Friday, July 11, 2014

Cool chicks dig comics

I'm forty years old, and I've been reading comic books since I was twelve. When I started reading them, I only had a handful of friends who read them as well. When I got into middle school, I quickly realized that I should have kept it a secret, as a lot of kids made fun of me for it. I remember a group of kids following me around the campus jeering "Lance likes comic books!" I also remember that I got a T-shirt with Wolverine on it, and I didn't really tell anybody what it was, although a few of them knew. (Can you even imagine such a thing nowadays? A bunch of middle schoolers NOT recognizing Wolverine?)

Things were better in high school, and even though I remember a few kids making fun of it (but with far less acrimony) some of those same kids would ask me when I was bringing in the new issue of various titles so they could read them during study session. Still, I was a bit of an odd-man out, as I was the only kid who consistently wore T-shirts with characters like Spider-Man, The Punisher, and the X-Men. I recall one time when one of the skaters, a group that prided themselves on individuality and nonconformity, asked me, "Don't you have any normal shirts?" in the same tone of voice that most people would say, "Haven't you learned to stop shitting yourself?"

Ckaka Cumberbatch
Sure, there was the big Batman craze when Tim Burton's movie came out, and every person and their monkey's grandmother wore a Batman T-shirt, but that was more of a fad than anything. One time, a kid came up to me, hoping to get the better of me, and told me while I was wearing a Spidey shirt that "Spider-Man sucks, Batman rules". I then asked him what city Batman lives in, and he was unable to answer. Then I pointed out that he was a poser, which is one of the worst things a person can be in high school. (At least, when I went to high school.)

Through college, I somehow lucked out to have a roommate who read as voraciously as I did, so we'd always have stuff to talk about. Aside from that, I didn't know too many people who read comic books, and when I tried to tell people about them, they probably saw me as a little bit eccentric. I majored in creative writing, and I worked on writing superhero stories. Pretty much nobody understood what I was trying to do. They figured that I was either trying to do something like the 1960s Batman show or I'd get lumped in with all of the fantasy nerds who were writing ripoffs of Lord of the Rings. (Not that there's anything wrong with fantasy nerds, mind you.)

Valerie Perez
One thing's for damned sure, through all these years, I didn't know any females who were into comic books. Maybe I'd see that elusive lady picking up the latest issue of Sandman, and I'd see a few at the conventions. (I also seem to recall that my local comic book store had a girl working there, and she seemed really well-versed in what was going on, so if she wasn't a fan, she was really good at pretending to be one.) I'm not exactly one who hides his likes and dislikes from the world, and I think it was probably safe to say that plenty of girls and women thought of me as being some kind of oddball for being so into them. (I even remember my aunt asking me when I was going to stop reading comic books and get into girls - as though those two things can't exist simultaneously.)

I would sometimes try and tell my female friends about them, and their reactions ranged from mild curiosity to "let's kick the leper out". I remember in college showing one friend a copy of Strangers in Paradise. I even got her to read the first few pages, and when I described the story, she said it sounded like a good story, but she just wasn't interested in it because it was a comic book. I asked her if she'd watch it if I was describing a movie, and she said she'd probably check it out. But sequential art? Nuh uh. Ain't gonnna happen.

Obviously, not all women reacted negatively. I actually managed to fool one of them into marrying me, and she actually did read many issues of Strangers in Paradise at that. Plus, she goes to almost all of the superhero movies with me, and she's even liked a few of them to see more than once. So, my wife is definitely not a hater.

So generally speaking, it always struck me that comic books are a guy's thing, and every now and then a girl sneaks in and hangs out with us goobers. But just like every guy who gets to be my age, I have started to notice that the world is changing, and things might not quite be the way I thought they were. And this is all a very cool thing.

I'm a high school English teacher, and I always manage to sneak in a week-long lesson on comic books and superheroes toward the end of the year. A lot of kids really seem to like it, and that's all they seem to remember about my class. (Hey! We did Hamlet too, dammit! It wasn't all Batman!) Now, this might be my cloudy memory, but I've been doing this for about ten years now, and the way I remember it, it was mostly the boys who were into the lesson, with maybe a few girls enjoying it as well. I would have the occasional complainer, and that complainer was always inevitably a female student. They would act like I was burdening them, and the only way to convince them to shut their traps was by telling them that I could find a suitable replacement story out of the literature book for them to do instead - ya know, something like Holinshed's Chronicles of England, Scotland and Ireland.

