NYCC SE 2014: Reimagining the Female Hero Panel - Top Creators on Top Character's Evolution

DC February 2014 solicitations
Credit: DC Comics

Official Description: For many years in superhero and action adventure comics female characters were often limited to the roles of girlfriend, mom, or femme fatale. But the number of central female protagonists in action-adventure and superhero comics is now growing. In the pages of these comics, women take on heroic roles that for years were confined to male characters. Join some of the best creators in contemporary comics including Gail Simone, Amy Reeder, Ben Saunders, Emanuela Lupacchino, Jenny Frison, Marguerite Bennett, and more to discuss the rise of the female hero!

The panel moderator Ben Saunders is a professor at University of Oregon who was "hired to teach Poetry, got tenure, and have been teaching comics ever since." He introduced the panelists, Gail Simone, Marguerite Bennett, Emanuela Lupacchino (Ema), and Jenny Frison, (Reeder was a little late due to another panel).

Saunders then kicked off the discussion asking the panelists if there were female heroes they were drawn to in chidlhood and teenage years before they considered a career in comics.

Frison started, "when I was a little kid, my parents got me a Wonder Woman book on tape called "Cheetah on the Prowl." I wasn't into comics at all until I was in high school, when I saw Adam Hughes' first Wonder Woman cover. My jaw hit the ground and I got really into comics after that."

Ema said, "My favorite superheroes are from the 80s. I knew them from when I was a little girl and couldn't even read comics. I loved She-Ra from Masters of the Universe. It was the best. At that time, there was nothing like that you could watch on television, I was addicted to the character. That grew up with me and my whole childhood."

Bennett said, "My introduction to Batman was in The Animated Series. So my introduction wasn't really to female superheroes, but supervillains. So Catwoman, Harley Quinn and Poison Ivy were my holy trilogy. They were powerful women who wouldn't play by anyone's rules."

Simone said, "I was really frustrated when I was beginning to really read because most female heroes, if they had an adventure, it's because it was thrust upon them. They fell down a rabbit hole, or got taken off to Oz, they didn't CHOOSE to go on an adventure. I saw a cover of  Justice League comic book at a garage sale and it had a cover of Wonder Woman on it. I read that and I didn't understand anything about comics, but I knew that this was a woman who chose to leave her homeland and go on an adventure!

"Around the same time I saw the Batman television show - some of my first words I could read were Bam! Pow! Bang! I identified more with Batman, because he was the strong character on that show. Then we got introduced to Batgirl, and that's when I first fell in love with Barbara Gordon. It made a huge difference to see girls on adventures that weren't thrust upon them or accidental."

Amy Reeder then joined the panel. She also loved She-Ra. "I was a big She-Ra fan, for sure, but also Jem! I was very into those things, mostly into things that had girl characters, or that were animated. It was a great time, being a kid in the 80s, because there were a lot of empowered female characters back then. It's sad that there are fewer now!"

Reeder also got into Sailor Moon at the end of High School. "I got super duper hooked. That's pure, unadulterated superhero! She has a secret identity, she's in a team. There's a badguy they defeat, they have secret moves. It's totally a superhero story and totally totally girly! And the fandom is about half-and-half men and women, which I think is really great!"

Saunders said that his comic book classes he teaches are overwhelmingly female-heavy in students. Yet, there seems to be this message that superhero comics are not for girls, and how they react to that idea.

Ema: "We are women, not aliens! We like rock music, we have feelings, we like flowers, but we like adventures, too! It's a thought that's mysterious to me at the moment. People think that girls can't like men-based stories or adventure. In the end it's a matter of interest. I like adventure movies, books, sci-fi TV series, and so I do with comic books, superheroes, it's just about stories!" Her answer received much applause.

Gail Simone said that her name, Gail, is androgynous enough that many people, when she started writing 10-12 years ago, thought she was a male. "I told them at the time that comics would becomea 50-50 male-female audience. I told them that we will have more female creators, and female characters that can do more than get raped, chopped up, or put in a refrigereator." She credits the internet for "leveling the playing field and making a huge difference because your voices can be heard, and you spoke up!"

Frison said that, "Well, without badmouthing particular companies, they're not trying to make comics for boys, but they are because of the people in charge. Then they try to make "comics for women," instead of just making good books that appeal to everyone. I think that's what's so great about Image Comics is it is all about comic books with good stories."

Simone chimed in, "There are a lot of people who think in order for a comic to appeal to women is that it's a romance comic."

Frison, "Yeah, don't make it for girls, make it for everyone!"

"When I broke in, I was encouraged to not go by my name, Margueritte. I was encouraged to go by M.K. Bennett after I had written some prose and talked to some agents. I considered it for 30 seconds, and said, 'to hell with that!' They will learn and like that I'm a girl!"

Focusing on Lois Lane, the panel turned to the seminal character. "Lois is a great embodiment of change and the arc that female character can take, to me," said Bennet.

"We should talk about Batgirl," said the moderator.

"Well? What do you want to know?" said Simone.

"What's the essence of this character as you've taken her through an extraordinary life transformation?" she was asked.

"She is the most inellegent character in the Bat-verse. She's very compassionate, so I look at her as the hope in Gotham, because it needs that," Simone began. "No matter her circumstances, she knows she wants to help people. She wants to make Gotham better, and she'll do that no matter what. As Barbara Gordon Batgirl, she has the potential to become Oracle someday [in the New 52]. She's a character at DC that should always inspire readers to do something, the thing they want to do but see an obstacle."

