Wednesday, July 05, 2006

This Side of Paradise

There has been some controversy recently on the subject of remarks made by Joe Quesada during one of his recent Joe Friday Q&A sessions, specifically remarks aimed at explaining the lack of female creators drawing a Marvel paycheck or working at Marvel in an editorial capacity*. As is his wont, Quesada betrays a knack of almost George W. Bush-like proportions for turning seemingly innocuous questions -- the type of inquiries which any other corporate spokesperson in the history of the world would use as invitation to spout predictable and rabidly uncontroversial boilerplate on the subjects of diversity, tolerance and an equal-opportunity recruitment policy -- into minefields of (seemingly) unintentionally offensive rhetoric. He did it recently on the subject of gays in mainstream superhero books (as an example of the right hand not knowing what the left hand does, he apparently was unaware of a handful of prominent gay characters appearing in his own books at the time). In a comment that did not raise nearly as many hackles, he even managed to refer to divorce (in reference to the ongoing "problems" of a married Spider-Man) as an unthinkably harmful stigma** -- which struck me as more than a little incendiary, given my recent marital misadventures. Good job alienating your divorced readership, jackass.

I don't really believe, in any event, that Quesada is really an active bigot or a sexist. I believe he does hold a number of unfortunate and deeply held conservative biases, the kind of subconscious biases that are in no way unusual throughout all strata of society in this day and age. The worst problem is that most people firmly believe that these quiet prejudices do not contradict the ideas of tolerance and acceptance that we, as a society, pretend to hold dear. Most people, if you asked, would probably say something to the effect that they are not homophobic, and would consider themselves adequately tolerant for saying as much -- but would still balk at any consideration of homosexuality as it might impact their lives. This is often expressed in the traditional "I don't care what people do as long as they don't do it in front of me", a seemingly rational but quite insidious formulation that, regardless of the pretense of tolerance, manages to negatively objectify the persons in question for being different. If it really didn't matter it wouldn't make any difference whether a public display of affection were heterosexual or homosexual, since a kiss is a kiss -- but it does, so people retain the right to be indignant about what those damn homos are doing in front of the children! Won't somebody please think of the children? Why, I hear they even have movies where consenting adults have homosexual romances! Horror of horrors -- don't they have ghettos for that type of thing?

So, yes, Quesada's remarks are pretty inexcusable, and if I were a corporate officer I'd be pretty aghast that such a prominent figure in the company's hierarchy had somehow missed the mandatory course in unoffending corporate double-speak that manages to render any and all official pronouncement unspeakably dull, and therefore uninteresting. But the recent controversy over his comments in regard to women at Marvel open up another possibility, one which Quesada most certainly did not intend to infer, one I haven't seen touched upon, and which might not even be true, but is worth mentioning as a hypothetical possibility.

Quite simply, if there aren't many women working on the creative side in mainstream superhero comics, wouldn't the necessary question to ask be whether or not women creators actually wanted to work in superhero books? Sure, you've got a few -- a handful -- in prominent positions. And it cannot be ignored that sexism, of both the overt and insidiously subtle kinds, is alive and well in the comics industry. But -- there's another force at work here. The people who work in comics tend to be extremely vocal and enthusiastic about their aspirations. People who want to draw Spider-Man, if they have sufficient skill and tenacity, usually keep at it until they get to draw Spider-Man. There are many ways into the industry: working your way up from self-published, independent or foreign comics, moving laterally from another related field such as screenwriting or prose fiction, getting a position in a business or editorial department and making a slow transition to writing, or even getting picked in a portfolio review at a convention. People who really, really want to draw Spider-Man can usually make those dreams come true -- and as a result, the people in comics, with a few notable exceptions, are extremely passionate about what they do.

So, given that, is it possible that the female creators who would theoretically be represented at Marvel and DC just . . . don't really want to do so? I know there is a vocal (if still minority) percentage of female comics fans who have no qualms about voicing their love for superheroes and other mainstream genres. But are there many who really want to take the step from being fans to active participants in the creation of the stories? Before you answer "why yes, every comics fan across the universe would love to write Spider-Man", bear with me for another point.

Of the fans who read superhero comics, of either gender, only a relatively small proportion will ever actually have a strong enough desire to work in comics to make it a reality. It's the truth: getting a job in comics, as with any creative field, is pretty damn difficult. Even people who say they want it might not really want it enough to stick it out long enough to truly get the shit kicked out of them for years on end while waiting for a big break. Maybe, and this might indeed be a more controversial and possibly inaccurate idea, the amount of women who work in superhero comics now might actually be roughly proportionate to the amount of women who actually read and enjoy superhero comics, in comparison to the total audience?

Of course, that's not exactly something you can disprove or prove -- without extensive statistical evidence, I'd put the amount of men who read superhero comics at "a lot" and the amount of women who did so at "a few" -- a significant few, a vocal minority, but still a minority. Whether or not this is in any way an accurate observation is up to you to decide.

More importantly, however, is the fact that there is currently no shortage of female comic creators. Only, they're not working for Marvel or DC, they're producing OEL for Tokyopop, or original graphic novels Oni or Image, or drawing their own strips on the web. Again, there's no statistical data at my fingerprints, but there seem to be significantly more women working in non-mainstream superhero comics than there are in mainstream superhero comics. Could it be that potential comic creators, looking at the mainstream superhero world as the equivalent of a "No Gurlz Allowed" clubhouse, simply found a more copacetic outlet for their cartooning skills? Whether or not any of these women who are currently coming up through the ranks of indie / OEL creators will make the leap to working in Marvel or DC a la Bendis remains to be seen, and could be quite telling. Maybe getting to put words in Spider-Man's mouth just isn't that big a deal anymore -- in any event, not a big enough deal that the people who only kind of want it would feel compelled to fight the people who really, really want it for the honor?

*NRAMA: Noticeably absent (and for some time) is a female creator in that group. Big picture wise, why hasn't a women creator made it into the tight circle of Marvel creators?

JQ: Because currently there aren’t any female writers working on any of our major titles. That said there are female editors at the summit.

**JQ: In all frankness, it’s been really nice to see. So, divorcing them to me sends out completely the wrong message. Imagine you’re a mom and you’re buying little Bobby or little Betty Spidey Adventures or maybe Spidey Loves MJ and you’re watching the news one day and the broadcaster looks right at you and says, “Spider-Man is getting divorced, more on that after these messages.” Let’s just say that as a parent, I’d be upset by the sound bite, I could only imagine how the rest of the world would feel. And, once again, divorcing Peter would only serve to make him feel older.

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