Why you shouldn't date the comic industry

I first realized that I was a nerd when the first girl I could have technically called my girlfriend actually broke up with me for being too much of “a fucking nerd.” She made it sound like a venereal disease. The day prior to hearing this from her, I had ditched hanging out with her because I wanted to read. I shit you not. I didn’t think anything of it at the time – I had just bought a new book and I wanted to spend most of the day reading, alone. Skip ahead a few hours and several other misconducts and it finally hit me what I had done. I was 18 and chose reading over sex. In retrospect, I was also an asshole to her: I found myself choosing to play videogames instead of spending time with her during the day. Which, when you think about it, is totally a nerd move. Really, it’s a dick move, only in nerd fashion. The book in question, the one I later was explicitly told that I lost out on sex because of was Brian K. Vaughn and Pia Guerra’s Y: The Last Man – a comic. A comic about a plague that kills off every male except for one man and his pet monkey, who are left to a world of women. I knew this meant something at the time, but I’m still not sure.

Though the break-up was mutual, she had every right to feel wronged, because really, who wants to date a nerd? There is still a stigma that will forever linger around the mere thought of nerds, which is that they’re pedantic turds. Even at the age of 18, I still hadn’t fully accepted that I was one, because the archetypal image of a nerd is that of a hot-headed individual who, for some reason, feels superior because of their opinions, general interests and hobbies. Most importantly, they’re a hyper-horny breed of males who sweat a lot. It is indeed a harsh portrayal of nerds, but problem is, it persists because people like this still exist. They’re called assholes, or whatever. Every socially-based ideology has them. Nerds just have really annoying jerks that usually assume they’re intelligent.

Spend enough time in midnight movie line-ups or comic shops, and it’ll be all too apparent that there are a lot of horny males with creative imaginations. On one occasion, when I was at my local comic shop, I overheard a costumer commenting on how Wonder Woman’s new suit doesn’t show enough skin and that the all-female comic Birds of Prey was nothing but a “bunch of uppity whores.” I wish I could say I was shocked to hear him use language like that, but I sadly can’t.

There is a rather deep-rooted connection between nerd-culture and misogyny. Comic books, quite frankly, are partially to blame. As a medium so rampant with criticism for how it displays the female body in some form, it has helped to solidify nerds as – to some degree – juvenile misogynists. Nerds have a bad reputation when it comes to creatively handling the female gender. The “nerd art-form” that is comic books reflect this with stale and nearly offensive female character development.

Critics point to how female characters in these stories are often hyper-sexualized to the extreme, with small and impractical clothing to extreme measurements meant to exploit them. I find there is a deeper issue at play here. Yes, women in comics, and even videogames and geeky television series (or whatever the fuck) are generally portrayed in this manner, but lest we forget that the male characters are also sexualized to such levels. Yes, Black Cat from Spider-Man is a sexed-up character displaying impractical standards for women, but the only way that I could ever achieve a body like Batman’s would be if I quit both of my jobs, gave up on every other life aspiration of mine and worked out on a basis better regulated than breathing. Even then, I still wouldn’t have his perfectly groomed chest hair that writers keep finding reasons to show off, but I digress.

The greater problem with gender issues in this medium is that the female characters tend to suck. They don’t suck because they’re female, they just suck because the average entertainment writer suffers an aneurism when writing for women characters. For comics, this is actually commonly known as the “Women in Refrigerators syndrome.” The origin of the phrase comes from the 1994 Green Lantern story where in Kyle Rayner, the latest Green Lantern, enters his apartment to find his girlfriend has been killed by the villain Major Force, who left her mangled corpse in the refrigerator – because he is a dick. Out of context (hell, even in context) the scene is ridiculous, but it’s used to stress a point: that women are just plot devices. The WIR syndrome generally refers to stories that deal with some gruesome maiming or straight up murder of a female character by an antagonist meant to motivate the male protagonist with a personal tragedy.

In 1999, female comic-creator Gail Simone and a collective of comic fans created the website Women in Refrigerators, compiling a list of female characters who have been either raped, killed or de-powered over the years. Simone, a writer known for her twisted yet nuanced approach to comic extremes such as sexuality and violence, has made it a point with her own work that she is not against the over the top sex and violence that some comics employ – it just all comes down to how whether or not the women in the story are actual meaningful characters. The popular site features responses from other comics creators and fans, all trying to dig at the deeper issue.

A relatively new trend for mainstream comics is to have female characters raped. This has gained popularity over the last 15 years, along with notion that deconstructing superheroes to reveal that they’re all dicks was a good story-line to run into the ground. Comic critic and Editor-in-Chief of Comic Alliance, Laura Hudson, once explained the trend as a symbolic stand-in for “the worst possible thing.” The problem is that antagonists within these stories are willing to do the “worst possible thing,” and in order to display that it ultimately results in too many stories involving rape in a less than meaningful way. Regardless of what plagues female characters now, the lack of gender-equality has historically been something of a sore spot for comics. This is primarily because of how comics were developed as an art form over the past century.

The genre of superhero comics, and to an extent, all mainstream comics, finds roots in genre work such as crime, mystery, noir and pulp fiction. Most writers who originally were writing comics in the early days of the ‘50s were either crime writers or pulp magazine writers – areas of popular literature built upon archetypal characters. Female archetypes have always been lacking (the “damsel in distress” comes to mind) and it’s a tragedy that such archetypes have yet to leave the collective consciousness. Also, DC and Marvel, the comic industry’s longest lasting companies, are built upon “heritage brand” characters. Characters that have spanned decades – some as long as 70 years – of insane story-lines and ever changing generational trends. Comics have also had to develop alongside ever evolving equality standards within society. For instance, the most prominent and famous female character, Wonder Woman, was created in 1941 by William M. Marston, a psychologist who would later in life openly admit to her connections to bondage (tie her up and her powers are gone, that kind of thing).

The world of comics has come a long way, with creators being much more mindful and considerate with female characters, which has resulted in some really good stories over the past few years. Yet comics featuring creatively strong and emotionally meaningful female characters that haven’t been abused in some sense are still a minority. For an industry based on decades of back-story and character development, it becomes difficult to reconstruct continuity to make up for cultural trends from the ‘60s. Companies will frequently try to retroactively alter continuity in order to make up for lousy stories in the past; however, these retcons can also result in some overly complex and mindfuckingly stupid stories.

Suffice to say, the medium has been marred by this historical trend of gender inequality. It’s an issue that is still ever present in today’s nerd-culture and explains why female nerds are still a strange and rare breed of nerd to see. I don’t have any answers for how nerds can make their rep any better – I’m really just giving credence for why that girl dumped me when I was 18. All I can say is that if the medium of comics wants further respect as a story-telling “art-form” that isn’t seen with disdain by every outsider to the form, then it needs to cut this shit out. It gets difficult to hide the fact that you read comics to women. Especially when you write a bi-weekly column detailing your personal opinion about them. That was a fucking brilliant idea for my sex life.

//Sam MacDonald, Columnist

//illustrations by Faye Alexander

Sam MacDonald has been a nerd since before being a nerd was cool. He therefore possesses an unmatched ability to channel the rage of his overly passionate brethren. Armed with only his mind and his surprisingly large muscles, he reports from the frontlines of the Internet and beyond.

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