Feminism & the Portrayal of Women in Comics

Whenever discussion of comic books as a medium comes to anything beyond simple plot discussion and goes into the sociopolitical ramifications of super hero books in particular, the portrayal of women is often the most highly criticized point. No one doubts that comic books were ground breaking in discussion of topics of great social importance, such as when Green Arrow’s sidekick Speedy was shown to have a drug addiction in Denny O’Neill and Neal Adams’ Green Lantern/Green Arrow series in the late 1960s, or when the uncomfortable and enraging subject of domestic violence came to forefront in the pages of Avengers when Ant-Man struck his wife. Still, when looking at the pages of a modern comic book for the first time, it is hard not to notice the way most artists draw their heroines; they are almost always voluptuous, sometimes to the point of bordering on unrealistic. But there are a few points that are worth mentioning before we condemn superhero comics as sexist.

Generally speaking, when a woman is being objectified, she serves no purpose other than being the object of sexual attraction. Fiction as a whole is full of these kind of characters, across all of the visual mediums. In the case of comic books, however, the superhero women who are depicted as extraordinarily well-figured are generally also shown to be highly intelligent. While Catwoman may be dressed a bit provocatively, to say the least, she also shows time and time again that she is not only charismatic but capable of outsmarting just about anyone who comes in her path. The same can be said of Wonder Woman, who is not only an Amazonian goddess of exceptional beauty, but is also highly intelligent and among the most powerful characters in general in the DC Universe.

One of the main criticisms for portraying women with an exaggerated level of attractiveness as they are in comics is that it sends out the wrong message to young women who read the books. It is feared that by portraying these superheroes as being the standard of beauty they should aspire to that young girls will develop issues with their own body images, something that no self-respecting feminist would ever hope for. This may be a genuine concern, but it should be noted that the “absolute perfection” of these characters is not limited to the women alone; male characters throughout all major comic books are given physiques that would only be seen in competitors for Mr. Universe. Aside from bring possibly the smartest man alive, Batman is also built so ridiculously (once again dependent on the artist at the time) that it borders on the impossible. The same can be said of Superman, most incarnations of Green Lantern, Aquaman, Hawkman, Captain America, and more than half of the male X-Men. It is actually easier to list the men who aren’t designed that way. So although the unrealistic body image portrayal is definitely a part of the way these characters are drawn, it is not a gender issue.

Despite not thinking that superhero comics are inherently sexist, there are individual aspects that need addressing. In general, everyone in comics wears spandex. Man or women, teenage or senior citizen, the vast majority of those fictional men and women who take on secret identities are dressed in skin-tight clothes that leave nothing to the imagination, and that’s okay. For every Wonder Woman leotard there is a Green Lantern black and green skin-tight body suit. Despite that, there is one particular costume that we find hard to swallow, that of DC’s Power Girl. She may have personality, and she may be written okay from time to time, but Power Girl’s costume is one thing that is blatantly ridiculous, no matter how tongue-in-cheekedly it is explained away by the writers.

In the end, it is hard to see comic books being any more exploitative of women than they are of men, and certainly no more driven by sex appeal than any other medium. We would conclude that as long as the women are smart and powerful, and that neither of the major comic book companies introduces a new character called Hooker Woman or Brothel Girl, there really isn’t anything here to be angry about. There may be a topic of discussion for the sociology of depicting either gender as being physically ideal, but it is not a male vs. female issue so much as a cultural portrayal of people against the truth of existence. Comic books may sometimes have important things to say, but in the end it is escapism. Once the hole on Power Girl’s costume is filled, all will be well.

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Review: Leviathan by Scott Westerfeld (2009)

Leviathan by Scott Westerfeld
Simon Pulse, 2009

Rating: B+

Steampunk for a younger audience seems like an obvious market. Younger readers tend to eat up fantasy and science fiction like no other crowd, and yet the number of young adult novels that are considered steampunk is surprisingly small. On steampunk forums around the internet, requests for recommendations of YA steampunk nearly universally revolve around the Leviathan series and a half-dozen other novels. So why aren’t more writers doing what Westerfeld has done with this series? Maybe it is more difficult to write engaging stories about zeppelins and clockwork than it seems.

Leviathan is essentially a re-telling of World War I in a world in which the British, French, Russians, and Serbs use biologically re-engineered animal creatures as weapons and vessels; the title refers to a large airship made out of a whale, which one cannot even begin to explain thoroughly enough to satisfy anyone but is at least a cool visual. On the other side, the Germans, Austrians, and Hungarians use large steam-powered ships and battle machines, which is not nearly as fresh of an idea as genetically modified whale ships but is definitely equally cool.

