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May 4, 2013 marked the second anniverary of Free Comic Book Day in the Netherlands. An American institution which I’ve participated in for over a decade now, I was amazed last year to see it brought over to other countries as well.
This year the full selection of free comics was raised from 7 to 10, far less variety than what was offered in the US, but at the same time had many of the charms and stylistic tendencies associated with European comics (even if they may not have been made in Europe!). The comic book store owners I did talk to all seemed to make it a point to tell me that they lose money participating in Free Comic Book Day, and urged me to buy something alongside. In my opinion, this kind of goes against the spirit of Free Comic Book Day in the sense that it isn’t supposed to be a guilt trip, but it might just be a difference in population/costs/other factors which make it not as sustainable as the American FCBD.
Sadly I am mostly illiterate in Dutch so I can’t really talk about the quality of narrative, but I can at least talk about some of the comics which caught my eye, or which most likely would catch yours.
Probably of greatest interest to people would be the Game of Thrones comic, adapted by Tommy Patterson, and actually available in English. I have not read A Song of Ice and Fire, nor have I seen the HBO Game of Thrones, so in terms of accuracy or spirit I can’t really say anything. At the very least the art is vibrant, and I like it way more than Patterson’s previous work on series like Grimm’s Fairy Tales.
Next is Sienna, by Desberg, Filmore, and Chetville, about a female government agent. “Sexy women of action” as far as I’ve seen is quite a popular genre here, at least in terms of comics made, and this one takes a more mature and dramatic angle. The art is quite nice, and there’s plenty of violence and (I assume) conspiracy. You can see a small preview here.
De Verborgen Geschiedenis (“The Hidden History”) by Pécau, Kordey, and Chuckry stands out immediately just because of the camel on the cover. As far as I can tell (and please correct me if I’m wrong), the comic appears to mainly be about what its title implies: some mix of conspiracy and secrecy spanning decades. Like both Sienna and even Game of Thrones, it goes for a more serious art style. There’s also a prominent English (?) female military officer in this issue whose name I can’t find. With a prominent scar on her face, she toes the line between sexy and legitimately frightening (more the latter), as her expressions go from cold to menacing throughout the comic. Overall, she comes across as like a female Golgo 13, especially because one scene has her casually waking up surrounded by a pile of naked bodies both male and female.
The last one I want to point is De Legendariërs by Patrick Sobral, due to its overt stylistic influence from anime and manga. Unlike the other three, this one has much more light-hearted feel. Its super-deformed characters and fantasy setting give me the impression of a pre-Playstation Japanese RPG. In fact, the characters look more like a late-80s/90s anime characters instead of current ones anyway, which really harkens back to that era. Anyway, the villain is named “Darkhell.”
So that’s a (very) cursory view of Free Comic Book Day 2013 in the Netherlands. Take my opinions with a grain of salt here, as I can’t give you a true impression of any of them.
And I must ask, for those of you who can read French or Dutch and picked some of these up, which ones impressed you the most?
In the past I’ve written in an attempt to pinpoint what I find so troubling about some portrayals of “strong” female characters, especially in American superhero and fantasy comics, but despite having expressed various reasons for these impressions as such I still have never felt that the answers I’ve given were entirely adequate. It’s been an on-going process of self-questioning and observation, and the reason I’m making this post is that I’ve come to realize another issue when it comes to the representation of female strength.
It came to me while I was reading the comic Flipside, which features as its main character a sexy and strong female jester named Maytag. Throughout the first volume, Maytag is repeatedly confronted with a similar sequence of events. Some bad men confront her, threaten her with rape or call her a bitch, and then Maytag turns their expectations upside down and defeats them (for the most part), while still emphasizing her sexuality or making some sexual innuendos.
Keep in mind that Flipside isn’t a particularly egregious example, as it suffers more (at least early on, I haven’t read further) from a lack of experience and characters overly designed as wish fulfillment, nor are anime and manga completely innocent of this. Also, the act of knocking out your would-be rapists can be empowering imagery. Instead, what I realized by seeing this two-step process over and over in such a short span of pages is that the the seeming need for sexual threats to happen in order to establish a female character as strong diminishes a story because strength winds up being defined as the ability to not get sexually assaulted. In these scenarios, the girl can’t be strong in a world which accepts the possibility of strength in a woman as a believable occurrence, only in a world which has to constantly remind her what a girl she is and how as a girl she’s liable to be attacked.
Another problem is what I would label the “straw misogynist,” or characters who are purposely set up to be extremely sexist so that they can be put in their place when the girl fights back. The way straw misogynists are used in situations like the ones I’ve been describing is that by threatening rape or sexual abuse they immediately bring attention to the sexuality of the girl target, creating this mixed message where the thrill is both in that danger but also in the sexual way the girl fights back. As a result, it ends up conveying something along the lines of, “You might not be able to overpower me sexually, but if you could oh boy would you be having fun!” And even a sexual fantasy such as that is not a problem because it’s just fantasy, but if it’s being touted as an example of how female characters can be strong, then there should be no surprise if some readers reject that notion.
This is not to deny the use of dangerous situations for women in stories, nor do I think that stories need to “ignore” gender. Instead, what I want to emphasize is how showing someone is strong is a different experience from showing someone is strong with constant and persistent caveats to that notion.
