From the dawn of the Golden Age of Comics, there has been one overlooked group of people that has faced the most adversity and struggled more than any other to find a place in comics: straight white men. At this year’s TCAF, a panel of talented comics creators tackled the important, yet controversial, issue of male representation in comics. Moderated by Eleri Harris, deputy editor at the Nib, the panel featured artists known for their powerful and nuanced portrayals of male comic characters — Caitlin Major (Manfried the Man), Iasmin Omar Ata (Mis(h)adra), Sheika Lugtu (Cow House Press), and Sanya Anwar (1001).
As a parody of the kind of insufferable panels women are often expected to endure, there was a fair share of jokes. “I’m uniquely qualified to write men,” Caitlin Major suggested at one point. “I mean, I have a dad.” For favorite male characters, it was proposed that they should make a male version of She-Hulk or Superwoman. “You should know, men can be powerful and sexy at the same time,” Sheika Lugtu assured the audience.
In all seriousness, being able to attend this brilliant panel at TCAF was a privilege. Unfortunately, the comics community is such that panels about women in comics frequently leave a lot to be desired. Often featuring only male panelists, the topics of discussion commonly focus on woman-identified characters who are written by men and are often subjected to the objectification of the male gaze. Seeing a room full of comics fans applaud a panel featuring no men for being so brave to portray men in their comics was hilarious but also a breath of fresh air.
When the discussion turned more substantial, it focused on the differences in the ways men and women are portrayed in comics. It’s easy to focus on the substandard ways that women are often portrayed, either as one-dimensional characters that lack depth and nuance or as existing purely to be stereotypically attractive to the male gaze. But actually, it’s that same attitude that causes many writers to be afraid of depicting men as vulnerable or exploring their insecurities, which ironically also traps them in one-dimensional archetypes. Iasmin Omar Ata expressed that when they illustrated a man in their comic as having a lot of body hair, it was striking for a lot of men who had never really seen a character in comics who represented how they actually looked.
Conversation did also focus on the need for representations of more male body types in comics. There’s a big difference between what a straight man thinks an attractive man looks like — wide, muscular and powerful — and the kind of man many women are actually attracted to, which is often more lean and with more feminine features. It was noted that male characters drawn by women frequently do have more diverse body types and it was posited that perhaps women are more willing to admit what they like.
Honestly, the panel was beautiful. On the one hand, legitimate points were being made about the importance of representing a better variety of men’s bodies in comics. But on the other hand, it was also so unusual to see a group of non-men speaking very seriously about how we can make men in comics more attractive to the female gaze. The way parody and actual social commentary danced around each other and blended together was a wonderful thing to behold. And I hope the success of this panel means that more people realize the importance of giving some stage time at comics shows to the plight of straight white males.