Meet the New World, Same as the Old: DC Webcomics as Exploitative as Their Superheroines

Superhero comics are, as a business, at a nearly dead end. Prices are rising to $4 a pop for a measly 22 pages of story. Writers are pacing stories for the eventual collection, which means the tales are less interesting to readers unless they “wait for the trade” — which is often a better deal anyway, at a lower price and often with extras.

So the big two American superhero publishers have tried going online, each with their own webcomic initiative. Some people are jaded about the efforts: Marvel doesn’t pay royalties for the material they republish, while the DC Zuda contracts were the subject of much debate.

What struck my eye about the latest press effort, though, was how typical it was of an industry that’s given up on appealing to anyone but the adolescent (and not-yet-mentally-outgrown such) male. The Black Cherry Bombshells, Zuda winner of the month in March, will be one of the titles reprinted on paper, sometime in 2010. Here’s the promotional art for their upcoming second online “season”:

Black Cherry Bombshells

What’s particularly strange about this choice is that the regular strip doesn’t look like that. So in addition to being typically exploitative of the female form, it’s non-representative of what’s it’s supposed to be selling. Says one of the writers, “We want to write women like action heroes.” I don’t recall — did Bruce Willis drop trou in Die Hard? I know Arnie got naked in the first Terminator, but he was the villain.

Given that the other writer (this takes two?) says, when asked why they wanted to work with Zuda, “And all those webcomic fan girls. w00t!” I can guess how seriously they take women readers. Shame that the future-looking webcomic initiative seems to be tainted with the same it’s not for girls thinking that DC puts into their superhero comics.


28 Responses to “Meet the New World, Same as the Old: DC Webcomics as Exploitative as Their Superheroines”

  1. Paul Sizer Says:

    Wow, that promo art isn’t even CLOSE to the actual strip. That’s a real “bait and switch” in my mind. Interesting that they almost off-handedly place actual strip panels really tiny on the front just to cover their bases.
    And yes, when I saw the LIST of creators, I thought to myself “What? Are they including their pets in here as well?”

  2. Journalista - the news weblog of The Comics Journal » Blog Archive » Jan. 13, 2009: Ruining everything Says:

    [...] [Commentary] DC webcomics as exploitive as their superheroines Link: Johanna Draper Carlson [...]

  3. Fleen: Enjoy Our Semi-Abusive Opinion Mongering » Beginnings, Ends, And In-Betweens Says:

    [...] their understanding of women vis-a-vis webcomics (as both audience and creators) might possibly be a bit skewed? ‘Cause this shit ain’t making me think that the people in charge of Zuda (or, to be [...]

  4. El Santo Says:

    Perhaps it’s a smack of desperation, maybe? Last time I checked, Zuda numbers weren’t setting the world ablaze, and, er, certain things sell.

  5. Pantsless Bombshells and the Perfect Storm « The Webcomic Overlook Says:

    [...] second, which got Comics Worth Reading’s Johanna Draper Carlson and Fleen’s Gary Tyrrell up in arms, is much more obvious: the gal in the middle is not [...]

  6. Peter Timony Says:

    That promo art was done by Sheldon Vella, who does the comic Supertron also for Zuda. It was done because Sheldon is a faan of the comic.

    Also, I think you guys should know that the artist of the comic, Sascha, is in fact a girl.

    Peter

  7. Johanna Says:

    Then it’s another sad example of how women can also propagate sexist ideas and behavior.

  8. Nicholas Doan Says:

    If you look a little closer, you’ll notice that strong female protagonists are a major trend among Zuda Comics. for examples, check out Bayou, The Night Owls (Mindy Kicks Ass), Celadore, Melody, Imaginary Boys, Gulch and Pray For Death (written by myself). Chief among all these is the Black Cerry Bombshells, a book that takes place in a world where all men are braindead.

  9. Johanna Says:

    Oh, ok. I get it. Female stereotypes are ok if you also use negative stereotypes of MEN, too!

    Seriously, “strong female protagonist” has become twisted code for “my chick lead is stacked and half-naked, but I mean it in a good way, honest.”

  10. Luc Herbots Says:

    In reading the Bombshells I don’t remember thinking awwwww snap these gals are hot. It’s more about humorous, political, gang-struggles in a post apocalyptic Vegas, baby. Plus alcohol is currency…bout time.

  11. illinest Says:

    The fact that Sheldon has managed to turn the most unsexy comic on Zuda into a weird misguided rant about sexism just goes to show how good he is at getting a reaction out of people.