Last year I wrote a post titled “Explaining Decompression in Comics” in response to what I felt to be persistent misconceptions concerning decompression in comics storytelling. “Decompression” is characterized in these instances as using multiple panels to do what can be done in just one panel, and the gist of my argument was that decompression is less about total page count or delaying the rate at which a story is told and more about how information unfolds. It was quite a popular post, and it seems to have helped people get a better understanding of some of the particulars of decompression, especially in terms of manga paneling. However, even before I wrote that post, I was well aware that the opposite problem exists, where some readers of comics, particularly manga readers, can have trouble with the way “compression” works, especially in superhero comics of the Jack Kirby tradition. That is why I am writing this followup, to point out different ways as to how content can be conveyed.
Before I begin, I want to make something of a correction to my previous post that also applies to this one. In using titles like “Explaining Decompression” and “Explaining Compression,” I may give the impression that decompression and compression are simply things which comics “do.” This is not exactly true. Rather, decompression and compression are best thought of as descriptions of a variety of elements and how they interact within a comic, words which help to summarize an overall effect achieved by the relationships of many constituent parts such as panel layout, density of information, and the arrangement of elements within a panel. Also, I’m associating “decompression” with manga and “compression” with American comics due to their respective histories, but I’m well aware that the line has never been rigidly defined.
In a recent article comparing the manga Suppli and 2011′s Batman #7, Forrest Helvie criticized Suppli for being overly compressed while praising Batman for avoiding this problem, an odd opinion given manga’s notoriousness for being “too decompressed.” While this usage is somewhat erroneous, the nature of that mistake brings up some important points about the meaning of “compression.” Essentially, he associates visual conciseness with decompression and visual complexity with compression, when such distinctions are non-existent. A comic can be concise and compressed, just as one can be elaborate and decompressed, and in fact those two ideas better summarize the visuals of Batman #7 and Suppli respectively.
Even the seemingly easy-to-understand compression turns out to not be so simple, so it should come as no surprise that American comics and their tradition of compression can be a tough read for those unfamiliar with it, notably readers of manga. While the stereotype is that manga fans’ dissatisfaction has to do with the content itself, characterized by caped musclemen and good vs. evil dichotomies, I would say that it also has a lot to do with how those comics work visually. More specifically, the problem is that a highly compressed comic can make a reader more accustomed to the decompressed nature of manga feel as if the story is dragging along, creating a sense of impatience.
This can seem rather peculiar, given that decompression is stereotyped as taking forever to get to anything significant, but the word impatience takes on a different meaning depending on whether we’re talking about decompression or compression. For decompression, a sense of impatience has to do with the feeling that a comic is taking forever to get to where it needs to be. Impatience towards compression, on the other hand, derives from a sense that the story being told is not moving as quickly as your eyes want to, and this can be a significant hurdle which the inexperienced must overcome if they are to derive greater enjoyment from such comics.
The above page, taken from a scene in Crisis on Infinite Earths, DC Comics’ first mega-crossover, called the “Battle Around the World,” is a classic example of complex compression, a big fight scene with simply a lot of figures acting and participating, with the text boxes very thoroughly explaining the context in which the battle is occurring. Though there is a cohesiveness to the page as a whole, this comic places incredible importance on each individual panel, where even the smaller elements within each panel encapsulate some distinct meaning. Each panel tells its own dense, rich story, a glimpse at events in every corner of the planet, and each character is posed to show them performing an action which defines their character to some degree. In the first panel for instance, the Green Arrow shoots from his bow and Starman is firing a blast from his signature weapon, the Star Rod. The image composition of each individual panel is vivid, each of them related to each other through similarities in both form and content.
For someone more used to manga, the way in which this information is organized together can be overwhelming. Whereas a character may be placed and posed to influence the reading direction of the page in manga, here the characters and panels are more self-contained. As a result, the manga reader may start to feel as if the story comes in fits and starts, almost as if someone were slamming the breaks every time there was something interesting to see. Manga and other comics which are more decompressed present panels as fragments of a whole, but here, panels are whole ideas unto themselves.
If we look at Batman #7, we can see that the word bubbles are fairly precise. There is no deluge of visual information requiring the reader’s attention. However, each panel is still being presented as a whole nugget of information, communicating a clear and specific point in every instance. That is not to deny the overall relationship the panels have with each other or the page on which they sit, but if you then look at Suppli, while it has some panels which present information as dense exposition, each panel (as well as each visual element within the panel), appears to cascade into the next, with the reader collecting bits of information along the way. Keep in mind, however, that compression and decompression, though essentially operating on opposite philosophies, can co-exist in a story, and the dividing line between them is not absolute, though one is often more present than the other.
Decompression is increasingly a part of American comics, but the long-standing history of compression in American comics can be seen even in the ways a lot of more current comics have incorporated decompression. Marvel writer Brian Michael Bendis, for instance, is known for his snappy, natural-sounding dialogues which occur over multiple panels and pages, and which lend his comics a sense of decompression, but different artists have use different ways to portray those extended conversations, some of which are more compressed than others. Similarly, Chris Ware’s work (something decidedly non-superhero) can be both sparse and minimalist or extremely detailed and elaborate, but the paneling used in his comics also shows signs of an American comics tradition, albeit transformed heavily. The panels are somewhere between existing for complete information while also trying to hold back and let themselves strongly present their relationships to the panels around them.
