The GeeksverseLeaving Proof 186 | School’s Out: The lessons of Ball State University and Christy Blanch’s Gender Through Comic Books course

Leaving Proof 186 | School’s Out: The lessons of Ball State University and Christy Blanch’s Gender Through Comic Books course
Published on Saturday, May 25, 2013 by
Ball State University and Christy Blanch’s Gender Through Comic Books SuperMOOC course ended last week. So what did we learn?

ball_state_gender_thru_comicsIt’s been a week since Ball State University adjunct professor Christy Blanch’s “SuperMOOC” class Gender Through Comic Books concluded and I’ve been spending the past few days reflecting on what I’ve learned from it. Of course, what a person takes away from any formal instruction will vary depending on one’s goals for signing up for the course, one’s expectations, one’s prior knowledge and experiences, and one’s level of engagement with the material, so it goes almost without saying that the lessons I took away from Gender Through Comic Books might be unique to my experience and may neither be representative of the general sentiment of the class’ student body nor indicative of the instructor’s aims for the course.

I won’t even try to summarize the details of what we covered in the six weeks the online class ran. There’s just too much material. But here’s a list of the week-by-week modules, readings, and live interviews to give you an idea of what we read and discussed:

  • Week 1
    • Module: What is gender? Theories and views.
    • Readings (comics): Strangers in Paradise Vol. 1, #1–3 (Abstract Studios), Strangers in Paradise Vol. 2, #1–9 (Abstract Studios), Rachel Rising #1 (Abstract Studios)
    • Readings (article): “Night to His Day”: The Social Construction of Gender by Judith Lorber
    • Live interview: Terry Moore
  • Week 2
    • Module: Gender and Culture: How we learn our gender.
    • Readings (comics): Superman: Birthright #1–12 (DC Comics), Action Comics (1938) #1 (DC Comics), Action Comics (1938) #267 (DC Comics)
    • Readings (article): Doing Gender by Candace West and Don Zimmerman
    • Live interview: Mark Waid
  • Week 3
    • Module: Who is producing comic book culture?
    • Readings (comics): Captain Marvel (2012) #1–7 (Marvel Comics), Ms. Marvel (2006) #1 (Marvel Comics), Ms. Marvel (1977) #1 (Marvel Comics), Daredevil (2011) #1 (Marvel Comics)
    • Readings (article): How Comics are Made (website)
    • Live interview: Kelly Sue DeConnick, Steve Wacker, Sana Amanat
  • Week 4
    • Module: Femininity
    • Readings (comics): Wonder Woman (1942) #1 (DC Comics), Wonder Woman (2011) #7 (DC Comics), Secret Six (2008) #1–7 (DC Comics), Birds of Prey (1999) #56 (DC Comics), Batgirl (2011) #0 (DC Comics)
    • Readings (article): Spice World: Constructing Femininity the. Popular Way by Dafna Lemish
    • Live interview: Gail Simone
  • Week 5
    • Module: Masculinity
    • Readings (comics): Batman (2011) #0 (DC Comics), Swamp Thing (2011) #0 (DC Comics)
    • Readings (article): Comic Book Masculinity and the New Black Superhero by Jeffrey Brown
    • Live interview: Scott Snyder
  • Week 6
    • Module: Gendered Spaces and consuming comics.
    • Readings (comics): Y: The Last Man #1–6 (DC/Vertigo Comics), Saga #1 (Image Comics)
    • Readings (article): Gendered Spaces: Gym Culture and the Construction of Gender by Thomas Johansson
    • Live interview: Brian K. Vaughan
Devin Grayson (Nightwing, X-Men: Evolution) was just one of many industry professionals in the class.

Devin Grayson (Nightwing, X-Men: Evolution) was just one of many comics industry professionals enrolled in the Gender Through Comic Books course.

Besides the above modules, comics, articles, and interviews, each week also included a cache of optional, supplementary reading and viewing material. Many of the online class discussions were also quite educational and illuminative in their own way, providing insight into how gender portrayals in American comics are perceived and interpreted by a culturally and demographically diverse array of readers: The class numbered some 7,000 students at the course’s outset that included learners from every inhabited continent and many comics industry professionals who’ve done work for top American comics publishers like Marvel, DC, Image, IDW, and Dark Horse. (Keep in mind however, that course completion rates for MOOCs are estimated to be anywhere from seven to nine per cent, according to Coursera co-founder Daphne Koller.)

So, what lessons did I take away from the Gender Through Comic Books experience? One of the primary questions I had going into the course was “What are the implications of gender-awareness and gender-inclusiveness for the comics industry,” so let’s approach the issue from that angle.

