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She Has No Head! – What About Coveleski?

I’m not a crier.  Which is not to say I’m unemotional, or that I never cry – there are certain buttons you can push – especially in films – and you can expect waterworks – but there are only a few buttons and I’m pretty good at I Kill Giants Coverresisting them.  In fact, until I read I Kill Giants last week I can’t remember the last time something I read caused crying.  But there it is.  Moved to tears (or at least tearing up) by Barbara Thorson and her emotionally resonant tale in I Kill Giants.

But that’s not why I decided to write about I Kill Giants, because looking back through the CSBG archives, it looks like everyone and their grandmother has already told you to read this book (well, okay mostly just Greg and Greg again, but that’s good enough for me).

So in order to talk about it, I’m going to relate it to why it’s female positive (what a shock!) and why that makes it something you should read if you still haven’t managed to yet.

In I Kill Giants not only is our protagonist and hero Barbara a girl, but with the exception of her brother and principal, every other major character from her sister to teacher to psychologist, to best friend, even the bully, is female.  And that is damn rare in a comic book.  Even more rare?  The fact that with the exception of the bully, pretty much all of these women are supportive and caring of each other.  Rather than competing and dragging each other down as we often see in comics (and other media) these women and girls mostly try to raise each other up. The book is wonderful and sadly almost revolutionary in that respect.

You know something that’s almost as good as all these positive supportive female leads?  I didn’t once think I was going to be blindsided by gigantic tits falling out of an unzipped top when I turned the page.  And that shouldn’t even be something I have to think about, but I’ve been so conditioned by reading comics where that (and similar) happens for no reason that I notice I turn pages with caution these days.  But it wasn’t a concern here, I was able to fully immerse myself in Barbara’s tale and I didn’t once have to think about boobs or impractical ridiculous clothing choices.  It was awesome.

It’s not to say that there isn’t a time and a place for sexy boobs and impractical clothing – but I shouldn’t have to worry about it all the time being thrown into stories in which it doesn’t fit or relate.  And it continues to be the kindblack widow ongoing of thing that makes me feel ‘if only’ about stuff.  Like Suicide Squad #67, which came out this past week, and which for all intents and purposes, was a solid issue.  Simone and Ostrander’s writing was laugh out loud funny in parts, interesting characters were drawn into the issue through a conflict based on the epic Amanda Waller always getting what she wants, and I was enjoying the book.  But kind of out of nowhere I’m blinded by some character named Yasemin and her boobs falling out of her insanely low cut, high-heeled crime fighting (or rather assassinating) costume.  Why?  The story was otherwise good, but I end up feeling like I can’t fully get on board in supporting a book (or issue) without caveats because of this kind of stuff, and that sucks.  Or what about the announcement of Marvel’s new ongoing series starring female powerhouse character Black Widow, and penned by female writer Marjorie Liu and yet it comes with a completely objectifying cover solicit image.  I actually considered writing about this announcement for my column this week and all that came out was something that sounded like

“agggghhhhhhohmygodwhydoesitneverstop!!!??”

and so I gave up (sorta).  So when I say it’s nice to read an entire series of I Kill Giants and not have to think about that kind of thing once…I mean it.  I mean it to the power of this is the kind of wonderful stuff that stops my head from exploding and me giving up on comics entirely.

Now, should I even be comparing something like I Kill Giants and Suicide Squad? Maybe not, they’re pretty different animals, but I’m just trying to point out how exhausting it can be, as a woman, or as anyone I suppose, once you become aware of the objectification of women in comics to see that objectification with the relentlessness that it appears.  You can’t go back in time to before you noticed it and bathe in the bliss of ignorance, and it’s frustrating to be taken aback in a book you are otherwise enjoying (or one you’d like to enjoy in the case of Black Widow) by sudden and random objectification.  Is it a huge deal?  No.  Is it the end of the world?  No.  But it makes it extra nice that I don’t have to think about it at all in a book like I Kill Giants.

One of the reasons I read I Kill Giants this past week was because someone mentioned in the comments of my 10 Great Female Characters post that Barbara Thorson the lead from I Kill Giants deserved a spot – and they were right.  Barbara immediately captures both your heart and mind.  I fell in love with Barb in the first pages of issue #1 when she verbally takes down a motivational speaker – quite frankly, something I have always secretly yearned to do.  After doing that, she announces to her entire class that she kills giants for a living.  It’s an awesome scene – check it out*.