So in the end, what can be done to help the reader for whom compression is a problem? In my opinion, the key is mainly awareness of how the panels operate. If you find yourself being weighed down by the comic, then just try to approach it one panel at a time. Think of the panel in a compressed comic as a lake or a pond. You dive in to examine its breadth and explore its depths, and then surface before moving on to the next one. Over time, your experiences will accumulate, but it’s important to let them build up.
When it comes to the controversial approach to sexuality in superhero comics, probably nothing is more exemplary than the oft-seen exaggerated pose where a female character twists her torso such that both her butt and her breasts are facing at the reader directly. Known as the “brokeback,” the pose is frequently the target of criticism as an example of sexualization gone wrong. Generally, the criticisms concern the fact that, as action-based stories, the pose is a completely impossible and extremely impractical thing to do in fighting. The idea is that, by showing them as such, comics communicate the idea that when it comes to female characters the T&A is more important than their identities as heroes or characters in general.
The point at which I might diverge from other opinions is that I believe strongly in freedom of artistic expression and think that such works have a right to be drawn and a right to be enjoyed by readers on a sexual level. While I think that the disparity in idealization between genders can definitely be too much, something has to be said for the fact that the visual arts in general can make the impossible happen in the first place. If people are literally physically incapable of contorting themselves into the “brokeback” pose, then mediums such as comics are the only places where it is possible at all.
I also think people have the right to admire a character while simultaneously desiring her or the pose that she’s taking. Again, the fact that forms of fiction such as comics make it more than possible for the portrayal of a female character to be an effective fighter while doing the least physically sensible thing possible is not an inherent negative, as long as we’re being honest about the fact that it is indeed done for sex appeal. No matter how much we’re able to point out that those contorted positions would shatter someone’s spine, or that other poses come straight out of pornography, they successfully generate sexual attraction. Individual tastes may vary, but they’re also called “porn poses” because they work, and at the end of the day pornography drawn or otherwise does not automatically turn people into misogynists.
But while the act of making or consuming such products causes no harm in and of itself, when the brokeback pose becomes the default method for portraying sexual attractiveness, it creates two major problems in particular. First, while anyone has the right to enjoy any type and degree of sexualization, if the goal is to try and attract a larger female readership, then no one should be surprised when such portrayals lessen their desire to pick up superhero comics. Second, and what will be the primary concern in this article, is that by having that style of sexualization be so ubiquitous, it creates a singular image of how a female (character) is supposed to look when they’re being “sexy.”
Sex as Character
Over the month of February, comics news and editorial site Comics Alliance published a series of articles on sex in comics. One of the articles discussed Adam Warren’s Empowered, where writer David Brothers argues that, even though Empowered is more sexually explicit and has more overt fanservice than regular superhero comics, it still approaches the topic of sex in a much healthier and more mature fashion.
Although a majority of commenters have voiced their understanding of David’s points and explanations, there are a few dissenting responses which I found interesting for what they imply. The recurring criticism, which not only appears in David’s article on Empowered but also many of the other posts, basically calls out the writers for having a double standard, praising the portrayal of sex in indie comics, while lambasting the presence of sexuality in superhero comics, in something of a high art, ivory tower, porn vs. erotica-type argument. Another criticism leveled at Empowered in particular, is that its crass displays of actual sexual content and juvenile-sounding dialogue make it worse than the other superhero comics to which David compares it.
I think David actually addresses this well in the article itself when he describes the primarily sexual relationship in Empowered, that of the main heroine, Emp, and her ex-henchman boyfriend, Thugboy:
Empowered‘s eponymous heroine is a superhero with issues. Her costume is too skintight and ineffectually fragile, and neither her teammates nor her nemeses respect her. She gets tied up way too often for her liking.
They both get different things out of the relationship, aside from just sex. Thugboy clearly loves Emp, and expresses that in a way that’s both a little paternal and a lot touching. He gets her issues with her body and career, and when she doubts herself, he’s there to point out how wonderful she is. He supports her, and the reverse is true, too.
More important than that, though, is the fact that she’s comfortable expressing her insecurities to him.
The thing to take away from their relationship is that when Emp has sex, it’s not simply a display of sex but rather shows the specific scenario of “sex with Emp.” It takes all of the various bits and pieces of her characterization and doesn’t forget them even during moments of titillation. The trouble with how sexuality is frequently visualized in superhero comics then, assuming the goal is to show female characters in a sexual manner in the first place, is that this level of specificity doesn’t exist in most portrayals. Rather than a female character making a sexy pose, it becomes a female character conforming to a sexy pose template, no matter her personality, history, or quirks. When combined with the way that superhero comics can grow and reinforce bad ideas, we end up in the current situation where this approach to sexuality generates an entrenched position that causes people to staunchly defend it as if it is simply the way that comics communicate “sexy,” as if there is little alternative.
The issue of posing isn’t confined to just “bad” artists, as the above example from Jim Lee demonstrates. Taken from his famed X-Men run in the 90s, the image is well-drawn and the women are idealized without necessarily going off the deep end, but aside from Jubilee (front) all of them are taking the same sexy stance. Psylocke (left), Rogue (center), and Dazzler (right) all have very different backgrounds and personalities, so it seems strange that they would all be in the same pose. This goes double when you compare them with all of the male characters, each of whom showcase their individuality in the way they’re standing or sitting, or Jubilee once more, whose “attitude” comes across in her slouched position.
