Politics & Policy

A Thor Subject

The new Thor (Marvel)
The comics industry grapples with attracting women readers.

The surprises came in a trio: First, Marvel Comics announced that the character of Thor, based upon the Norse God of Thunder, would become a woman. The second surprise was the venue in which the switch was announced — ABC’s feminine-minded daytime talk show The View — but perhaps that was predictable, considering that Marvel and ABC Television are both owned by Disney.

But the third, and biggest, surprise is that anyone thought this was a good idea.

“This is not She-Thor,” senior writer Jason Aaron said in a Marvel release. “This is not Lady Thor. This is not Thorita. This is THOR. This is the THOR of the Marvel Universe. But it’s unlike any Thor we’ve ever seen before.”

The “She-Thor” reference is meant to address the complaint that some of comics’ most high-profile heroines are just female versions of previously existing male heroes — Supergirl, Batgirl, Spider-Woman, She-Hulk, Namorita . . . characters that seem derivative and superfluous in the hands of the wrong creative team.

Comic-book characters go through all kinds of seemingly permanent changes — broken backs, retirements, deaths — only to return to “normal” within a few months or years — which is often a sign that a new editor or writer has taken the helm, or that the dramatic change flopped with readers. For what it’s worth, Marvel insists Thor’s new womanhood isn’t a brief experiment.

Marvel editor Wil Moss declared, “The new Thor continues Marvel’s proud tradition of strong female characters like Captain Marvel, Storm, Black Widow and more. And this new Thor isn’t a temporary female substitute — she’s now the one and only Thor, and she is worthy.”

In changing the gender of one of its higher-profile heroes, Marvel appears to be trying to address the complaints of female comic readers and creators that Marvel and its equally iconic rival, DC Comics, don’t know how to reach a female audience and don’t have many ideas about what to do with their female characters. Comic publishers may be more attentive to these complaints in the face of a trend of slumping sales.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with an entertainment entity attempting to reach out to a new or bigger audience. Of course, some forms of entertainment are quite comfortable with an audience skewing heavily to one gender. You don’t hear much griping that romance novels aren’t selling well among men, or that men aren’t watching enough soap operas.

Women willing to venture into a comic-book shop are rare enough — we all know the stereotypes of the proprietors and patrons. Once a woman steps inside, she’s greeted with comics, posters, collectible art, action figures, and other merchandise featuring mostly male characters, while the superheroines and villainesses are almost always depicted with centerfold bodies in skin-tight clothing.

Some of this is the nature of the genre and, in fact, mass media. Most of the men in comic books have at least the muscle tone of Michelangelo’s David. The fictional worlds of superheroes are hardly the only ones to feature near-ideal physiques and beautiful people. Attractive people smile, wink, and pose for us on our movie screens, television screens, and magazine covers.

And it’s not just male creators who create sexually explicit, almost impossibly attractive characters. Stroll through a bookstore and you’ll see the female-written and largely female-read supernatural thrillers of Laurel K. Hamilton, Jacqueline Carey’s explicit alternative-history Kushiel series, and of course the Fifty Shades series by Erika Leonard, a.k.a. E. L. James.

But the world of superhero comics, a field with so many creative minds that provides Hollywood with so much of its raw material, shouldn’t really be struggling to imagine and depict female characters memorable for more than their cup size.

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A few years back, DC Comics stirred a particularly strong reaction when a big, dramatic reboot involved most of its female characters’ becoming even more explicit reflections of adolescent male fantasies. Andrew Wheeler described how the crop of depictions of DC’s heroines almost seemed designed to repel women readers:

The reboot was meant to help the publisher find new readers, and female comic readers represent a massive audience that DC hasn’t successfully tapped in to. . . . Catwoman would have been a smart title to re-engineer to capture those readers. Instead it’s the most insular exercise in fan-boy pandering this side of Green Lantern.

If it were just Catwoman that went this way, it wouldn’t be such a concern, but many of DC’s female characters are suffering the same fate. . . . Perennial favorite Harley Quinn has switched from sassy moll to Suicide Girl. Bisexual stripper Voodoo is one of only two female characters to get a new title. Power Girl’s book got cancelled, and she’s now someone’s girlfriend.

One of this week’s other new releases, Red Hood & The Outlaws, sees Starfire pulling the same “let me empower myself for your pleasure, master” shtick as Catwoman, only she does it socially-inexperienced alien style, like a sexy orange Mork. Even Oracle, a popular female hero who has to rely on her brains rather than her athleticism, has been rolled back to a generic previous incarnation, thus bumping two other established characters out of the picture. She’s not wearing hot pants yet, but she has made the DC universe a less diverse and inclusive place.

The objections that the comics industry relies on way too much cheesecake posing and ludicrously over-sexualized female bodies as a sales-stirring crutch continue — although it’s unclear how much of the comic-buying audience wants to see things differently.

Whatever its past or current flaws, DC can always boast of its stewardship of the two most iconic female comic characters of all time — Wonder Woman and Catwoman, two characters who persistently rank among the publisher’s most popular and have a significant number of female fans.

Marvel has generated its share of standout female characters over the years — Storm, Elektra, Jean Grey, Mystique — but they’re nowhere near as well-recognized as the publisher’s male icons — Spider-Man, the Hulk, Wolverine, Captain America. Most of the company’s best-known female characters achieved their prominence and built their fan base as members of mostly male teams. Storm has been one of the most popular characters in the X-Men for decades, but Marvel is only now launching her in her own solo title.

Marvel’s decision to take an established male character and turn him into a woman doesn’t really address the underlying complaint, though. Perhaps the new Thor will prove to be a compelling, unique, and original addition to the Marvel pantheon. But while the new character may not be called Thor-Woman or Thor-ina, she’s still — at least from our first glimpses — appropriating an existing character’s general appearance, powers, backstory, and style. It’s the opposite of original, and hard for Marvel to claim that it’s spotlighting a strong woman character when that character enters creation with a fan base that has been built over hundreds of comics since 1962.

Like almost all creative endeavors, this is harder than it looks, and the opposite of an exact science. Marvel and DC introduce dozens of new characters each year, and only a handful turn into hits. They’re still trying to figure out what kind of character or story can get women to pick up a comic book.

— Jim Geraghty writes the Campaign Spot on NRO.

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