IKG page 1

IKG page 2

IKG dps 1

IKG dps2

Barbara is full of imagination and Joe Kelly imbues her with the perfectly captured spirit of a real kid – the kind of kid that’s too smart for her own good and dealing with things well beyond her maturity level.  As such, Barbara is filled with flaws – she’s difficult to befriend, and as the smartest person around she’s not terribly impressed with much of anything she sees and makes it known.  There is also a great vulnerability in Barbara despite her witty barbs, which we see early on when Barbara is annoyed while listening to her female classmates talk about girly stuff, including belly shirts, while on the bus.  Barbara is decidedly above whole thing as she listens, but in private she checks out her own belly and determines with a sigh that it is not worthy of a belly shirt.  It’s insightful and heartbreaking stuff.

Barb has some of the best, funniest lines I’ve seen any character get in a long while and it makes it impossible not to love her (the funny ears and hats are just icing on the cake).  And though Barbara spends much of her time delivering pithy one liners at anyone who will stand still long enough, she’s also delicately passionate about giants and her mission, as revealed when she explains giants and her secret weapon Coveleski in detail to Sophia:

IKG dps 3

IKG dps 4

“Imagine that…something so horrible, the sun will not shine upon it.” That line…is just unbelievably awesome and suggests the remarkable insight of Barbara as a character.

Sophia, Barbara’s new neighbor is a soul mate if I’ve ever seen one and the two girls become fast friends despite Barbara’s challenging behavior.  Sophia has the tenacity of a cat that becomes interested in you simply because you’re not interested in it, and it’s only that tenacity that allows her to pierce Barbara’s defenses.  The reality of course is that Barb is desperate for a confidante and relishes finally having one, but Kelly plays this relationship perfectly, like all the other notes in his story, and it feels real and rewarding to watch these two girls become devoted to one another.

What About CoveleskiThe art by JM Ken Niimura is a loose sketchy style that I really enjoy, but can admit is probably not for everyone.  I find it really visceral and immediate, and although there are a couple of moments where it is hard to make out what is going on, in general the art serves Kelly’s story very well.  Niimura especially takes excellent advantage of Barb’s wildly eccentric fantasy (or is it?) world, building it realistically around her in a visually resonant way that becomes fundamental to the story’s reveals towards the end.

And speaking of the end, I’m not going to reveal it.  It’s too perfectly held together to be spoiled in a silly column.  You should discover it on your own if you haven’t already – a story of best friends and death and adventure and letting go and growing up – all told with brutal honesty and startling creativity.

I Kill Giants is available as a trade and collects the entire series (#1 – 7) and includes a few extras – mostly a short essay from Kelly and some of Niimura’s sketch pages with interesting notes from both Kelly and Niimura about the process of putting Giants together.

*apologies on some of the blurred scanning – my scanner hates scanning from books almost as much as it hates me.

34 Comments

[...] 2010 in CSBG, blogging, comics, comics should be good, image comics, writing New column up for She Has No Head! on CBR’s Comics Should Be Good.  Check it out. [...]

This was a great read and I agree completely with your analysis (even down to liking the art despite not being able to see a few things clearly). Even as a guy, I had a lot in common with Barbara growing up (the geekiness is universal, I think) and could relate to the story. It also took me forever to notice the fairies on the cover of the trade for some reason. Not female empowering but following similar themes to this is Alex Robinson’s Too Cool To Be Forgotten, which I would also recommend to folks who enjoy their coming of age tales mixed with a fantastical/sci-fi element.

Daniel O' Dreams

January 11, 2010 at 10:21 am

Yeah this is on my (ever groooooowing) must read list. It seems like Roald Dahl after a serious manga bender. I’m also bugged by the all the cleavage (especially on covers makes one embarrassed to be seen reading comics) and that catsuit unzipped to the navel thing is becoming as big a cliche as straps and shoulder pads in the ’90s. Ugh.

Nice post. (And great book. Sometimes Burgas is right!)

I Kill Giants is one of those comics that made me cry too. When it was finally revealed what the giant she is fighting is all about, even though I could see it coming, it was impossible to stop the torrent of emotion. Great comic.

