there.

Now, let us think about that for a second. The character is introduced as being a beautiful, rich woman who likes other women. Apart from the fact that she dresses like a flying mouse, how is that really a change from the other attractive lesbian characters that are already occupying the DC Comics Universe?

It doesn’t. And that’s exploitive. It would be one thing if it were just presented as a fact about the characters, rather than being a banner headline in one of the nation’s highest-selling papers. As it is, it just screams of desperation – like DC Comics is trying to court the gay dollar by screaming “Hey! Look at us! We’re diverse and edgy and gay friendly!”

You know what DC would really do if they wanted to be edgy? Put out a Batwoman that is a wealthy, socialite overweight bull-dyke lesbian. Would this be stereotypical? Yes. Would it be a lot closer to the truth than some stunning supermodel? As someone who knows quite a few lesbians who describe themselves as dead butch, I say yes. Would it sell? Probably not.

You go to the other extreme- the not socially acceptable stereotype of gay women – and what would be the interest? Desperate, wanking fanboys wouldn’t buy it for the same reason they wouldn’t buy Liberty Meadows comics if Frank Cho suddenly converted to Islam and started drawing burkas on all his female characters. The gay comic-reading community (and there’s a minority group if ever there was one) would be up in arms over the phrase “bull-dyke”. The die-hard fanboys like me wouldn’t give a toss one way or the other so long as the writing was good. And ultimately, it would all be just as meaningless.

You want to see how to do this kind of thing right? Go read the Villains United TP. Without giving too much away, it gets revealed that two established female characters… both attractive, self-confident women, are both lesbians in a relationship. Did they make a big deal about it? No. Was there a big parade or articles written about it? No. Did it add something to the characters? Yes.

And that ultimate is the problem with the new Batwoman. She is hype for hype’s sake and her homosexuality is nothing more than a Winickian plot device meant to lure in readers. It is just as crass and exploitive as your average Frank Cho cover. And as a fighting liberal and a feminist, I am ashamed as a comic geek and a man that professional publishers can stoop so low in the name of sales.

Still, maybe I’m overreacting. Maybe I’ve unwittingly become part of the censorship army that Erik Larsen claims is trying to rid comic books of big boobies. All I’m trying to say is that you can draw beautiful women but to avoid pushing the cheesecake angle and that you can have all the lesbians you want in a comic – just don’t pretend that having one more attractive women in a skin-tight outfit is something new and exciting.

Comments? The e-mail is down there.

Tune in next week. Same Matt time. Same Matt website.

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