I don't really see this anymore, and the girls seem to be just as interested in it as the guys. In fact, if I think of
recent students who were enthused about it, only girls are coming to mind. Also, I have noticed that I see a lot more women at the comic book store than I had before. And I don't see them picking up some obscure title that's skewed toward them. I see a lot of them reading the same stuff as me. I even quizzed one of my female students who was wearing a T-shirt with Nightwing's emblem on it. She knew her stuff, and I told her that she could just stay home as I was going to give her an A no matter what. (Administrators from my district: that was a joke.)

(Begin crotchety old man voice.) Another thing that's different from back when I started reading comic books and attending comic book conventions is this whole cosplay thing! Don't get me wrong, people have always dressed up for comic book conventions, but now you see cosplayers on the guest list of comic book conventions! (At least, that's what you have at the Big Wow! Comicfest in San Jose.) Obviously, there are more than a few men who do this, but more than half of them are women, and I'm gonna talk about them because I'm hella hetero and that's kinda the point of this blog entry.

Wonder Woman by Cliff Chiang
As I already mentioned, there have always been people who dressed up for conventions. Some of them would go all-out and create some really cool stuff. Some of them would wear stuff that looked like what my three-year-old son would have come up with had he worked off of plans that my dog drew up. A lot of people would ask me, derisively, if I dressed up for the comic book conventions. When I'd say that I didn't (Let's just say that the only character for whom I have the proper figure is maybe the Kingpin of Crime) they would tease me and go, "Come on! You know you do!" Yeah, 'cause I just don't want people to know that I'm a nerd.

I never quite understood why people would make fun of those who dress up for conventions - especially those who put a lot of time and effort into their costumes. "Hey! You're doing something creative with your time! And then you make people happy by posing for pictures with them! Get a life!" Anyway, I hear a lot fewer of these sorts of derisive comments nowadays, no doubt because of how it's become a hobby unto itself. (The fact that a lot of them women cosplayers happen to be really pretty probably doesn't hurt. And yeah, the dudes are fairly handsome. I'll give them that. It helps.)

Harley Quinn by Amanda Conner
I've heard a bit of criticism from some comic book fans who say that the female cosplayers aren't really fans and they just go to the conventions for attention or whatever. Let me just state my personal opinion on this issue: I DON'T CARE. Whether they're actually reading Wonder Woman comic books when they decide to dress up as Wonder Woman or not doesn't matter one bit to me. One way or the other, they are creating positive attention toward a hobby that I love, and that makes them cool in my book. Besides, what's gotta be wrong with you when pretty women are dressing up and you've gotta find fault with that?

Whether these female cosplayers are "true fans" or not, the numbers seem to be confirming my suspicions that more and more women are discovering what's so cool about comic books. I've seen the percentage of female fans as high as 45% with a brief bit of internet sleuthing. Also, Eric Stephenson, publisher of Image Comics, believes that women are the fastest growing reader demographic right now.

I think that this is great, and hopefully this will help make comic books better all around. I've never vocally complained about how women are depicted in comic books, but I've always understood much of the criticism. Personally, I think that sometimes it can be over-the-top when it's pointed out that the women all have idealized bodies, mainly because the men do as well. That's just the nature of the beast. However, there are some artists who take these idealized women and pose them as though they're preparing for a porn shoot. That kind of a thing I think we can do without. Plus, there seems to be more artists out there who can draw some cool female heroes who look attractive despite not having double D's. (Cliff Chiang's Wonder Woman, for instance, looks beautiful and athletic but not so top-heavy that you wonder how she's not falling over all the time.

Susie Giroux - a friend of mine
I'm not a fan of diversity for the sake of diversity, but this changing demographic seems to be evolving organically, and that's a great thing. With changing readership, we can hopefully see more women on the creative end as well - as there are some real talents out there. Amanda Conner, for instance, is not just one of the best cover artists around nowadays, but for my money, she's one of the best visual storytellers as well.

So, if you're female and you've never given comics a try, well, there's nothing about you being female that should stop you from reading them. If you want some recommendations, I've written about some before, and I plan on doing so again soon. If you're looking for cool comics with female leads, there are a lot coming out there that are pretty damned good, including: Black Widow, Elektra, and Ms. Marvel. Of course, I recommend those to my male friends as well.

The ladies love comics!
Forgive me if this post has had the hint of "I was into this cool thing before everybody else was", but I was into this cool thing before everybody else was.


Ingrid Johnson said...

Sometimes I wonder if you grew up in my house. I started reading comics when I was 9 years old. Prince Valiant, remember? What about the Sunday paper? Never missed the comics.

Lance Johnson said...

I guess I should have made sure to specify that I'm talking about comic books. While the two are related, they don't necessarily have the same audiences.