Soaping up superheroes

How to get more women into comics? Have some superheroes guest-star on "Guiding Light!" (No, we're not kidding.)

Published October 26, 2006 6:16PM (EDT)

Cookie magazine's Daysitter blog offered us a tasty morsel today, on the Marvel Comics plan to appeal to female readers by partnering with the soap opera "Guiding Light." As Cookie contributing editor Tamara Loomis notes, it's a dubious proposition. The co-branding effort will begin with the "New Avengers" superheroes visiting the home of the "Guiding Light" characters in a special insert in some of Marvel's comic books. Later, in an episode of "Guiding Light," one of the soap characters will obtain superpowers.

I'm sure Marvel has done its demographic research -- women dive into soaps for the same escapist reasons that comics fans read comics, and both mediums offer serial characters that audiences bond with for life, etc. But past that, this move makes absolutely no sense. Not because girls and women aren't vulnerable to the charms of superhero narratives -- as Loomis observes, Japanese comics in particular have done a fine job of hooking both sexes on their multifarious world of stylish, strange and oh-so-hip superheroes. (I watched in horror as my own daughter went through a fanatical identity complex after exposure to the Japanese superhero Sailor Moon, who combines the worst of both female and male fantasies, being a squealing vapor-headed schoolgirl in an obscenely short dress who whines and weeps and then saves the world by fighting long, violent battles to the death with accented evildoers who would destroy our world.)

But women who get hooked on soaps mostly do so as adults, in large part because children are in school while they are being aired. In contrast, Marvel Comics addictions are nursed in babyhood. By the age of 3 or 4, many boys' interest in superheroes develops into full-bloom obsession. This is about the same age that many little girls cathect onto fairies and princesses. In the hands of little girls, we don't call it power, we call it "magic," but what's the difference? One may be dressed up in pink chiffon and another camouflaged in a rubber mask, but both allow the child to express the tyranny of their little wills in miraculous and socially acceptable ways.

The difference is that most little girls grow out of the fairy stage -- or rather it morphs into that pageantry of prettiness known as women's fashion. And gradually, girls stories -- whether it's Ramona suffering through first grade in suburbia or Laura Ingalls Wilder suffering through a Long Winter on the frontier -- tend to become more about enduring than imposing. Despite the sequined dresses and opulent dinette sets, the soap opera genre flows from these narratives. Bad things just keep happening and no one saves the day.

In contrast, for a certain population of older boys and men, the superhero -- with his disguises and gadgets, weird exclamations and fights to the death -- continues to cast an ineffable spell. It's hard to imagine that any company -- even one specializing in the supernatural -- can forge that kind of connection later in life. Marvel might have some success creating female superheroes that have some modern-day currency -- characters that meet the fairy-magical standards early on and then evolve into older girls whose superpowers are challenged by real as well as supernatural trouble. But actually, that sounds a little like "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" -- a fact that Marvel isn't completely clueless about. According to Brandweek, the company commissioned Joss Whedon, creator of TV's "Buffy," to pen some comics. So maybe crossovers can find a successful way to turn more women into comics fans.

But it doesn't sound like having New Avengers swing by a soap-opera set is the answer.

By Carol Lloyd

Carol Lloyd is currently at work on a book about the gentrification wars in San Francisco's Mission District.

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