As a woman who writes comics, I get pretty invested in what other female writers are doing in the landscape. New female characters have undoubtedly kicked down the doors of the industry and made space, with many of 2015’s best books starring lady leads. Marvel’s Angela has entered her third series, Harley Quinn’s sales have only lingered behind Batman’s at DC and new books like Paper Girls have reached a whole new audience by featuring young, female heroines. But this newfound diversity wasn’t always present.
Frankly, I’ve been adaptive to non-inclusive comic standards for the majority of the time that I’ve been reading comics. As a young nerd who grew up at a time when representation was often questionable, I quickly learned to identify with and love male characters. While female characters often received the short shrift, I just wanted good stories, which led me to adoring many male heroes. And I still do; my office is festooned with Batmen and Robins, Iron Men and Captains of America.
But I’ve never seen women write those popular guy-centric titles, and I wonder if, in my career, I ever will. And if I did…would the old guard of these characters’ fans be willing to read it?
Admittedly, not all of us lady scribes want to write male characters. A friendly reminder that women—even outspoken feminists who write comics—aren’t a hive mind. There are women who openly and proudly say they have no interest in increasing the visibility of male superheroes. This isn’t a bad cause, and serves as a powerful and important stance to take in introducing new perspectives beyond past legacy properties. Female characters—and not just white, straight, able-bodied ones—can find themselves in the hands of women who share their perspectives. DC’s Catwoman isn’t nearly the same girl as Marvel’s Kamala Khan, who is astoundingly different from Angela, Queen of Hel. This is a good thing.
But with the truth that some women don’t want to write male heroes comes the unfortunate assumption that no women do. Or, more to my point— that women don’t need to.
Last October, Marvel rocked fans’ worlds with the announcement that artist and writer Becky Cloonan would be taking on writing duties for the Punisher, the violent skull-adorned vigilante who will have a starring role in Netflix’s next season of Daredevil. Cloonan’s served as a pioneer before—in 2011, she became the first woman to draw the main Batman series. The Caped Crusader offers a good vantage point to assess the gender divide in comic talent; the role of writing him remains a prominent jewel in comics’ crown. Anyone who writes Batman has certainly ‘made it.’
Preview Art of Becky Cloonan’s Upcoming Punisher Run by Alex Maleev
Many Batman runs helmed by male creators absolutely deserve their acclaim. Folks like Scott Snyder and Grant Morrison have done such amazing work that I’m hesitant to sound like I’m calling for their heads. But I look at this character, proudly 77 years old, built by dozens of stellar writers, and I ask—where are the women? Devin Grayson, Marguerite Bennett and Gail Simone (and her infamous Batman burrito moment in Secret Six)—women certainly have written for Batman. But the regular writing duties, the direction of the story, the reigns of that flagship book? Nope. No woman has ever contributed a ‘run’ on Batman, not the way Frank Miller, Morrison or Snyder have. Those are big names to stand beside, no doubt, and not every Batman writer steps into the annals of legend—but when do women even get a chance? Where are the women writers leading summer-long events or steering the course of these massive franchise-heads? Over at Marvel, Iron Man’s never had a woman writer on his lead book, nor has Captain America. Give me women writing Civil War, or women writing The Dark Knight Returns. Okay, not literally—I don’t need a rewrite, but these are the kinds of stories that direct years of comics and get movies made.
And there’s something in it for fans of all demographics, too: a fresh perspective. The moments where we’ve seen these male heroes written by women tend to offer a believable vulnerability, an admiration sourced from places other than ‘power fantasy.’ Devin Grayson’s Gotham Knights run hits a high point in a case where Batman can’t seem to make sense of a case due to something the Dark Knight doesn’t often face: an emotional blind spot. His own origin story is exploited and subverted by something incomprehensible to him—a child killing his own parents. His extended family of butlers and Robins solves the case early on and supports Bruce through a conclusion he can’t bear alone.
Fans have that fear—women certainly won’t write intense action, surely they’d write character pieces, barely discernible from fanfiction! (Or something.) Which for one—has no basis in fact, and two—so what if they did? I see it in my day job as a comic shop employee. Tell a guy his Punisher comic is about to be written by Becky Cloonan and watch him make a face. Or better yet, be a woman who chooses to write about a male character that you’re excited to develop, and sit back as you read reviews massively uncomfortable with your shirtless main character—who is shirtless because he’s swimming.
I and many fans could talk in detail about DeConnick’s Avengers Assemble issue in which Tony Stark and Bruce Banner make a bet with public nudity as the stakes, but couldn’t tell you the name of many of the ‘monster of the month’-style storylines that many modern Avengers comics offer. With blockbuster big fights coming from the Big Two publishers every other month, why not leave space in characters’ individual books for character-heavy moments, personality exploration and inter-team relationship building?
Seeing Cloonan take the helm on Punisher is another reminder of something that can’t be shouted loud enough: fans can and should trust women writers with these male characters. In addition to Cloonan’s work, over at DC, Ming Doyle’s co-writing on Constantine: The Hellblazer comes through, making the book feel different from co-writer James Tynion IV’s solo efforts. It’s happening. But it’s slow.
We’re here. We’re ready. We won’t put your tough guys in tutus.
And if we do, you might like it.