One of the fun things about having this column is I get to talk about anything I want. When Filip Sablik at Top Cow approached us about doing something to help promote Tim Seeley's new run as the writer of WITCHBLADE and the imminent publication of his first arc's trade collection, I asked to interview Tim about his approach to writing, the portrayal of women, sexy-versus-sexism and Good Girl Art.
The common stereotype non-comics people – actually, even some comics readers – have about books like WITCHBLADE is that they're sexist T&A fests, but based on what I've observed the last few years in shops and cons, it seems to have a lot of female readers. I asked Filip Sablik if he's seen the same thing in the course of the book's long life in the comics market.
"You know, it's hard to tell, because most of our data is anecdotal rather than concrete. It wouldn't surprise me if our female readership has grown in the last 5 years after Ron Marz took over Witchblade." Responded Sablik.
"What was a surprise to me when I first started at Top Cow was how many female readers the company had and had for many years, even when the perception was that it was more style over substance. Ultimately, I think the reason that Top Cow has a strong female following is because we feature more strong female LEAD characters in our comics and in genres that as a rule female readers tend to be more interested in (supernatural, horror, fantasy, etc). Witchblade has survived and flourished for over 15 years where other "bad girl" comics of the 90s have gone away precisely because Sara Pezzini is a strong female character. She's smart, self assured, and complicated as a character and one of the great illustrations of this was during Ron Marz's run when he took the Witchblade away from her and she was in the title simply as a police detective. I think similar parallels can be drawn to characters like The Magdalena, the Angelus, and even Madame Mirage. There's an undeniable level of sexiness with these characters, but as Ron and many of our artists are fond of pointing out – Sara Pezzini wears more actual clothes in an average issue of Witchblade than Wonder Woman or even a character like Ms. Marvel."
Now, Tim Seeley is a smart guy. He's not only a writer but a very good artist in his own right, and he has been smack in the middle of the whole debate about Good Girl Art and female characters in comics for years now if only because of his creating, owning and writing HACK/SLASH, the popular series about hunter of killers both human and supernatural Cassie Hack and her hulking partner Vlad. Now that he's writing WITCHBLADE as well, I thought that rather than the usual promotional interview, I would ask him some deliberately loaded questions because his thoughts on gender, representation, genre fiction and art would be more insightful than paragraphs of the usual op-ed commentary.
There's been a lot of attention recently called to the ridiculous poses female characters are drawn in to show their ass. This is consistent with what gender studies call "the male gaze", which is the way women are portrayed by men in pictures and movies specifically for the titillation of men. You could say that the majority of comics are drawn that way. As both a writer and artist, do you find yourself thinking about how women are written, drawn and posed in superhero and genre comics?
"The majority of mainstream SUPEHERO comics have typically, and traditionally been drawn that way. I dunno if it's fair to throw all comics under that particular bus. That's because superhero stuff was originally designed to appeal to teenage boys. It only became an issue when the market lost teenage boys, and instead relied on middle aged men. It's those middle-aged men who seem to be the ones who make the biggest stink about this "male gaze" but not because they're offended for the sake of women. They're reading characters originally made for kids, and they want to feel those stories are validated. It's the same reason there's so little cartooning in modern superhero comics. The current readers want "realistic" photo traced stuff, because at least to them that seems more adult and mature."
"That's not to say there haven't been genuinely offensive sexist comics recently that made women into nothing BUT sex objects, with no personality, and no purpose save to model both ass and boob at the same time. There are characters whose bodies are drawn so misshapen and unrealistic that they make women think men are just dumb, horny idiots who've never seen what a real women looks like. It happens more often than it should, and companies that should know better do it. And I don't enjoy that stuff. I mean, beyond its insensitivity and its part in driving women out of comic stores screaming, it's just bad writing. Hell, I'm not attracted to women who don't look like women. I'm just of the opinion, that in a whole lot of cases, people are confusing "sexy" and "sexist" to the point where the mere mention of positive sexuality is verboten, and a woman wearing anything but a muumuu is a total violation of the rights of females everywhere. There's a line we need to maintain. We have to make characters who are interesting and attractive for who they are and what they stand for and not just for how well they fill spandex. But we freak out also because Wonder Woman doesn't stand the way the rest of the JLA does, right?"
"I spend a lot of time thinking about the portrayal of women in comics, but I also think about WHY people are offended. In my experience, the kind of women likely to be interested in sci-fi/fantasy/horror etc, are typically the type that appreciate an attractive female character, and a certain degree of sexiness. And they aren't ashamed. They're excited. They want to slap on a cool costume, go to a con, and proclaim their love. They don't need anyone to redesign Ms. Marvel, because they thought her old costume was cool as shit. So, I mean, it's a pretty complicated issue, and the kneejerk reactions, and generalization of the issues drive me fucking nuts!"
