Credit: JD Hancock on Flickr, under Creative Commons (CC BY 2.0).
SAN DIEGO (WOMENSENEWS)–If you were looking for Wonder Woman at this year’s fantasy-world convention, you had to look pretty hard.
San Diego Comic-Con 2013, from July 17 to 20, attracted 140,000 participants.
Many were hard to distinguish from their favorite characters from movies, television and comics.
Among the hundreds of fans in full steampunk regalia and various superhero costumes there was barely a glimpse of the warrior princess of the Amazons. By contrast, actors dressed as Batman, Superman, Iron Man, Princess Leia and The Baroness abounded, parading around the exhibition floor and having their photos taken with fans.
The “Con,” as it is known to enthusiasts, has evolved from a convention about comics that was first held in 1970 and was driven by a core group of followers. Now it attracts such A-list celebs as Sandra Bullock and Hugh Jackman touting their latest films.
This year fans lined up for hours to get into the hallowed Hall H to see previews of upcoming films, like “X-Men: Days of Future Past,” “Thor: The Dark World” and “Guardians of the Galaxy,” and to be the first of the acolytes to hear the major news from the movie studios.
In smaller sessions, authors, artists and academics discussed hand-drawn panels of old and digitally-mastered panels of new comic art, with the artists behind Archie, Superman, Batman and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles among the featured guests.
But that iconic female super heroine, Wonder Woman–with her Lasso of Truth, her superior combat skills, promoting justice, love, peace and sexual equality, who first appeared in DC‘s “All Star Comics” in January 1941–was pretty much overlooked.
To find her center of attention meant leaving the San Diego Convention Center and heading to the nearby California Women’s Museum. There an exhibit entitled “Wonder Women: On Paper and Off,” which runs through Sept. 1, puts on view illustrations from various artists and collectors that emphasize the portrayal of women in comics and graphic art.
Warped By ‘Male Gaze’
To kick things off, a panel featuring Trina Robbins, Ramona Fradon and Mary Fleener gathered on the first evening of Comic-Con for a lively give and take on the state of women in comics, derived from their years in the male-dominated industry.
In discussing the way their field is warped by the “male gaze,” Robbins pointed to the term “women in refrigerators,” coined by Gail Simone, the popular writer of DC’s Batgirl, to denote the terrible things that happen to women in superhero comics, from being killed and maimed to disposed of in gruesome manners.
Simone, who has been fired from Batgirl and rehired partially due to her consistent interaction with her large fan base, is one of the few high-profile women working in superhero comics.
Another high-profile woman is Diane Nelson, who since 2009 has been president of the New York-based DC Entertainment, Inc., a subsidiary of Warner Brothers, formerly DC Comics, that has created comics featuring Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman and The Justice League.
Although Nelson was not on the panel, she has commented recently on Wonder Woman’s slippage from current popularity, saying it had to do with her own flaws. “She doesn’t have the single, clear, compelling story that everyone knows and recognizes,” Nelson said.
At the panel, Robbins, who in the late 1980s and early 1990s contributed to several Wonder Woman issues at DC, disagreed with Nelson, saying the superheroine’s “origin story” fulfilled the requirements of mythic heroism. (Wonder Woman is raised upon a secluded island within a tribe of women named the Amazons. Upon finding the plane crash of Captain Steve Trevor, she feels the call to heal. After nursing him back to health she goes with him to Man’s Land in its blight of war and performs heroic acts mostly against Nazi foes during World War II.)
Robbins began working as an artist/writer in underground comics in the 1950s. She co-created the buxom bloodsucker Vampirella and went on to work at Marvel, where she wrote and drew Misty, a comic series for the very young. At DC she also created a graphic novel that featured spousal abuse.
Panelist Fradon–who in 1989 illustrated the Wonder Woman Annual–joined Robbins in supporting Wonder Woman.
Fradon, who has been working in mainstream comics for both Marvel and DC since 1951, is best known for co-creating the shape-shifting Metamorpho and illustrating Aquaman and Brenda Starr. Fradon defended her character Metamorpho’s super powers as being more of a feminine take on the ability to transform. Having spent 30 years studying hermeticism, the belief of influencing the world by heavenly means, alchemy and tantra yoga, an Asian spiritual practice, she said she believes that the superheroes magnify themselves through the passion of love.
Unlike the other two panelists, Fleener came of age in the 1960s and began her work in underground comics, not the mainstream media. With the encouragement of cartoonists including Robert Crumb–the famous creator of Mr. Natural–she has produced books and a comic book series in a richly hued style she calls cubismo. Her first publication was “Hoodoo,” about African American author Zora Neale Hurston. Fleener considers herself to be more of a political cartoonist in the style of Thomas Nast, the political cartoonist who skewed Boss Tweed and Tammany Hall.
During the panel both Robbins and Fradon discussed the difficulties of working in an industry geared to the “male gaze.” Both declared the obligatory five pages of fight scenes . . . boring!
Robbins, a historian of women in comics, said that in her research she found that women had an easier time getting work in the early period of comics at the turn of the 20th century. The women were often celebrities such as Rose O’Neil, Grace Drayton and Nell Brinkley and were respected and paid equally.
She said after World War II comics reflected the gung ho muscularity of a nation at war and it became harder for women in all fields to break into the work force. The industry also embraced the notion that girls don’t read comics, although in 1946 female readers outnumbered males due to the teen and romance comics.
In a bright note, Robbins said that there was progress at this year’s prestigious Eisner Awards, the Oscars of the comic book industry, where statues in 30 categories were awarded July 19 with at least nine women represented on the awards podium.
“There were more women up on that stage then ever before, and they were getting Eisner Awards,” Robbins told Women’s eNews in an interview following the panel. “And the artwork shown on the screen was beautiful! So I think the status quo is over. Sure, as long as there is an unending line of 12-year-old boys to read them, there will always be superhero comics, but the superhero is no longer king. So there’s lots of room for women to draw their comics, and that’s what they’re doing.”
Nicky Wheeler-Nicholson is a freelance writer based in Berkeley, Calif.
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