Why I stopped reading superhero comics, and learned to love the indie scene

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Okay, so. You grow up surviving on a steady diet of comic books, Saturday morning cartoons and sandwiches out of lunchboxes with superheroes on the front. Coming up in the world, you play with action figures and wear t-shirts with your favorite comic book characters proudly displayed on your chest. The greasy-looking guy behind the counter at the local comic book shop knows you by name. There are probably pictures of you cosplaying on friend’s Facebook pages and convention round-up reports all over the internet. You’re what we call a geek. A dork. A nerd. Whatever the current nomenclature, that’s you, through and through.

But every representation you find in comic books that you could possibly identity with, well. They’re all kind of strange. These characters are scantily clothed, their anatomy stretched and mutilated by lengthened spines, wildly pivoted hips, heaving chests. They’re often posed like Playboy models with drooping lids and pouting mouths, crammed into impossible latex outfits and stiletto heels. All these characters can’t possibly have anything to do with you, though. They really don’t look like you, or anybody you know. They don’t really act like anybody you know, either. Still, they’re your heroes, the characters you have to look up to. So you keep reading, because you grew up on these things, and you hope for the best.

As you get a little older, get out of the safety of comic book shops and conventions, and begin interacting with a larger body of fans, things start to change. The stories really don’t get better, and the people that you’re supposed to look up to drift further and further away from any reality you’ve ever known. Your heroes are still shown as grossly sexualized objects. (There have been some good moments, of course, but even those moments are usually mixed with sour notes.) Comic book publishers disregard you. They say you don’t really matter to their bottom line and you’re not their core audience but they really appreciate your patronage, batting you away with one hand while taking your money with the other.

But it doesn’t stop there. You’re not really worth hiring as writers or artists, because publishers and editors only hire the best in the business, and you’re apparently not it. Smart-mouthed bloggers and pop culture news hosts ignore you, claiming that you don’t exist one moment then bemoaning your absence the next. (Unless you’re fat, or unattractive, or whatever other adjectives they can throw at you, in which case they can’t stop talking about you.) If you try to complain about these problems, these absurd representations, these hurtful business tactics perpetrated by major publishing houses, you’re called a bully. You’re told to sit down and shut up, but to have your wallet out for next month’s issue or movie or new limited edition what-have-you. You don’t matter, anyway. It’s not like you really read comics or have opinions or anything. You should just be happy with what you get. (Hey, they put pants on Wonder Woman, right? That should be good enough.)

Congratulations. You’re me, the average female superhero comic fan. Now you know why I’ve given up on DC and Marvel, and gone on to smaller publishers who at least pretend to give a damn. They may not all be perfect, but none of their editors or creative staff have attempted to boo me out of a panel, either…

5 thoughts on “Why I stopped reading superhero comics, and learned to love the indie scene

    • No problem, I enjoyed your post. The only way depictions of women (and everybody who isn’t white and male, for that matter) will improve in comics is if there’s a change in the cloistered environment of mainstream publishers, and the only way that will happen is if more fans start kicking down doors and demanding a little respect. I think the drama that unfolded at this year’s SDCC is a good start, but it’s going to take change from within the creative staffs themselves before anything gets done.

      And I’d heard about Atomic Robo, but I wasn’t aware of their policies. (What, no delays?!) Thanks for the link, I’ll definitely check them out.

  1. Nice post, Magen. I grew up on comics. I collected them for years. The high point of the industry for me came with Watchmen. Unfortunately, the masses may have liked Watchmen, but they clearly didn’t get it. They didn’t realize how much fun Alan Moore was having poking at the ripped seams of the superhero genre.

    Eventually, comics were written almost exclusively by people who learned to write by reading comics. Not by people who understood story construction or who had bothered to read books or understand literature. And they were drawn almost exclusively by two camps:

    The Bulge Patrol: These guys exaggerate every bicep, breast, and buttock. You can hide a Glock in your corset with nary a trace, but a nipple is going to poke through 3 layers of leather like the lug nut off a semi.

    The Lightbox Brigade: These guys don’t even pretend to draw. They just take pictures of all their friends in the appropriate poses and lightbox them through the bristol where they trace them, tighten up the backgrounds, and put the costume details on them. A 5th grader could do it.

    The result is that there is very little worth reading or looking at in the comics medium. It exists almost solely to prop up the various superhero properties available for movies and merchandise.

    A pity because it is a beautiful medium with the potential to tell wonderful stories in any genre. Imagine if movies had only ever been successful for musicals and so no one ever made Casablanca or Citizen Kane or The Third Man or Chinatown. That’s comics. A medium so retarded and stunted and disregarded that it has never seen anything remotely approaching its potential.

    But now there’s a little thing called epublishing.

    And anyone can produce a comic and publish it online and keep most of the profits to themselves and tell Marvel and DC to go suck their bulges.

    • Watchmen, basically, is the high point of my life. (At least as a reader. Well, most days anyway.)

      You’re very on target about the litany of things wrong with mainstream comic books. The culture is just so stagnated and out-of-touch with their fans and what their fans what. While the same can be said of all publishing platforms, the culture of comics seems so outwardly hostile as to draw this kind of attention to itself. Sadly, the superhero fanbase is pretty much fueled by nostalgia: People who grew up reading comics as kids, who inherited comic books from previous generations of fans as I have, who are attached to these characters. Fans don’t want to let their heroes go. Publishers know this, and they use it to pump out senseless content because they know people *will always buy, if only out of a sense of franchise loyalty.

      Indie publishing has helped a lot of creators and fans carve out new avenues of storytelling and production. As a producer of indie content myself (through short fiction, novels, and comics) I am hopeful that this wave will continue to carry indie writers and artists, and allow fans to push back against the crappy content of The Big Two. If enough people can show them that fans don’t need them, and will spend our money on other comics/seek out alternative publishers, they might be swayed to change their business practices. But it would take a lot to shake up the fanbase in order for that to happen, so I’m not holding my breath.

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