First, let’s list what a gender-aware and gender-inclusive comics industry doesn’t mean. Gender-awareness and gender-inclusiveness in comics should not be about censorship (even self-censorship) based on arbitrary, external moral presciptivism. It shouldn’t be about promoting notions of false equivalence in certain gender issues, even if the equivalence is born from well-meaning intent.

Carol Danvers, the latest to take on the mantle of Captain Marvel, has become one of the most prominent characters on the Marvel roster and is a leading player in the publisher's current summer crossover event.

What a gender-aware and gender-inclusive comics industry is about is creative and artistic freedom. When the comics industry promulgates stories and art that feature only calcified gender and gender issue portrayals—such as women in marginal or objectified roles—despite an expressed desire and the ability by the producers of comics content to create more diverse material, then freedom of artistic and creative expression is curbed. And yes, that freedom means that there’s also a place in a truly inclusive industry for gender views and portrayals in comics that some, or even many, readers may find vulgar, ignorant, insensitive, at odds with popular and accepted socio-politics, or even outright morally reprehensible (to a reasonable degree, of course, and depending on context): Freedom of creative expression that is afforded only to those who exhibit a certain prescribed moral or cultural grounding is no freedom at all. Inclusiveness means the acknowledgement (if not necessarily the agreement) of more perspectives, not less, and it shouldn’t be simply the substitution of one monolithic and inflexible view of gender and gender issues in comics storytelling for another, similarly dogmatic one.

A gender-aware and gender-inclusive industry also means better art, better stories, and more interesting character designs. How many times have we heard older comic book readers complain that all superhero comics art looks the same, or that superhero comics all have the same stories, or how characterizations fall into boring cookie-cutter molds, or how certain superheroine designs defy credulity and physics, even within the fantastical reality of superhero fiction? When the industry sticks to tried-and-true, occasionally exploitative gender portrayals that have found purchase in the heterosexual teen/adult male reader population, then there exists the very real possibility of homogenization of content and an accompanying decline in reader engagement over time. What is “tried-and-true” can very easily turn into “tired-and-trite,” with readers feeling that they’ve read and seen it all before and creators feeling hamstrung by the conventions and traditional tropes of the genre.

Design Progress: Uncanny X-Force artist Kris Anka on the thinking behind his redesign of Psylocke's costume: "I wanted to have her covered because I felt that a character who is performing stealth assassinations would want as little wound-able flesh showing." (click image to view in larger size)

Uncanny X-Force artist Kris Anka on his approach to the redesign of Psylocke’s costume: “I wanted to have her covered because I felt that a character who is performing stealth assassinations would want as little wound-able flesh showing.” (Click image to view in larger size.) The reference to a consistent and reasonably plausible character design logic helps define a more coherent look for the popular mutant that nonetheless maintains the character’s recognizability.

Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples’ Saga seamlessly broaches gender issues within its entertaining, transgressive, and sprawling space opera. The first issue has gone into multiple printings and the series is nominated for both the Best Continuing Series and Best New Series in this year’s Eisner Awards. Vaughan is also in the running for the Best Writer award.

A gender-aware and gender-inclusive industry also just makes common business sense. In major continental markets for Western comics such as North America, South America, Western Europe, and Australia, women outnumber men. A 2011 study conducted by the University of California School of Law’s Williams Institute cited that 3.8% of the adult U.S. population—an estimated 11.7 million Americans aged 18 and older at the time—self-identify as members of the LGBT community (the actual number of LGBT adult Americans is almost assuredly bigger). The comics industry would be doing itself a huge disservice and would be leaving money on the table, so to speak, if it were to exclusively put out material that appeals primarily to the heterosexual teen/adult male readership. An informal study conducted in 2011 by Graphic Policy’s Brett Schenker indicated that at least among Facebook users in the United States who describe themselves as “comic book fans” (a population of over 1.2 million individuals), the comics industry still has a lot of work to do when it comes to getting the proportion of female comics readers to reflect general demographic ratios. Schenker’s study showed that in the population examined, only 25% were women. Of the members of the study population who indicated sexual preference in their profiles, 5.28% self-identified as being sexually attracted to members of the same sex, which rather aligns with the numbers of the Williams Institute study, but keep in mind that this type of self-identification data carries with it a degree of unreliability.

Situated as it is in the crossroads of art, pop culture, and commerce and given its somewhat surprising resiliency in the face of competing media, the comics industry is in a position to promote gender-awareness and gender-inclusiveness, not (solely) because of some socially-minded and progressive imperative, but also because it just makes for better-looking, more engaging, and more profitable comics, and that’s a prospect any comics fan and industry professional can get behind.

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