Again, there’s nothing wrong with showing attractive girls in exaggeratedly attractive poses in and of itself, nor is there any fault in enjoying them, but superhero comics are in the business of creating unique, iconic characters. This is why they have different origin stories, different costumes, and different powers. The goal is to be able to see how a particular character stands out from the rest, and if sexuality is involved, then comics can benefit from making sure that the erotic is also made to fit the characters.
Alternatives from Anime and Manga
I’m going to steer away from superhero comics and take a look at anime and manga, a territory I’m much more familiar with, and one which I find provides some strong examples of works where the sexuality of their characters is both emphasized and individualized. This is not to say that anime and manga are devoid of sexism, or that any of the examples shown below are perfect in their portrayal of women. Instead, I want to show how these works go out of their way to portray their characters’ sexuality in ways which also reflects their unique characteristics, and to point out how the issue with pushing just one type of sexuality can be an issue even when the goal is to portray characters in a sexual fashion.
Senjougahara Hitagi (above) and Kanbaru Suruga (below) from Studio SHAFT’s Bakemonogatari/Nisemonogatari
The first title is Bakemonogatari (and its sequel Nisemonogatari), which features a number of attractive and highly-sexualized female characters. The characters depicted above are both the same age and both attracted to the main character. However, Senjougahara’s seductive body language is fed by her sardonic personality, whereas the athletic Kanbaru, a self-admitted pervert and an exhibitionist, shows a more forward and aggressive approach. What isn’t as clear from these screenshots is that the show banks on their sex appeal being highly individualized down to the very way that conversations happen.
Left to right: Ran, Madoka, and Muginami, from Rinne no Lagrange by Studio XEBEC/Production IG
Next is the recent Rinne no Lagrange. The three main characters depicted above are all clearly meant to be attractive, but in addition to having varying styles of dress which set them apart at the same time that they emphasize their figures, the three girls also literally sit differently. Just having them relaxing on chairs in unique manners suggests the differences (as well as differences in physical appeal) between them, and I might even go so far as to say that a person could get a rough idea of their personalities based on this image alone.
What of the brokeback itself, then? Is the pose forced to contain only one connotation, such that it cannot become a characterization factor? I believe the answer is that any way of posing a character, even the brokeback, does not automatically void its own potential to be a factor in showing a character and their particulars. The easy answer here is that if some seductress character wanted to stand that way to entice men sexually (and I’m assuming heterosexuality here mainly because that is the site of this debate), then it would make sense, but it doesn’t require that the character herself to be hypersexual, provided that it does not take over her overall portrayal or the view of sexuality in the comic itself.
Akashi Kaoru (right), heroine of Zettai Karen Children by Shiina Takashi
In these pages from Zettai Karen Children, we have its main heroine Akashi Kaoru standing in a way that emphasizes both her chest and her rear. It’s in the context of “stretching for a run,” which lends some practicality to it, but as I said in the introduction, I find arguing from a point of realism as if to say that once you undermine the physics of the pose, you break its spell to be a flawed one, somewhat like arguing that Superman shouldn’t fly with one arm out because that would just create unnecessary wind resistance. Instead, the reasons I see Kaoru’s pose as being be different on some level compared to the typical broke back are that first, the twist of the torso isn’t quite as exaggerated, and second, it is shown to be just one pose among many within these two pages, let alone the rest of the book. Her stance is neither the primary display of athleticism nor the primary display of Kaoru herself, and on top of that she contrasts with the other girls shown.
To re-emphasize, my goal with these examples isn’t to assert some kind of general superiority of manga over American comics, but to say that the problem with having the brokeback and what it represents be the default for comics in general is problematic for more reasons than simply “sexism.” Comics and other media don’t necessarily have to go so far as to possess the highest quality of characterization, nor do they have to be the most tasteful or thought-out. Rather, if the goal is to create unique characters, then that uniqueness shouldn’t be subsumed by some generic template, sexual or otherwise.
The topic of poses and how they emphasize female sexuality in certain ways almost inevitably leads from the action of the body to the body itself. That is, the idea of “defaults” and “templates” can also encompass specific body types, and even a cursory glance at superhero comics shows that certain proportions on women are far more prominent than others. To address the issues of “body” and “body image” would make for an entire essay (or several) in and of itself, so I won’t touch on it except to acknowledge it, and to state that, like the brokeback for poses, the “big-breasted porn star” look isn’t inherently valueless, but it can be abused. Instead, the real problem lies not in the porn poses or the porn star bodies in and of themselves, but in their sheer ubiquity, as the singular image of sexuality that they create winds up narrowing the overall perception of beauty and idealization in comics. However, by broadening the approach to sexualization and showing that different forms of “erotic” exist, it is possible for even female characters with extremely similar bodies to show a greater degree of variety as characters, and can help to expand the number of ways a woman’s sexuality can be portrayed.
Have you read Spotted Flower? It’s a comedy manga by Genshiken creator Kio Shimoku, about an otaku and his pregnant wife. Actually, the premise isn’t that important for this post, other than to say that it made me realize something recently.
Let’s look at this page from Chapter 4:
Pretty funny and bizarre moment. But let’s modify it a bit.
Basically, thanks to Spotted Flower, I realize now that all of the girls’ names inMadoka Magica are unconventional in that they’re actually two first names strung together, a convention that I primarily associate with American superhero comics.
That’s all, really. Maybe I’ll actually talk about Spotted Flower some other time.
