Interview with Comic Book Writer Devin Grayson

As a credited writer with experience in the comic book world, would you say that there is currently sexism in the way this industry is run? (Ex.: Are there a lot of female characters being portrayed in sexist or misogynistic portrayals? or Are female comic book writers/creators treated different or unfairly in comparison to their male counterparts?)

Comic Book Writer Devin Grayson

First of all, there’s sexism everywhere. It’s important to be clear about that. Industries and companies that have eradicated it are rare and deserve to be celebrated. That’s because our society is still, at its core, sexist. I don’t believe in trickledown economics, but I think the evidence for trickledown morality is very convincing; if those at the top behave badly, others will follow suit.

So then the question becomes, is the comics industry egregious in this regard, and unfortunately, the answer appears to be yes. Let me stipulate, though, that I’m referring to mainstream superhero comics here—the indie comics scene is alive and well and a whole different animal that is, in many ways, ahead of the game in terms of representation and story content.

But if we’re talking about the “big two”—DC and Marvel—there are several levels of sexism to dig through: the often flat and/or sexually charged portrayal of female characters, a confirmed ratio of female readers in no way reflected in published material or marketing decisions and, of course, a dearth of female creator hires. Concerning the latter, there was a time when an argument could be made—and I made it myself—that the lack of female representation in the creative part of superhero comics could to some extent be traced back to a lack of interest on the part of female writers and artists in superheroes, but this is patently no longer the case. You only have to glance at DeviantArt or Tumblr to see the passion women now have to tackle this material. And although it’s not a foolproof plan—as I’ll touch on more in a moment—a pretty good start to taking care of the way females are portrayed in comics is to encourage more females to do the portraying. So why doesn’t this happen? Especially considering the statistic I alluded to earlier about the readership ratio: market research indicates that 47% of comics readers are female.

I don’t think that the people at the top of mainstream comics are evil or even deliberately non-inclusive. They’re just a bunch of straight white males, and their friends are straight white males and the people they feel most comfortable working with are straight white males. Though they historically argued, with some credibility, that they were just flat-out unaware of the need for inclusion, they can’t make that case now. That memo is out and, believe it or not, they are trying to do better, albeit with very mixed results.

The piece that’s still missing is education. It’s one thing to be told that women are under and/or badly represented in your industry, but it’s another thing entirely to understand the causes, symptoms and effects of this. Just as it’s one thing to feel, vaguely, that you are being treated unfairly, but quite another to understand the history, mechanisms, and systematic application of said injustice.

I am actually a perfect example of this. Seventeen years ago, when I broke in, I was not only unaware of the specific females-in-mainstream-comics representation problem, I was unaware of female representation as a problem in general. It’s still hard for me to get my head around: I was raised in the Bay Area by second-wave feminists, I went to the most liberal of liberal arts colleges and I was, you know, female myself, yet I was uneducated in the sociology of suppression, especially as it pertained to women. I was totally disinterested in feminist theory—that was something my mom was into. I had other things to worry about, other battles to fight. The result is that you can find about ten years’ worth of interviews from my early career in which I am railing against the comics industry press for continuously asking me what it’s like to be “a woman in comics.” I found the question disorienting and uninteresting—no one in the industry at that time treated me any differently but the industry press was relentless about framing all of my accomplishments solely in that context. Eventually I learned to use those interviews as opportunities to talk about the kind of issues we’re discussing now, and that is because eventually I actively and deliberately educated myself on the issue. There’s a great quote—“inclusion takes effort”—but so many people have used it now that I’m not sure to whom it should be attributed. But it hits the nail on the head. Just being female isn’t enough. Just wanting equality isn’t enough. You have to make an effort to understand what you’re experiencing and/or perpetrating in its larger context.