Also, like you say, there are a lot of great lines in IKG, and lots of great details too. Even if the art is sketchy, Barbara’s magical word is drawn with care and detail. And I love how it’s never even explained why she’s wearing those bunny ears all the time. They’re just part of her.

This was such a good book! I can’t wait for my daughter to be a little bit older to read it!

I cried reading this on the subway. Sob!

Coveleski, who?

I’m not the biggest fan of Joe Kelley, and not his worst, either.

I Kill Giants, is not one of my regular books to read. So, some day I’ll have to give it a try, maybe.

Big maybe.

Ware have I been…this is awesome.

Thanks.

I’m reading IKG right now! Thanks for praising it without spoiling it!

But I’m not just commenting for the sake of commenting (not that there’s anything wrong with that). I had the exact same reaction to that panel in Suicide Squad last week! I don’t have the issue in front of me right now, but it seemed to just come out of nowhere, as I don’t think Calafiore drew her that way in preceding panels. And he shows remarkable restraint in drawing Scandal’s exotic dancer friend just a few pages later. It’s almost as if he can’t resist for just that one page. Weird.

You also remind me of something else – my students will often jokingly complain that their education has ruined them and they want to go back to before they learned about either patriarchy or white supremacy, because once they learned about it they see it everywhere. I’m not above the occasional “ignorance is bliss” jokey comment myself, but I honestly believe that there is value in saying that something is wrong or unjust or hurtful. Especially when you do so publicly – you just never know how hearing/reading that something makes someone else angry or uncomfortable or sad might make a difference for someone. And enough someones can lead to change where the wrong or unjust or hurtful thing happens less often. So, while it is frustrating to feel “if only” about stuff, it is worth it. I know that you know this or you wouldn’t be putting yourself out there with this column, but it never hurts to hear it.

I’m glad to see such love for IKG here.

@ Tom Fitzpatrick: I really do recommend it. It’s beautifully written stuff – and the plotting is very tightly held together, I can’t really say more without spoiling it but it does this wonderful dance just on the line of something for several issues and the result is a really rewarding story.

@s1rude: Thank you for saying that, not just for me, but for everyone who feels that way. There is a lot of backlash against people who talk about this kind of stuff, and when you talk about it you are quickly labeled as a variety of things ranging from feminazi to queer to well, everything and anything and it’s hurtful, so talking about it does come with a price (at least for me it has).

I think the thing that frustrates me the most are the constant comments of “oh, here we go again, why do we have to talk about this AGAIN…we get it, you don’t like it, just get over it, accept it – it’s the way things are – move on!” and similar, because it misses the point. YES. Yes we DO have to talk about it again. You know why? Because it KEEPS HAPPENING.

I don’t think people who – for example – are pro zipper unzipped to a female character’s stomach – understand that I’m the last person on earth that wants to keep talking about the zipper…in fact, I nearly felt like bursting into tears when I saw that Black Widow cover image because I knew I was going to have to talk about it and I really really really didn’t want to. But you can’t just stop talking about it just because you’re tired of it…that’s like giving up. If you care about the issues at hand (and I do) then like you said, you have to keep going back to the hoop in the hopes that others will see it and catch on and eventually there will be a wave that actually will affect change instead of the tiny ripple of how it started (by the way, I’m not trying to credit myself with starting the ripple – just with being part of the wave).

I was encouraged that in Robot 6′s post announcement of the Black Widow series over the weekend that far more people were rolling their eyes at Marvel and expressing frustration at BW’s objectification than were complaining about the complainers. And so that, tells me it’s working, very slowly, but still. Sure, Marvel may not be getting it yet, but the fans, the people who are reading are less and less okay with this stuff – and that’s how it eventually changes. But man is it exhausting…and mostly unrewarding. And that’s why I have to say thanks to a comment like yours, which makes it all much much easier to bear! So thanks. Truly.

