It was an innocuous line in an introduction by Peter O’Donnell, the creator of Modesty Blaise (surely you know Modesty?), to one of his books that set me thinking: Is the portrayal of women in graphic novels sexist?
In his introduction to the reissue of The Bluebeard Affair, O’Donnell speaks of his initial concern over artist Enric Badia Romero’s ability to portray two female characters—for those into details, Hortense and Celeste—who do not look like the women that usually inhabit comic books (put simply, they’re ugly). Romero, O’Donnell explains, was into drawing good-looking women. The author whose books (yes, he wrote 13 Modesty Blaise novels, too) and comics are seeing a revival needn’t have worried—Hortense and Celeste worked out just the way he wanted—but the question remains: Are illustrators of comic books and graphic novels obsessed with the body beautiful?
Manga is horribly sexist, sometimes offensively so, but this is only to be expected given that it is the product of a society that is itself sexist.
What of the others? Most illustrators seem to be able to portray monstrosity, but can they do ugliness? Or plainness? Evidence would seem to suggest they can’t.
Electra? Well, they had to get Jennifer Garner to play her, so, do we really need to say more here?
A succession of Batgirls? Check.
Every woman who appears in Frank Miller’s Sin City? Check.
Dizzy Cordova (100 Bullets)? Check.
There’s more, but surely you get the picture?
Why, even Ram Waeerkar’s illustrations for the early Amar Chitra Kathas show the same trend.
Illustrators don’t appear to have too many problems with portraying ugly men; ergo, their problem isn’t the depiction of the concept of ugliness, but the reluctance to show not-so-good-looking women with not-so-good-looking bodies.
Some people believe that this is because comics and graphic novels, even the ones that say ‘Suggested for Mature Readers’, are actually targeted at sub-teens of all ages.
Others claim this is because the writers of these books insist on writing about beautiful women. “Why pick on the illustrators?” they ask. “They are just showing it as it is.” And still others deny that illustrators can’t portray ugliness. “Remember the landlady who appears in Miller’s To Hell and Back (the last Sin City book),” they say. “She is fat and ugly.” Yes, but she is the only one of the women that make an appearance in the series who is.
Few illustrators do seem to be able to portray plainness and ugliness. Eddie Campbell, the illustrator of Alan Moore’s From Hell , an interpretation of the Jack the Ripper story, is one such. But the majority either can’t or don’t. Me, I just believe that comic books and graphic novels are sexist. It’s one reason the genre has more male readers than female. Accept it, and move on. And hey good looking, want to be in a comic book? Write to firstname.lastname@example.org