Goodbye Oracle, Goodbye DC Comics

As has been much publicised, DC Comics has sort of rebooted their universe. Except they aren’t wiping the slate clean this time – they are rebooting their characters, but somehow leaving their histories in tact as well (I still haven’t quite figured out that one). As far as I can tell, it’s another case of a comic book company handwaving away a lot of great stories because they would rather be nostalgic or maybe start over with their own revised versions. While one of the biggest stated intentions of this is to draw in new readers, I’m skeptical. The changes seem to me more likely to lose readers they have than to attract readerships they have not previously attracted.

There have already been some great illustrations of this with Starfire (this article and this comic, for example) and others. I think that DC has forgotten that there are more readers in the world than the ones they have been writing for over the last several decades. The comics world is constantly in need of more money, more sales, more readers. And those readers are out there – the appeal of their characters is far more widespread than the sales of their comics would suggest. The numbers of viewers of the animated shows and the big-budget movies and the popularity of the videogames based on their properties are orders of magnitude higher than the numbers of readers of their comics. It doesn’t take a business genius to see that the customers are there, they simply aren’t being reached through the comic book medium.

And those cartoon and movie viewers, those videogamers are all kinds of people – some fall into that white, male pool that the average comic book readers fall into, but there are so much more than that. There are women and people of both genders who are not white and kids and more. And those consumers represent a huge amount of revenue. Comic book shops are always struggling, right? Well, if they could get some of that revenue that they have not attracted before maybe they wouldn’t be struggling so much. Women represent half the population, but only a small fraction of the comic-book buying population. But as a woman I can tell you that when I pick up a comic book, even as a life-long comic book reader, I’m frequently stunned by how violently I feel the message “THIS IS NOT FOR YOU”. That’s the message that Starfire gives to women. She always has had that problem, but is doing so even more in this new incarnation.

For me, the character that drew me to superhero comics the most as a kid was Batgirl because she was a strong girl who chose to be a heroine and then worked to become one, sans superpowers. But what kept me reading superhero comics, as opposed to completely giving them up in favor of other types of stories that were not as likely to scream “THIS IS NOT FOR YOU” at me from the covers and nearly every page, was Oracle.

Oracle was something special. Something beyond capes and tights. She still didn’t have any superpowers (most superpowers would have allowed her to get up out of that chair, whether it was to stand on her feet or fly in the air or something else), but she still managed to be a hero from her wheelchair. And how many disabled heroes are there in the comic book world? The only other one I can think of is Professor X from the X-Men, although it seems like there must have been others over the last century.

Oracle was able to become a powerful character in her own right, completely without borrowing from the mantle of one of the more famous (male) characters, with only her intelligence and willpower. Being paralyzed let her character develop in new and interesting ways that few comic book characters ever get to. She worked hard to overcome the pain and loss (although, realistically, that pain was never completely gone), mastering a new fighting form she could do from her wheelchair, but even more importantly, she found a whole new way to fight the good fight without needing a costume at all.

To me, she was a woman who was able to be powerful and heroic without having to also be a sexy pin-up and by being smart instead of having to have the ability to kick her heels up over her head. The idea of a woman who could be heroic without having to be able to show off her breasts and her butt at the same time was very appealing and the image of a woman who was saving the world by being really smart and doing research was even more appealing. I also found the idea that even in a world with invulnerable people and shapeshifters, some pain and some injuries could not be healed to make the DC Universe something that I am more able to relate to. If everyone is invulnerable and no injury is permanent, then what’s the point?

Apparently DC doesn’t see it that way, though. They have gotten rid of Oracle. That and other changes make me, a life-long reader of DC comics (seriously, I have boxes full of comic books dating back to when I was a kid and even some scavenged from my dad’s childhood collection), ready to give up. I give in. DC Comics, you win. I got the message. Maybe it took nearly 30 years for me to get it, but I finally got it. DC Comics are not for me. And as sad as it makes me that you don’t want my readership and my money, or, apparently, women readers and their money in general, I’ve been trying too hard for too long to get past all of the “NOT FOR YOU” messages. All of the T and A pin-ups. All of the stories with powerless women needing saving or women being destroyed so that male characters would have motivation for a few issues until they forgot all about the women who died for them. I give up. Apparently even in 2011, there is room for a boy’s club and I guess it’s time for me to read that “No Girls Allowed” sign posted out front.