If you were to ask an avid and informed fan of superhero comics about controversies surrounding the portrayal of women in the cape-and-mask genre, you might get answers having to do with the male gaze, or the number of female protagonists, or perhaps even whether or not comics need to do more to attract female readers. In every case though, the focus can potentially lead to the phenomenon known as “Women in Refrigerators.”
Coined in 1999 by comics writer Gail Simone (probably most famous for her work on Birds of Prey, a series starring a team of female superheroes), “Women in Refrigerators” refers to a tendency for female characters in superhero comics to be either killed, abused, raped, or depowered in what seems to frequently be a move to anger or inspire a male superhero into action, or to intensify the hatred between the hero and his nemesis. Named after the Green Lantern character Kyle Rayner depicted above (who not only literally finds one of his girlfriends in a fridge but has also lost a number of significant others in his career), WiR has been an on-going discussion among comic fans for the past 12 years. In spite of the age and scope of the topic though, the conversation has not really penetrated the realm of anime and manga.
Given arguments over things like moe and lolicon and how Japanese society treats women, what of ”Women in Refrigerators in Manga?” Furthermore, whether they’re informed or ignorant, with the number of people who have spoken or written about WiR in the superhero comics community, what would happen if they all focused their attention more towards manga?
Casca from Berserk, a strong female character horribly traumatized by brutal rape
When initially thinking about the topic, a number of questions came to mind. Would they look at manga and find it to be more sexist than superhero comics? Is the lack of a similar phrase or concept in manga a potential problem for it and any movements towards improving manga? However, I soon realized that WiR and its surrounding discourse are very much shaped by the superhero genre itself; evidence of this includes the whole idea of being “depowered,” something which holds a lot more weight in a setting where super powers are the x-factor in the story.
Of course, comparing one genre to the entirety of manga makes things quite unfair, but even when you narrow it down to, say, shounen fighting and action series, or even a single magazine such as Shounen Jump, the setup of superhero comics has particularly unique consequences.
Conceptual Paradox in the Superhero Genre
The basic superhero (of which Superman is probably the most well-known example) is someone who is somehow stronger, faster, and overall better than the average human, and this allows them to right wrongs. Where the regular authorities falter, the superhero-as-vigilante can come in and thrash the bad guys and make the world a better place. These settings rely on an environment fairly close to our own, one grounded in a similar default reality so that we can compare the ideal of the superhero to the everyday, but it also makes for a world that can start to unravel if the concept is pushed too far.
Adding a superhero to an otherwise normal world can transform it entirely, and when you begin to really question the effects a particular superhero can have on his environment, you wind up with questions like “If Mr. Fantastic is so smart, why hasn’t he found a cure for cancer?” While there are comics which do explore in detail the influence superheroes can have on society (Watchmen, for instance), and the Mr. Fantastic question isn’t some magic contradiction that destroys the superhero genre, it does point to the idea that a typical superhero story has to set its boundaries if it doesn’t want such questions jumping out at its readers.
The idea of boundaries isn’t limited to superheroes, as just about any story which adds something “superhuman” while wishing to maintain a semblance of normalcy has to draw the line somewhere. The tricky thing with superhero comics, however, is that the manner in which they have developed over the years encourages readers to find those limits through the prominent usage of a shared universe. When a comic is just about Batman, you can see how he fights crime and strikes fear into the seedy underbelly of Gotham City. When you cross him over with Superman though, suddenly Batman is put in contrast with a near-omnipotent alien who can outclass him fifty different ways. The reason to join them together is not to just make Batman look bad but rather to afford both heroes sufficient respect, so it requires Batman to have something extra to make up for it.
Where once he could just be a clever and ingenious individual, Batman is now the smartest man on Earth, armed with the most complex contingency plans ever conceived by man, all to make him Superman’s equal. In manga terms, this would be the equivalent of putting Monkey D. Luffy and Son Goku in the same universe and having to find a way for Luffy to be as powerful and influential as the Dragon Ball protagonist, like saying that Luffy’s rubber body makes him more resistant to ki blasts or something. As Marvel and DC actively promote their shared universes, this type of comparison becomes almost inevitable, and when you’re comparing, then the superhero universe comes under at least a certain degree of scrutiny.
If you then add the on-going saga aspect that is “continuity” to that mix, then the world of the hero can be scrutinized not just in terms of space, but also time. Superhero comics encourage a long-term view of its characters, where the events build on top of each other to create a loose history. And given the longevity that some of these characters possess, an action 30 years ago can continue to be associated with that character. In a comic from 1981, Avengers character Hank Pym hit his wife Janet , and it became a recurring topic all the way up until she died a few years ago. If they were to just ignore it and have the two characters act like nothing had ever happened, then it would have been perhaps silently condoning spousal abuse. However, because they kept it, it wound up defining the characters in certain respects. Although one can argue that this enriched their characters, it also meant that once it was done, neither of them could return to what they were prior to it. And while things are re-written or counteracted on a somewhat regular basis in superhero comics, this shared universe setup means that just one bad decision by one creator can potentially define a character to the point that no amount of reboots or retcons can undo its influence.
One Woman, One Refrigerator, One Universe
Let’s go back to manga for a little bit and pick a title that most definitely has female characters that are WiR candidates: Fist of the North Star. Now I love this series and consider it among my all-time favorites, but its female characters range from essentially cheerleaders to useless. Going in the style of the original Women in Refrigerators post, I’m going to list them with a list of ways they’ve been “fridged.”
