Thursday, February 21, 2008

DC’s Super Feminine Mystique

My post Men are From Marvel and Women Are From DC, generated some interesting comments and fun discussion, imagine that. I came to one big conclusion about the femaleness of DC and the Maleness of Marvel… it all goes back to Wonder Women… …Duh. Think about it. Having a major female superhero thrive in and more importantly, survive the golden age of comics speaks volumes. Marvel/Timely, in truth, never had interesting women characters to begin with but the break between their 1940s supers and the 1960s Marvel Age cements my point.

The fact that Wonder Woman had her own successful title for decades gives the DC universe a possible womanish vibe even if her stories didn’t always depict females in the best light. The Amazon is a headliner. This fact combined with numerous other characters like Catwoman, Power Girl, Super-Girl, and Black Canary make a for a solid foundation that echoes down the years through the DC Universe. It seems obvious when you think about it but then I’m a man bred on Marvel Comics… 80’s Marvel Comics.

D0nnaT0ry had a good point in that a person’s universe of choice comes down to their gateway comic. The appeal of Wonder Woman and other DC heroines is obvious, so this must be the reason why girls have flocked to DC Comics. They have the female supers, so they have the female readers. Now this makes sense and could end the gender question right there but… the gateway comic doesn’t ring true for me personally as a man. If it did, I’d have been a DC Comics fan for most of my life. The first comic book I ever read was an issue of Green Lantern/Green Arrow, bought by my sister no less, and while I generally liked the characters it didn’t really fire my imagination. I also read some Justice League of America too and again it didn’t do much for me and these were male character dominated titles. Consequently, I didn’t really read comics extensively until years later. One day, out of boredom, I convinced my mother to buy me three, bagged together; marvel comics… and my addiction began. I’ve often wondered what would’ve happened if I had encountered an issue of Amazing Spiderman or The Avengers instead of Green Lantern/Green Arrow and Justice League. So I tend to think there is something a little more feminine to the DC Universe…

Now a thought experiment to test if DC is more female-like than Marvel would be to pick a masculine heavy genre that women generally don’t enjoy, like War Comics. If you do a little compare and contrast, I believe women would come down on the side of Sgt Rock rather than Nick Fury. I’m not discounting the fact that Rock was better written and drawn than Fury, which would make it more appealing to most folks including me, it's just that I have a feeling that women would be better entertained by DC's WWII comic over Marvel's version. Besides, which title had Mademoiselle Marie?

Wonder Woman gets to the heart of the matter to me. Having her front and center made DC unconsciously more diffused with a female ethos. But, and here is where we get to the Feminine Mystique aspect, DC super-heroines are saddled with pre-women’s lib baggage. Wonder Woman and friends were still struggling against the sexist themes of the golden age long after the successes of the sexual revolution at least that’s how I perceive it. Maybe that’s why I wasn’t attracted to DC Comics as much. Not because their comics were more feminine but because they were more 1950s feminine. Case in point, She-Hulk. I’ve always liked Shulkie and as I’ve said before, she’s a modern woman. I like female superheroes a lot, I think I just prefer ‘em post second-wave feminism. This is not say that Marvel was doing a great job with their female characters, far from it as the Wasp’s annoying prattle in the 1960s Avengers attests, but rather that Marvel simply had a more male centered universe even though, paradoxically, it was a more modern universe.

By the 1990s a lot of the gender issues I’m proposing about DC and Marvel had changed. Through retcons, modern storytelling, and the X-men Splitting into a plethora of titles with strong female characterizations the view has been blurred. Many younger readers have more choice to jump back and forth between the big 2 without much regard to gender or gender legacy. In other words, they’ve grown up with comics that are less defined by such issues. Again, I’m not necessarily saying the big 2 are doing a good job, I’m just saying they seem to have more freedom when it comes to expressing a masculine or a progressive feminine ethos rather than sticking to what was par for the course in the past. Whether they use this freedom, responsibly or creatively is a different issue.

What are your thoughts?

I ended the “Men are From Marvel” post with a Hillary and Obama political cartoon. So with that in mind I’ll end this post with them. Maybe the struggle in the Democratic Party is a fight between the Wonder Woman Generation (Hillary) and the She-Hulk Generation (Obama). It’s looking more and more like the She-Hulk generation is gonna win.



SamuraiFrog said...

Very interesting post. I used to think that the major difference between Marvel and DC was that Marvel comics seemed to cater more to teenagers while DC seemed to cater more to adults. That did hold true for me; the first comic books I tried to read were the pre-Crisis Batman and Superman issues they had at my barber shop, but they bored me. I preferred Uncle Scrooge and Donald Duck instead. When I first got into Marvel I was pretty young; I read Transformers and Peter Porker the Spectacular Spider-Ham.