Related Articles:

- The Big Sexy Problem with Superheroines and Their ‘Liberated Sexuality’
- Oracle is Stronger than Batgirl will Ever Be
- No More Mutants: 52 Problems
- A Response from a Female Comic Book Fan
- Dear DC Comics
- Comics Should Be For Everyone
- Lois Lane, Girl Reporter (Read this one and think about what DC gave up by rejecting this amazing idea!)

The Reverse Jane Austen Principle

If you watch a movie or cartoon or pick up a comic that involves a group of main characters you’re likely to find a mix of people in that group. Some white guys, maybe a black guy or an Asian guy, a girl or two and possibly a pet or sidekick of some kind. The stories involving groups like this vary. They could be solving mysteries or saving their planet or just kicking bad-guy butt. Regardless, one thing is virtually for certain – the girls will all have romance somehow worked into their description or plot.

I call this the Reverse Jane Austen Principle. The name was the result of an attempt to explain this issue to someone asking me questions about comic books. In trying to explain it, I found that the simplest way to phrase what I was saying was this:

It is a truth universally acknowledged by the entertainment industry that a female character in possession of a name and a ringless left hand must be in want of a boyfriend (and the name is really optional).

The characters aren’t always (or even often) exclusively there to be someone’s romantic interest or to moon over boys, often they have very interesting characters beyond this and frequently they’re interesting, powerful characters in their own right. But that romance thing does seem to always be there, which is not always true for male characters who have equally interesting, powerful character descriptions.

This means that you get things like the Justice League cartoon from a few years back, which had seven main characters, each a powerful hero. Of the seven, there were two who were women. Hawkgirl fell in love with Green Lantern during the course of the show and had a very complicated relationship with him and Wonder Woman got pretty squarely paired up with Batman, although they never did anything about this romance and all indications showed more affection on her side than his anyway. Of the three men remaining, everyone already knows that Superman is already taken by the mostly off-screen Lois Lane, J’on J’onzz is still busy mourning his dead wife (and probably considered too alien for a romance anyway) and Flash is something of a chronic flirt who never has a date. Even when they opened up the League and had more than enough female characters they could have paired those guys up with, they clearly never felt the need to do so. But Hawkgirl had to pine for GL even after he started seeing someone else and Wonder Woman was paired with Batman even though it made no sense for either of their characters.

The Reverse Jane Austen Principle means that Hollywood can’t seem to tell stories about women characters at all without injecting that bit of romance. It’s like they can’t imagine romance not being a fundamental part of any woman’s life, even if it doesn’t have to be so to men. For example, there is a movie coming out soon about a very influential Hawaiian princess who lived near the end of the nineteenth century and fought the annexing of her kingdom by the United States government. It’s called Princess Kaiulani (her name should have an apostrophe in it, but apparently they decided to drop it for some reason). The movie creates a romance for her that never existed and sets it as a major focus of the piece. In fact, the tagline is “her heart was torn between love and the future of Hawaii”. Except that it wasn’t.

I can’t think of a good biopic about a man to compare this to, actually. There are tons of movies about politicians with no injected romance (off the top of my head are All the President’s Men, Nixon and Thirteen Days, but there are tons of them). So why does the girl need romance? Every movie about Queen Elizabeth I that I’ve ever seen focuses more on her supposed romances with her courtiers than it does on her as a political leader (granted her father has the same problem, but he sort of made that bed for himself and now he’s stuck with it). Queen Victoria is the same way. She had a very long reign and a lot happened while she was queen, but the movies about her all seem to focus on her romances (real or imagined).

