The Misadventures of Comic Book Girl

by Caitlin Donovan

The last thing that a perky young fan expects to hear at a comic convention is the writer the panel is centered on saying he has fantasized about shooting girls like her in the face. When it happened, my mouth went dry, like a loaded weapon had actually been leveled at me. My lips felt blubbery and heavy and my insides turned to jelly. Nevertheless, I raised my shaking fingers and kept my eyes on the scraggly-bearded face of this man who apparently hated me. I was going to let him know I was in the room, that I had heard what he thought of me. Being invisible seemed to be the default state for a female superhero comic book fan, but I wanted to be heard.

When I was thirteen, I got into comics through a love for crime-fighting cartoons. Before actually sitting through an episode of Teen Titans, I’d been convinced that most female superheroes were just token girls who were there to wear a skimpy skirt and look pretty while the macho men flexed their muscles. But actually watching the cartoons showed girls with different personalities, powers, and roles struggling against the forces of evil. I’d always secretly fantasized about saving the day and punching evil in the face. I was a powerless girl who could only sit and listen to her parents fight and who could only hiss and spit when people looked down on her. So the idea of becoming someone else—someone in bright colors who could combat the injustices of the world with a smart mouth and a pair of fists—naturally appealed to me. Before I knew it, I was at a local comic book store, wide-eyed at the array of colorful titles offered. There were a lot of different groups, and a lot of the titles even headlined women. There was a rich and complicated continuity to get into, but I’d always been fond of extensive backstories and webs of complex character relationships, so it was no problem for me.

My favorite character quickly became Stephanie Brown. She was a determined girl from a lower-class family with a criminal father. Despite having very little training, she rebelled against her dad and fought crime with nothing but her athletic ability and tenacity. She had to deal with realistic problems like unwanted pregnancy and a mother addicted to prescription medication, but she remained cheerful and snarky despite the dark world around her. She didn’t let anyone tell her what to do, even Batman, the Alpha male of the comic book universe. She eventually became Batman’s first female Robin—the Girl Wonder.

There was just one problem. Her tenure as Robin lasted only three issues before she was fired from her post and gruesomely killed off. She was tortured with a power drill by a male villain, then shot in the chest and kicked down a flight of stairs. Her death was blamed on her in-story: it was her fault she died because she simply wasn’t cut out for the job of being Batman’s sidekick. She did not get a memorial like other dead heroes. She was simply forgotten.

This sort of thing was not an uncommon fate for female superheroes. A term had even been coined for it, “Women in Refrigerators, named after the infamous comic where Green Lantern found his girlfriend’s corpse nicely cooled for him in his fridge courtesy of the sadistic villain of the week. Female superheroes and love interests of the male heroes alike were constantly being killed, raped or de-powered to give the men around them some all-important angst. What drew me to superhero comics was the wide variety of women fighting crime in funny costumes, but within the story, the women were considered disposable. Race was an issue, too. Stephanie’s best friend was Cassandra Cain, a young Eurasian woman who acted as Batgirl. She happened to be the only member of Batman’s supporting cast who wasn’t chalk-white. Not long after Stephanie died, Cassandra turned inexplicably evil and her switch in moral code coincided with a convenient drop in her fighting abilities so she could lose to her righteous male opponent in a full Dragon-Lady makeover complete with ruby lips, blood-red nails and cackling galore.

Despite the problems within the comics themselves, I found the comic book nerd community to be quite accepting at first. As many women seemed to come into my local comic shop as men, and there was a small but thriving feminist comic book fan community online. Forums like headed letter campaigns to comics companies demanding better treatment for characters like Stephanie and Cassandra, and sites like When Fangirls Attack did a weekly roundup that linked all the posts made about women in comics. I started up my own blog and made several friends, including an expert on Wonder Woman and a fan-artist who did excellent comic strips parodying DC Comics. I assumed that everyone in the community was like this, and the comics simply hadn’t caught up with their audience yet.

Wandering outside the specifically feminist communities and into general comic book forums provided my first clue that there was in fact a clear divide between “me” and “them.” I tried dipping my toes in one comics forum, and was surprised to find when I stated what I took to be fact (that female heroes were put in skimpy costumes and sexualized poses and that this was likely one of the reasons a lot of women weren’t attracted to comics), the members immediately started a heated argument with me. I was deluged with defensive statements and questions they clearly weren’t interested in having answered because they’d already decided the answer for themselves. There was nothing wrong with women being sexy! Men were objectified in comics too; haven’t you seen those muscles? “You gals” couldn’t complain because these men were exaggeratedly strong and in shape! I put together a handy list of links and pointed my opponent to the great number of resources outlining the issues with women in comics, but he told me all that proved was “there are a lot of angry young women out there who feel left out.” This baffled me. Why would he want to admit that comics are shutting out a potential audience, especially considering how much the industry was struggling?

