Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Talking Comics with Karen Healey

Above: Author Karen Healey.

Today I'm talking comics with Karen Healey, author of the highly acclaimed debut YA novel Guardian Of The Dead.
A fantastic supernatural thriller, Guardian Of The Dead takes place in a pre-earthquake Christchurch, where the boundaries between modern life and Maori mythology blur, as an ancient race of spirits prey on a group of boarding school students. Fast-paced with plenty of character, it's highly recommended for any teen reader who's after something local and original (and that doesn't feature those tiresome vampires!).

Karen is also the co-founder of the feminist comics website Girl-Wonder.org, and is currently working on her PhD, writing her thesis on american superhero comics. She'll be in town this week for the Auckland Writer's & Readers Festival 2011, taking part in several talks: The Listener Gala Night, The Wordy Day Out and Graphic Novels, Comics & Cartoons - where she'll be joined by Dylan Horrocks, Ant Sang and Chris Slane to talk with me about all things comics related.

As a warm-up for the panel on Sunday (buy your tickets HERE!), I wanted to find out a bit more about Karen's interest in comics, particularly the appeal of superhero comics, and talk a bit about the role of sex and gender equality in the spandex set.

Above: A Daffy Duck comic published by Gold Key. Copyright Warner Bros 2011.

AK: What was your first exposure to comics and what was it about the medium that really appealed to you?

Karen Healey: I was about five, I think, and it was a Daffy Duck comic, and I loved it. Then it was Asterix and Tintin and Footrot Flats collections. I was mostly interested in the stories, I think; I've always been a voracious reader, and I liked exotic adventures and mysteries and jokes I could understand (not that there were plenty I didn't get, like what the Dog had against Cheeky). After I started high school comics pretty much dropped out of my life. There wasn't a comics shop in my town, and there definitely weren't any collections on library shelves. So I read fantasy and science fiction and my Dad's Westerns - anything with magic or explosions or excitement. In retrospect, it was great training for both my career as a novelist and for my later superhero appreciation.

I picked up comics again in university, when a friend gave me
Kingdom Come for my birthday, another friend introduced me to Ultimate Spider-Man, and then I ended up flatting with Isaac Freeman, who's a Christchurch comics scene mainstay and placed huge shelves at my disposal, bless him.

Above: The NZ cover for Guardian Of The Dead. Copyright Karen Healey 2011.

AK: I was curious: as a prose writer, have comics had any effect on the way you approach writing fiction? Obviously they are completely different beasts, but perhaps in terms of how you picture imagery in your head etc. I know when I was reading
Guardian of the Dead there were certain passages where I thought "that would make a good comic sequence" (particularly the supernatural scenes).

KH: Hah! Well, thank you. And should someone want to turn it into a comic, I believe the rights are available.

But I don't think comics have much effect on my methods of writing; certainly not in terms of visual sense or action writing, because I really don't have a good grasp on either. Dialogue comes naturally to me; making a scene kinetically or visually strong doesn't, and I have to work at it. However in terms of thematic resonance and ideas, some comics have had a huge influence on my writing. Dylan Horrocks'
Hicksville is cited in my Acknowledgements for Guardian of the Dead for a reason, and there are numerous references to superhero comics in the book, which provide the protagonist with a neat way to reach friendship with her romantic interest.

AK: You're currently writing your PhD on Superhero comics. What is it about that particular genre that appealed to you?

KH: Oh, pretty much the same thing that appeals to me about prose about supernatural or science fictional events. Something exciting is generally happening, set in motion and responded to by exciting people. The big superhero comics titles have the additional advantage of huge, elaborately complex multiverses that have been created by generations of people. Layers and lawyers of content to dig into, very exciting!

Above: The death of Stephanie Brown as Robin IV. Copyright DC Comics 2011.

AK: You co-founded the feminist comics organisation Girl-Wonder.org and wrote the column 'Girls Read Comics (and They're Pissed), where you discussed among other topics, current examples of sexism and gender equality issues in modern superhero comics. What inspired you to start your blog, and was there a particular example that made you decide "I really have to speak out about this"?

KH: What inspired me to start GRC was that Mary Borsellino said, "I'm putting together a feminist comics website, are you in?" Mary started Girl-Wonder.org in response to the death of Robin IV, Stephanie Brown, who didn't get the memorial case accorded to dead Robin II, Jason Todd. But I wasn't reading
Batman titles at the time, and I didn't know much about Stephanie, so that wasn't my impetus, and I didn't really have a single final straw to motivate me. I was just so sick of seeing sexist bullshit on the pages and in comics discussion groups. The idea of a feminist space to talk about comics was incredibly exciting, so I got involved immediately.

