Nicola Vincent-Abnett

Nicola Vincent-Abnett
"Savant" for Solaris, Wild's End, Further Associates of Sherlock Holms, more Wild's End

Sunday 12 June 2016

I do enjoy a good Comic Convention

In the past couple of years, the husband has upped his comic-book output.

He works a lot, and he works on a lot of projects, but the balance does vary from time to time, for all sorts of complicated reasons. While the husband’s still writing long-form fiction, games, and various other projects, quite a lot of his output is comic books right now. He’s getting a lot of enjoyment from it, and he’s having some success… Honestly, if you haven’t read Wild’s End or his recent run on Hercules, I can highly recommend both. Brink is proving very popular for 2000AD, and he’s currently working on Aquaman, Titans and Earth 2, all to considerable acclaim.

We don’t attend many conventions, not least because the husband works constantly, and there isn’t always time to schedule weekend events. When we go away, we also go together, so, if the husband attends a convention, I do too.

Over the past year, the husband has been invited to an increasing number of comic conventions. He likes to get out, we both do. He loves meeting and talking to the readers. After all, as we so often say, “The point of the writer is the reader”. The husband has scheduled more comic conventions this year than he generally would. It gives him a chance to chat with other writers and artists, and to get feedback on the work from comic book readers.

Comic Conventions come in all shapes and sizes. Some are all comic books, others include gaming, tv and movie stuff. There are always a few writers, and, generally, a whole host of artists. Artists’ Alley consists of traditional professionals, self-publishers of various kinds, and relative amateurs. Conventions are work for them, and an earning opportunity.

There’s always stuff to look at, and buy, and there are always interesting people to talk to. Going to a comic con is no hardship for me.

Then there’s the cosplay. Costumes range from the sublime to the ridiculous, from the professionally built to the homemade to the cheap and cheerful. They are all wonderful. I love the ones I recognise, and I enjoy those that I’m not familiar with. Seeing a woman in beige overalls with a toy ginger tom in her pocket puts a smile on my face. Seeing more than a dozen versions of Wonder Woman gives me a thrill. Catching sight of purple locks and nursery dresses and faces made-up to look like porcelain dolls fascinates me. I smile at ever Space Marine, every Nightwing, every Doctor Who. I love all the Spider men and women, and all the Ultra boys and girls.

Comic conventions are great family days out. Everyone is welcome, and the crowds come to enjoy themselves, to show off a little, but mostly just to participate in their hobbies and to share them with the likeminded.

It’s all good… It really is all good.

The last two conventions I attended with the husband followed this simple pattern, but there was one small element that gave me pause, that made me think, that sort of bothered me.

I didn’t want to be bothered, and a little bit of me was uncomfortable that one small element of the day had this effect on me.

I’m a feminist. I’ve been a feminist for a very long time.

Comic Conventions are a great place for people to be whomever they want to be. Gender is no impediment to dressing as a favourite comic book character, and neither is age or race. I saw boys dressed as girl characters and girls dressed as boy characters, and I saw children dressed as adult characters. I saw black and asian versions of white characters (and if there were more black and asian characters, I might have seen white versions of them, but that's another blog entirely). Diversity is a good thing. It made me happy. People were free to express themselves any way and every way that they wanted to. They were free to follow their passions without censure or comment. Bloody marvellous! I approve, unreservedly.

Except… And part of me hates myself for the exception. I’ll be happy to be persuaded that I’m wrong.

…Except that at the two most recent family day out comic conventions that I’ve attended, beautiful young women were being body-painted to resemble various comic book characters.

Comic books were always the preserve of boys. Over the decades, some comic companies have been heavily criticised for what is perceived as misogyny, for lacking insight where gender politics are concerned. Much of that criticism is justified. Most comic book companies are trying quite hard to do better, and the culture makes it tough. There are still very few women comic book professionals, and there are still very few women editing comics. Where there is no internal voice, no voice is heard. Change comes slowly and at a price.

Comic book fans do understand gender politics, and they do embrace everyone equally. They share interests and they are more likely to have some prejudice to other comic characters than to women, children or anyone of any ethnicity sharing a passion for their favourite character.

What then of the painted women? Aren’t they just embracing a favourite character too?