Comics seem to be just as bad. Unless a girl has green or purple skin (and even then it’s not a guarantee), she’s bound to be wrapped up in some relationship plot within just a couple of issues of her introduction! There was a really entertaining short run comic a few years back called Teen Titans Year One. It told some stories about the original Titans getting together and doing missions, but it sort of set them now instead of when they actually were a newly formed team (Robin IMed Kid Flash about a mission, for example). The original Teen Titans consisted of four boys and a girl – Wonder Girl. The boys all had plots involving their mentors being possessed and struggling with their roles within the group and things like that. What was Wonder Girl’s plot? She had a crush on Speedy and they went on a date at one point. Now, don’t get me wrong, I loved this comic. It told a great story in a funny, fresh way. But it totally adhered to the Reverse Jane Austen Principle, too.

There are occasionally exceptions to this principle, but they are extremely rare. Nerd girls can slip through relationship-free every once in a great while, but it’s very, very difficult. Usually they have to at least be pining for someone or aimlessly feeling worthless because they don’t have a guy. One notable nerd girl exception would be Velma from Scooby Doo (she is, however, only an exception if you ignore the movies or consider the characters in them different from the ones in the cartoons). Children can sometimes manage to evade this rule as well, but even they usually get trapped by it. River from Firefly got out of it because of the kid rule (even though she wasn’t actually that young, everyone but the bounty hunter treated her that way). It’s also possible to escape if you’re either the only character or if there are so many girls and so few guys that some girls have to not be paired up. Dora the Explorer, some of the minor characters from She-Ra and Flora from The Winx Club all sneak by this way.

But, sadly, exceptions are rare. For the most part, if a female character is included, she’s going to somehow be tangled in this principle. She might be in a relationship, like Arwen from Lord of the Rings. She might start out single but end up in a relationship, like Leia from Star Wars. She might be done with him, but can’t get disentangled, like Rachel from the recent Batman movies. She might be pining for someone specific, like Elisa from Gargoyles. She might be trying to avoid the whole thing and end up caught in a relationship anyway, like Megara in Hercules. She might be just pining for romance without anyone in particular in mind, like Aurora from Sleeping Beauty. And she might be minding her own business and have it thrown at her anyway, like Captain Amelia from Treasure Planet! Regardless, it’s everywhere. Few female characters can escape it.

This isn’t to say that you can’t have amazing characters and fantastic stories that follow the Reverse Jane Austen Principle because you can. Many of the movies, shows and comics I’ve mentioned are great and totally worth watching or reading. That said, I’d really like to see this stop being such a rule. I’d like to see more movies that don’t feel the need to make sure every female character is somehow either connected to a guy or wants to be. Just because she’s not married, doesn’t mean she necessarily has to want to be (or even spend much time thinking about it, because seriously, if my planet was blowing up or something, I wouldn’t stop to bemoan my lack of boyfriend). If Legolas, Buzz Lightyear and Obi-Wan Kenobi don’t need love interests, why do most female characters created by the entertainment industry need one?

DC Characters and Branding in “Young Justice”

DC is coming out with a new cartoon this fall. Since their cartoons are generally really good, I was pretty excited about this (Justice League Unlimited is one of my favorite cartoons ever and I really think Batman: the Animated Series is one of best cartoons ever made). This cartoon will be called Young Justice and is going to focus on teenage superheroes and the challenges they face to prove that they are good enough to join the adult heroes who protect the world on a daily basis (not to mention the challenges involved in just being teenage superheroes).

The cast of characters is largely drawn from the pages of Teen Titans, so we have Robin (because it wouldn’t be a kid/teen supergroup without Robin or Nightwing), Kid Flash, Superboy (because somebody has to be wearing a big red “S”), Miss Martian, Aqualad (who’s gotten an African-American make-over, presumably so the cast is more racially diverse – which still makes him token, which kinda sucks), and “Artemis”.

Seriously? Artemis? Ok, there are two MAJOR problems here. First of all, that means this is a made-up character instead of one of the many, many, many awesome female characters they already have that they could have used for this show. Second of all, what’s with the name? Not only is “Artemis” kind of a lame superhero name, but it’s already been used at least eight times in the DCU! Once by a pretty major character and a couple of times by various incarnations of the actual goddess, who exists and is a real entity in the continuity of both the DCU and the Animated DCU (or at least, one would assume she exists in the Animated DCU, since Ares, Hades and Hephaestus all do).