I agree with S1rude. I’ve talked about the issue of gratuitious ass-n-titties with other folks who read superhero comics, and some of them seem to think that the whole thing is just a part and parcel of the superhero genre, that you can’t change it, that it’s pointless to try to fight it. I love reading superhero comics, but I’m also a feminist and I don’t think objectification of women is something comics can’t live without. They’re not porn, their main purpose is to tell exciting stories with interesting characters, and you can do that without sexism. When I was kid in the 80s reading The X-Men, even though the women were drawn pretty then too, I think there was much less objectification and porn shots in superhero comics back then as there are now. So ass-n-titties is not an inevitable part of superhero comics, they can change, and I (among many others) would like them to change to something better. I think it’s good that these things are said aloud, that blogs like yours express this wish for comics to get better, so that people who read it will know not everyone just accepts sexism as an inseparable part of the superhero genre, that there are many of us who find it problematic even if they love the genre as as whole.

I think there’s also a practical angle to the issue… I have many female friends who read comics, and I’ve had no problem recommending them good (non-superhero) comics that I’ve read. But none of them read superhero comics, and most of the times I haven’t even considered recommending them that sort of stuff, even if I’ve liked it, because I know they’d find the objectification of women in it quite distracting. On the other hand, I have no problem recommending them things like I Kill Giants. So by allowing casual sexism run free superhero publishers are keeping away a huge group of potential readers who might otherwise enjoy their comics, and I think this potential readership is much bigger than the amount of readers they’d risk to lose if they’d get rid of the gratuitous ass-n-titties.

thank you for the recommendation Kelly. I’ve been hearing a lot about this series, and now I think I’m sold.

Great post again Kelly.
I love I Kill Giants. I Kill Giants is a great story, it has a deeper meaning and it is fun to read.

With respect to the cleavage part of the post. I agree that comics often have scenes that take you out of it because of the ridiculous cleavage. It would work best for the story to have fewer scenes like that. It only makes sense when the story dictates it (as in a woman does this on purpose to distract another character, among other reasons). Too often we get scenes that don’t add anything and actually take away from the story.

When reading I Kill Giants, I couldn’t help to think back to books like Tellos and Leave It To Chance where youthful innocence and the magical combine for great moments. Joe Kelly continues to do good to great yet underrated work. Plus who as a kid didn’t think they were capable of great feats?

Great to see this book get more love. I teared up reading this book, and so has everyone I have lent it to.

This book, It’s a Bird, Maus, Sandman, Demo, Local, Blankets, Solstice, and Asterios Polyp are the books that I buy for people who still gawk at comics. So far, I have proven all of them wrong!

Damnit. I almost bought this at Border on Saturday and now I wish that I had. The contrast between these pages and the Black Widow cover is just brutal. To me, it is not just a question of sexism, but what makes good comics.

Character design is a huge part of the overall portrayal of characters in comics. Part of what makes the medium unique is that the reader is supposed to judge the proverbial book by its cover. In the moment of magical transformation, a normal person becomes a superhero. They look different and that encourages the reader to believe that they are different. The script can relate to the visual image in a lot of ways, but it cannot function independently from it.

Scantily clad women with blank expressions and highly sexualized bodies cause the reader to make certain assumptions. There are a lot of clever ways that a good writer could work with that design. They could roll with it and imagine the inner life of vacuous sex object. They could play against it and make an ironic commentary about objectification. They could use the image to add depth to an insecure character. Those are all valid ways to deal with one of these pin-ups in superhero clothing.

What they cannot do is create a real contrast between one pin-up and another. They all have the same basic body, the same basic face and the same fashion sense. In comic book terms, they are essentially the same person with minor differences. To my mind, this is the essence of sexism. Half the human race cannot possibly be “all the same”.

Contrast that with Barbara from I KILL GIANTS. You get a sense just from looking at her what type of person that she is. Her skinny torso combined with her defiant body language tells you that she is an extremely stubborn person. Her long straight hair and her over sized glasses tell you that she is probably not in the popular crowd. The bunny ears tell you that she has a sense of whimsy. Her design gives you a basis for a personality.

Can you imagine that type of person in TEEN TITANS or one of X-titles? The Cassie Sasndsmark make-over would take five years at most.

Yasemin dresses like that because her character dresses like that. It’s pretty simple. The superhero/superpy world that is the DCU is fetishistic and hyper-sexualized, and the goal (for me, anyway) is not to have no characters who dress like bimbos or himbos, the goal is to have a wide range, to have that kind of diversity that male characters have always enjoyed.