It wasn’t until I got a job at my comic shop that I got into real life debates. Comic Envy was three minutes away from my house in Asheville. It was small and struggling, but the merchandise was varied, the service was good and the guy who ran it, Darrin, was incredibly friendly and also had a wife, young son and baby daughter, who hung around a lot. He would laugh with and tease them, and he had that sort of jovial manner with everyone. It wasn’t the kind of creepy, dimly lit comic shop that was full of pictures of half-naked women and run by a man with a neck-beard, the kind of shop female fans told horror stories about.

I was among Darrin’s first customers, and when I was seventeen I asked for a job and he gave me one. I sometimes feared I was more of a burden than a help, but I loved the job. I was a background fixture in the comic shop, stacking up white boxes, sealing the colored pamphlets in airtight plastic and reinforcing them with cardboard backing like they were precious museum pieces. Occasionally I would clumsily ring up a customer. The job allowed me to hear a lot of nerd debates, typically of the “who-would-win-in-a-fight” variety, the kind I considered myself far too discerning to be interested in. But I broke this golden rule one day when two customers engaged in an intense debate about comic book theology as I bagged and boarded behind them.

“So, if the superheroes in the DC Universe were gods…obviously, Batman would have to be part of the pantheon. And Superman. And the Flash. And Green Lantern…and…”

Now that all the big-name white dudes had been covered, of course they were stumped, I thought to myself. I wasn’t particularly interested in this train of thought, but I decided to offer up Wonder Woman.

The men’s heads jerked around simultaneously, as if they had thought it was a voiceless apparition who had been sealing plastic bags beside them for the past ten minutes. They were both pale and brunette with nondescript features. They would have been interchangeable, except one was larger and wore a baseball cap.

“No. Not Wonder Woman,” said the larger one.

“But…why? Wonder Woman is an actual goddess. The Greek Gods created her. She has gifts of the gods. She became the Goddess of Truth that one time she died.”

“Yeah, but that’s it, she had to be made a Goddess when she died. In [insert random comic book issue number here] Zeus said Superman was a cosmological being. She’s not as powerful as Superman so she doesn’t get to be in the pantheon,” he said, as if that should be blindingly obvious to anyone in this shop.

I could have pointed out that Batman was not as powerful as Superman or Wonder Woman and yet got to be included if I hadn’t been too busy sputtering at the last statement: “But…she can hold her own in a fight against Superman. She can beat him. She’s done so multiple times in the comics.”

“No, she can’t.”

Yes, she can.” I reamed off my own list of issue numbers as examples.

“Yeah, it’s crap. Superman has heat vision, so he should be more powerful because he has a long-range weapon. He’s also stronger.”

“I like Wonder Woman, though,” his friend protested. I was almost touched by this unexpected show of support.

“You can like her all you want, but you can’t deny she’s not as strong,” my opponent lectured him. His friend shrugged noncommittally at this and looked back at me, choosing neutrality over opposing a bro.

“Strength isn’t everything,” I shot out. “She has warrior training and faster reflexes than him because of it. I heard that was confirmed in the most recent Justice League. As for long range weapons, she has an endless and unbreakable lasso and her tiara can behead—”

“Yeah, she has TOYS.”

Weapons that she can use effectively…and it’s her own power that’s connected to the lasso, which again, is an instrument of the gods—”

I could feel my face heating up and the burning feeling in my chest seemed entirely too intense for an argument about which fictional character could fight better. It was him and his smug expression, his curled lip and dismissive eyes, and his absolute refusal to accept that a woman could ever be included in his little collection of idols. Any woman would have to force her way into this boy’s club, the same way this stupid chick had forced her way into his comic shop and his conversation. I suddenly wished I had my own lasso of truth so I could make him admit it. It would be so much easier for everyone.

“C’mon, Caitlin, you have to get to work bagging these over here,” Darrin called. I jerked my head towards him as the man I was arguing with guffawed. “You better stop giving her orders, Darrin, or she’ll tie you up and take over the shop like a strong woman should!”