I have friends in the industry now who are currently in the same place I was in ten years ago. They’re great people who are genuinely concerned with and involved in making the world a better place, proud and un-ironic social justice warriors, but they are uneducated in women’s studies and seem to have no sense of how the ways they celebrate their genuine love of women can be devaluing and problematic. It’s kind of like Men’s Right’s Activists or the people who argue that there’s reverse racism—they have not yet learned the difference between horrible, unfair incidents and systematic, institutionalized discrimination. It’s not that the former should get a pass; it’s that the latter needs to be dismantled on a much more massive and complex scale. Until you have truly sat with and explored the systematic, institutionalized nature of sexism, you are missing the all-important context. Can women treat men unfairly? Holy crap, yes! But they are not systematically conditioned to do so from grade school on, nor are their lousy behaviors sanctioned by law, sewn into the framework of institutions or reinforced by nearly every facet of mainstream media. The –isms are big picture issues. And until you’re looking at that big picture, you will be unable to take effective actions to change it.

And that is why there is still sexism in the comics industry.

As of now, you are one of a very few women who have ever written for any of the Batman family characters (you for your Nightwing run, and Gail Simone for her Batgirl series as another example). In your opinion, does it seem a little unusual that so few female writers have worked for the Batman universe, especially considering how long these characters have been around? And if so, why?

What’s even more unusual than a female writing for the Batman family of characters is a woman actually writing Batman, which I feel very honored to have done. All through my career I was pressured to work with female characters. Though I’m better known for my run on Nightwing, I also created and wrote Batman: Gotham Knights for 32 issues—I believe that was the first time a woman successfully created and launched a new Batman book. Gail Simone, who you mention, has, of course, done great work in the Bat Universe and, on the artist side, we currently have the amazing Babs Tarr on Batgirl. I’m sure there will be more females working with the Bat Family in the future—I know many females writers and artists who feel a strong connection to those characters—but as to whether or not I find it unusual that there have so far been so few, not really. It’s disappointing and unfortunate, but pretty much the opposite of unusual.

I feel compelled to mention that the people who hired me, back in the late nineties, were very open-minded and genuinely enthusiastic about my contributions. None of them have worked at DC Comics for over a decade now, but I feel certain that if those same people were around, the role of women in the Bat Universe would have continued to expand. Unfortunately, the people who replaced them were not as conscientious about actively encouraging inclusion.

In interviews about prominent women in this industry, the same question always seems to be asked to female comic book writers/creators, “What is it like being a woman in the comic book industry?”

-Why do you think female comic book writers/creators are constantly asked this question?

&

-Why do you think so many female comic book writers/creators irked when asked this question repeatedly?

I don’t really know the answer to the first part of this question—why that question is always asked—I can only guess. And my guess is that, although the question can trivialize and ghettoize the work that women do, the intention behind it is precisely the opposite. The almost exclusively male interviewers who ask that want to show that they’re concerned about the role women play in the industry—some of them for sort of selfish, brownie-point earning reasons and some of them out of a genuine, if uneducated, desire to promote greater inclusion. And really, in and of itself, there’s nothing wrong with the question. It’s almost impossible to answer, since a) it’s incredibly vague, as all “what does it feel like” questions tend to be and b) presumably most people being asked don’t have much to compare the experience to, having never been men in the comics industry–but it is not, in and off itself, a terrible question. The problem is that it is asked every time and usually to the exclusion of anything else. To this day, no one has ever asked me what it’s like to write Batman, but rather, what it’s like to be a woman writing Batman. Though it’s important to highlight and bring attention to women doing interesting work, it’s equally if not more important to bring attention to the actual work itself, something that very rarely happens.

I also think that there’s a limiting expectation concerning answers to “what does it feel like” questions. Movie stars, for example, know that when they’re asked how it feels to be “so suddenly so famous” or to work with so-and-so or on such-and-such, the expected answer is something about how thrilled and excited they are. It’s a softball question with a scripted answer, an opportunity for the person being interviewed to demonstrate how appreciative he or she is of the advantages he or she has. Part of what bothers me, personally, about the “What is it like being a woman in the comic book industry?” question is that I feel like the expected answer is some kind of enthusiastic, appreciative and diffident testament to my essential unworthiness. It also keeps the entirety of the burden of exploring the question of sexism in the industry on the females. Why are people in positions of power never asked what it feels like to work in an industry with so few prominent females? Wouldn’t that be a more insightful, interesting discussion? Ultimately, the most distressing thing about the question “what is it like being a woman in the comics industry?” is all the other questions it precludes.