Yuria (above) abused, forced to become Shin’s lover, kills herself (not really), contracts a fatal illness from long-term radiation exposure
Mamiya turned into a sex slave, her lover Rei dies, stops fighting entirely
Lin almost forced to have Kaioh’s baby, brainwashed into falling in love with another man
And so on and so forth.
Women are kind of a non-factor in Fist of the North Star no matter what they say about love and no matter how many women nobly sacrifice themselves. But at the same time, the fact that Fist of the North Star ran in Shounen Jump doesn’t mean that its portrayal of women exists in the same environment as One Piece or Toriko or City Hunter. Misogyny can exist, and it can even exist in multiple titles from the same publisher in the same magazine to the extent that you could call the whole thing sexist, but there is less of a risk of the comics congealing into an entrenched, constantly self-reinforcing “super misogyny.”
With superhero comics and their long continuity and shared universes, it can be incredibly easy to permanently “poison the well.” In this environment, a single instance of a WiR does not stand alone in its own conceptual space, but ends up existing in a greater universe, and then stays there in the timeline potentially forever. While this is not inherently a bad thing, it means that more innocent and simplistic stories and concepts have a harder time maintaining that innocence. If someone said The Cat in the Hat and Schindler’s List occupied the same continuity, it would be very hard for Dr. Seuss’s characters to be quite the same when the idea of genocide hangs over them.
This can even apply to the degree to which women are sexualized in comics. Somewhat like how “Hollywood Ugly” requires you to believe that the attractive celebrity in baggy clothes and glasses is meant to be homely, if you take a title where the aesthetic portrayal of women is geared primarily towards the sexual gratification of men and put it in the same world as a comic where the attractiveness of women is depicted in a more neutral fashion, then there is bound to be a conceptual clash, especially if the two were to cross over directly. Either the overt “butt and breasts out” poses would have to be acknowledged directly with respect to how a woman would normally pose herself (accounting of course for stylistic flourish), or the more neutral design would have to be subsumed by the overtly erotic aesthetic. If respect is supposedly afforded to both portrayals, then there winds up being a compromise, much like Superman and Batman’s situation, that generates at least a certain degree of schizophrenia.
It can also be easy to poison the well of a shared universe because once that idea takes root in one corner of the world, it becomes easier for it to spread to other parts as well, and I think this is what ends up really shaping Women in Refrigerators in terms of the superhero genre. While I may be assuming things too much, I think it’s far easier to corrupt an innocent idea than it is to make a corrupted idea turn innocent, and so every time another woman gets killed or raped or depowered, it means less and less of a chance for that whole thing to be turned around entirely, which means the rate at which the universe becomes “darker” winds up being far faster than the rate at which it becomes “lighter,” unless deliberate steps are taken to work against it.
Given everything I’ve said about the danger of a shared universe, does this mean that any sort of shared universe will lead to similar problems? Not necessarily, but I think that regardless of which direction that universe goes, compromise is almost inevitable. When Neon Genesis Evangelion with its emphasis on psychological turmoil enters the crossover environment of the Super Robot Wars games, its story and characters end up less traumatized overall. When Lupin III meets Detective Conan, his role is more of a lovable scamp than a hardened thief. Even taking darker series and making them lighter to fit in another work is a form of compromise. However, neither of those bother to maintain their continuities for prolonged periods. Moreover, while a shared universe does not guarantee Women in Refrigerators, the way that superhero comics have turned out means that it is constantly poised to do so, and as far as I can tell, the discussion surrounding WiR is very much about a concerted effort to turn things around, to deal with what may very well be a case of inertia.
Towards Methods for Manga?
A quote from Gail Simone in 1999 clarifies one of the original purposes of Women in Refrigerators:
My simple point has always been: if you demolish most of the characters girls like, then girls won’t read comics. That’s it!
This is not as much of a problem for manga, even titles and magazines designed for boys, as many publishers in Japan have learned ways to court a female audience. Some titles in Shounen Jump are especially known for their sizable female readerships: Saint Seiya, Katekyou Hitman REBORN!, and The Prince of Tennis, to name a few. Granted, most of these titles have primarily male casts and so the portrayal of female characters is not the primary draw, but that is also getting into another more complex issue of gender-based character identification. I’ll leave this as something of an aside for the sake of not going too off-course, but will say that this might mean that it doesn’t take outstanding portrayals of women to attract a female audience, but at the very least ones that won’t make them feel uncomfortable to be women.
As it is, the “Women in Refrigerators” discourse is especially suited for the superhero genre. Its concerns and the manner in which it can quickly spread to other stories are at least partly predicated on the structure set out by decades of development. If WiR is to be applied to manga, or even a certain genre or magazine/publisher, then it likely needs to be modified to fit a very different history, both in terms of manga itself and the Japanese culture surrounding it. Personally, I’m not entirely sure what changes need to be made. It’s probably an endeavor that is too big for one post, but I can throw out some possible directions.
I think the killing, rape, and abuse aspects probably translate adequately as is, but to go back to the “depowered” aspect of WiR as something very particular to superheroes, perhaps it would be a good idea to find something that is not quite so specific. If we’re dealing with a genre like shounen action, your Dragon Ball‘s and Naruto‘s and such, then maybe it’s not so much a matter of depowering as it is being quickly outclassed or made irrelevant. A lot of characters in these works often get some kind of improvement to their abilities, but that is made obsolete by the fact that every other hero gets stronger at a quicker rate. While this is not exclusive to female characters, it may be something worth tracking among female characters to see how they’re made to be functionally useless.
