I still struggle with simple definitions for the Ladyist Experiment, but better representation is one of the fundaments of the project. For the most part, I’ve focused on amazing creators like Kelly Sue DeConnick and Neko Case, whose voices are extremely powerful and important, but it’s not fair to expect that women do all the heavy-lifting to overturn the systemic bias against them and their stories in popular culture. After all, if a writer can imagine himself in the shoes of an international spy, or a serial killer, or a space wizard, or any number of fantastical creations, can it really be that hard to write from the perspective of a female character? (To answer my own rhetorical question: no, it can’t be). While new(ish) media like comics and video games have a problematic history with representing women, here’s a few instances of male creators who are challenging that status quo.
(This isn’t a list to say “congratulations, have a cookie”. Most of the creators on here aren’t writing about women to be Good Dudes, so far as I can tell; instead, they write about people, and that definition rightly includes women.)
Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie
It’s hard to know where to start with Gillen and McKelvie. A long-standing collaborative pair, Kieron’s thoughtful and empathetic writing is a perfect match for Jamie’s gorgeous, precisely crafted art. Since the first run of their series creator-owned series, Phonogram, Kieron and Jamie have made beautiful comics full of complicated, complex characters unconfined by the Straight White Male stereotypes common in the medium. Their work on Young Avengers, in particular, felt vital and progressive without a trace of pretence or calculation: in a world of shape-shifting part-alien boys and resurrected Norse Gods, why can’t the cast be full of amazing women like Kate Bishop and Miss America Chavez? That these Marvel-owned heroes also were all over the sexuality spectrum was another wonderful detail I’m sure we’d all like to see more often.
If you’ve been following this experiment for a while, you might recognise Jamie’s distinctive art style; in fact, you’ve seen his stuff since the very beginning. His redesign of Carol Danvers’ costume, for Kelly Sue DeConnick’s run on Captain Marvel, was a huge part in that title’s success (as well as Kelly Sue’s phenomenal writing, of course!). Stripped of the male-gazey costume she wore as Ms. Marvel, Carol now took off in a military-inspired flight suit that reflected not only her history as an Air Force fighter pilot of some regard, but also made for a costume that is both practical and fucking awesome. You can still see the impact of his design in Cameron Stewart and Babs Tarr’s re-working of Batgirl, which looks similarly excellent.
Not content to leave it there, Kieron and Jamie’s new creator-owned series (which has delayed Phonogram Vol.3, HARRUMPH), is three issues in, and bursting at the seams with stunningly beautiful, mysterious and powerful women. Seventeen year old Laura is our POV character for The Wicked and the Divine, a grounded viewpoint from which to watch the spectacle of reincarnated gods as pop stars. Lucifer (but she prefers ‘Luci’) is a sexually-charged demon in every sense, all sharp teeth and David Bowie suits; Amaterasu is a Shinto deity reincarnated as a teenage Florence Welch; and then there’s Sakhmet, a languorous deity equal parts cat and Rihanna. Let’s not forget about The Morrigan, either:
It’s a strange, thrilling book that’s holding onto a lot of its mysteries (and there are several of them). I’m reading each issue as soon as I can get my hands on it, and you should do the same.
As the writer and co-director of The Last of Us and its DLC, Left Behind, Neil Druckmann didn’t just make one of the greatest games in living memory (Australian audiences, including yours truly, voted the 2013 game #2 in Good Game’s Top 100); he also pushed the limits of what it meant to be a character in a game. I’m not talking about Joel: though Troy Baker’s performance is nothing less than excellent, and his arc is beautifully executed, we’ve seen the Haunted By Tragedy Man with His Gravelly Voice before. What we haven’t seen nearly so often is the suite of deep, well-realised characters that make the world feel real even in the face of shrieking fungus-faced monsters of nightmare. Tess is Joel’s partner in crime, running a smuggling operation from inside the quarantine zone. There’s a hint of some deeper connection between them, too, but Tess is just as emotionally damaged as Joel, so their relationship is more pragmatic than romantic. We don’t get any backstory for Tess, so everything about her comes down to the steely jaw and weary resolve of Annie Wersching’s performance, which crams a huge amount of pathos into every sigh. The animation carries that grit through perfectly, as well it should given the elaborate performance capture rigs the actors wore.
The Last of Us is full of characters like Tess: Marlene, leader of resistance group the Fireflies; Sarah, Joel’s daughter; and Maria, who’s heading up an attempt to get a hydroelectric dam back online. But there’s one character who stands alone, even in such stellar company.