The main characters fit generic archetypes, but are likable in spite of this. Alek is the fictional young son of Franz Ferdinand and his wife, the leaders of the Austro-Hungarian empire, who finds himself without a family when they are assassinated. His family’s closest advisors squirrel him away in a walking robot tank and head away to try to find safety. On the other side, Deryn is a young woman who wants to badly to be a pilot that she decides to hide her gender and pretend to be a man so that she can enlist. Both of these stories sound like retreads but they are written in such a way that it feels fresh anyway. It doesn’t hurt that there is something wonderfully feministic and subversive for a woman to sneak her way into a “man’s world” and not only succeed but do better than her male counterparts.

Although written for younger audiences, Leviathan will have a general appeal to older fans of steampunk as well. Nothing is too dumbed down or simplified and it has enough plot to hold interest. It is definitely action oriented, with some kind of major fight or crash or explosion every couple chapters, which will certainly help younger readers keep interest in a book of this length. Although it is definitely the first book in a series and as such is not very friendly to stand alone reading, it is good enough that the idea of continuing on into the series is hardly an unwelcome one.

Film Review: Castle in the Sky (1986)

Castle in the Sky
Written & directed by Hayao Miyazaki

Rating: B-

Hayao Miyazaki is by far the most successful Japanese director in the United States that is still active in film. Every time one of his movies gets translated to English and released in the States, there are hordes of people who make seeing it their first priority, much in the same way that fans of directors like Quentin Tarantino, Woody Allen, and Wes Anderson will see anything they put out because of the style that makes their films so unique. In the case of Miyazaki, it is a sort of environmentalist-tinged whimsy that feels distinctly Japanese and yet entirely accessible to just about anyone who has even the vaguest interest in anime.

Castle in the Sky (called such in the United States because the original title almost contained a derogatory word in Spanish) is a steampunk film featuring airships, goggles, flying cities, and just about everything else that people look for in the genre. It is one of Miyazaki’s earlier works (by comparison to recent efforts like Ponyo) and tells the story of a young girl being chased by the government who falls from the sky and is caught by a young boy. Her fall is slowed by the power of a strange glowing stone. The two become fast friends and decide to go out in search for her identity while simultaneously being concerned for the fate of Laputa, the last of the cities in the sky.

It is a pretty straight-forward adventure, which has its fun moments and strong voice acting (based on the most recent English language version featuring Anna Paquin, James Van Der Beek, Mark Hamill, and Cloris Leachman) but doesn’t really go beyond that. Although it is far from a masterpiece, it is easy to enjoy for someone who is interested in anime and likes the steampunk aesthetic. It doesn’t have the same charm of Ponyo or the same impact of films like Princess Mononoke  or others, but it is worthwhile as a look at Miyazaki before he became the semi-household name he is now.

Indie SF/F Names to Know: Lindsay Buroker

Financial success in the world of independently published science fiction and fantasy is an illusive beast. In order to even approach a supplemental income from being a writer without the help of one of the bigger publishers you need a lot more than pure talent. Aside from being a really special writer, it also requires a writer to be quite prolific, even more so than a traditionally published author, and it almost definitely requires high social media intelligence. You essentially have to be the writer, agent, marketer, and social media manager all at once, while still finding time to actually sit down and churn out that novel or two a year.

Lindsay Buroker is one of the writers on the scene that anyone who has an interest in indie sci-fi has heard of and probably read. She is the writer behind such glowingly reviewed works as the steampunk adventure Flash Gold (reviewed on Android Dreamer earlier this month) and The Emperor’s Edge (review coming here in July), both of which are the first entries in similarly named series that have really high ratings on websites like Goodreads and Amazon, and have managed to sell really well for being self-published.  Although, according to her website, she isn’t making as much as when she was doing a day job, she is making a livable wage by being a writer completely on her own terms.

Publishing two or more novels a year is a really amazing clip that most novelists would be terrified to even attempt; so much goes into outlining and developing a novel, followed by probably many rewrites, that unless you’re already doing it for a living it is just about impossible to find time to do it. Buroker has managed to pull it off and established that independent publishing can be a way to fulfilling ones own literary dreams without having to jump through anyone else’s hoops. A lot more can be read about Lindsay’s trip to literary self-sufficiency at her website, www.lindsayburoker.com.