From there, I got into specifically Amazing Spider-Man, Uncanny X-Men, and New Mutants. I loved the X-Men for a long time. And as I got older, I drifted over to DC (thanks in large part to the first Batman movie, which came out when I was 13), and stayed firmly there for a long time.

I don't really know what the difference is, but I do know more women who like DC Comics than like Marvel. Or, I did. Since DC pulled there Crisis of whatever again, I don't really read comic books anymore. But for me personally, Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, and the Flash mean a great deal more than Spidey and the X-Men. Well, maybe not Spidey so much. I still love the guy. I just don't read his comics anymore.

Fascinating theories in the post. I can't wait to see more comments.

Don Snabulus said...

The evolution of feminism is an interesting approach to looking at this. If female characters had to fight against female stereotypes over previous decades of comics, then they mirror this society in which change didn't come without a fight. In other words, the more nuanced female heroes in comics today are metaphorically travelling a road built upon the "blood" of the earlier characters just as today's women are treated as equals (well, we are getting there anyway) as a result of the battles fought previously on their behalf.

Regarding Clinton and Obama, in addition to generational influences, I think any look at a Clinton should take into account 16 years and tens of millions of dollars spent with the sole purpose of attacking one family. I think it must have an effect at the polls especially among the white men demographic targetted by the attackers.

ladybug said...

Well, I honestly can't say one way or the all the comics I read (or remember reading) were bought by a small porcine bread product that lived in my household growing up...but I digress.

I just remember what I liked, and it wasn't Wonder Woman too much. I liked good stories(a bit of a sci-fi slant didn't hurt either); Xmen, and Green Lantern ..along w/a few "dark tale" horror genre (although I didn't indulge in that one too much, I was afraid of the DARK as a kid and got nightmares easily!). Spiderman was ok, better than Superman...and I also liked "the funnies" Donald Duck, his nephew and some other "fun adventure" stuff like that.

Shelly said...

I read my first comics in 1960, mostly kiddie titles, then Archies and Classics Illustrated and gradually, super-heroes. I read what was in the dentist's office. There were a lot of DC titles, but also some Marvels. One of the first superhero titles I read was an issue of Fantastic Four.

But my parents were DC fans. My mother liked Batman and my father liked Superman, back in the early days of those comics, so they encouraged me to read those and I liked them. When I was sick, my mother picked up some for me. She chose them. My first Justice League was among them.

I've read some Marvels over the years, and loved Howard the Duck and the more recent, out-of-costume Wolverine, but I'm a DC fan all the way. And I am most definitely female.

Maybe parental influences, as applicable, should be added to the equation. ;)

Dr. Zaius said...

You have it all wrong. Wonder Woman's secret identity is Speaker Nancy Pelosi, as if you didn't know.

Arkonbey said...

I find that neither company really knows how to treat women. Female heroes are strong, but never allowed to be in control as much as male heroes. Look how often a WW cover featured her being controlled or captured. She was never allowed to be the hero Supe was.

As far as She-Hulk, as I can personally attest, she was more aimed at the teenage male audience than for creating a strong female character.

For my money, the only female hero who was allowed to be strong and in control was late 80's Storm(Improbably Mohawk Storm).

For me the main difference between Marvel and DC wasn't gender issue, it was that the Marvel Universe always felt more cohesive and 'solid'.

Well, since everybody but DR. Z did a long, well-written post I had to try; Well, one out of two isn't bad

Shelly: Both your parents read comics? Dang. That's pretty cool.

Dr.Z: now that you mention it...

Shelly said...

Arkonbey, not only did my parents read comics (tho they were probably not heavy readers the way I am), but my father is a science fiction and space buff and when Star Trek came on in 1965, he declared that that was the show we were going to watch for that time slot (we had only one TV).

Unfortunately, my parents weren't able to keep their comics. They would've been worth a lot of money.

Dean Wormer said...


This was a great topic and I'm glad you revisted it. Especially since I was a little late to the party last time.

I agree with arkonbey's comments about neither company handling their female heroes well. Of course that comment is taken through the prism of the adult me looking back on the stories I read as a kid.

The child me was completely oblivious to gender issues. Even something as blatant as Wonder Woman was nothing more than a super-powered human who fought crime. They were all heroes to me.

I'd like to think this is another of those things you talk about on your blog where comics have a positive effect on the real life us. In this case I can't help but believe my attitudes about women were formed somewhat by an early exposure to comics and a recognition that women can kick ass and take names just as much as men.

Fade said...

I'm too drunk to add anything at this point, I think I said it all anyway, with my uber-elucid comment on the original post.

I just came here cuz I only got about 5 seconds into this :

Before the name Swinebread whacked me in the head with a bright yellow "KAPOW!"