Well… Perhaps they are.

I have thoughts about that, though. 

I have never seen a body-painted man, and if there were such a thing, he’d be wearing pants. Yes, I know the women are wearing knickers, too, but men don’t have the secondary sexual characteristic of breasts; women do. And where there are naked breasts their are people who will respond sexually to the sight of them.

Some feminists would say that’s not the painted women’s problem. I guess it isn’t. On the other hand, those women must be aware that they are being looked at as sexual beings before they are being looked at as their favourite superhero. Artists paint over bikini briefs, so why not bikini bras as well?

Except that’s not really the issue.

Women have been idealised and sexualised in comics for decades. These painted women are buying into that and perpetuating the myth at a time when feminists are attacking comic book companies for sexualising and degrading women.

There’s a huge contradiction here.

My favourite Wonder Woman at the last con I attended was a young asian woman, clearly a muslim. She was covered from head to toe, she looked fabulous, and she totally epitomised the kind of Wonder Woman that I could get onboard with. My favourite costume at the last con I attended was worn by a boy of about tend years old, and consisted of a bright yellow tutu. What can I say? He wore it extremely well.

The body-painted women posed for photographs. The photographers were men, and they photographed the women because they were beautiful, because they were sexy, and clearly not because they were portraying their own favourite characters. The children took no notice, and I didn’t see any women getting their cameras out.

I’m not a prude; a beautiful body is a beautiful body in any and all circumstances. However, nudity is always about context. Nudity at a family day out, at a comic convention where gender politics are such a hot topic doesn’t, in my mind at least, help the course of feminism.
A beautiful woman in a fabulous costume
Demoncon 2015

Some women will always be objectified because of their bodies. If beautiful women expose their bodies, they will be more objectified. That’s not the nature of women, that’s the nature of the masculine sexual response.

I don’t care about their nudity, but I would not choose to paint my body to represent my favourite comic book hero.

In the end, I don’t know if they choose to paint their bodies to represent their favourite comic book heroes. I don’t know whether they’re paid to have their bodies painted for the viewing pleasure of the comic convention goers. I do know that men weren't queueing up to take pictures of other costumed convention goers, no matter how impressive their outfits.

Honestly, I’m not hugely comfortable with actors and models being employed to walk around comic cons to have their pictures taken. The comic con is for the fans, first and most importantly. The characters belong to the fans. The rest feels suspiciously like exploitation.


  1. I think it's following a trend from a girl in the US who does some quite impressive (skilful and intricate) body painting. But I agree that in a convention it attracts attention that is not based on shared fandom and there have been some deeply inappropriate behaviours from some of the men attending, towards various women in cosplay. It's a difficult subject to deal with, (body confidence being empowering etc) but I agree that with a hugely varied age group present, a degree of restraint (concealing clothing) might need to be encouraged at conventions within their guidelines

    1. Thanks for the comment. I am conflicted on this subject, as you can probably tell. Smiles.

    2. I think if you're a real feminist and don't just like the way the word sounds, you've gotta accept that people have a right to express their sexuality in public (within the law), even if you see it as demeaning to them. Whether they're fans or they're paid, they're not being forced.

      It's okay to admit that public nudity makes you uncomfortable without trying to assume some kind of social high ground. Everybody has a strong reaction to seeing each other's sex organs, it's natural. I admit it's different in the U.S., but I can't quite figure out, for instance, why this would be a problem but not toplessness on a public beach.

    3. I take your point, and, essentially, I feel the same way.

      I stated quite clearly that nudity doesn't make me uncomfortable.

      It's all about context, which, again, I stated.

      The point is that if I was topless on a public beach, I wouldn't expect men to take pictures of me, and I would expect to be justified in my anger if they did. Anyone taking my picture in this context should expect this kind of reaction.

      Not for nothing, breasts are not sex organs.

      There are many stripes of feminist, and no single stripe is the 'real feminist'. For what it's worth, I would defend any woman in any situation. I make no moral judgement on these women whether they're enthusiasts or were paid.

      I also defend you and your brand of feminism, which is why I'm having this conversation, despite your choice to remain anonymous. I believe we have more in common than you think.

    4. Probably. You're a cool lady.