Here’s my math.

ONE Power Girl in a world full of diverse, interesting female heroes is fine, it’s great, there’s a ton of room to explore why she dresses like that.

ALL female characters being Power Girl-esque is just too dumb for words.

But there are people who look like Power Girl, and there are women who dress like Yasemin, and it doesn’t have to be purely to appeal to 13 year old straight boys. Yasemin is, in all ways, quite deliberately not likable. She makes poor wank bait under any circumstances. And the same book has quite possibly the broadest (no pun intended) range of female characters in any superhero comic, everything from the very gay Brazilian woman Scandal, to the amazing (but not particularly Penthouse Pet-like Amanda Waller to the Indian and slightly waif-ish Virtuosa and on and on.

I will absolutely cop to sexualizing the characters but that’s because I’m bigoted against eunuchs.

It’s funny that the people complaining about cleavage you can see every day almost anywhere (and I don’t mean the writer of the piece, just in general) don’t seem to complain about the fact that I have Catman naked on a regular basis.

If it were up to me, they’d all be naked. THAT would be some Tales to Astonish.

Best,

Gail

FunkyGreenJerusalem

January 11, 2010 at 4:56 pm

I will absolutely cop to sexualizing the characters but that’s because I’m bigoted against eunuchs.

Well that explains the lack of respect shown to Rag Doll…

“Even more rare? The fact that with the exception of the bully, pretty much all of these women are supportive and caring of each other.

That’s not only rare, that’s almost unrealistic. :D

That’s what a lot of media would have people think, anyway…

Hell, I’m convinced. To the comic book store!

Hi Kelly,

I just wanted to agree with s1rude on your column.

I find it really interesting, and quite useful in deciding what to buy (when Stupmtown comes out in trade I am getting it).

I completely understand about the Black Widow cover: I thought the same thing. Out of interest do you read Captain America? What do you think about Brubaker’s treatment of Black Widow?

Thanks for writing the column.

It’s funny that the people complaining about cleavage you can see every day almost anywhere (and I don’t mean the writer of the piece, just in general) don’t seem to complain about the fact that I have Catman naked on a regular basis.

You realize that due to the history of sexism the objectification of women carries different implications than the objectification of men? Those who already have the upper hand can afford to have their pedestal shook a bit, whereas with those who have less power the repetition of sexist stereotypes will only serve to reproduce their lower position. If we would live in a totally equal world, showing naked men would have the same effect as showing naked women. But we don’t. The objectification of women is still the norm, so objectifying men can be something that goes against the norm, but objecitfying women just tends to reinforce the norm.

Also, I don’t think anyone here is pro-eunuch, i.e. against sex and sexuality and eroticism in comics as such. It’s only when that eroticism is gratuitious, when it has no point except satisfying the wank needs of male readers, when it’s against what the character is all about (such as female action heroes wearing titillating but highly impractical clothes), that it becomes problematic. I haven’t read this variation of Suicide Squad, so it’s quite possible that in it eroticizing of women serves other purposes than being mere wank fodder. But in many other superhero comics that’s all it does.

Presence of wank fodder alone isn’t the crime here too, I think. It’s when the wank fodder imagery is being used in ways that just doesn’t make any sense.

In the case of the Black Widow stuff, the cover gives the impression that the book is pretty much going to be about tits and titillation. Chances are the story will actually be super-spy or quasi-realistic political stuff with at most a few sorta-sexy pages.

Any reader who buys based on the cover will probably be disappointed. Readers likely to be interested in the story material on its own merits won’t be enticed into buying by a Maxim-style cover.

“You realize that due to the history of sexism the objectification of women carries different implications than the objectification of men?”

No, I am new to the planet Earth.

The answer is not ever going to be to have zero female characters who objectify themselves. That solves nothing. The answer is a broad range of female characters, some of whom will make very poor life choices (and horrendous fashion decisions as well, hopefully).

Yasemin dresses that way not to get teenagers going, she dresses that way for, I think, reasons of self-loathing, something we reinforced over and over in her few brief appearances.

The blanket rule that female characters can’t reflect a very real portion of the female population (those who are obsessed with their looks and overtly sexual in appearance) is just silly nonsense. It helps no one.

