Thursday, August 11, 2011

142. The Trouble With Girls

September 2004: It can, quite honestly, be said that 2000 AD has had a little trouble in both attracting female readers and in presenting stories that star female leads. There's an unavoidable boys' club mentality about it. Every so often, somebody will offer a half-baked defense and name some villains or supporting characters or ensemble characters or spinoff leads (like, y'know, the girl in the picture here) as evidence that the comic isn't a complete sausage fest, but that's just studying one tree really intently and ignoring the forest. I mean really, we're coming up on thirty-five years of stories now and the successes in this field would include Halo Jones and, if you really wanted to squint, Tyranny Rex.

Various Thargs have tried, but something about the predominantly male readership and the predominantly male creative units seems, sommmmmehow, to make this a really uphill climb. Of course, letting potential female readers know that there's something in the comic with a lead that they might want to check out is a huge problem the way stories just get slotted in for a month or two these days. By the time the comic media and general geek bloggers become aware that, say, Synnamon has a new story in the prog, it's probably already finished. Four-week runs don't do anybody any good.

Well, Synnamon is perhaps a poor example; as discussed in an earlier entry, the character suffers from being completely perfect and boring and promoted on the covers as a T&A redhead. She was just a misfire right out of the gate. But it really doesn't feel like any lessons were learned from Synnamon's failure.

For example, there's the mostly wonderful Samantha Slade. I say "mostly" because I'm not completely blind to her series' faults. There's the second story, for example. Samantha first appeared in "Like a Virgin," which ran in December 2003's year-end Prog 2004 and the next three issues, published in January. She was then benched while a follow-up was considered. This was nowhere close to being long enough of a run to build any momentum, which is part of what I complained about in the previous entry. I hope that you'll agree that most of the series in 2000 AD will need a lengthy residence and some promotion to drive reader interest, or risk losing it.

If I'm completely honest with myself and not just hyping a series that I love for the sake of sounding all positive, it's no damn wonder Samantha Slade didn't set fandom alight when we had to wait eight months to see what would happen next, only to have this mess as a result. "The Furzt Case," written by Alan Grant, isn't a terrible script, and it has amusing moments, but it's obviously a script that artist Ian Gibson found uninspiring to the point of boredom. You can see his frustration early on, in the ridiculous design of three robots that are meant to look generically "anime" and wear Sailor Moon costumes. I think that Ian Gibson is one of the medium's very best artists, and he can draw the hell out of anything when he wants to. This, he doesn't want to. The art doesn't really fall off a cliff, however, until the end of episode three, when the villain of the piece, Nippon Furzt, shows up. From there, it's phoned-in, lazy, awful artwork, mostly without backgrounds. Not inspired, Gibson stopped trying. I can't defend it; the promise of the first three episodes is completely ruined by the slapdash sabotage of the finished pages.

Samantha didn't escape this unscathed. I believe that most readers were at least curious and optimistic after her first story, but she took a beating before this one was done and her reputation never recovered. I think she works terrifically as a character. She's practical, savvy, clever, makes mistakes and is genuinely fun, and I would love to see her used well by creators who are really giving their all. Happily, readers would get to see stories that fit that description when she returned. But fans are harsh and unforgiving; I suspect that many, burned by "The Furzt Case," just groaned and didn't bother.

Sharing space with Sam Slade this week is a much, much more popular female character, Hannah Chapter. She's among the ensemble cast of Caballistics Inc. and, arguably, the most popular of the team among readers. I'll say something blasphemous here, but give me a chance to explain. Hannah's popularity makes no sense whatsoever.

That's not to say that Caballistics Inc., written by Gordon Rennie and drawn by Dom Reardon, is a worse series than Robo-Hunter, far from it. Objectively, Cabs just kicks the tar out of the 2004-07 run of Robo-Hunter. It's a far better series, with consistently excellent artwork, a real sense of danger and drama, lovely, winking allusions to other horror and SF stories, and a completely unpredictable storyline that left everybody reading it utterly blindsided several times. It's a terrific strip, and Hannah Chapter is the least attractive thing about it.

I can't fault her design. I really love her floor-length sheepskin jacket (Feargal Sharkey's mum says it cost a packet) and rectangle glasses, but it's almost as though Rennie went out of his way to make the character as unappealing as possible. She's a bored, contemptuous nerd and - you'll love this - she talks too much. I'm leaving that in, no matter how misogynist that sounds, because it amuses me so. No, seriously, here's some of what I'm talking about:

And I'll cheat my own rules and add this example from another issue:

In the first case, we've got incredibly unnatural dialogue. Read it aloud and see what I mean. This is what Orson Welles was complaining about when he was reading the script for those fish fingers with the crumb-crisp coating, and he was right. In the second case, you may think oh burn! until you actually try speaking it. Actually, try using it as an insult the next time you're out at a goth club, and watch the target of your barb get bored and look away before you finish talking. Then again, she's American. Some of us have a tendency to be a little long-winded. (Ahem.)

Hannah is always like this. Finding examples is no chore. She is unfailingly surly, rude, smug, sneering, downright obnoxious and she speaks with more words-per-dialogue balloon than anybody this side of Chris Claremont. I don't care how cool that sheepskin jacket is, my heart sank whenever she showed up. Caballistics Inc. was fun because of the wild left turns in the plot and the unbelievable cliffhangers and the artwork and the Doctor Who references. Samantha Slade was fun because she was a believable, reluctant hero in way over her head, and who really would prefer to spend her time buying nice frocks. I know who I'd rather read about, and it's a shame that Grant and Gibson could never quite make Samantha's series as wild and engrossing as Hannah's. Or as popular.

At any rate, I'm sure that my opinions on these characters are not shared by everybody, but I hope I've made a case for them. One thing that I'm sure we all do agree on, however, is that 2000 AD needs to do a far better job on the gender front. The comic should definitely reach out to female talent and nurture some women writers and artists, and it should definitely make a legitimate effort to launch more than one strong female lead for an ongoing series rather than a one-off serial. None of this "testing the waters" nonsense with a six-week commission and gauging reader response. Let's have a character who is not spun off from an existing, male-led property, one who is not drawn as a sexpot, one who is flawed but whose stories are fun to read. This is long overdue, so let's see it in 2012, all right, Tharg?

Anyway, other stories in this prog include a Judge Dredd one-off by Alan Grant and Shaun Thomas, Asylum by Rob Williams and Boo Cook, and Strontium Dog by John Wagner and Carlos Ezquerra, and reprints are available thusly:

Asylum: The Complete Asylum (2000 AD's Online Shop)
Caballistics Inc: Creepshow (2000 AD's Online Shop)
Robo-Hunter: The Furzt Case (free "graphic novel" collection bagged with Megazine # 307, from 2000 AD's Online Shop)
Strontium Dog: Traitor To His Kind (2000 AD's Online Shop)

Next time, a quick look at Asylum before I get all happy about the return of Lobster Random. Be here in seven!

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