Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Suggested Readings in Comics

Art by Duncan Fegredo
Growing up as I did amongst actors, singers, painters, potters, mimes, sword-swallowers, tightrope walkers, heavy metal musicians, master craftsmen, and all and sundry sorts of outcast and weird, I developed into a rather unusual child. 'Loud' is not a strong enough descriptor, 'frantic' too subtle a word, 'dramatic' a gross understatement. It drove my teachers mad--they yelled, they chastised--in first grade, my student report said that I would 'never amount to anything'. The only thing that didn't seem to get me in trouble was drawing, because when I was drawing, I was quiet. So I drew. When adults asked what I wanted to be when I grew up, I said I was going to 'draw comic books'.

I loved comics as a child--well, I loved the pictures. I'd flip through, taking inspiration for my little sketches of minotaurs, heroes, robots, dinosaurs, snake women--the usual. I never really had two issues in order, so reading comics always felt like walking into a movie halfway through. In college, I found self-contained graphic novels, and actually started enjoying comics for the story. By sheer happenstance, the first comics I read ended up being some of the best ever written. As some of my friends have pointed out, this has given me extremely high expectations for what comics can and should be--the only person who is harder to please is my old college roommate, who has only read the top 10% of stuff I passed on to him.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Writing Strong Women, Part V: Where are the Strong Women?

Kate Beaton's 'Strong Female Characters'
Last time, we talked about the relationship between a woman and society--but there is also an odd relationship between the idea of the 'strong woman' and society: despite the fact that she's discussed so often these days, nothing seems to change about how women are portrayed--or at least, not for the better. As pointed out in great articles like A Plague of Strong Female Characters, Why Strong Female Characters are Bad for Women, and I Hate Strong Female Characters, as well as Kate Beaton's comics on the subject, 'Strong Female Character' has just come to mean emotionally damaged, commitment-phobic, laconic, and gun-toting.

Usually she'll have a rape backstory, too--and if she doesn't have one to begin with, a later writer will add one. It's really just another way to do 'damsel in distress', but with a female hero: in the standard formula, the bad guy shows up, steals the girlfriend, and then the male hero has to get revenge and save the girl; for a so-called 'strong woman', the villain steals the 'innocent girl inside her', and so she must go on a quest and get that part of herself back, by killing him. A lot of writers seem to think the natural state for a woman is frilly and sweet, but that a quick application of sex crime is all it takes to make her a violent buttkicker. Even Joss Wheedon, much lauded for how he deals with female characters, couldn't resist making the entire background for mystical female power in Buffy The Vampire Slayer into an extended rape origin story.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Writing Strong Women, Part IV: The Individual and Her Society

For Reference: An Individual (Hellé Nice)
Last time, I talked about the little stylistic details that can undermine how female characters are portrayed, but now I'd like to address something larger: the woman and her relationship to society. When we create a character, we are creating an individual. Though many of the thoughts, opinions, and assumptions of an individual are informed by the society they live in, an individual is not merely the combination of the ads they've seen and the things they were taught in school. Indeed, individuals are remarkably resistant to socialization, and love to reject what they've been told to do. So, when we make a character, it's not enough for them to simply be a distillation of their culture, a reversion to some 'type'--they must have unique qualities that set them apart.

There are many things that are intrinsic to a person, any person: the capacity for pain and joy, the need for self-actualization, the ability to think and reflect, the desire for companionship, fears and doubts--elements of humanity that have persisted through our whole history, in every time and culture. Then there are those things which come from the outside, social structures, and these tend to be drastically different across cultures and eras. When creating a character, it is important to distinguish between their internal life and the external structure of the society they live in.