Above: From Girls to Grrrlz: A History of Women’s Comics from Teens to Zines by Trina Robbins. Copyright Trina Robbins 2011.

AK: Historically there's always been a bit of an imbalance in gender equality in comics in both readers and creators, particularly in superhero comics which is largely male dominated. However, there has been a rapid increase in female readers and creators in the last 15 years; do you think this is helping to providing a more balanced portrayal of female characters?

KH: Well, you know, historically there really hasn't been a huge imbalance. In the Golden Age of comics, there were a hell of a lot of little girls tossing their pennies on the counter to get comics, many of which were drawn or scripted by women - Trina Robbins talks about this in her comics research. The alienation of female readers is relatively recent, but the imbalance is definitely there now.

While I don't think female creators are guaranteed to provide a more balanced portrayal of women, I do think that making a concerted effort to include more women in the industry can make a big difference to other potential female creators. So many talented, driven women are just not interested in superhero comics because there's this metaphorical Boys' Club sign on the cubhouse door. And since I mostly read superhero comics, I think alienating so many creators of merit right off the bat is a huge shame.

Above: Part of a shocking sequence which leads to a rape taking place in the superhero series, Identity Crisis. Copyright DC Comics 2011.

AK: The portrayal of sexuality in superhero comics is another topic that comes up repeatedly in you blog, and it's certainly been a controversial issue in the genre since it's inception (although in the 1940s was more in the subtext; bondage particularly featured strongly: the tied-up damsel in distress, or in the case of
Wonder Woman, shades of straight out slavery). Not to get bogged down in the issues of gender equality over time, but the relationship between violence and sex has always been an uneasy one in superhero comics; coming to the forefront in the 1980s when the readership migrated from children to adults with examples like Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns. It's often being argued since that superhero comics read by a largely teenage audience really aren't the place to discuss issues related to sex and sexuality. Do you think there's some validity to this argument, or is it overly simplistic?

KH: I write fiction for and about teenagers, and I have very firm views on sex and sexuality in young adult literature. Those views are discussed in more detail in this blog post HERE. But in short, I think that sex and sexuality are absolutely valid topics for young adult literature, and that certainly includes superhero comics aimed at a teenage audience.

My problem with many superhero comics is not that they include depictions of sex or sexuality, but that they do it so *badly*. Rape as the best possible motivation for a woman becoming a hero or a villain, for example, or numerous depictions of female sexuality as titillating, rather than as an honest depiction of a character's sexual desires. And then you get things like comics editors being squeamish about showing a gay male couple kissing on-page, where a straight couple can totally go for it, bonus points for female partial nudity. Sex is awesome. Sexism and homophobia are gross.

Above: A scene from the webcomic FreakAngels by Warren Ellis & Paul Duffield. Copyright Warren Ellis & Paul Duffield 2011.

AK: What comics are you currently reading, and what would you recommend for female readers who are interested in superhero comics but aren't sure where to start?

KH: I'm currently reading Secret Six, Batgirl, Birds of Prey, and Black Widow and I'm eagerly waiting on a ton of trades to see if I want to get back into the Avengers and Iron Man and a ton of X-Men titles. Online, I'm reading Oglaf (warning: definitely adult content), The Non-Adventures of Wonderella, The Adventures of Superhero Girl, Bad Machinery , Penny Arcade, FreakAngels, Subnormality and Hark! A Vagrant.

As for recommendations, I really don't know what to recommend for women who don't know where to start unless I know more about the women in question. Readers are really individual. Do they like action? Romance? Intrigue? Mysticism? Do they like comics with a more left-wing, right-wing or centrist slant? Do they like humour? Black humour or slapstick?

I think the best thing for people who want to learn more about superhero comics is to hit the library, (if they have a good selection), or a local comic book store, (if it's decent), or a comics-reading friend's bookshelf (if you trust their taste) and browse, and maybe pick out a few things that suit your tastes. Or hit the internet. There are a ton of "how to get your girlfriend to read comics" lists which may be safely ignored, but review sites that go "Here's a comic I really like because X, Y, Z" can be really handy if X, Y and Z are what you're looking for.

Above: Another cover for Guardian Of The Dead. Copyright Karen Healey 2011.

Thanks to Karen for answering my questions, and for more of her thoughts on comics (there was plenty more to talk about that didn't make it into this interview), make sure you get a ticket for the Graphic Novels, Comics & Cartoons panel this Sunday at 11.15am at the Aotea Centre! Visit the Auckland Writers and Readers Festival website for details. For more information on Karen and her writing, you can visit her official website HERE.


1 comment:

  1. Thanks for this! Such an interesting interview, can't wait to hear all of you at the panel tomorrow!