Review: Morlock Night by K.W. Jeter (1979)

Morlock Night by K.W. Jeter
Angry Robot, 1979 (orig)

Rating: B+

It seems an incomplete picture of what steampunk is if one does not at least mention the earliest works. Although Homunculus didn’t turn out to be as enjoyable a read as one would hope, K.W. Jeter’s Morlock Night pretty much was exactly what anyone could hope for when it comes to excellence in the earliest days of the steampunk sci-fi movement. It is worth mentioning that Jeter is also responsible for The Glass Hammer, a cyberpunk novel of such quality that it is second only to the first two books of William Gibson’s original Sprawl trilogy, and ought to be thought of as a classic of that subgenre.

Morlock Night is not the first The Time Machine sequel written by someone else, but is one of the better known ones. The basic idea is that one of the attendants of the party in which the Time Traveler told the story of his adventures to the future is having a chat with a man named Dr. Ambrose about whether or not the story is actually true, and by the time he gets home he finds himself thrust into a London that has been taken over by the Morlocks of the future, who appear to have stolen the Time Traveler’s machine.

In many ways, Morlock Night is a standard fantasy romp. The narrator has to find various copies of Excalibur and put them together to restore the legendary sword to power, and give it to a reincarnation of King Arthur so that he may drive the evil from England and save the world from the Morlocks. Jeter writes absolutely brilliantly, though, and the author captures the narrative voice of Wells so perfectly that if one were told this was written in the late 19th century, it would be hard to doubt. Comparing it to his other works, it is quite remarkable how well Jeter manages to change his writing style to fit the mood of the piece without it feeling hackneyed. He has dabbled in everything from cyberpunk to Star Trek and Star Wars tie-ins and otherwise, so at the very least he is a diverse writer.

To compound the good points of Jeter’s writing overall, his characters are really compelling. The narrator (Edwin Hocker) is a sympathetic character that is very easy to like, and the woman Tafe who accompanies him throughout is a perfect steampunk heroine who frequently kicks ass and takes names. Dr. Ambrose is similarly interesting; there is really nothing bad to say about any of the writing or character development at all. This novel is really gripping early on and only gets better as it goes on. Perhaps the overall plot was a little simplistic, but it was still deeply enjoyable.

How Practical is Steampunk?

The term steampunk means a lot of things. The first aspects of the genre that generally come to mind involve mostly Victorian era fashion mixed with unnecessary smithing goggles as a fashion accessory coupled with clockwork backdrops and cleverly bronze-looking re-imaginings of modern technology. Steampunk as a genre in fiction doesn’t generally have a lot of steam-powered computers, but the name does imply steam and there are definitely things that are steam-powered, despite the clockwork aesthetic being more prevalent than the actual steam usage.

One of the long-standing symbols of steampunk has been dirigibles (or zeppelins), which show up in everything from Homunculus to Boneshaker to Leviathan and everything in between. Whether or not these flying machines are actually supposed to be steam-powered or they are just a cool ship that feels very Victorian is unclear, but it is worth examining the idea of a zeppelin completely powered by steam and what would actually have to go into making such a thing a reality.

The basic premise of using steam as an energy source is that the steam is hot and capable of creating pressure and thus is creating energy much in the way a combustion engine creates pressure that move pistons. The problem is that to generate the steam to begin with there needs to be some kind of external power source to create the reaction that actually generates steam. If you want to steam hot dogs, you don’t just throw hot dogs on the steamer– you have to either turn it on with electricity or put it on a stove-top and heat the water to generate the steam. This makes problem one basically that without an external energy source, the steam couldn’t work, so therefore it would only be steam-powered in the way that a steam engine is. Nothing is just steam, there is always something else.

Steam still accounts for an astounding majority of our power generation. It is well known how important the use of steam as a power source was to modernization and the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, with things like steam locomotives and otherwise giving an energy source that was easy to get as long as you had coal to burn to start the reaction. It seems that for a zeppelin to work it would require a calculation of the amount of weight the machine has to lift (including passengers, contents, and the weight of the ship itself) and make an engine large enough to generate that amount of pressure (note: this is a lot) and somehow both fit it on the ship and make sure to account for the weight of the engine itself in calculating how much energy it needs to generate. It is possible, but so entirely impractical that it would be just about impossible without using a whole lot of modern technology and thus defeating the purpose.

Is any of this important? No. There really is no such thing as a hard science fiction steampunk, unless it were little more than people in Victorian England making clocks and doing nothing at all extravagant, which leaves you with Victorian literature, not steampunk at all. Space travel in the future can be written about with some degree of realism, but you will have a hard time finding steampunk that is anything more then fantasy, and that is just fine.