I really hate when companies decide to make up a new character like this, despite having lots of great existing options. It wouldn’t bother me if she wasn’t being thrown in with a group of characters who are not being invented for the show, but in fact, have years of history and personality in the comics. It also probably wouldn’t bother me so much if I didn’t feel like this was another indication that DC doesn’t remember or care about their female characters, especially the younger ones and especially when it comes to animated shows.

The perfect example of them stating this can be found if you check out some of the behind the scenes materials on the Justice League cartoon. They made a test short to help sell that concept and at that point planned to use teenage sidekicks. In the test short they use Robin, Impulse (one of the young “Flash” characters from the comics) and a girl they made up who is basically Cyborg as a girl. They made her up because they felt they needed a girl “for the sake of diversity” but “there aren’t really many young girl characters in the DC Universe”. Right. Every incarnation of Teen Titans has had a couple of girls, but “there aren’t many young girls”. There are just about as many girls, some of them young, in the Batman family as there are boys, but “there aren’t many young girls”.

Can you tell that I don’t think much of this excuse? And I can only assume the choice to make someone up instead of using one of their many great female characters stemmed from the same way of thinking. I read the blurb about the show and saw Artemis and my first thought was “why didn’t they use someone they already have?” Like, for example, Arrowette (who clearly inspired Artemis’s look)? Or Speedy (another archer, who has been a boy and a girl)? Or Wonder Girl? Or Troia? Or Batgirl? Or Spoiler? Or Supergirl? Or Raven? Or Starfire? Or Terra? Or Ravager (who could be awesome to use in a show like this)? Or Bumblebee (who’s already African-American, by the way)? Or Aquagirl? Or Jesse Quick? Or Misfit? Or the new versions of Hawk and Dove? I could go on. And I can see ways many of these characters would be particularly fantastic in a show like this.

But no. We get a made up character. And I’m not saying that I don’t like new characters being introduced. I even like some of the brilliant characters who have been created in the animated shows and made the jump to other mediums (Harley Quinn, who managed to cross into comics, a live action television show and numerous video games, is awesome and Renee Montoya, who has actually grown out of the role she was created in and inherited the mantle of The Question, are two amazing creations from Batman: The Animated Series). What I’m saying is that it feels like they remember and celebrate the great history and long line of stories they have behind some of their characters when they pull these groups together and forget others.

And then they complain that their female characters don’t have the same sort of following. The repeated refrain of “we just can’t seem to make Wonder Woman as popular as Batman and Superman and the only reason we can figure out is because she’s a girl” comes from the higher ups at DC pretty regularly. Well, perhaps that’s at least partially because you don’t give her the same backing and visibility! Notice how even in this group of superheroes that notably does not contain any of the “big three” there are clear representatives of both the Bat-Family and the Super-Family (Robin and Superboy), but no such representative from Wonder Woman’s “family”? No Wonder Girl or Troia or anything? And even if they tell us “oh, but Artemis is an Amazon!”, she has no visible way of showing us that and since we don’t know her, we wouldn’t connect her to Wonder Woman without knowing that. It just doesn’t work.

Basically, it all comes down to branding. They could be creating a show about teenage superheroes trying to prove to their mentors that they’re reading for the big-time with all new characters, but they didn’t because part of the draw of this show will be the recognizable characters – the brand. There are people who will watch it primarily to see characters they know and love – to watch Robin and Superboy, to see cartoon versions of Kid Flash and Miss Martian, to find out who this new Aquaboy is (and if there’s any explanation for what happened to the old one). People are already asking if this show is part of the official Animated DCU or, like Teen Titans and the two recent Batman shows, a separate “universe” by itself.

But Artemis, as a new character, isn’t part of that branding. I can’t figure out why they wouldn’t want her to be, either. It’s a totally wasted opportunity. Pretty much any character who has been around for any real length of time has some kind of following, so why not draw on an already existing following as well as whatever new fans this show will bring in? Why not bring in the not-inconsequential number of Wonder Girl fans? Or the startlingly large number of Spoiler fans? Or how about the devoted and regularly disappointed Arrowette fans who always seem to be forgotten when the character isn’t included?

