Graphics Grrrls - Female Representation in Comics

The Belfast Festival at Queen's welcomes comic book writer Gail Simone. 'Comics are still trying to catch up with Wonder Woman'

The depiction of women in comic books, movie adaptations and graphic novels has long provoked debate. On one hand feminists object to the gratuitous sexualisation of female characters. On the other, editors and artists continue to operate according to the maxim that 'sex sells'.

Ludicrously unrealistic body types abound, therefore, often contorted for maximum titillation. Back-breakingly buxom heroines continue to pose and pout, vulnerable and needy, while their male counterparts ‘take care of business’.

While it would be grossly unfair to claim that female characters are depicted as two-dimensional across the board, there remains a tendency to over-sexualise female characters even in independent publications, nevermind the big-hitters like Marvel and DC, where buxom beauties have always found a home.

In recent years there has certainly been a shift toward realism, however. (Think Persepolis, for example.) There are plenty of strong female characters to act as role models for a global audience of impressionable young readers, redacting the notion that women are portrayed in comics purely as sex objects.

Take Alan Moore’s futuristic everywoman Halo Jones, for instance, or DC’s fantastically complicated Renee Montoya – a ghetto-born, hard-boiled Gotham detective with a history of alcoholism turned superhero who happens to be of ethnicity and lesbian.

While the portrayal of women in comics has come on leaps and bounds since the Golden Age of Comics came and went, there is still a long way to go. Thankfully, critically-acclaimed writers such as Gail Simone are on hand to offer equal rights, thrills and spills.

Taking a break from her duties on Batgirl, Simone is due to give a talk at the Queen’s Film Theatre on October 28 as part of the forthcoming Graphic Grrrls season at the Belfast Festival at Queen's, a series of film screenings celebrating women in comics, including Sin City, Ghost World and Watchmen. She took a call from her office on the Oregon coast to consider the representation of women in comics through the years.


How did you get into writing comics?

Initially I wrote parody pieces and opinion columns on the internet, and that somehow caught the attention of lots of publishers, creators and editors. It's painfully hard to break into comics, at least at DC and Marvel. But Bongo Comics, the company that publishes Simpsons books, hired me straight away and taught me how to write comics, for which I will always be grateful.

How did you career develop thereafter?

Since then I've written Deadpool, Birds of Prey, Action, Justice League and many other books. I love it. I used to rebel at the notion that women couldn't write this stuff. It was delightful to flip that notion off. Currently I'm writing Batgirl, which I'm told is the best-selling female lead book in the industry.

I was also extremely honoured to write Wonder Woman. Virtually everywhere I go there are women who looked up to that character so deeply. It can be very moving. Writing is my joy. I feel very fortunate indeed that I have readers at all.

You mentioned that you’re writing Batgirl, featuring Barbara Gordon. Arguably Babs has had a rougher ride than most comic book characters. Do you feel that this treatment of female characters in comics is universal?

Our industry is wonderful and has had some of the most imaginative creators ever working in it, but at the same time, particularly up to, say, the 1960s, there was a feeling that these books appealed only to straight, white young boys. For a long time, the companies didn't even realize they had a gay readership, a female readership, or a non-Caucasian readership, not in any real way.

Some of the early attempts to address that were a little goofy, and some attitudes stuck around like dinosaurs in a tar pit. I would certainly say that until the last couple of decades female characters were simply not given the care they deserved. We went through an annoying shock period where doing awful things to female characters was meant to boost sales, and often did. It was all a bit juvenile.

I think the turning point was the All-New X-men, which brought us Storm, Rogue, Kitty Pryde and lots more female characters. Suddenly there were characters that guys and girls wanted to read about. The ironic thing is, in some ways comics are still trying to catch up to some of the ideas Wonder Woman espoused in the 1940s.

How has the industry changed in the past 50 years in terms of treatment of both female writers and characters?

I think with characters it's getting better. There are several non-exploitative female-led books in the top 30 right now, mostly at DC, including Batgirl, Wonder Woman and Batwoman. That's very cool to see.

With regards to creators, I think every success we have, either creative or commercial, knocks down the wall of silly prejudices a little more. I don't go around talking about being a female writer, really, but the more cemented successes we have the harder it is to sideline us, even for the truly entrenched.

Both female and LGBT leading characters have in the past had a tendency to feature more in indie books than mainstream comics. With the massive popularity of characters such as Kate Kane/Batwoman do you think the times are a-changing?

We have catching up to do, but those doors are open. I'm hoping to have a bit of a shocker in Batgirl #17, something that's never been shown in a mainstream superhero comic. I also had a book recently called Secret Six, where in that team alone there was a gay woman, two bi-women, a bi-male, a pansexual male, an asexual woman supporting character – and a shark.

If it's done with care and taste, we're finding that even straight readers respond to these characters. That's tremendously hopeful. It's actually exciting to be here at this time in the industry to watch it catch up.

We had a gay wedding in X-Men, we have had a gay Green Lantern and we've even had a tremendously popular gay character introduced in Archie, of all things. People are waking up a little, which is great to see.

Gail Simone will be giving a post-show talk at the QFT screening of Wonder Women on November 1 as well as doing a book signing at the Belfast branch of Forbidden Planet on November 3.

Sin City