Michael Moccio ’16 / Emertainment Monthly Executive Editor
Ben Saunders took the stage at Special Edition: NYC to discuss the current state of female superheroes in the industry today. Saunders is a professor at the University of Oregon and was joined by esteemed panelists such as Amy Reeder, Emanuela Lupacchino, Gail Simone, Jenny Frison, and Maugerite Bennett.
Q: Were there any female heroes you were particularly drawn to as kids?
Frison: When I was a little kid, my parents got me a Wonder Woman comic. I loved it, I was obsessed with it. I always thought Wonder Woman was really cool. I wasn’t part of comics news as a kid, I wasn’t into them until I got into high school. I saw Adam Hughes’ first Wonder Woman cover and my jaw hit the ground. I got really into comics after that.
Luppacchino: My favorite superheroes are from the 80s. I’ve known them since I was a little girl. Shera, Masters of the Universe, is my favorite. At that time, there was nothing like that you could watch on television and I was suddenly addicted to the character.
Bennett: My introduction was through Batman the Animated Series. My introduction was with female super villains—Harley Quinn, Poison Ivy, and Catwoman. That was the major kickoff and introduction for me into the universe.
Simone: I have a couple things that happened sort of close together. I was becoming very frustrated with a lot of material that was coming up there at the time. It seemed to me that most of the female heroes and protagonists had their adventures thrust upon them—they never chose to go out on their adventure by themselves. I saw at a garage sale—there wasn’t a comic book store near me—I saw the cover of a Justice League comic and Wonder Woman was on the cover. We got the comic, and I just couldn’t believe it. I didn’t understand numbering, how comic stories went, but I did understand this was a really strong female character that made strong decisions and decided to leave her home land to gout and have adventures.
I watched the syndicated Batman show—those were some of my first words BAM, POW, etc. I lived on a tiny isolated farm, with a lot of chores, rain, and no television except for the Batman show. I more identified with Batman, because he was the strong character—I always wanted to role play Batman, not because he was a man, but because he went on adventures. It made a huge difference to see this material where women superheroes chose to go on their own adventures.
Reeder: I was a big Shera fan, for sure. And also Jem. I was mostly into things that had girl characters, or they were animated. I couldn’t watch Sesame Street—I would refuse unless they were drawn. Being a kid in the 80s was a great time, because there were a lot of empowered female characters then.
Q: Would anyone care to speak about Sailor Moon?
Reeder: I had a friend in high school who was really into Sailor Moon, so I would start to watch it. I would watch it when I got home, and I got super into it. It’s pure unadulterated superhero. There’s no reason to not group her into superheroes. I think the fandom for Sailor Moon is half/half men/women.
Q: Why is it so hard to persuade publishers that women like comics?
Lupacchino: People think that girls can’t like man-based stories or adventures. But in the end, it’s a matter of interest and interests. I like adventure movies, books, sci-fi, tv series, and so I knew with comic books and superheroes it’s about stories.
Q: Does the desire to push back against that influence your work? Are you thinking about this when writing and drawing?
Lupacchino: They think that superhero comic books are for men and women cannot understand how to make them. I think it’s about learning storytelling,
Simone: When I first started, most people in the industry assumed I was male. That was what the state was at that point. It was only when pictures were taken and I talked on the phone was when they would admit I was a girl and was writing superhero stories. That was only 10-12 years go at the most. I told them we’re going to have 50/50 male/female audience, we’re going to have more female creators, and I’m going to prove to you these female characters should mean a lot more to you.
Frison: I don’t want to badmouth different companies or anything, but I think there’s something amongst companies where they’re not trying to make comics for boys. They just happen to make comics that appeal to boys because there are few people making all the decisions. When they hear about this, they try to make comics for women, not for everyone. That’s what I love about Image—there’s so many voices and people making decisions that the focus is on good stories.
Simone: There are people who have in their head that to attract female audiences, there needs to be romance. There’s more to the audience than that.
Bennett: When I broke in, I was encouraged not to go by my name. I graduated from Sarah Lawrence College, and I got in because I had written two prose novels. I got in response that female writers have a hard time, would you consider using your initials? In a moment of weakness, I considered it, but I decided not to and said you’re going to learn that I’m a girl and you’re going to like it!
Q: What about Batgirl?
Simone: Well… what do you want to know?
Q: What’s the essence of her? This is a character you’ve had to write though and extraordinary life transformation.
Simone: For me, Barbara has always been a character who’s the most intelligent character in Gotham. She’s hyper-intelligent, is very compassionate. For me, I look at her as the hope in Gotham and I think Gotham needs that. No matter what her circumstances, she knows she wants to help people. She will figure out how to do that, no matter her circumstances. If she’s Oracle, I think of her character on a timeline. As Barbara Gordon Batgirl, she has the potential to become Oracle. I feel that she’s one of those characters at DC that should be someone who should inspire someone to do something, whatever their interest is. Hopefully, her character will inspire the reader to do that thing. That’s what sets her tone a bit different than the rest of the Batfamily.
Q: There’s the Bechdel Test that people use with movies—do you ever see if your stories ever pass that test?
Simone: I don’t go about it quite like that. But, when I first started writing Birds of Prey, it was my goal to show that we could have a book that had three female superheroes that have their own missions, their own identities. They were friends, and they went on missions together. They didn’t always agree, but they would work together like a buddy-cop movie. I set out to try and prove that—it was my secret motive behind that movie. I don’t really sit down and ask if it’s going to pass this test, but I ask what haven’t we done before and what’s going to make an interesting story?
Q: If there was one female character you can write and have no restrictions on, who would you pick?
Reeder: I’d steal Madame Xanadu for a spell.
Simone: What about Ripley from Aliens?
Bennett: Probably, Vixen. I love her and miss her.
Frison: I’ve never drawn Wonder Woman, but I don’t know if I have anything to saw. I actually got the Red Sonja gig because I was shopping around for Vampirella.
Lupacchino: Maybe I would like to draw a story with Storm. Storm vs. Thor?
Q: Do any of you ever disagree with your editors on characterization? How frustrating is it to have an idea of who a character is and have an editor disagree with that idea?
Simone: I’ve been pretty lucky with editorial listening to me on an interesting take on a female character. In the beginning, there was a fear of making the female character look silly. There a lot of different kinds of strengths, so let’s show all of them.
Q: Do you have any thoughts on women of color and representation of them in the media?
Simone: I think overall we’re doing better, but we need to do more.
Reeder: I think it’s a little strange that there’s so many new stories coming out of Image, but so many few people of color in them. I know that’s like wrong of me to say, but that’s been getting to me.
Simone: I’m all for making new characters that are new. Don’t recreate characters we already have.
Q: Do you feel like there needs to be more female representation of female villains going against male heroes?
Lupacchino: I think it’s more interesting than a male villain. For example, I read Batman: Black and White, in which Batman gets mad at Catwoman. But he wouldn’t have that reaction against a male villain. I think female villains have this power to make male superheroes pull their punches.