Sure, but a lot superhero comics don’t just reflect that portion of female population, they make most female characters members of it, even the ones who have no reason to be like that. I’m all for a broad range of female characters, including ones that like to appear sexy (if that fits their overall persona), but unfortunately I haven’t read too many recent superhero comics that would have a such a range.

Also, even with a variety personalities and clothing styles, it’s still problematic that many superhero artists tend to draw female characters with a single, uniform porn star body, and in various objectifying poses. It kinda undermines having strong female characters if they appear in gratuitious ass-n-titties shots in every other panel.

Well… most superhero artists never learn how to draw “real” women, or their clothes, or their bodies and mannerisms. I’ve seen artists working with pornography as their reference for female anatomy AND for the fashions they put the women in when they’re not in costume! The result is that there are very few female characters in mainstream superhero comics who, despite the writer’s best intentions, actually look like they dressed themselves that morning.

Granted, a lot of artists will have the same problems with male clothing and drapery in general, since most aspiring superhero artists are just told to study anatomy and focus on that to the exclusion of other things. So the minute the comic isn’t about nearly-naked people punching each other, the art immediately becomes worse.

You realize that due to the history of sexism the objectification of women carries different implications than the objectification of men? Those who already have the upper hand can afford to have their pedestal shook a bit, whereas with those who have less power the repetition of sexist stereotypes will only serve to reproduce their lower position. If we would live in a totally equal world, showing naked men would have the same effect as showing naked women. But we don’t. The objectification of women is still the norm, so objectifying men can be something that goes against the norm, but objecitfying women just tends to reinforce the norm.

This is where these discussions always verge into Fantasyland.

The simple truth is that objectification is one of the effects of testosterone on the human brain. Women tend to be wired slightly differently that way. Saying that objectification equals oppression takes you inevitably into the land of Andrea Dworkin. It is arguing against human nature. However, like facial hair, body odor and everything else that comes with puberty there are better and worse ways to deal objectification. What tends to get under discussed are the appropriate times, places and manners of expression aspect of human nature.

Part of the problem is that it is difficult to generalize about what one half of the human population wants from the other half. There are women like Power Girl that have large breasts and enjoy the attention they generate. There is also the polar opposite type that wears three baggy sweaters from the 8th grade onward. There is also literally everything in between.

In other words, people are different.

In a genre like superheroes where the central conceit is that people magically become dream (or nightmare) versions of themselves those differences should really come across. Instead, we have comic-after-comic that essentially says “Bring In The FEMBOTS!” every time a female cast member is needed. It is not good story-telling and it is a stunningly unimaginative way to use both the genre and the medium.

Personally, I do not want to sexualized characters disappear from comics. It would just be nice if there was a bit more discipline in the use of that particular device. Even outright wank-bait can be used to say something about a character, or the relationship between two (or more) characters. There are wittier and more interesting ways to say certain things than just flat saying them. There are more fun and interesting ways of showing things than just flat showing them.

I have to agree with FGJ…Rag Doll does need to have more focus *giggle* maybe a love interest Gail…can we get him a puppy HELLHOUND?!?!?!?

Imagine the misadventures now…..and Catman going “O Hell No”….

LOVED IKG! Fantastic book, top of the pile every time it came out! Andthe art made me want to pick up a pencil for the first time in a long time.

P.S.
Gail Simone rationalizes standard industry practice as a set of principles she adheres to…? Seriously.

That’s a fascinating perspective about the effect ridiculous cleavage has on your reading experience. Reading that, I realized that I never had that problem as a guy, and it made me reflect on how men and women approach the same comics differently. I think the reason I (and probably many other guys) have never had that sort of reaction is that breast size, for us, is a very subjective thing, having a lot to do with context. In the superhero world, the average cup size is somewhere in the double-Ds, so it doesn’t register so much when I see gargantuan breasts in a comic full of them. Of course, putting the standard unrealistic Marvel heroines next to, say, the Runaways would have a much more jarring effect- notice that when they first got involved with the larger Marvel Universe, they did so with the nearly-realistic-looking Dagger as the only heroine they interacted with.

@DTH: I’ve seen some ridiculously boobtacular Daggers in my day. If she came off as “nearly realistic” in Runaways, then I bet the writer/artist deserve some credit for working with her until she did.

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