It seems to me like not only a bit of a slap in the face to all the fans of the many amazing female characters they could have picked from for this show, but also a startlingly poor marketing decision. When something so simple could mean more fans and more money with so little effort, why would you not do it (and isn’t it easier to use an existing character than to create a new one, especially when you can tweak details as needed since this is a new medium and you’ve already done it with everyone else and not lost hordes of fans over it)?

Personal Agency and Women in Refrigerators

“But to malign writing for killing women when killing said women is a way of giving them the ultimate praise, of saying they’re the most important part of the life of a given character, hardly seems to be sexism to me. If anything, it is merely guilty of being an overdone plot device.” – Neal Bailey

Ok, so I’ve heard the argument that killing, raping, maiming, whatever a character as motivation for another character is actually a compliment to them because it shows how much they are loved before, but this goes a step beyond. The above quote is from a blog post. “Women in Refrigerators” is a phrase coined by Gail Simone and refers to the trend in comic books where female characters are killed or assaulted and seriously disabled somehow in order to provide a motivation for the male heroes in their lives.

I’m not going to argue that attacking the loved ones of a hero provides him or her a strong motivation, but I do have to wonder what villain in their right mind would possibly want to make a superhero that mad at them. I mean, seriously, do you really want a grieving husband or wife with superpowers coming after you? Really? That might deserve being thought through a little more before you actually attack his wife or her husband. But it’s motivation, and from the writer’s point of view, that’s the important point. I get that. And there can be times when it works. They may have had Joker shoot Barbara Gordon as incentive for Batman to hunt Joker, but she’s become a better character for it having happened. That event isn’t remembered as being about Batman, it’s remembered as being about Barbara.

And that’s the key point here. Women are people too and their motivations and hopes and dreams are their own. Yes, just as men are motivated by what happens to their wives, girlfriends and mothers, women are motivated by what happens to their husbands, boyfriends and fathers. Somehow, though, that doesn’t seem to matter. Female heroes rarely have family members stuck in refrigerators. And when the men do, it’s often forgotten after a few issues (Ralph Dibny may have morned his wife until he joined her in death, but more often it feels like the writers have forgotten the incident even happened a few issues later).

If a woman is her own person, even if she’s just a background character we never got to know, it can never be the “ultimate praise” for her to be killed to show that she’s the most important part of someone else’s life. Yes, it is possible for someone’s death to be the most meaningful thing that ever happened to them, but that involves them owning their death. It’s not that the person has to exactly choose to die, but they are personally ascribing meaning to their own deaths when they die (think of saints, dying for their beliefs with God’s name on their lips). These women aren’t given the chance to do that and have no ownership over their fates. They are victims, period.

Think about the way that sentence is phrased. How she feels about him is irrelevant. It allows for a woman to be killed for a man who adores her and considers her the most important part of her life, thus making her death the “ultimate praise”, when she doesn’t even like him or know who he is. Obviously, this isn’t the typical case. But the meaning of someone’s life, even a fictional character’s life, can’t be what they mean to someone else. What do they feel? What do they want? They must have dreams, ambitions, wants of their own. They are people and even the most minor of characters should be assumed to be the center of their own story.

Again, this doesn’t mean that they can’t be attacked or provide motivation, but it does mean that we can’t treat their deaths as existing only for the hero who is left behind. Every character has the potential to act, not just be acted upon, and suggesting that the best a woman can hope for is to be loved best by someone else takes all of that away from her. Even if we never see her own life, never see her act individually, it should be assumed that she can and does do so. She must have other people in her life, other things she does (a job, hobbies, etc.). To do otherwise is to draw a paper cut-out, not a character, and that is a disservice to our hero.