As a writer, would you say it’s more freeing to write from the perspective of a male character rather than a female character? For example, in the way that male characters typically have more freedom than their female counterparts in what they are allowed and not allowed to do (i.e. how male characters usually get away with sleeping around with different women, while female characters are often shamed for doing the same thing.)

I personally prefer to write male characters, but that’s half because I work a lot with existing licensed characters and the more interesting, developed, marque superheroes are almost exclusively male, and half because of very personal, individual predilections that don’t seem to have any universal application. I have yet to meet another female writer as disinterested in female characters as I am; it is clearly a very individual quirk and, frankly, a personal shortcoming. I wish I were more driven to write female characters, because I very much recognize the need for palpable representations of them. But that’s just not who I am (and, who knows, maybe it’s partly because I’ve been negatively impacted by the lack of viable female characters in my own formative experiences with media and literature).

But what I can say universally is that it’s easier to write male characters because they are scrutinized very differently. The need for sympathetic, autonomous female characters is so great in this industry that it feels almost irresponsible to create any female who isn’t a perfect empowering role model. And who wants to write about one of those? It’s much more fun and interesting to write about characters that are deeply flawed. So, yes, there’s much more pressure when writing female characters, but most female writers I’ve spoken with seem more than up to the task. I am an anomaly. Most women can’t wait for the opportunity to create and/or give new life to laudable female characters.

Are male and female comic book characters written and treated differently, and if so, in what ways are they done differently?

Well, this isn’t unique to comic books—female characters in western literature almost exclusively play supporting roles for male characters, motivating them to continue along in their hero’s journey either by being positioned as prizes to be won or, all too often in superhero stories, dying. I have publically called for a moratorium on all avenging-the-death-of-a-female stories. It’s been overdone to the point of being disgusting.

Comic books have the added responsibility of visual character representation and I don’t think it’s any secret that the industry more often than not falls short in this regard. People like to draw and look at visually appealing characters, and for female characters especially this usually results in overt sexualization. That’s not because every male comic artist or editor is a misogynistic horn dog, it’s because we have all been socialized from a very early age to judge women’s physical appearance by highly stylized standards.

As for writing, I think the most common mistake we see with female characters is that they tend to move through a world completely lacking social context for them. That is, even if the character is believable, we rarely see the world around her responding to her in a way that is authentic to the experience of contemporary females. And that is almost certainly because men are unaware of most of what we go through on a day to day basis.

Have you ever had any negative experiences in the comic book industry as a result of being a female comic book writer? (Check out the following questions for examples of possible negative experiences.)

  • Have you ever received any negative social media comments in regards to your being a female comic book writer, and if so what were some of the comments? (Ex.: “Ah man! Why are they having a girl write this story?/ “Ew, she’s totally going to ruin the male character in this series.” 

There was so much internet antipathy directed my way in the earlier part of my career that I eventually chose to withdraw from all social media. I can’t give many examples because I stopped reading it all as soon as I could make myself, but it’s probably still out there if you want to go looking (god knows I don’t!). Some of the comments were clearly directed at my being female, but even the ones that weren’t often included the kind of slights that aren’t generally directed at men: comments about my weight and my love life and yes, of course, most prominently, nasty rumors about how I supposedly got my job.

  • Has your work ever been doubted/insulted simply because you are a female comic book writer? (Ex.: “You know they only gave her the job because they’re trying to make to make the industry look more diverse.”)

Absolutely. Though your example is tame—I started working before there was an actual movement toward diversification; that’s probably a criticism you’d hear today. Fifteen years ago, the insinuation was that I only got my job by granting an editor sexual favors or kept it because of someone I was dating.

If you had any advice to give to girls or women trying to make their way into the comic book industry, what advice would you give to them?

Understand what you’re up against and move bravely forward anyway. Educate yourself in women’s studies, but don’t feel like you have to speak for all of womankind with every word you write, that will paralyze you. Just tell the truth in your work. Create a network with other women with similar interests and support and champion one another. Make up your own mind about the limits of what you can accomplish—do not let others set them for you. And have fun—oppression is averse to joy.

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