I clenched my fists so hard that my knuckles cracked under my thumbs. I kept my arms stiff and looked away, my hair covering my face. One minute, I had felt like I was part of the architecture of this store, just another geek in geek heaven, but now I had been singled out—labeled—by this guy as some raging man hater who didn’t belong here. I walked away as he hollered at the back of my head, “Hey, just kidding! You’re way too intense about this!”

My first comic book convention only gave me more fuel for my “intensity.” Though there were several women at the con, I still caught the eyes of roving packs of boys. As I rode down the escalator to the packed room of colorful booths and spandex-clad fans, I noticed the group of boys on the opposite stairwell openly staring at my chest. I convinced myself they must be looking at the Wonder Woman T-shirt. They couldn’t be staring at my breasts; those things had never been ample enough to garner attention. But maybe they were, because as the boys swarmed away I heard one of their deep voices echoing, “a lot more ladies at the con this year.” I let the escalator carry me down, not quite believing I had heard right.

I continued to draw attention at the conventions every year, mostly for loudly making my opinions known at panels. During one event, the Chief Editor at DC Comics asked all of the attendants what the first comic we had ever read was. He gave me a very weird look when I responded “Archie.” I blushed, but wondered what he expected from me. Little girls didn’t go into comic shops. It’s not like I could have found one of his titles at a local grocery store. He may have found me odd, but his assistant editor liked me enough that she wrote about my “smart and forthright opinions” in the weekly column that ran in the back of the comic books, referring to me by name and pegging people like me as the future of the industry. I remember squealing in the middle of the library when I found those words in the back of my Supergirl. I vowed to continue to be “forthright.” I caused a stir when I dared to thank an artist for giving Supergirl shorts under her skirt. This prompted a lot of Internet journalism about the simple article of fictional clothing, and also motivated a bulky guy at a booth of convention merchandise to thrust a meaty arm in my face, displaying a tattoo of Supergirl.

She doesn’t wear shorts,” he said, trembling with defiance.

“That’s...that’s nice…” I decided not to purchase anything from this booth.

I grew into adulthood and comics didn’t seem to be changing at all. All the female-driven titles I followed seemed to get canceled one after another. The assistant editor who had praised me eventually left the company. I could still cause a stir at conventions simply by being myself, but, in the end, people didn’t really listen to me. I pointed out at a panel that a lot of characters of color were being killed off in order for white heroes to take over, but editor Ian Sattler’s response was, “We don’t see it that way… I mean we have green, pink and blue characters!” He also thanked me for being more “polite” than the other girl at the panel, who had made her dissatisfaction with the company very clear. It didn’t feel like a compliment.

The worst panel I ever experienced was one centered on Bill Willingham, the man who had written Stephanie Brown’s gruesome death at the behest of the editors. The letter campaign to get Stephanie some respect had actually had an impact, and Stephanie’s death had recently been reversed. Her death had been faked! Batman knew about it since Batman knows everything, hence the lack of memorials! Welcome back to Gotham, Stephanie, hope you aren’t too cold from your stay in the fridge! The whole thing had given me hope that fans like me really could get the industry to listen to us and change.

I felt the familiar sensation of a slight punch in the gut when a guy in the audience complained to Willingham about Stephanie being bought back. But that gut-punch quickly turned to the feeling of being hit by a truck when the writer responded, “You know, all those girls were constantly riding us about her death…I won’t lie, I just wanted to shoot some of them in the face.”

I had written letters “riding them” about the death. So it felt like he’d fantasized about doing violence to me, simply because I’d spoken out. Granted, he probably hadn’t expected one of “those girls” to hear him say this. I was one of the few girls in the room, and I was wedged way in the back. Nevertheless, I felt like a burning spotlight was on me. I had to say something. I couldn’t let this go unchallenged.

I raised a hesitant hand and croaked a little to call attention to myself. “I-I that’s a…why would you say that…you shouldn’t be angry at people for being passionate about characters…”

“Oh no, we love your passion,” he flashed me a large white grin as he looked right through me. “It’s great to get fans angry. It means they’re talking about the comics. They get angry, you know, but they keep buying anyway.” He laughed. I couldn’t bring myself to speak anymore.