I would say that this attitude is pretty disturbing, and when only female characters are seen this way, it is indeed sexist. But it doesn’t have to be. This would be just as bad were it applied to male characters being killed to prove that they’re the center of someone else’s world, too. And if it were only applied to male characters (as it appears to be only applied to female characters here, although I don’t think the author means it that way), it would be sexism that way. But sexism isn’t the problem here, it’s lack of allowing for human agency and understanding that no one can exist solely to be part of, even the center of, someone else’s world and be considered a fulfilled human being. Being loved is important, but you need to be a person and have some kind of agency too. Otherwise you’re a doll.

Power Fantasies

Power fantasies are a big deal these days. As much as videogames might come under attack from the media and activist groups, they also draw in new players from all around the world every year and many games are understood to be such fantasies. Tons of research has been done on power struggles in social interactions and communications (Deborah Tannen is the best writer I know of on this subject) and superheroes like Spider-Man and Superman are often seen as healthy male power fantasies. In short, we understand that men want to be strong and able to beat up bad guys and save the world. And if you think about it, the appeal is pretty easy to see. Why wouldn’t a guy want to be someone who’s able to be always in control, always able to protect the people he loves and unquestionably always on the side of right? So here’s the tricky question: what is a woman’s power fantasy?

The feminist answer would be “the same thing”, but the reality is always more complicated than that. Yes, women want those things too. That pretty much goes without saying. Except, sadly, it needs saying because many people don’t understand that a woman would want to protect her loved ones and be able to retain control of a situation and be always doing the right thing as well. So the question becomes, why do women want those things too? More than that, why do women need them?

Something that I forget a lot of times is that while women live lives always having to be somewhat on alert, always careful, men not only don’t have to do that, but they very often aren’t even aware that women do. Jennifer de Guzman wrote a brilliant post on her LiveJournal about this that really articulates it well:

As I wrote in my reply, I am kind of astounded that some men don’t see why physical empowerment would clearly be attractive for women. I think it’s intriguing to note that women often like the hot women who kick ass as much, if not more, than men do. Here’s what I think is behind that: As women, we are nearly constantly aware of physical threats. And those threats often are of being violated sexually. When I used to go to campus for night classes and people warned me to “be careful,” what they are saying was, essentially, “avoid getting raped.”

Now, what if, what if, as a woman, you could walk around, be sexually attractive and not have to feel threatened? What if all the rage you feel about women being victimized and brutalized could be channeled into pure, righteous ass-kicking? And, because you’re a woman, you could possibly do that ass-kicking without being seen as a testosterone Steven-Seagal-esque meathead. Ass-kicking fantasies for men are more about proving and retaining power, I think. For women, they’re about finding and asserting power when they’re not expected to have any.

That’s exactly it. That’s a really big reason why women, and even little girls, need power fantasies and superheroes of their own. But as brilliant as this post was, what made me really think about this was the reaction it elicited from Michael May over at Amazon Princess:

That makes so much sense I’m ashamed I never thought of it, at least not in those terms. I’ve been operating under the hypothesis that the attraction of Wonder Woman for women has a lot to do with confidence (and argued that that also makes her attractive to men – or at least to men like me), but Jennifer’s thoughts go deeper than that and explore at least one of the reasons why Wonder Woman can afford to be so confident. She’s gorgeous and she can damn well take care of herself.

So, yes, women do want and need superheroes. Little girls need superheroes. This isn’t to say that boys don’t need them, but why can’t we have both? If there can be three ongoing comics at the same time about Batman’s adventures in Gotham, surly there can be a little more room for real superheroines! There are so few comics highlighting superheroines (and at the rate Marvel’s going, fewer all the time) and the ones that do exist often feel like the neglected side projects that either got hastily put together while the writers focus on their real stories or are assigned to second-string artists and writers and never promoted in any way, giving them no chance to gain a real following. Even flagship characters get dropped and forgotten (how many times has Spider-Girl lost her book? when was the last time one of the DC editors even mentioned Wonder Woman’s book publicly?).