    Johanna you seem to lack the background information to speak on this subject. Are you a regular at Zuda or just an outsider making assumptions based on a piece of promo art?

    If you aren’t a member of the community I hope you’ll consider participating. Strong opinions are welcome too.

  12. robberry Says:

    It seems like all the well-intentioned arguments of strong female roles in this comic are falling on the deaf ears of a reviewer interested in sticking to the obvious road of “an all girl/male zombie post-apocalyptic comic written by men must be sexist.” it’s a safe road to travel in the history of criticism and, like the stereo-type that says men seldom ask for directions from a gas station while lost on a roadtrip, implies a certain short-sightedness on the part of the reviewer. Defending against fan suggestions that you might be going the wrong way is not necessarily the same as knowing which way to go.

    There are no male characters in the BOMBSHELLS. This is a sci-fi tropism that people sometimes (too often, in my opinion) seem to forget. the reviewers comments later in this review about female stereo-types are groundless in a fiction that doesn’t have male characters. A character can’t be a foil to sexism in a world in which there is only one living sex. Now it would be easy to proclaim how this world is a fantasy constructed by sexists writers, sure (and it’s a tired and pathetic hand that I have typing a reasonable excuse to support ill-considered arguments by a reviewer who doesn’t bother to see past her own breakdown in critical logic), but that would also be an easy way of explaining the attraction of this series: “it’s sexist and prurient and beneath my respectful insight and, of course, that is the only reason it’s popular.”

    BOMBSHELLS is an unforgivingly wild ride of “what if” fun. “What if,” after all, is a staple of comicbook fiction that has been around since the birth of the industry and seldom needs justification to the fans who support it. Nobody cares how how Spider-man gets to meet the Not-Ready for Prime Time Players, they just want to know what happens when you get these two worlds together.

    BOMBSHELLS exists in a “what if” world of post-apocalyptic girl politics with no men involved. The main characters are focused on short-term goals like revenge, marriage, power, loyalty and booze. They’re sexuality, given the fact that the other sexual alternative has been turned into zombies, is moot. It’s the chemistry of these characters, now devoid of their relationship to men, that is important as a motivational force in the narrative.

    Some critics and reviewers will claim that it is impossible to write a fiction outside of the indications it can have for contemporary culture. That Y, THE LAST MAN is a story about the last man in the company of women, an allegory, and, therefore, BLACK CHERRY BOMBSHELLS can only be appreciated as an idea of what men today think about women left to their own devices.

    This is insipid and short-sighted criticism that fall well beneath the scope of our attention and misses the point of the BOMBSHELLS as good, escapist fun. There’s no agenda here. This isn’t a Michael Cimino film. It’s a world of strong survivalist characters (who happen to be women) living out their remaining days looking for booze and revenge among the wreckage of a dystopic world. Its set in Vegas, not Washington and, for chrissakes, the characters are drawn like BRATZ toys. The need to see this as a realistic picture of “not-yet-mentally outgrown adolescents” misses the point entirely.

    God. I can’t wait to read your review of SECRET INVASION. Maybe you’ll say something really pithy about our post-911 society that will make the writers feel like they did something important there.
    -Rob

  13. Troy Bowen Says:

    Wow. Well said Rob.

  14. Luc Herbots Says:

    Rob, apparently, can fillibuster a topic to death…a typical male. Say something pithy…

  15. Slappy Says:

    Part of the problem is the definition a lot of male comics writers have of the term “strong female character.” They think that as long as their female characters kick lots of bad-guy ass they qualify as strong female characters. It’s the dominatrix mentality. People think dominatrixes are powerful figures because they get to beat men up. But their “power” is of the most superficial variety. In the end they’re still sex objects being used to fufill male fantasies. And the same goes for so many of these “strong female characters” in comics. They may be physically strong and aggressive, but their main function is still to be mannequins for fetishwear and vessels for male fantasies. Put baggy clothes on half of them and they would barely register any sort of presence or personality at all.

  16. Bryy Miller Says:

    Johanna,
    You obviously just want to bitch about men, since apparently even the strong female characters in Zuda are part of the problem.

    You’re very much see-through.

  17. Johanna Says:

    Ah, I see the strip’s fans have found us. So let’s get back to basics:

    1. I think a comic ad should reflect the actual comic it’s promoting — in this case, having the art done by someone who’s not the strip’s artist who has a very different style is a problem. It feels like bait-and-switch to the prospective new reader who doesn’t know anything else about the comic.

    2. I’m not going to try a new comic that features a woman’s naked butt as a prominent image in its ad. I’m not interested in that.

