As a card-carrying member of UK online comics fandom, it seems I am contractually obliged to be outraged and infuriated by Kevin Maher's recent article in the Times. Maher, who actually writes about film for a living, was so enthralled by SIN CITY [Ed: Sin City has still not been shown in $ingapore] that he took it as a cue to write a great big article about how comics fans are a bunch of geeks in arrested emotional development with somewhat questionable views on women. It has caused quite the tizzy.

Sin City: the movie

Much as I would love to join the anti-Maher backlash, however, I'm not going to. I just can't be bothered. I mean, obviously it's a dreadful scandal, since god knows we all expect the highest standards from the British press. Why, it must have been eons since a badly researched article appeared in a British newspaper.

Frankly, I can't work up the reserves
of defensiveness to care in the slightest.
What I find more amusing is the
evident sensitivity of those who do.

But given that it's a fairly brief article published in the arts section, something tells me that the people who are offended by the article are about the only ones who'll remember it 30 seconds after they put it down. Besides, what are people actually going to do about it? Write a seething letter that might get a square inch of space at the bottom of the letters page, next to the obligatory missive from the retired colonel who's spotted an unseasonal chaffinch?

Frankly, I can't work up the reserves of defensiveness to care in the slightest. What I find more amusing is the evident sensitivity of those who do.


Maher's point, basically, is that the comics subculture is horribly sexist; that it tends to present women as fantasy objects; and that while the rough edges are normally smoothed off in film adaptations, the over-literal version of SIN CITY gives a better indication of what comics are really like.

Now, where the article goes awry is that it's hopelessly overboard, deals in sweeping generalisations, relies heavily on obscure and out-of-date examples (Satana?!), and is obviously written with an eye on winding up any comics fans who might happen to be reading - always a fun way of livening up a dull article. And drawing conclusions about the typical comic book from a self-evidently unusual example such as SIN CITY is extremely questionable. The article is too sweeping and it's rather silly.

But fundamentally, if you tone it down a notch, Maher's point isn't particularly controversial. Is the comics industry sexist? Well, yes, of course it is. Is it overwhelmingly male? Sure. Are the heroes overwhelmingly male? Yup. Do female characters tend to have huge tits and meet an unpleasant end? Undeniably. Is there a substantial segment of fandom with uncomfortable views on women that we'd rather not advertise to the wider population? Of course - somebody's got to be buying the books with Greg Horn covers.

Is SIN CITY in particular misogynist? Well, it's certainly got those tendencies. Context is everything, admittedly, but it's hard to get away from that being an aspect of the book, and Maher is far from the first person to make the point. There's always been a strand of opinion which, if not actually offended by the book, has at least not been entertained by it for that reason, or found that it wore thin rather quickly. And while SIN CITY is obviously not a typical comic, it's certainly arguable that the comic book readership seems to be, shall we say, unusually willing to regard casual misogyny as entertaining.

At least Maher doesn't seem to know anything about manga, thus sparing us any material about the tentacle rape sub-genre. But you could make the same point there - when comics fans seem to take that sort of thing in stride, are they just demonstrating artistic open-mindedness, or is there something less commendable going on?

Like it or not, comics fans have
a reputation as trivia-obsessed geeks
whose understanding of the
opposite sex derives from a
combination of hearsay and porn.

These are not novel opinions. People have been complaining about this sort of thing for years. It's pretty much orthodox stuff in some segments of fandom. The basic point certainly isn't off the wall by any means. Maher makes it extremely badly, but others have made it rather better. For example, Gail Simone's Women In Refrigerators webpage - created before she broke into the industry - considers the point rather better, as well as presenting some of the counter-arguments. (It's probably fair to say, for example, that the overwhelming bias in favour of male superheroes to some extent reflects the fact that they were created in an earlier era, and that it's become virtually impossible to establish new superheroes of either gender.)

If Maher's article had been written by somebody within fandom... well, Ninth Art would probably have rejected it, on the grounds that it was too shrill and too reliant on out-of-date research. But that aside, coming from a fan, the article would probably have been seen as remarkable only in two respects: first, being a little bit over the top, and second, using critical darling Frank Miller as an example of something fundamentally wrong with the comics industry, which is of course an absolute no-no.

But the reaction to Maher's article suggested that people were outraged that this sort of thing was being said at all, rather than simply being irritated by the exaggeration. Maher's slapdash research provides a hook to hang that on, of course, but it's difficult to avoid the conclusion that the reaction to his piece was heavily tied in with the sensitivities of comics fandom when it comes to their portrayal in the mainstream. That applies doubly to those from outside the superhero audience who are particularly keen to find mainstream recognition for the glorious possibilities of the medium.

Like it or not, comics fans have a reputation as trivia-obsessed geeks whose understanding of the opposite sex derives from a combination of hearsay and porn. It would be nice to think that this was an unfounded perception. The reality is that it may be an exaggeration, but it's not without a kernel of truth. The comics audience acknowledges this openly when talking among itself. It gets very shirty when outsiders spot it - perhaps because in that context, we feel we're being unfairly tarred by the same brush, whereas internally we use it to distance ourselves from those nebulous and knuckle-dragging fanboys. It is hardly surprising that outsiders see less of a difference.

Maher makes his point extremely badly. But like it or not, there is still a point there. And if it's annoying to see that this is still the public perception of the comics audience, that doesn't alter the fact that it's a perception with more than a grain of truth to it.

Note: Paul O'Brien is the author of the weekly X-AXIS comics review.

This article is Ideological Freeware. The author grants permission for its reproduction and redistribution by private individuals on condition that the author and source of the article are clearly shown, no charge is made, and the whole article is reproduced intact, including this notice.

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