BSU online course to study gender in comics 

click to enlarge Christina leading a class full of comic book heroes. - JUSTIN WASSON
  • Christina leading a class full of comic book heroes.
  • Justin Wasson

Ball State professor Christina Blanch spent her formative years spinning in a circle, trying to transform into Wonder Woman. Although she didn't magically become a crime-fighting Amazonian princess, she did gain a life-long love of comics.

This April, Blanch will bring that appreciation to the Internet, teaching a Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) on gender in comics. The six-week class begins April 2, and so far, more than 5,000 people - a mix of comic fans and academics - have signed up for the class.

The reading list will be a grabbag of classic superhero titles like Action Comics and Captain Marvel, and other, less-conventional fare, such as Terry Moore's Strangers in Paradise and Y: The Last Man. Comic book creators and icons such as Gail Simone, Mark Waid and acclaimed Batman writer Scott Snyder agreed to be interviewed for the class.

All the reading materials for the class are available on the Comixology app at a reduced price. Blanch estimates the class will eat about three to five hours a week, culminating in the students creating their own comics.

Ball State senior and self-confessed feminist nerd Valerie Sizemore disagrees with some academics who might argue that comic books are too "low-brow" for the classroom.

"It's possible to couple gender theory with comics to create a fruitful and intelligent conversation," Sizemore said. "Studying works by writers like Shakespeare, Joyce, or Emerson are important, but with the right professor and the right questions, comics can be just as valuable learning tools. Our class proved this true on a daily basis."

click to enlarge Christina Blanch and Stan Lee.
  • Christina Blanch and Stan Lee.

Gender has been a thorny role in comics over the years. Superman was the first superhero in comics, and Lois Lane the first popular female character. When she was created in 1938, Lois was a tough-as-nails reporter, fighting Clark Kent for the big stories. But in the 1950s, she turned into "a simpering crybaby," as society tried to force women back into the home.

Instead of coming up ledes for her next Pulitzer Prize-winning article, Lois was dreaming up harebrained schemes to capture the Man of Steel's affections. Blanch had hoped to use a copy of Superman's Girlfriend Lois Lane featuring Superman and Batman playing horrible pranks to dissuade Lois, but the issue wasn't available on Comixology.

Sizemore, who took the class last semester for credit, discovered one of her favorite new characters from the assigned reading material.

"We had to read Batwoman: Elegy by Greg Rucka, and I immediately latched onto her," Sizemore said. "Not only is she this tough, intelligent, and strong woman, she's an LGBTQ character whose existence doesn't revolve around the fact that she's a lesbian. Her sexuality has an effect on her life, of course, but it isn't her driving characteristic. It's refreshing because you don't often get to see queer characters this nuanced, let alone that are women."

Batwoman is in stark contrast with too many oversexed depictions of female superheroes that are all-too common in comics. Adding insult to injury, female heroes, already barely clad in skimpy costumes - Who would really fight crime in essentially a swimsuit and high-heeled boots ? - are drawn in ridiculous, body- contorting poses that no woman with a spine could accomplish. That's why fans started the Hawkeye Initiative website, which replaces the superheroine with the Avenging Archer in the same pose. The site is the focus of one of Blanch's lectures.

"I think it's great, really funny," Blanch said. "I don't mind women being sexy - or men, for that matter - but some of the poses just make you go, 'really?' It's opened some eyes. You might not think it's that bad, but then you stop and really look at it (in a different context)."

Blanch praised Marvel Comics recent decision to revamp the Ms. Marvel character, renaming her Captain Marvel and giving her a new, less revealing costume. Blanch spoke with writer Kelly Sue DeConnick, and said the reason for the switch was fairly simple - DeConnick knew she would be writing a funeral scene in the new comic, and "who goes to a funeral with their butt cheeks hanging out?" Blanch said.

"Comics are getting better," Blanch said. "Some things are never going away and that's fine ... but let's not use women just to advance the men's stories."

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