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October 21, 2011

NYCC: State of DC Comics

Posted by on Oct 21, 2011
DC Comics

DC made several announcements over the weekend, including titles coming out over the next year and just who’s going to be working on them. But let’s be real: what we all wanted to hear about was the publisher’s response to fairly fervent fan furor about the portrayal of women in a few of the New 52 titles. They certainly had a response, and it was disappointing, promising, and hilarious all at the same time.

I was able to attend the Justice League and DC Publishers panels on Saturday and Sunday, respectively.  The Justice League panel had an absurd amount of talent in the room: Geoff Johns, Jim Lee, Francis Manapul, Brian Azzarrello, Cliff Chiang, and Tony Daniel were among some of the bigger names. The DC Publishers panel was Jim Lee and Dan DiDio, presenting DC’s new stuff and taking questions. Some big announcements about titles included the return of Shazam next year, and the release of Batman: Earth One, also next year. I also just want to say that the previews of Manapul’s Will Eisner-inspired art in upcoming issues of The Flash may have me checking out the series quite soon.

On to the big stuff. First, in one of the more unique announcements I witnessed all weekend, DC brought up Ann Nocenti during the Justice League panel as they announced that she would being writing Green Arrow starting on issue #7. After greeting the audience and thanking DC, Nocenti had this to say: “Take a look around. I am the token female.” She went on to say that DC has been under some pressure, and so they decided to hire her. Now, this is all true, but it’s also shocking and hilarious just how brazen Nocenti decided to be about referring to her employer’s PR woes. Personally I loved it – I think it’s something that needs to be talked about more openly at DC. It might help them figure out how to get their act together.

Jim Lee also answered a softly-worded question about Starfire and Catwoman during the panel, but he also answered that question more fully during the DC Publisher’s panel. This time it wasn’t so soft a question. A female fan stood up, said that she and many other DC readers had really been enjoying the New 52. “And then, we saw Starfire… and then, we saw Catwoman…” Clearly the enjoyment had ended.

Jim Lee often has a lot to smile about...

At which point, Jim Lee said quite a few things. He said that he did not believe a series should be judged before a story arc had been finished, and so criticizing Scott Lobdell for his writing on Red Hood and the Outlaws was premature. He said that DC is providing a wide range of content, from traditional material to more edgy stories. He said DC is also writing stories about African American characters, and lesbian characters. He said that Starfire is from another world and another culture, and so her unorthodox behavior is a result of that difference in cultures, and that difference is part of the story. He said that Catwoman frequently uses her sexuality as a weapon, and so that final page showing her having sex with Batman is just another example of that.

Jim Lee said a lot of things. And honestly, none of those things were at all satisfying.

First, while I wholeheartedly agree that a story cannot be judged by a single issue, it still only takes one issue to create some seriously sexist material. Really, no matter how the story ends, that first issue and that depiction of Starfire as a mindless sex fiend will remain in poor taste. And even if the final issue of the arc has her regaining her previous personality and saying to the other characters, “Wow, I acted like a mindless sex fiend! How awful!”, it will still be poor writing.

Second, while DC is indeed trying to cater to a wider audience (or at least that’s what they’re saying), just because you’re trying to be edgy doesn’t mean you get to be blatantly sexist for no reason other than gratification of the male audience you already had. Also, while I don’t think Jim Lee necessarily meant to imply that stories about African Americans or lesbians are “edgy,” the way he stated those two ideas one after the other in his response is questionable and a little weird, especially when the response is coming from the guy whose supposed responsibility it is to be the public voice of the company.

As for Starfire being from another world: so are damn near a third of the DC characters. That doesn’t make them all act crazy, nor does it excuse their behavior when they act strangely or immorally or stupidly.

Catwoman’s sexuality is a little tricky. It’s true, she absolutely does employ her sexuality to get what she wants, and that is a perfectly acceptable character trait. The problem is that Jim Lee missed the reason people were mad about that last page of Catwoman. That depiction lacked just about any agency on Catwoman’s part, and really just objectified her for a male audience. She looks more like a sex-toy than a sexually liberated woman crouched awkwardly over Batman like that.

Okay, so you’re probably wondering if you should just give up on DC Comics having any respect for women at all, right? Well, don’t give up just yet. While Jim Lee did not actually apologize for anything at any point, he did say that part of what’s great about the comics industry is that it’s also a community, and that fans like the ones at NYCC let DC know, quite clearly, what they like and what they don’t like. Lee said that this input is taken into account when planning future content, and that this will continue to happen. So we get no apology from Lee, but we do get what amounts to an implied promise of better behavior.

I also just want to point out that at no point after questions regarding DC’s gender policies did Dan DiDio speak. He spoke plenty after other questions, but not these. I’m not saying this was planned by DC in any way. But it certainly worked out better than the last time DiDio did answer such a question.

DiDio said a lot of things.

In conclusion, I’m disappointed that DC didn’t seem able to express that they understood the fundamental problem readers have with their recent books. This is not to say that they don’t understand; just that they can’t say so. Jim Lee’s response at both panels, however, does seem to indicate that there is hope for the publisher as far as well-written female characters go. The proof will be found in the issues over the next few months, and in new hires DC makes. Ms. Nocenti’s arrival, while possibly a damage-control move on the company’s part, is welcome nonetheless.