    3. As a prospective new reader, it is the strip’s responsibility to get me interested enough to navigate the non-standard and annoying Zuda interface. It is not my responsibility to read the entire archive before commenting on the ad and the reactions it evokes. If the ad is aimed at or only appeals to existing Zuda regulars, then it fails.

    Of those who want to champion the strip, I think Luc is doing the best job. He’s not attacking anyone; instead, he’s saying “this is why I like the strip and what I think it offers that’s appealing” while politely addressing the topic at hand. That’s the way to get people interested. Way to go, Luc. (And yeah, Rob needs an editor.)

    If the only way you can plug your strip is by calling names at people who talk about it without drinking the kool-aid, that suggests that the strip doesn’t have very many strengths to recommend it.

  18. robberry Says:

    I’ll try to make this brief in the interest that editors the world over can breathe a bit easier.

    In a blog titled “Comics Worth Reading” I was disappointed to see a review of a single page of promotional art instead of one that deals with the content of the strip itself. This seems like irresponsible reporting. If the title of the site is “Comics Worth Reading” I don’t feel we need reviews couched in a style of criticism that doesn’t look past a book’s cover. I also feel the tone of the review indicates that reviewer never actual read the comic in question. I could be wrong about that, but since the content of the comic itself is never mentioned beyond the detail one might find in a press release this still strikes as the most irresponsible kind of reporting. i suggest the reviewer would be better off on a blog called “Comic Press Releases I Hate,” or “Covers That Make Books Worth Reading.”

    To some of the points you mention as rebuttal;
    1) I believe its bait-and-switch to call this a review of anything other than your personal feelings about the promotional art. A brief glance at the meta tags below the article imply where the focus of your criticism here is going. This is clearly just a post about whether the cover is sensationalist and not about the content of the comic.

    2) The job of any reviewer is to say what they feel about a work of art and what interests them about it. The job of a critic is to look beyond their own personal interests to understand how that art functions. reviewers get prime time talkshows. Critics are worth reading.

    3) The Zuda interface is not subject of your review and not the fault nor design of the artists who’s work you’ve used as a centerpiece. If you hate the Zuda interface than say it, but don’t blame the guys making the comics.

    I’m not actually championing the strip here so much as commenting on the irresponsibility of your own reporting and how the personal agenda you may feel against the Zuda, DC or their marketing strategies has negative fall-out on a couple of guys making comics. You may be correct that all of the worst elements of rampant sexism in comics can be found within the pages of THE BLACK CHERRY BOMBSHELLS, and I’d welcome such a review, but we won’t ever know if reviewers like yourself won’t look past a press release to write about the content of comics themselves. It seems to me that’s the only way to determine if a “Comics Worth Reading.”
    -Rob

  19. Johanna Says:

    Nowhere did I say or imply that this was a review of the comic. It’s a comment on a failure of marketing (as I see it, of course). For more examples of where I’ve done the same thing for many other projects, visit the stupid publisher tricks section of this site. We agree, this isn’t about the content of the strip (except in terms of the ad’s failure to reflect it accurately).

    This site reviews many types of comics, including webcomics, but not everything posted here is a review. I also post news and analysis, as it says in the site taglines (top of the page, under the site name).

    Again, it’s the ad’s function to make me interested enough to “look past a press release”. It didn’t. It failed. That was the point of the post. I’m glad we could come to agreement on this.

  20. RKB Says:

    I promise not to call anyone names, -probably.
    Not everything has to be war and peace, or in the case of comics, the dark knight returns, or lone wolf and cub. A fun action movie style read with fights, and explosions, that’s truth in advertising. I get your talking more about the ad, not the strip. You don’t like the comic, -no scratch that- you don’t like the ad because you think it’s sexist. I’m tired of zombies so that lessens my enjoyment of it. I gave it a 3/5 stars way back when and that’s still my view.
    ***************************************
    You should have read the comic though, it’s not your job??? Your a reviewer right??? So review the comic, you had to at least check out a few screens over on Zuda to know the carpet doesn’t match the drapes, so to speak. So how about you say look at screen 1 panel 1 (or screen x panel x), and break out some examples -from the comic- of why it is the way you see it. You have a web-site not a column length go into the details, do a real review. I’m not saying you have to (I would respect you more though, not that you care about my respect) do a screen by screen breakdown from 1 to 60, but do a little cherry picking of examples at least to add some weight to your words, otherwise it comes off like a lite-rant. I’m surprised you didn’t say i read the first 1,2,3 screens and a couldn’t stomach anymore!!! To at least ad a little note of credibility, to your comments.
    ***************************************
    If your of a mind, you can see girls in anything less than Victorian dress as sexist.
    ***************************************
    I think all the creators of BCB, take all the comments of their readers on the comic seriously. I’m guessing your not a ‘web comics fan girl’ -fine- but you used a throw away funny line, when you could have cherry picked a scene from the comic to try to make your point with.
    ******************************************
    You wouldn’t make me the think the comic was sexist and son and so forth, but if you hadn’t done mainly an anti-ad rant here, and more of a review, your words would have had more weight and respect from the Zuda members that came over here to see what you had to say.
    **************************************
    Exploitative is a genre of movies/ comics in and of it’s self. I don’t think BCB is pushing any girl into the life of fighting zombies in skimpy clothes. I don’t think and hope not that their are web comic fan girls out there who want to grow up to be biker babes who fight zombies. If they are that’s damning as hell, but to the M.I.A. parents and public school wasteland, not the comic BCB.