Saunders asked the artists specifically, "is it an issue for you when you draw these characters, the issue of sexualization?"

Frison, who has been doing covers of Red Sonja recently said, "I am not a creator, I am usually assigned a character who already has a costume. So drawing Red Sonja with a chain mail bikini - which is ridiculous, doesn't bother me. People are sexualized or not more by how they hold themselves, their actions, their words, how they are as a person. She's so strong - she's mad, and sad, and vulnerable sometimes - but always strong! I probably wouldn't draw her with her legs spread and sucking her thumb (laughs) because she's not that character!

"Even the sexy ones, like I do Vampirella. It's what I love about her: she's just sex! Her costume makes even less sense, how do you keep that on?"

Simone took over talking about the book she writes, Red Sonja, and how all the artists on covers are by female artists. "We had this long conversation at a convention that was all about how to draw the boobs in this bikini. And they talked about it a way that men never would, talking about the weight of the underboob and how they'd actually move if she was flipping in the air. It was the greatest conversation. And none of those artists, by the way, wanted to draw her in anything but the chainmail bikini!"

Ema asked the audience, "Why does everyone notice how sexy the women are in comic books but not the men? Doesn't anyone think Batman is sexy? When I went to the DC Comics office and saw this big Batman standee that's 2m tall, he is sexy! People create comic books because they escape from what we are, our reality. Everybody dreams to be hot, sexy, confident - the women are sexy, but the men are too! They don't have boobs, so..."

Reeder said, "Really what I care about is whether a female character has personhood. That's what matters to me. I went to this convention recently that had a cover photo that was a weird image, this collage of all these female comic book characters and cosplayers, and they were presented to look soulless, fake. You can see when there's some personhood put into people. When I did a Red Sonja cover, I wanted something on her face, I wanted her to look fierce. I know Guillem March does some ridiculous covers sometimes, but I appreciate him because he always puts a lot of personality into his women."

"The best covers to me tell some kind of story. Without story, with a porn pose, that's not sexy," Simone said.

With that, the panel moved into fan Q&A.

A fan asked about the Bechdel Test, wherein there are two women in a movie, who have a conversation, about something other than a man and whether it was something they thought about when creating comics.

Simone said that when she started with Birds of Prey she "set out to prove" that women could be on adventures together. "With Secret Six that had a lot of that male eye candy - whenever Catman could be without pants or a shirt, we did it. I don't sit down to see if it will pass a test, I think about, what haven't we done before that we can do?"

Reeder said that the test can be a little off because if the lead main character in a story, especially a short one like a movie, then people should be discussing that character. The other panelists agreed.

Bennet said of how all movies that feature women in situations men might be in are labeled "chick flicks" is tiring. "If it's a buddy cop story about men, it's a buddy cop movie; if it's a buddy cop story about women, it's a chick flick."

The next fan asked what female character they haven't worked on from any company that they could write and do anything they want with the character, who would it be?

Reeder: "I'd steal Madame Xanadu for a spell..."

Simone: "Ripley from Aliens."

Bennet: "Vixen!"

Frison: "If you'd asked me six months ago, I would've said Vampirella, but now I'm doing those covers! I'd like to draw Wonder Woman, but I don't know if I have anything to say about her."

Ema: "Storm versus Thor!"

Do they ever run into resistance from editors in how they want to approach female characters?

Ema: "You know, we don't have time to be disappointed with how people we answer to come back to us. I actually ran into it when I had to redraw Supergirl because they said I had to cover more of her butt, and I don't think that should be a concern in this age. I would actually be more open-minded about it!"

Simone: "I've been pretty lucky with editorial listening to what I think is an interesting take on a female character. Early on there was some quesiton about the women thinking things are silly or being concerned about the appearance of "strength," and not wanting females to go on dates or cry - sometimes women will do those things, it doesn't make them less strong!"

With a lot of female characters being branch-offs of male characters, does that limit them at all?

Bennet: "I think Captain Marvel (Carol Danvers) has superceded anything from before her" and got a lot of applause.

Simone said it's just a matter of it being good stories.

Thoughts on women of color in comics?

Simone: "I think it's getting better, but there's still work to do."

Reeder: "I think it's strange that so many great new stories are coming out of Image but so few people of color, let alone women of color in the characters. You can do that. it's getting to me."

Simone just emphasized that people shoul always seek to do "something new."

On the evolution of Batwoman as a character, Reeder said, "it's great. I liked that when they brought her back they changed her so much. It's a feather in DC's cap that they made a new-ish character that popular across genders."

A fan asked about the representation of female villains, and Bennet said, "Yeah!"

Ema: "I think a female villain is more dangerous than a male villain. For example, I read this story in Batman: Black and White drawn by Adam Hughes, where Batman has a reaction to Catwoman he could not have against a male villain. I think female villains have this power to make a man pull his punches, where they think they can't hit her because she's a woman" because superhero comics are about hitting!

Simone said, "Part of that is because a lot of female villains are sexy! When you have the new Ventriloquist or Junior, they are the opposite, I hope, and you can see more of a direct hero-villain dynamic."

Twitter activity