If we’re looking more at sexually-charged (but not necessarily pornographic) titles, maybe it would be wise to keep an eye out for degradation or humiliation. For example, how often are characters made to do something or wear an outfit that not only embarrasses them, but sexualizes them in the process? What of humiliation as a sexual tool, even when it’s meant to be light-hearted prodding and not something more extreme like torture?
Maybe it would also be a good idea to take a look at one popular title and to note where the female characters are mistreated solely to advance the male characters’ stories. After that is done, the next step would be to look at works that may have come about as the result of its popularity, whether it was because there was a clear influence, there was a blatant attempt at riding the wave, it was the next title readers flocked to, or even if there was some kind of editorial mandate to feature more of those stories. Do some of those WiR-esque ideas and portrayals still exist? Are they getting weaker or stronger? This may be a way to track things across one magazine or one genre without having the shared universe of superhero comics.
Of course, this is all assumes that WiR is not an issue when the female readership has been established and sustained sufficiently, but what about the possibility that the phenomenon not only exists in shoujo and josei, but that such events might occur in greater numbers compared to manga geared towards male readers?
What I’ve provided in the ideas above would not comprise a complete framework, but then again neither did the original list of Women in Refrigerators. There is a distinct possibility that with each genre of manga, even if you were to narrow it to titles somehow similar to superhero comics, that it would require its own adjustments be they subtle or broad. It may even be the case that in the end, we find out that WiR cannot be applied to manga no matter how many modifications are made, but I think it would still be a worthwhile endeavor to figure that out in the first place. I’m sure we’d learn something along the way.
“Decompression” has been a hot topic in the American comics community for a number of years now. Characterized by a high panel count with each individual panel relatively “light” on information, it is noted as being the primary mode of panel progression in manga as well as an increasing presence in American comics. Among superhero fans however, it seems to garner a particularly adamant resistance, one that goes as far as to champion “compressed” storytelling in contrast to it.
A cursory investigation on the topic of decompression on comics sites and blogs results in far greater instances of harsh criticism aimed at decompression than ones defending it, with the criticisms usually pointing out a lack of paneling efficiency or an unsatisfactory amount of story development within a given chapter. Because of the thin, monthly format release traditional to superhero comics, decompression is thus characterized as being a waste of not only time and (page) space, but also money. “Why show in five panels what you could easily show in one or two?” is the question lobbed at manga and decompressed comics in general.
Panel efficiency, and for that matter storytelling efficiency in general, is important. A story which gives the impression that it is wasting a reader’s time is a story that will probably never finish for the reader, but what is most fascinating about the criticisms directed towards decompressed storytelling is how it reveals the priorities and values of the American comics community. Consider the following comment from 2004:
Amazingly, at a time when new comic titles are lucky to survive beyond 12 issues, we are seeing comics where an entire month is devoted to the protagonist talking to his girlfriend. Most of us have had relationships that didn’t last that long. It is only a matter of time before we will see a superhero title get cancelled before the hero even makes his first appearance in costume. Imagine “Superman” getting the axe just before the rocket lands in Smallville.
No wonder it now takes five issues for Spider-Man to beat the Green Goblin nowadays.
As well as this one from 2007:
It’s a city in the future (a bagel breakfast cost 9 dollars, some futuristic cars and ad scrolls, the parking meters, the coffee cup disintegrates before it hits the ground).
The main character is black and looks like Avery Brooks, as someone pointed out to me when issue #6 came out. (Sorry, I can’t remember who it was.)
Umm … yeah, that’s it. Four panels for that???? If you found this comic page floating along our hypothetical street after someone in a fit of pique after spending 3 bucks on this ripped it out and hurled it to its fate, you would know absolutely nothing about this comic book except that it’s set in the future. That’s it. Would that make you want to buy the book?
They make a fair point. You don’t want a story with so little content that it becomes completely forgettable. However, from the above statements, you can begin to see how the concept of “content” is defined by the American superhero comics community. Content is a superhero getting their first costume. Content is Kal-El’s ship crashing in Smallville, Kansas. Content is Spider-Man foiling the Green Goblin. In other words, “content” consists of crystallized plot points within a story, things you can point to in a summary however large or small to say, “these are the moments of importance.” What content is not, apparently, is the silent expression of a moment in time or an entire month devoted to a main character and his relationship with his girlfriend. That those elements are considered to be superfluous to what “really matters” is, I think, the root of major misconceptions when it comes to understanding decompression or manga-style paneling.
If you were to go up to a manga author and say to them, “Your manga wastes the vast majority of its space,” they would probably look at you incredulously, because efficiency in page layout is actually very important for manga creators. If you then pointed to a Silver Age superhero comic as an example of brilliant economization of panels, they would probably react with still more disbelief, amazed at how much the page seems to be weighed down by its own contents. This is because the concept of “panel efficiency” is defined differently between the American superhero comics tradition and Japanese comics tradition. The difference can be summarized to some extent as the contrast between efficiency defined as the greatest amount of “stuff” packed into the smallest amount of space possible and efficiency defined as a slick, streamlined experience, but that doesn’t quite tell the whole story.