Women deserve more heroes. We deserve more games with heroes we can see ourselves in (and yes, if you read the above you’ll see that we do like them beautiful, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they all have to be naked and have DD-cup breasts, beauty is more complicated than that). We deserve more comics with kick-ass heroines. We deserve heroines with real female friendships, since women do occasionally interact with each other. I’d love – *LOVE* – to read a comic that passed the Bechdel Test, but since Birds of Prey ended I haven’t found one. I’d love to see as many little girls running around pretending to be Batgirl, Spider-Girl, Wonder Woman and Supergirl as I see little boys running around pretending to be Spider-Man, Superman, the Hulk and Batman. Maybe if more guys saw that girls could be heroes, more women would actually be safer in real life too. You never know.

The Women of DC – Kids Edition

In reading comic blogs and talking to other comic book readers I find that the way female characters are portrayed is a big and somewhat thorny topic. It shouldn’t be too hard to figure out that I’m not very fond of how most women are objectified in comic books. For the most part I find that when I go to the comic shop I’m staring at endless pin-up fantasy girls who I have serious trouble believing are superheroines because of the total lack of musculature and impractical footwear for roof-jumping, just to name a few of their problems.

But all of those comics are aimed at adults. When I decided to check out the current comics aimed at kids, I found some very different versions of some of the most iconic superheroines ever created than the ones you see just a few feet away on the adult shelves.

A typical little girl in our culture is most likely to have heard of Supergirl, Batgirl and Wonder Woman. Sadly, Marvel has no female characters nearly this iconic, especially for little girls. So those were the characters I payed most attention to. Johnny DC is the DC Comics imprint has aimed at kids right now. Looking through their current titles I managed to easily find Wonder Woman, Supergirl and Batgirl along with all the Teen Titan and Legion girls and a number of villainous women as well.

Supergirl just finished up her very own mini series called Supergirl: Cosmic Adventures in the Eighth Grade and it was wonderful. It was well written and funny. Supergirl actually felt like a kid lost and trying to figure things out. She looked good and even though she messed up a lot (as first time heroes tend to do), she felt heroic. I could easily believe that she was a hero, if for no other reason than she tried really hard even when things got tough. Nothing about her was objectified, she was portrayed (visually) as a regular girl, as was every other girl in her series.

Batgirl appears in The Batman Strikes. Her costume is totally redesigned (purple, like the 1960s TV show, but with a skirt over the bodysuit and other stylistic changes) and she’s younger than we’ve ever seen her. Despite being so much younger, she’s still on her own and able to hold her own. She’s compitent, clever and strong. The story I read had her fighting with and against Catwoman, Harley Quinn and Poison Ivy and it never felt like she was not in control or outnumbered at all. This is a great portrayal of a smart young heroine with no powers and no real mentor (Batman mentors Robin, not her) who totally kicks butt.

Wonder Woman appears in DC Super Friends, which is sort of the newest kid-friendly incarnation of the Justice League. It’s the adventures of Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Green Lantern, Flash and Aquaman. Notice that Wonder Woman is the only woman here? The art style is sort of a blocky, squashed toy-like style (obviously designed to look like the toy line). This actually really works for Wonder Woman. Rather than being wasp-waisted and super lean, she actually looks as strong and powerful as the men around her. The artists on this comic vary and some make her less muscular and more hourglass-shaped than others, but it’s never as bad as she’s usually drawn. She’s still smaller than the men are, but I have absolutely no problem believing this woman is a warrior just from looking at her. The stories are cute and all about teamwork and cooperation and things like that, but the idea of being a superhero is very much there.

I can definitely imagine a little girl aspiring to be like any one of these heroines from reading these comics, and the letters at the back attest to that happening. Capes aren’t just for boys and Johnny DC has definitely given girls some great superheroines to pretend to be as they wear their capes! I would absolutely recommend any of these titles to kids of either gender. Thank you DC for giving kids some great images of female heroes! I’d like to see the female characters take less of a backseat and have more staring roles, like the Supergirl mini-series, but at least this is a good start.

