Political Issues: The Self Fulfilling Misogyny of “Seminal” Comics

Content Warning: Femicide, rape, and the violence of misogyny

All art is political. This seems to be a controversial statement, but to me it has always seemed objectively correct. Making art is an inherently political act; you bring your own feelings, lived experiences, and subjective beliefs to anything you create. Even the choice of what art you consume in itself can be a radical political act, as you choose to support certain artists or stories above others, select where your money and attention goes, and whom it goes to. It is a learning curve; as a kid I read what I wanted, what was popular, or easily available to me, but as I’ve grown my tastes have evolved. For a long time now my focus has been on supporting stories by marginalised creators and narratives that are often ignored. Not only are these books wonderful and crafted with passion and unbelievable talent, but the people telling them are changing the face of the comics industry as we know it.

That’s why it’s never been surprising to me that comics and politics are intrinsically linked. Science fiction and fantasy have long been used as analogs for political storytelling and as a way of getting subversive ideas into the mainstream consciousness. The idea that politics in comics are somehow new or diluting what comics really “are” is clearly the battle cry of sad men who haven’t read any of the comics that they claim to love (and worship with a terrifying level of idolatry) on a regular basis.

“Stop politicizing my comics by writing a nine-year-old black girl as the main protagonist,” cries the sad male comic fan, wiping his tears on the corner of his Watchmen (arguably the most seminal political comic of all time, a scathing attack on the Vietnam war, Imperialism, and Nixon’s America) t-shirt as he stares at the poster of The Dark Knight Returns (a book almost entirely centered on the Cold War and allegorical to America’s relationship with Soviet Russia) on his wall and wishes for a simpler time when comics were about stories (and men) not *shudder* politics.

The Comedian, Watchmen
Watchmen (C) DC COMICS 1986 Alan Moore, Dave Gibbons and John Higgins

The idea of a time when apolitical comics were the norm is a fallacy. That holds especially true when we look at which comics are lauded as groundbreaking or seminal. It’s often the stories that deal with the (basic) ideas of fascism and dystopian governments–or ones which are analogs for the political struggles of the time–that are remembered as the most important.

As comics reflect life and political struggle, often life reflects the stories that we read. In 2016, many terrifying and dystopian things came to life that seemed straight out of a comic book. Frank Miller’s computer generated, ex-child star puppet president from the television screens of his dark (and ultimately) defining portrait of Gotham was elected in America. Comics’ favourite go-to generic badguy gang–“The Nazis”–made a fevered mainstream comeback by helping the aforementioned president get elected, re-branding themselves as the “Alt-Right,” and creating a public wave of out and proud white nationalism that had previously been confined to Reddit, Twitter, and their own living rooms.

Prescience in the dark knight strikes back (Donald trump)
Donald Trump 2016 (C) Forbes. The Dark Knight Strikes Again 2001 (C) Frank Miller, Lynn Varley and Todd Klein.

However, this isn’t something that just began last year. At some point in 2015, there were murmurings in UK political circles about a potential porn ban. One that, under then-Prime Minister David Cameron, would protect the “moral purity” of the country. One that would define what, who, and how people could enjoy pornography. The United Kingdom’s history of moral outrage and censorship is long and storied. In the last year before his resignation, Cameron often talked about wanting to return to the halcyon days of the BBFC’s reign of terror over the film industry. The Porn Ban represents perfectly the archaic, Orwellian vision that shaped Cameron’s ideas about respectability in modern Britain.

Decades before this particular idea had become part of the government’s rhetoric, Alan Moore wrote about a shocking piece of moral policing–the media and government’s vile homophobic threats to house all HIV-positive men in concentration camps to “stop the AIDS epidemic”–in the forward for his book with David Lloyd in V For Vendetta. Following a Guy Fawkes mask wearing anarchist in a dystopian future as he fights a tyrannical fascist government, the book paints a bleak version of Britain that Moore was clearly worried we were moving closer toward, if not already living in.

Though Moore’s intentions were noble–to highlight the injustices of Thatcher’s oppressive regime–and his storytelling detailed and complex, in reading the book now, it’s ironically Moore’s protagonist V who becomes a simple analog for the future he feared–Britain today–and the ways that laws like the porn ban infringe on very specific members of society. Far from being broad legislation to protect the many, they are regularly targeted specifically to target the few.

A large portion of the book is dedicated to the imprisonment of V’s sixteen year old female protege, who finds a letter from a former prisoner and is inspired to chose death over collaboration. It is then revealed that V was in fact the one who was imprisoning her all along because he wanted to teach her about his struggle–he had once been a political prisoner–rather than focusing on hers. The targeted punishment of women for morality lessons and political gain is something V shares with the current UK government and their consistently misogynist and racist legislation.

Evie kisses V, V for Vendetta
V For Vendetta (C) DC COMICS 1988 Alan Moore, David Lloyd, Jenny O Conner, Elitta Fell, Siobhan Dobbs and Steve Whitaker

The porn ban itself combines an interesting mix of obsessive repression of female sexuality and massive data collection. It’s about as fun as it sounds. If you look at the acts that have been specified by the ban, they are largely focused on sex acts that tend to be pleasurable for people with vaginas. No longer can you freely enjoy the wonders of face-sitting. Enjoy “female” (vaginal) ejaculation? Not any more. Other acts that are now illegal for people to watch online in the UK (many of these acts were already banned in porn produced in the UK after 2014 anti-porn legislation) include sex acts with menstruation, inserting more than four fingers into an orifice, and any spanking, whipping, or caning that leaves marks.