I think Italian Spiderman is probably a Marvel guy, tho

The Moody Minstrel said...

I think it's possible that DC's early successes trapped them in the traditional hero mold, so they wound up depending too much on cardboard characters and paper-thin plots. In other words, what the character symbolized, with all the attached stereotypes, was more important than the story. I think Marvel got away from that a lot quicker by putting a bit more into real character development and serious writing.

Randal Graves said...

I can't add anything constructive because I haven't collected for years - and actually started later than most because I was too busy D&D-geeking - but I remember the titles that brought me in were the Amazing Spider-Man, X-Men, The Punisher and Batman.

Cassandra Lovell said...

Very interesting read, but for me it doesn't come back to which publisher I prefer to read, but what comics I prefer to read.
To me I don't feel as if comics should be catered to anyone, if it's good I'll read it despite my gender.

Swinebread said...

SF – I think it’s true that DC had a more adult appeal but I tend to think of it as an accident of finding a successful formula in the Golden Age. Why make a teenager hero like Spidey when Superman is working just fine. I have to admit the older I got the more DC titles I included in my rotation although I never bought more DC than Marvel. For DC had more adult characters but marvel had more adult stories (until watchmen and Dark Knight). Nowadays, I’m on the fringes of both Universes, putting my money into other comic companies.

Snab – I think you hit the nail on the head here when it comes to Wonder Woman and She-Hulk. WW had to struggle through several decades of a more sexist time and She-Hulk, was created in a hopefully more enlightened time (although with the some of guys running the show at DC and Marvel you wouldn’t know it).

LB – I think your reading tastes reflected the fact that weren’t buying the comic yourself but “sneaking” your siblings. Am I right?

Shelly – Wow, that’s amazing and I thought I was lucky because my parents didn’t discourage my comics reading! I think your experience is actually a bridge between DC’s more feminine appeal (the point of this post) and Samuraifrog’s point about DC having a more adult audience.

Dr. Zaius – Ha Ha ha, a nice set of posts… I wish I had found your blog sooner…

Arkoenbey – Oh I agree that neither treats woman characters very well, I just think DC had more of a vibe that appealed to woman…

And Yes I think Shulkie appeals more to men than WW and that’s another reason I think DC appeals more to the females…

Your point about Storm is a good one. It’s one of the reason’s I like the 80s X-men so much.

Shelly – Comics and Star Trek that is fantastic! My parents could have cared less for Sci-fi.

Dean – That’s a great idea for a future post: How did female comic characters affect my attitudes about women. Maybe that’s what I’m really getting to in all this.

Fade – That is too funny! Thanks for the Link! I wonder how Dr. Smoke would react to that?

Moody – Your right on IMO! DC’s characters are more symbolic and Marvel’s are more emotional which tends towards more personal and thus more interesting stories.

Randal – It’s always Batman that throws a wrench in to applying my Universal over everything!
Cass – Hey, thanks for stopping by! You are welcome here anytime! ☺ I’m glad you liked my post. I’d be interested in when you started reading comics. It seems by your age that it would be 1990s or later, and that seems to fall in line with my thoughts that DC and Marvel’s masculine and feminine vibe broke down by then.

By the way, I really liked your art, fantastic stuff! I hope you can make it to a comic convention in the Pacific Northwest someday!

Shelly said...

As long as I kept my comics neat and organized, and because my parents had theirs thrown out by their parents, I was allowed to keep as many as I wanted, which is how I amassed 15 full longboxes by the time I was in college. I would have had more, but even though comics were 12 cents, then 15 cents, then 25 cents, my allowance was rather low, too.

My parents had all sorts of books in the house, including some Asimov and Bradbury. My father is a collector (stamps, autographs mostly), so I come by that honestly. We went to see 2001 when it opened as a family outing.

Yeah, I can't say enough about my parents. They really helped mold my tastes. They had all sorts of books around, and I read most of them.

Oh, and my father had a nifty collection of cartoon books, including Charles Addams, Roy Doty, Whitney Darrow, Jr., etc. He gave them to me a half dozen years ago. That's probably where I got my love of the cartoon/comic form because I was looking at those books before I read my first comic. Then there were all the MAD Magazines. :)

I do wonder, though, if my parents had been Marvel fans instead of Superman and Batman fans, if my reading tastes would be different today.

Swinebread said...

Shelly – It’s refreshing to hear about a family that was so well rounded and progressive when it came to science fiction and comics especially since the 60s weren’t that far away from the height of Wertham’s rantings. I’m simply amazed, I didn’t know people like this existed.

Shelly said...

I love telling people about my parents, especially people from my generation, some of whom were forbidden to watch Star Trek. And I know I've been very lucky in that regard. :)

Swinebread said...

You Bet!

My parents let me watch Star Trek... in reruns...