I've been wanting to speak for a while about the furore
recently about the Mary Jane statue, the Heroes For Hire cover and other such tasteful and mature expressions of an adult sexuality, but was waiting for the discussion to calm down enough that reason, as opposed to snarling, might have a chance to be heard. I suspect that may not yet be the case, but I had a perfect personal illustration the other day of why this issue matters.
There are two comic shops in my town, within walking distance of each other, both branches of national chains. One, let us call it Friendly Neighbourhood Comic Shop, is quite a small shop, but brightly lit with natural light, with (for the most part) helpful staff. They don't have a huge stock, and in fact have an air of genial incompetence, but the staff will chat to you, some will smile, and one is even an actual woman. This is the shop I have my pull list with, and the one I visit on a weekly basis, where I know the names of the staff and they know mine.
There is another shop across the road from it, which we shall call The Android's Dungeon. This is a branch of a larger, better known chain, and it has a much larger stock, of greater variety. However, it's in a cellar, with no decoration (no posters or fliers for conventions or anything), staffed by a famously surly man with no interest in the stock or customers, lit by harsh fluorescent lights. This is a shop I go into maybe every couple of months, if Friendly Neighbourhood Comic Shop have sold out of something, or if they have a sale on, or to browse through trades that FNCS don't have.
Now, I'm perfectly happy to shop there, but my wife won't. If we go into town together and I want to pop into there, she'll complain that she doesn't like it, and if I insist will be looking restless and anxious from the moment we're in there. I've also heard from a few other female friends that they don't feel welcome in that shop. But I've never really understood this on other than an intellectual level. My gut reaction has always been 'well, you don't go there to feel welcome. You go there to buy comics. If I want to feel welcomed I'll go round to see my grandma, if I want to buy comics I go to the comic shop'.
However, last Thursday, we not only went into Android's Dungeon, but we immediately afterwards went into a mobile phone shop. And within a fairly short time I was feeling a mild panic that didn't fully abate until maybe half an hour after getting out of the shop. At the time I felt foolish, but in retrospect it makes sense.
Advertising companies and marketers are paid ludicrously huge sums of money to find symbols that people will respond to on a visceral level. The idea, thankfully not yet perfected, is to come up with symbols that will affect people on such a deep, automatic level, that they will buy whatever the product is without even thinking. The amount paid to these people, and the amount of effort put in, suggests that they have at least some effect.
Unfortunately, a certain number of people, myself included, are conditioned to react in the opposite way, but to an equal degree. Put me into a room full of pictures of David Beckham, AOL logos, Virgin logos, and pictures of Disney characters, and fill that room full of people with hairstyles, and it has much the same effect on my hindbrain as pointing a gun at me, as I discovered on Thursday. I go into 'fight or flight' mode.
Now, if a lifesize cardboard cutout of a metrosexual footballer can have that effect on me, what effect could images of women being tortured or bound have on some women, and with far more justification?
I'm not talking here about an effect that can be argued with, which was the problem I had until recently. I have always argued that the sexist and degrading imagery we take as the norm in comics was pernicious, but I was thinking of it as something that could be laughed out of existence. I was essentially thinking in terms of the 'marketplace of ideas' - if enough people ridicule that kind of material loudly enough it will go away.
The problem (and I am almost certainly the last person in the world to realise this) is, if people have a visceral gut reaction that says "Bad! Run away!" they're not going to stick around to debate ideas.
On a purely intellectual level, a comic shop that displayed Reads by Sim & Gerhard should be infinitely more threatening to women than one that displays, say, Lady Death with the same prominence. Reads attempts to justify relegating women to the status of subhuman, whereas Lady Death is just (as far as I can tell from covers and solicits, having never read it) soft-core porn and mild violence for horny teenagers who are too scared to look at real women. However, Reads looks relatively (for want of a better word) classy, and totally unthreatening. You can argue with and ridicule the ideas in Reads - Lady Death is a whole different animal.
I am not suggesting that comic shops should refuse to stock, say, Madame Mirage or Heroes For Hire - censorship of any kind is anathema to me. But what I am suggesting is that if the cover of a comic is something that looks a bit dodgy to you, me, or anyone who is experienced with superhero comics, to Jane Q Newbie it may well be something that could give her an actual physiological 'gut reaction' - these kind of things can change the atmosphere of a shop in a
way that is almost imperceptible to those who are used to that kind of thing. Put them behind the counter, or even just don't put them on display at the front of the shop.
I'm not arguing that the content of any comic needs to change at all - once you can get people to actually look at the content, then the 'marketplace of ideas' has some validity. But in a hobby that has slightly fewer adherents than model train collecting, I suspect it might be worthwhile trying not to scare off any potential new fans before they even see a page of sequential art. The window display, the posters on the wall, what's shelved on the rack front and centre, what the person behind the counter is wearing - these aspects of your local shop, all visible in the first few seconds, can make more of a difference to the continued survival of the direct market than a dozen Watchmen or Mauses.