  21. illinest Says:

    Does this mean you won’t be joining us? i know it’s easier to lob criticism from afar but I was really hoping you’d turn this anger into something more constructive for both of us.

    P.S.
    We all get what you were trying to say. You wanted to make a big shit about DC’s supposed ‘sexist’ marketing campaign.

    None of us who frequent the site agree with you because we’ve got the benefit of context.

    P.P.S.
    I resent the implication that those who are dissenting are only doing so because we’re fans of Black Cherry Bombshells.
    I voted for Sam and Lilah that month. I don’t know if you would have liked it. It’s a romance story but God forbid I suggest you’re into romance stories.

    P.P.P.S.
    Come to think of it I don’t want you at Zuda after all. Just keep lobbing grenades at people you don’t know and making assumptions. But try to assume correctly in the future, it’ll make you seem more credible.

  22. Bryy Miller Says:

    No, the point of your post was to rant and rave.

  23. Johanna Says:

    Wow, with that kind of mind-reading ability, I hope you gamble!

  24. Johanna Says:

    PS I enjoyed Sam and Lilah; I even interviewed the writer.

  25. The Real Bishop Says:

    As a regular Zuda reader, I agree wholeheartedly with Johanna. The majority of the comics on Zuda resort to juvenile and stereotypical characters, which are skewed to the emotionally under-developed male. Very few of the comics on the site contain any emotional truth, development, or depth. The plots are generic and half-written and the characters are cliche.

    But amazingly enough this is a trend that’s pervading the entire gamut of American entertainment (save the occasional independent movie or HBO series). In that respect, Zuda is right on target with the zeitgeist of mainstream America, of course this doesn’t make it right. But they aren’t trying to make it right, they’re trying to make money.

    It’s up to sophisticated and informed readers like yourself, I, and a few others on this page to make the difference by choosing substance over suspect entertainment. With that being said, I would like to extend an invitation to all of those who read this article to explore Zuda further. Read the comics, post your opinions, and most importantly vote. That’s the only way the content of Zuda will diversify. I believe there is an audience for BCB, but that is not the only audience Zuda can reach.

    If the site diversified its content it could attract an untapped market of the web and print comics spectrum.

    I said earlier that I was Zuda reader; I’ve stuck with Zuda throughout several months of disappointing offerings because I see the potential. Currently, Bayou is the best thing I read all last year. High Moon is also a well-written and exquisitely drawn comic. Night Owls if a fun strip with entertaining characters. Street Code is a great memoir-style strip. Road has unfulfilled potential.

    And there are a few more, but they get drowned out by the flashy colors and average to above average art of every comic fan-turned-artist who see this as their shot in the big leagues. As a result, we loose potentially great comics like The Crooked Man, Action Ohio, Sam & Lilah, Maxy J. Millionaire, Pieces of Eden, and Raining Cats & Dogs.

    What Zuda needs is a fresh influx of input and creative ideas. If you are willing to provide that or would like to make a difference in some kind of way then please join the site, vote, and help even out the content.

    –The Real Bishop

  26. illinest Says:

    @ The Real Bishop
    Sam and Lilah is not lost happily, but we have to go a little bit out of our way to read it.
    http://www.act-i-vate.com/42-1.comic

  27. neil kleid Says:

    And both ACTION OHIO and HANNIBAL GOES TO ROME continue at:

    http://www.shadowlinecomics.com/webcomics

  28. Digital Strips: The Webcomics Podcast Says:

    [...] to keep the webcomics conversations around here as positive as possible, but the folks over at Comics Worth Reading have taken a special interest in Zuda winner, The Black Cherry Bombshells, particularly the [...]




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