Technically, Ellie’s the secondary protagonist, or deuteragonist, of The Last of Us, but I don’t think I’m alone in suggesting that her story overshadows Joel’s. Even as the two of them grow together across the course of the main game, Ellie remains the most compelling thing about the story. Druckmann and the rest of Naughty Dog went to great lengths to make Ellie a detailed and identifiable character, and I think it’s safe to say that Ashley Johnson’s performance exceeded even their expectations. The end result was a character that’s still a rarity: a teenage girl who is both capable and vulnerable, one who is hardened by trauma but still has a childish sense of curiosity. She’ll read bad puns from a joke book in one scene, then shoot a hunter in another, and it all feels like part of her character. You can’t help but care for her; not in a patronising way, but on a human level, an empathetic level, that is rare in any medium, but especially so in gaming.
The Left Behind DLC is even better, making Ellie the protagonist and sole playable character. Split across two timelines, one part of the story jumps back to Ellie at 13, before her path crosses Joel’s. In this prequel, Ellie and her friend Riley explore an dilapidated shopping mall, throwing bricks at car windows and messing around like teenagers would, apocalypse or no. The other timeline expands part of the main game’s story, filling in a gap in which Joel is critically injured and unconscious. Also set in a shopping centre, the contemporary timeline is woven through the flashback sequence, each emphasising the other and adding even more layers to Ellie. It’s a beautiful addition to the main game, and features some of Ashley Johnson’s finest moments.
Like Kieron Gillen, Neil Druckmann clearly cares deeply about his characters, and writes them with an incredible empathy. In such a powerful role at developer Naughty Dog, it’s exciting to see that Neil thinks so deeply about his characters, and directs with that same considered approach. He’s currently at work on a screenplay for a film adaptation of The Last of Us, which has me breathless with anticipation.
Husband of Kelly Sue DeConnick (isn’t it nice to refer to a guy in terms of who he’s married to for once?), Matt Fraction is a prolific comic writer. He’s written about a million books for Marvel, including Invincible Iron Man, Immortal Iron Fist and other, non-metal-derived titles. His breakout hit, Hawkeye, reinvigorated a pretty dull Avenger (the one Jeremy Renner was supposed to be in The Avengers) by grounding him in an ordinary world of rent, landlords, purple Cons and you-can-take-the-boy-out-of-the-hero stories. Like Kieron and Jamie’s run on Young Avengers, the series also includes Kate Bishop, the teenager who adopted Clint Barton’s codename when…you know what, you don’t need to know that. Kate’s a major character in Hawkeye, an equal to Clint in every way. She’s not quite his ward (she’s better off than he is), and they’re definitely not a couple, but they’re close enough for her to call him on his bullshit, and save his butt with a few trick-shots and well-timed getaway vehicles. When Kate finally leaves, though, she doesn’t drop out out of the story: instead, her adventures in LA continue, with Hawkeye alternating between Kate and Clint with (roughly) each issue. Her West Coast adventures are drawn by the inimitable Annie Wu, whose style is distinct from lead artist David Aja, lending Kate’s story a feel of its own.
It’s not Hawkeye that merits Matt’s inclusion here, though. Like Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie, Matt has a number of creator-owned comics going at the same time, and his strongest work to date is the marvellous Sex Criminals. Don’t let the title put you off: it’s far funnier, sweeter, and more deeply considered than you might assume. Lead characters Suzie and Jon are on any register of offenders — instead, the couple find that they both have the ability to freeze time…when they orgasm. Together they hatch a plan to rob the bank that employs Jon, and to whom Suzie’s library is deeply in debt. So…Sex Criminals. It’s at once weirder and less crass than you thought.
What makes this comic so brilliant is not just its sense of humour (which it has in spades, thanks to Matt and artist Chip Zdarsky’s unique mix of high- and low-brow wit), but the humanity of Suzie and Jon. The first issue is all about Suzie, and her sexual awakening as a teenager. It’s just as awkward as you’d imagine, except even worse given that times stops whenever she orgasms. It’s an absurd premise, but Fraction uses it to dig into something real. All the questions Suzie grapples with are the kind we all go through as teenagers: is this normal? What’s my body doing? What if I’m weird and no one else is like this? With that complex foundation, Matt and Chip’s bizarre sense of humour only highlights the strangeness of being a teenager. I’d tell you more, but you really have to read it. If you’ve got a tablet or smartphone, buy the first issue from Comixology; it’s 99c, so you’ve got no excuse. When you’re done, come back here, and we’ll talk about brimping.
OK, there’s a pattern here: white, often bespectacled guys who create cool things about ladies. Well, I’m about to jump on that bandwagon, and make an announcement.
It’s been a long time in development, and it’s finally almost here: the Ladyist podcast will be hitting iTunes, Podbean and your podcast machines very soon. Each week, it’ll feature another wonderful, intelligent, articulate and charming woman talking about a favourite Ladyist-friendly stuff. It’ll include musicians, characters, writers, artists, poets, movies, games, TV shows, and just about anything else that is about a woman. I’m really excited to release it, and, more importantly, excited to interview any lady who wants to be involved. If that’s you, send me an e-mail via firstname.lastname@example.org, or visit the Ladyist Facebook page and send me a message with your ideas!