"I guess to me, I've always lived in a post-feminist world. Which is to say, as early as I understood words I was told, and believed that boys and girls should be treated as equals. But, I also have always known that men and women are different too. And that's societal and also by genetic design."
Your work on HACK/SLASH seems to be a reaction to the sexism of horror and slasher movies, and at the same time you also want to portray an attractive and appealing heroine (though I've yet to see a long-running series in any medium with a heroine who was plain or even overweight and not good-looking). This seems to be the culture in a post-Joss Whedon, post-BUFFY era of pop culture. At the same time, we still find the old sexist slasher movies being made without irony and showing up late night on Skinemax, made by and starring people no one has heard of and will never become famous. This suggests to me that genre fiction is still divided between the old sexist model and the new, more feminist model. What was the process where you decided to portray Cassie Hack as a fairly complex character rather than an angry, ball-busting stick figure with balloon boobs or screaming, submissive doormat?
"I don't know that I find the majority of slasher and horror films sexist. Certainly there are some, but slasher and horror films were made to scare teenagers and separate them from their cash. Teens, pretty notoriously, are full of hormones, so sex is pretty close to the forefront of their brains at all times. Slasher films frighten teens by punishing them for what they're interested in, at the same time sneaking in some sex and nudity to titillate. It's an effective combo, and a lot of teens , male and female, enjoyed this most basic exploitation for a long time. And while no one is going to call slasher films "progressive" the fact that the slasher formula often included a female character as the hero certainly wasn't lost on the women who watched those shitty old movies. I mean, probably the most nudity filled slasher film I've seen is "The Slumber Party Massacre" which is written and directed by women, and features those same half naked women kicking the shit out of a male killer."
Had you read Carol Clover's MEN, WOMEN AND CHAINSAWS? It's a study of the slasher and horror genre and it's where the concept of the "last girl" came from. Clover states that horror movies are meant to be cathartic, and it's not a simple case of sexism or wanting to see girls get killed in them, that the audience identification process is a lot more complicated than that – there's identifying not just with the killer and the vicarious thrill of killing, but also of identifying with the victims and the safe zone of fantasy to explore being trapped and terrorised, and that the last girl who triumphs at the end is the end of the whole process of identification. The audience, both male and female, identifies with the last girl who triumphs and survives where everyone else doesn't. HACK/SLASH seems to treat Cassie as the Last Girl who goes on to become a crusading Last Girl. Any thoughts on that?
"Hah, I mean, you hit it right on the head. I did read that before I started Hack/Slash, and I felt like it was a major inspiration for the character. I hadn't seen BUFFY when I started H/S, so my dumb ass thought I was doing something really original. Haha."
"But, yeah, that whole statement you just made is why I don't particularly think of slasher films as a genre as inherently sexist."
Was the HACK/SLASH crossover with THE SUICIDE GIRLS part of the process of addressing the line between titillation, female empowerment and their claiming control of their own sexuality?
"That was the idea. My degree of success is probably debatable."
"When I started meeting and hanging out with SuicideGirls, I was pretty enamored with the mission statement of the site. Here you had girls, many of which could be considered "unconventionally attractive" owning the pin up image, and using it in a new way. They were making fun of the traditional portrayal image of women as sex objects, while also making some incredibly sexy images, with no shame. I thought it fit great with the world we were creating in Hack/Slash, and I figured it'd be a great way to address some of Cassie's concerns about her own image. I worked directly with the girls who starred in the story. They were all ecstatic to get to help me choose how they died, and they helped write their own dialogue. We were celebrating and homaging the kind of films we were all fascinated with. It was a blast. And then, I remember when the book came out, someone posted on a message board somewhere that I was a sexist scumbag, and it just broke my heart. Like, I hadn't even considered that as a possibility."
I've heard HACK/SLASH has a decent female readership. SyFy's WAREHOUSE 13 star Alison Scagliotti is said to be interested in playing Cassie Hack if a movie of HACK/SLASH is made. Can you talk a bit about that?
"Well, I do think our percentage of female readers is higher than any superhero comic from the Big 2. And, certainly, the most vocal readers I have are women. They're the ones who write me letters and call me out for fucking up, or praise me for stumbling on something that rang true to them. And they're the ones who come up to me at Cons, dressed up as one of my characters (most often Cassie obviously!)"
"Alison is of that generation of Hollywood actresses that came up on nerd stuff. She's always been very vocal about her desire to rock out as Cassie should that movie ever go in front of the camera. And I feel really lucky to have people like her."
This brings us to your recent work on WITCHBLADE. How did you get the gig?