An Arguement for Passive Powers

I doubt it will come as a big surprise to anyone that superheroes and all things related to them are a common topic of conversation in my life right now. For the most part, these have been fun, light discussions about superhero lore, favorite types of characters and storylines, even a discussion about the colors of the Lantern Corps and the implications of that recent breakdown. I had two discussions yesterday, however, that got me thinking about different kinds of powers and how perhaps passive powers aren’t given enough respect. I really want to thank K., in particular, since it was the discussion with her that got me thinking about powers in this way. I’m going to start playing City of Heroes again this week with some friends and the discussion I had with her really put me into an interesting frame of mind when I was sitting down to consider what powers to take for a new character in the game.

Super powers can be categorized in many, many different kinds of ways, but one way of looking at them is as “active” or “passive”. “Active” powers are powers that act outwardly and upon something else – laser eyebeams that shoot things, flame powers that burn things, lantern rings that create things, and sonic calls that stun people and break objects are all examples of powers that act on something other than the superhero who wields them. “Passive” powers act for the user, most commonly as protective or telepathic types of powers, and do not typically forcibly affect something other than the person possessing the power – telepathy, shapechanging, force fields and invisibility are all typical “passive” powers.

The thing about powers, though, is that they are really only tools. In the hands of an idiot a flame shooter will still make fire, but what if you give it to a genius? What might she do with it? Probably more than just make fire, but whatever she does is still likely to involve flames.

Now what about a force field? The most obvious use of it is to protect. You put up a force field and nothing hits you. But what if you make it more portable, as Violet did in The Incredibles? It’s not really anything more than just a simple force field, but it’s hard to deny that surrounding a speedster with it was a clever use (combining two passive powers, by the way). But what if you wanted to do even more with it? What else can a force field do? Well, as Sue Storm illustrates in the panels here, it can easily be used to punch holes in things. She’s also been known to use her force fields to stop up the air passages of her enemies, and to block the passages to their hearts. Clever uses indeed, and not likely what the writers who originally decided to give her the power intended!

And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Superspeed is a passive power, but the Flash can do any number of amazing things with it, the most common of which is creating funnel clouds that lift or push things and people around (including himself). Rogue of the X-Men has what is arguably the most passive power of all – she “borrows” other people’s powers. This allows her to do some pretty amazing things, however, and she is considered one of the most powerful members of the team because of her ability to turn the tide of a battle so effectively with her unique power. The Martian Manhunter of the Justice League is telepathic and telekinetic and this allows him to not only know if someone is telling him the truth, but also to find hidden memories they didn’t even know they had and to shapeshift into incredibly powerful creatures (dragon-like serpents are a favorite of his).

And yet, passive powers are generally not as desirable as active ones. The established characters have a pretty good spread of both (although the female characters tend to be more likely to have passive powers than the male ones). But open a superhero themed video game and try to make a character with passive powers and you will find that it’s extremely difficult. Superspeed is about the only one reliably there. Force fields, shapeshifting, any kind of telepathy (even telekinesis), all are largely unheard of in videogames.

I can definitely see how passive powers could be more difficult to program, especially since effective use of them generally involves some creativity, but they seem absent even in their uncreative forms. Force fields could be very useful, even if you can’t kill or push someone with them. Controlled shapeshifting could be a fun element as well, especially since it could give a character access to a set of powers they only have while in their other form. Personally, I’d love to see these. I’d love to see more interesting powers and more creative uses of traditional powers in general. And perhaps, when it gets right down to it, that’s why I find passive powers so interesting – because they foster creativity so very effectively.

Obviously, this isn’t the most organized of posts, but I’m still pondering these things and I doubt that I’m going to come to any satisfying conclusions any time soon. I’d love to hear other people’s thoughts on powers in general and the way that videogames use them, so if you have anything to share, please comment!

Some examples of types of passive powers and characters with them:
Telepathy/Telekinesis: The Martian Manhunter, Jean Gray, Professor X, Marvel Girl
Force Fields: The Invisible Woman, Violet Incredible
Borrowing/Mimicking: Rogue, Mimic, Synch
Superspeed: The Flash, Dash Incredible
Shapechanging/Stretching: The Martian Manhunter, Elongated Man, Mr. Fantastic, Elastigirl, The Wasp
Teleportation: Misfit, Spectre, Nightcrawler
Healing Factor: Wolverine, Spider-Man, Captain Marvel