Above is a scene from Genshiken, a comic about a group of nerds who hang out together. It’s one of my favorite moments from my favorite manga about my favorite character, to the extent that I use it for the Ogiue Maniax banner. In it, Ogiue, the girl with the “paintbrush” hair and this blog’s namesake, has just witnessed a frivolous argument between two guys in her club, and is using that as fuel for an elaborate fantasy involving the two guys as romantic partners. Partway through, she tries to curb her imagination, but it’s so futile that she seamlessly transitions back into the fantasy.
Looking at those two pages, this moment is expressed in 11 panels. While you could make this scene more “efficient” in the American comics sense and just drop it down to maybe three or so panels—one for her beginning to fantasize, one for her trying to stop, and one for her continuing—it would change the very nature of this scene. It wouldn’t necessarily be a “worse” depiction, but the emphasis would be different. In panel 2, you see a closeup of Ogiue’s face with no text. From it, you can sense that the gears in her head are beginning to turn. Then, in the subsequent panels, the thought comes to life, growing slowly as if it has a pulse and rhythm all its own. The panels show Ogiue from different angles with varying expressions on her face, punctuated every so often by a brief pause, allowing the reader to see into her mind, not just in terms of what she’s thinking, but the process by which her thoughts unfold. So while the broad arc is “fantasize, pause, fantasize,” it is the “decompression” of that moment which gives it strength as a moment of characterization.
You may be thinking that the reason I like these pages are because of the fact that Ogiue is in them, but it’s actually quite the opposite. Moments like these are why I grew to like Ogiue in the first place.
Decompression in comics is not the same as having “natural-sounding dialogue” or having a moment feel more “realistic.” While those end up having a presence in many decompressed comics, especially in many of the American comics which have been in that vein, they’re not the reason decompression happens. Instead, decompression is about giving moments in a comic room to breathe, to show that those spaces in between the “major points” are important in their own way, or perhaps just as, if not more important. The result is that it affects everything else in the comic, from characterization to page design.
A “decompressed” comic packed into the same space as a “compressed” comic can have just as much content depending on how you define “content.”
That is not to say that decompression can be used as a default excuse to defend the pacing of a comic. A comic which meanders, whether it’s manga or a superhero comic, can be enormously frustrating, but there is a big difference between “being slow” and “being directionless,” and the idea that “nothing is happening” may actually just be based on a pre-existing valuation of certain traditional elements within American comics that was less emphasized in Japanese comics. It is also important that decompression not be considered automatically a better form of comics expression, because the artistic tradition that has grown out of superhero comics is just as valid as any other. The rich “information density” of a “compressed” comic is its own sort of adventure, and you can even find some manga that utilize it to a certain degree, such as the work of Shirow Masamune (Ghost in the Shell, Appleseed). On that note, it would also be a mistake to say that a comic of purely decompressed panels is better than one consisting of entirely compressed panels. This is because not only is it impossible to truly achieve both (even the most “decompressed” panels involve some compression and vice versa), but also because individual execution and personal preference play enormous roles at that point. Perhaps some of the trouble brought on by the presence of decompression has less to do with the properties of the concept and more to do with the growing pains that have come from transitioning and adapting it into the American superhero comics culture.
Sometimes I think “decompression” is both the right and wrong word to describe this style of storytelling in comics. On the one hand, it does a good job of bringing to mind the “room to breathe” concept, emphasizing the lingering, undefinable inner emotions of a character or growing tension or the blow-by-blow impact of a fight scene. On the other hand, it also implies that the “significant” portions of the story are being pushed further apart from each other, when what is really happening is that the “small” moments are being regarded as anything but.
When I look at certain cheesecake-oriented American comics such as Lady Death, Vampirella, and Taboo, I find that they bother me in a way that fanservicey manga, anime, etc. do not. It’s something I haven’t entirely figured out why, but there’s an inkling somewhere in my mind that tells me to head a certain direction. This post is the exploration of that feeling.
Before I start though, I’m going to have to point out that the images used in this post may be considered not work-safe. Careful!
I think it’s common when discussing anime and manga with people who are perhaps only barely acquainted with those subjects to hear from them that “anime all looks the same.” You can point to plenty of titles with variation in theme, art style, writing, you name it, but there is still that sense that all anime has a similar feel. Usually I’m the one trying to explain how diverse those comics can be, but in a recent visit to a comic shop, I found myself somewhat on the receiving end.
In this case, it wasn’t manga but rather American comics that gave me pause to consider. Not really keeping up with those comics as I had in the past, I was looking at the rack where they have the weekly 32-page (or so) issues, your Avengers and Batman and what-not mixed with titles from smaller publishers, seeing what might be interesting. Then it hit me. Everything kind of looked the same. I could obviously see that there were many different artists working on each comic, but there were just certain shared elements that made it feel like one big monolith of a wall.
I’m not sure exactly what it is, but I feel like it might just be the sheer emphasis on Olympian physiques which exists in not only superhero comics but other action-type works as well. Be it male characters or female ones, what I can mainly remember from those covers is just how prominent the toned bodies on them are. It could also be something about the characters’ facial expressions.
I know better, and I can point to this or that indie title or graphic novel to show that’s why it isn’t the case, but I think that my reaction might not be that far from the person, let’s say an anime fan, who takes one look at the American comics section and finds little variety in it. At the same time, I’m also aware of how easily something like manga can be perhaps unfairly summarized by just a glance.