Are you tired of hearing me talk about how awesome the New York Comic Con was this year? Well too bad! I’m still going to talk about it because there are issues and experiences worth discussing. Some of those issues apply to my work as a romance/erotica writer, both directly and indirectly. Some of them even manifested in strange, but fitting ways.
There was a lot to see at the New York Comic Con. I was only there for a day so I had to make everything I saw and experienced count. This includes being very selective with the panels I attended. Make no mistake. There were so many panels at this thing that it would take a week and a fuckton of coffee to attend every one of them. That said, I felt I selected the right panels in the end.
One of the first panels I attended turned out to be the most informative, at least as it applied to my romance/erotica endeavors. It was a panel entitled “You Fight Like A Girl!” and was meant to discuss trends in female superheroes and female characters in general. Seeing as how the kind of romance/erotica I write tends to involve multi-layered female characters, often out of necessity, it was a worthwhile discussion to have.
At this panel were some notable female writers, some of which I knew more than others. They included Tami Stronach, Amy Chu, Heidi Maconald, Dr. Katie Monnin, and Gina Gagliano, although one of them could not attend due to illness. A man named Michael Gianfrancesco moderated the panel, but he didn’t do much talking. The women here had plenty to say.
They discussed a great many topics. At first, they just shared some of the challenges they faced as women trying to break into comics, a traditionally male medium. They never gave the impression that they had to punch someone in the dick to get their foot in the door, but they definitely had to put in more effort compared to their male counterparts.
This led to some pretty entertaining stories that drew a few laughs, but one story in particular really stood out to me. It came courtesy of Amy Chu, an accomplished female comic book writer who has a unique talent for making female characters more interesting. She’s basically the kind of woman who I’d have sent wildly inappropriate love letters to if she went to my high school.
She told a brief story about her work on the title, “Poison Ivy.” For those of you who don’t know, Poison Ivy is a major Batman villain who sets herself apart in two major ways. First and foremost, she’s less a criminal and more a radical eco-terroists that even PETA would deem unhinged. Second, and perhaps more importantly for the subject of this discussion, she looks like this.
She looks like the embodiment of a lurid fantasy from a radical male vegan. Naturally, she’s one of those female characters that is frequently subjected to excessive sexualization. How could she not be? She wears only leaves for clothes for crying out loud. The imagination of horny men doesn’t have to be that elaborate.
This presents a challenge for Amy Chu. How does a female writer handle a character whose sex appeal is at a level that’ll likely guide many teenage boys through puberty? How does she make this character more than the sexy, villainous vixen that shows up in every bad porn parody ever made?
It is a challenge, but one that Amy Chu took on and subsequently kicked its ass. She then told a story about how she discussed her plan for this character with DC’s main editor, Dan Dido. The nature of this discussion definitely resonated with me for reasons that should be obvious to anyone who has ever heard someone whine about female superheroes showing too much super-cleavage.
During this discussion, Dan Dido brought up Poison Ivy’s uniform with Ms. Chu. He favored giving her more clothing, making it slightly less easy for men to masturbate to. For a character like Poison Ivy, that’s asking a lot. However, what was really remarkable about this discussion was how Ms. Chu opposed it.
She said outright that she didn’t want to “de-sexualize” Poison Ivy. She wanted to keep that aspect of her character while exploring other parts of it. She said that a female character doesn’t need to be a goddamn nun in order to explore other parts of her personality. This may sound like the most logical concept in the world, but in this insanely politically correct culture of ours, it may as well be on par with quantum mechanics.
Needless to say, my respect for Amy Chu went way up when she told this story. It also revealed something telling/troubling about the male side of the discussion. From the perspective of her editor, Poison Ivy had to put on more clothes in order to become more complex. She had to be less sexual for those complexities to reveal themselves.
As a man, I can understand this to some extent. If a topless woman walked up to me and began telling me all about her charity work in South Sudan, I’d be distracted. Heterosexual men are biologically wired to stare at boobs. It’s a bug in the system, but it’s not a bug that needs to crash the whole system.
This is where I think Amy Chu earned her credibility as a skilled writer. She shows that she willing to embrace every trait of a female character and not just ignore those that may be distractions. She’s willing to work with and/or around those distractions, but she’s not going to ignore them. Sure, she’s making it harder on herself, but the end result is a more balanced female character who also isn’t afraid to show cleavage. As a man and a comic book fan, I can only praise Ms. Chu for such dedication.
There were many fun and entertaining panels at the New York Comic Con this year, but this one was definitely the most revealing. It highlights that popular culture, despite the progress we’ve made since the days of shitty slasher movies, still has issues with what constitutes a strong female character.
Thanks to women like Amy Chu though, we’re making progress. I hope I can be part of that progress with my own work as a romance/erotica writer.