"I've known a lot of the Top Cow people from post Con bars and parties for years, so I think my name wasn't foreign when it came up as a possibility. And, maybe the shorter answer is that they saw what I did with Hack/Slash and figured I might be able to handle a 'bad ass woman in a supernatural world' book."
For the longest time, especially during the 1990s, WITCHBLADE had been one of the comics held as a major example of the typical "barely-clothed heroine with big boobs and inhumanly-thin waist". In the past decade, that view has started to fall away a bit as Sara Pezzini has become… a lot less scantily-clad and the stories have gone to great lengths to concentrate on her character and complexities. How did you think your way into writing her, a company-owned character rather than one you created and owned, and one that carries the baggage of potential sexism and titillation?
"Well, I do think WITCHBLADE's image as a "titty book" is completely bogus. It was never a book that focused on sex and female bodies at the expense of story and characterization. Never. And, I mean, you know who loves Michael Turner's art? Women. Because not only were his women beautiful, his men were hot as shit. If anything, WITCHBLADE was caught in the backlash created by the huge popularity of books like AUTHORITY and ULTIMATES…books that "adultified" superheroes for the aging fanbase by making them more violent, and more flawed. And those same books always seemed to treat sex as something to laugh at, and make crude jokes about."
"And though I think Ron Marz did a lot to expand the scope of Sara's universe, as well as to spend time on her development as a character, there wasn't significantly less sexuality in the book. Sara still dressed in lingerie to seduce her boyfriend. Handsome dudes still stood around showing their great abs."
"My approach to writing Witchblade was to boil down what I thought had become important aspects of the book, and then use those as the base for new directions. Same approach I would use to anything pre-existing that already works well. I decided that important stuff to the book were the elements of urban fantasy, the strong moral code of the heroine, and yes, the unrepentant sexuality of a hot, adult woman, living in a world of dudes with really good personal trainers."
Of course we want sexy in our pop culture. Who doesn't want sexy? Does WITCHBLADE being a fantasy series set in a fairly realistic Chicago give you scope to go crazy or do you need to ground the stories in at least some reality? After all, the Private Eye genre is already a certain type of fantasy since in real life, PIs very seldom get involved in murder cases, political conspiracies or affairs with morally-ambiguous hot people, let alone supernatural wars between Heaven and Hell.
"Well, after doing some research on PIs, I kind of fell in love with the idea that it is a pretty boring job with very little resemblance to its fictional counterpart. So, you'll notice that in the first few issues, all of the stuff Sara gets involved with is partially because she's not particularly focused on her job which involves skip tracing people who have unpaid debts, and following around cheating spouses. As the story evolves, we'll start to show how Sara's tendency to be a weirdness magnet changes her job. More than anything, being a PI causes her to meet people who tend to be embroiled in their own dirty little problems, which Sara gets caught up in."
Is there much difference in keeping your mind in the world of HACK/SLASH, which is the one that the horror genre exists in, where all the serial killers and supernatural killers hang out, to the Top Cow universe where there's a war between Heaven and Hell and various religious conspiracies exist? What they both have in common is a bunch of women who take it in stride and kick ass.
"It took me awhile to parse the differences in their perspective worlds, so that I didn't run into the problem of having HACK/SLASH ideas for WITCHBLADE or WITCHBLADE ideas for HACK/SLASH. One of the things I came up with is that Cassie actively walks into her stories…she's proactive and is on a hunt She stirs shit up. Sara on the other hand is the "rock" in a chaotic world, trying to keep the weird from overtaking the mundane. She's there to judge things as right or wrong, and acts accordingly."
Do you take readers into consideration when you write or stories? Do you think about how they might react to them? Do you think about female readers and how they might react?
"I do take readers into consideration. They're the ones who pay my bills and allow me to buy beer after all. Anyone who says they don't is probably doing the pretentious " I write for myself" thing that writers do. Yeah, you write for yourself. That's why you're buying drinks for that editor so he'll publish your 'ninjas vs. nuns" epic."
"I mean, I don't do the same thing on every book I write. I'm not going into BLOODSTRIKE thinking "Will girls dig this?" because, there's not much I can do to make an undead superhero team who drip with testosterone and zombie testicle sweat more appealing to women."
"But, early on, when making HACK/SLASH, I did try to think about the kind of comic I thought women weren't getting. And, after some degree of success, I decided to utilize that approach on WITCHBLADE. More than anything though, I try to write the best WITCHBLADE story I can, with all that entails."
HACK/SLASH is still being published by Image and its collections are available in shops and Amazon. WITCHBLADE: REBIRTH, the collection of Tim's first story arc, is out in May.
Still admiring the female form at firstname.lastname@example.org
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