Our sexuality is policed daily through oppressive legislation, in misogynistic and racist media (women of colour suffer from this oppression at a far greater level and cost), and in our daily interactions with people who don’t respect our agency as human beings. All of this stems from the impact of the very real white supremacist patriarchal structure that holds up the version of society that we live within. The desperation to define and repress women, their sexuality/lack of it, and freedoms runs deep within our culture, and often the seemingly radical answer to this repression is to be overtly sexual, to own, and direct that part of yourself fully. It’s a way I have coped for many many years, and if you are woman this is your choice to make, and I will always support you in it fully, but as women we contain multitudes and when men see this as the only radical response it quickly becomes toxic.

Frank Miller is a key example of a creator who attempted to sexualise women as a form of subversion, failing at almost every turn. He is one of comics’ original problematic faves. If you grew up loving comics you likely heard his name in hushed tones. The comic book rogue who “single handedly”–with the help of Lynn Varley and Klaus Janson–created the first honest book about everyone’s favourite fascist who spends millions to dress up and beat down the poor each night. A comic book icon who no one could have ever guessed might secretly be harbouring those very same feelings as a certain Bruce Wayne. I’m being ridiculous, of course. If you couldn’t see the underlying fascism and misogyny in Miller’s work, it’s simply because you didn’t want to.

Violent misogyny from Frank Miller's Dark Knight Returns
The Dark Knight Returns (C) DC COMICS 1986 Frank Miller, Lynn Varley, Klaus Jansen and John Costanza

To understand Miller we have to look at the climate of comics in the ’80s, a time when comics were once again selling steadily after the uncertainty of the ’70s. This was much in part because publishers recognised that the market they should be focused on was no longer the children of yesteryear but the adult audience–read that as men–of their day. In 1982, Marvel’s creator owned Epic Comics imprint and set the stage with books like Jim Starlin’s Dreadstar. Whilst at now defunct studio Eclipse, Don McGregor’s Sabre was ongoing after becoming one of the first OGNs years earlier. And Alan Moore was beginning his post modern reboot of Marvelman in Warrior–who became Miracleman, but is now back to Marvelman–as well as a decades long legal battle that would haunt his career. These successes didn’t go unnoticed, and in 1986, these tremors became waves when two releases shook up the entire comics industry.

With the publication of Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns, the legacy of comics in the ’80s was cemented. These critically acclaimed books that were aimed solely at an adult audience would soon become the new normal, creating a market that thrived on dark, gritty stories. Ones that all too often depended on the trauma of women as the water mark for their authentic, bleak nature, because what’s more tragic and disposable than a woman’s agency? Trauma is nothing but a simple narrative decision to make your audience feel sympathy for a female character and the men who’re around her. Maybe just kill a woman to further the character arc of a man whose story will always be more important than hers. This kind of storytelling set up a dangerous precedent for women in comics, not only as characters in the stories themselves but more importantly as readers and fans.

To be a woman is to constantly relive your own trauma. No matter where you go or what you do, it’s likely that you’ll often come up against things that remind you of memories you would rather forget. Being a woman who reads comics is no different. Pick up many of the seminal works in comics and you’ll come face to face with the man who wrapped his hot hands around your neck, pushed your face into a pillow, and didn’t stop no matter how many times you said no. Often you’ll flick through the pages of a book that many have recommended to you and reunite with the one who thought that their life would be better without you in it, who chose to try and end your life rather than your relationship. Female pain is regularly spread across the pages and panels for entertainment.

The Comedian rapes the first Silk Spectre, Watchmen
Watchmen (C) DC COMICS 1986 Alan Moore, Dave Gibbons and John Higgins

There are those who will argue that a story is just that, a story. Yet these constant narratives of women as objects who can be disposed of, harmed, or killed at the whim of men do have real world consequences. In the UK, two women a week are murdered by their partners. This is a very real epidemic that people seem happy to ignore or deny, because our pain is seen to breed strength. If we die it’s a tragedy, but at least we were fighters whilst we lived. This toxic message is one that kills hundreds of women a year and that the government actively seems to support.

With the constant creation of racist misogynistic legislation that takes away vital resources from domestic violence charities and shelters, the UK government enables this mass murder of the most vulnerable women. Once again, these legislations are targeted at certain demographics. On the whole they affect women, but in the immediate they affect marginalised women more than others. Recent statistics show that only one out of every four women of colour who tries to receive a place in a temporary shelter will get one. Women of colour are also statistically more likely to be killed by a partner, which makes those numbers even more chilling.

Women protest for domestic violence resources to be made available to immigrants, in London
Sisters Uncut London Protest – Photo Credit: The Telegraph 2016

Recently, Sunderland became the first major city in the UK to have no women’s refugee or domestic violence support services after the council announced millions in cuts. An entire city, where thousands of women live, thousands need help and a government who hears their cries decided that there are more important things to focus on. So they leave them to die. It seems that the dystopian political landscapes that creators were envisioning so frequently under Thatcher weren’t so far into the future after all.

The odd thing is that the impact of these books has ended up as something far more than just an acute hyper-awareness of what was to come in reality. These aggressive, dark books would in later years become defining relics of “what comic books should be.” They established their own bleak internal legacy, one where women were sidelined as plot devices, murdered, and raped as emotional tools to further male character arcs and written off as uninteresting unless they were traumatised.

In the end, these books and their creators ended up drafting the blueprint for the next 30 years of how women would be treated in comics, in the comics industry, and also often in the wide world.

Rosie Knight

Rosie Knight

writer. fake geek girl. makes comics, occasionally sells some.