I reported what he had said later over my blog. Willingham caught wind of it, and his response was to deny over Twitter he had ever said such a thing, despite the roomful of witnesses who had heard him. I suppose he must have felt secure that no one would care to back me up. He was a comic book big shot and I was just some girl. He could get away with the lie. The readers of my blog believed me, and one of them even tried to write about it; but in the face of overwhelming opposition, all we could do was write it off as just another awful day of being a feminist comic book fan.

I suppose what kept me going after that was that as repugnant as Bill Willingham was, there were professionals in the industry I trusted. Gail Simone, the woman who had coined the “Woman in Refrigerators” term, was pretty much DC’s only female writer, but she was an open feminist who wrote women consistently well and actually talked to her fans online. She was only one woman, but I considered her “one of us” and held out hope she and people like her could change the industry from within.

But even Gail seemed to be toeing the company line after a while. She defended the blow-up doll art on one of her books by saying the artist’s style was “sleek and sexy”. She started claiming the trend she had named was mostly dying out now, though I saw absolutely no evidence of this. When people criticized something she wrote, she was always quick to remind us she was one of the most progressive in the industry. “Yeah, but in the comics industry, that’s not saying much,” a fan replied. I still liked her, but I was more wary than I had been before.

My trust in her was shattered completely when a “reboot” of DC Comics meant that Barbara Gordon, the only disabled hero in comics, was going to be “fixed” so she could return to her “iconic” status of Batgirl. This meant that this character was leaving her unique identity as the independent team leader Oracle to go back to being a distaff counterpart of Batman, and that put all of the other women who had taken on the Batgirl role (both Stephanie Brown and Cassandra Cain, by amazing coincidence) out of a job, and they promptly disappeared from the comics entirely. Gail defended this erasure of a disabled character even though it also meant the erasure of other female characters. She was even going to write the new Batgirl title. Gail might not have had a choice. It was entirely possible she secretly opposed the decision, but felt since they were going to do it whether she liked it or not, she might as well be the one to write it. But her support lent legitimacy to the move, since people saw her as an ally and it seemed like a ploy by the company to quell the protest. It was clearer to me than ever that Gail was not allowed to be truly honest with her fans.

I felt as if the last thread connecting me to comics had been snapped. Why was I still doing this? I was giving them my money when they gave me back nothing but scorn. It was all under the pretense of “not giving up” because I deserved to enjoy these characters and deserved to believe the industry could change. I liked to feel like I was “fighting them.” But Gail Simone had “fought” them too, only to become one of them in the end. Would that happen to me if I kept buying? These people didn’t deserve me as a customer.

So I broke away. I still loved the art form, so I drifted more towards manga. Manga are Japanese comics. They cover a wide variety of genres and the artists typically work separately and generally have creative control over their own storylines. There was still a lot of sexism, but the wider range of titles allowed me to avoid the worst of it and find some pretty feminist stuff, and I didn’t feel as suffocated by an insular, inbred industry. It was nice to read titles like Sailor Moon, where the women were superheroes in no danger of being fridged for male angst, because the story was really all about these women and there were no “more popular” male heroes for their characters to be sacrificed at the altar of. There were also a lot more female artists to discover—I didn’t have to pin my hopes on one “Gail Simone.”

I still go to the comic book store and keep in touch with the community. I’ll never give up my Wonder Woman shirt. I love the characters and I love the potential of comics. I have my own idea for a superhero epic and if I can find a talented artist or improve my own skills, maybe I can publish it myself someday. I may have let the boys have their clubhouse, but it’s falling apart on them. I can work on building my own, and when it’s done, I’ll invite everyone in.

Caitlin Donovan was born and raised in Asheville and is currently pursuing a major in Creative Writing and a minor in Women, Gender and Sexuality Studies at UNC Asheville. Caitlin works as an editorial intern for The Great Smokies Review and as an editor for Headwaters Creative Arts Magazine. “The Misadventures of Comic Book Girl” was published in the 2012 edition of Headwaters along with her short story “The Blank Space” and her poem “Pale Girl.” “The Misadventures of Comic Book Girl” won the 2012 Wilma Dykeman award for Creative Nonfiction.

About The Misadventures of Comic Book Girl–I have been passionate about both social justice and the art of storytelling for as long as I can remember. I wrote this because I believe that popular culture and the communities that celebrate it hold up a mirror to the larger truths about our society. I believe a light should be shone on both the positive experience of joining with others to celebrate human creation and the little-known exclusionary and problematic aspects of these communities. I only hope my piece can help open some eyes about these little known experiences that speak of a much larger issue.