Lady Geeks Rise Up

Geek girl extraordinaire

Geek girls rule these days as never before. To wit:

She-nerds have found a place on the TV hit show, Big Bang. Summer blockbusters like The Avengers allow at least a few women into the elite circle of cinematic super heroes/heroines. There’s even a female-empowering Geek Girls Con in Seattle later this summer – a distaff response to the more male-oriented Comic Con.

But it wasn’t always this way. Women like Erika Peterman, now 42, were geek back in the day, before it was cool. The co-founder of and a writer for a CNN geek blog, Peterman recalls that she started with Betty and Veronica (“my gateway drug,” as she recalls) before moving on to brawnier specimens, including Wonder Woman.

Peterman spoke to I-nerd about her love of comic books and whether comics are still a (super)man’s world.

Q: How did it start for you?

A: I got into comics as a kid in late 70s. My mom knew I liked to read and sometimes we’d pass a convenience store on way home and she’d give me money. Archie was kind of my gateway drug – Betty and Veronica stuff. Somehow I got into Wonder Woman, probably because of the TV show. I started getting Wonder Woman comics on a regular basis. They took me down the rabbit hole. I discovered mainstream characters from DC Comics: Wonder Woman, Superman and Batman…. Those were the three that I gravitated the most toward.

I loved those trips to convenience stores with my mom. I was probably attracted to the art. I liked to draw. It was our Friday after school…

Q: Did you have to keep your geek side a secret?

A: I was pretty out with it. I had a lot of friends who were boys, a neighbor from across street. He was more of a sci-fi geek but had had all this Star Wars stuff. Among my friends it wasn’t a big deal. It wasn’t until I got older that I started to feel all self-conscious about it. It came in handy, I could draw. Kids would ask, “Can you draw Superman for me?” It enhanced my not-so-great social skills. I never felt like it was weird. I credit my parents because they didn’t treat it like it was odd or a waste of money. They were happy that I liked to read.

Q: You stayed with it?

A: What happened was as I got toward middle school interests changed to music and became a hardcore band nerd. It was a little bit of a financial issue; my parents were divorced and strapped for money for a couple years, so luxuries went out the window, and I was not reading them as much. I didn’t get seriously back into it until end of high school and early college. There was a comic shop near campus at Florida A&M University…. I picked up Wonder Woman and at that time a really wonderful writer artist named George Perez was doing it. I picked up right where I left off. I forgot how much enjoyment I got out of it. After college and through the last 5-6 years I’ve really made it a major hobby in a way it hadn’t been.

Q: Have the stories changed over the years?

A: There were no women in comics when I started; Wonder Woman was basically it. I will say there were a couple other comics at the time on TV: Isis, the Bionic …Now there are more female writers and artists too. I really liked Wonder Woman: the costume and mythology of it. She was from the island of Amazons, which was all-female. There was an interesting tie-in with Greek mythology; the gods were sort of involved. I was really into mythology in high school. She had to prove herself to become Wonder Woman through Olympic-like trials. I was always happy to see other female characters…. Lois Lane might have influenced me, since I went into journalism. I also read the newspaper comics pages, such as Brenda Starr and Spiderman. I started my blog a year ago.

Q: Are comics still pretty sexist in their depictions of women?

A:  Comics are still more male dominated, and female characters are far more sexualized than men are. There’s a character named Powergirl. The joke about Powergirl is over the years her breasts got bigger and bigger. The rumor was the editor at DC said keep blowing them up until people notice. When you’re a female reader and you see something like that you just say, “Really?”

Q: Do you discuss these issues on your blog?

A: We always take note of how female characters don’t get the pop culture exposure that the male characters do. Sometimes on TV they do, but not in movie treatments. When we point these things out we hear from other women.

We wrote a piece about misogyny in fan art. We were shocked by how many people responded to that. What was nice was one of the writers we liked, Gail Simone, put it on her Tumbler. There’s a whole geek girl community and it’s really great. There’s still the idea that if you’re a woman who likes comics but who knows a lot about them that you’re somewhat unusual. Sometimes when you walk into a comic book shop, there’s sort of the sideways glance. I overheard some guys once – prototypical nerds discussing an obscure series of Batman stories. I jumped in and it was a very specific series that I was reading. I kind of jumped in and they just looked at me. (chuckles) Something didn’t compute.

Q: I’ve heard about the culture of comic book stores being gruff. (Note, see Simpson’s Comic Book Guy character)

A: That might be changing. I think it’s the Internet. There are so many comic book blogs run by people who are really knowledgeable. They will talk you under the table. The Internet has done a lot to dispel the notion that comics are for socially awkward men. In Seattle, there’s a grassroots comic book convention of young women in their 20s. They decided to have a comic book convention to show the world women dig comics, the Geek Girl Con.

Q: How have reading habits of comics changed over the years?

A: A lot of people in their 30s and 40s who grew up reading comics and like the experience of going into the local comic shop. You get your stuff, banter with the clerk and then leave. It’s like geek happy hour. Now the debate is on digital comics: will they be the death of print? You can go online and get stuff cheaper. People who want the face-to-face experience are dwindling. There are not nearly as many comic shops as there used to be. They’re no longer at the convenience store.

Q: With more women reading comics, are the comics more female-friendly as a result?

A: In terms of the reading experience, it’s gotten better. There’s still a lot of frustration with marginalized female characters who are disempowered, not taken as seriously or marketed less aggressively….

…Female artists are sensitive to making the characters attractive without being sleazy…. I love the way Nicola Scott draws her female characters. They’re fit, they workout, but they’re not Playboy bunnies. They’re overly attractive the way comic book characters are but they don’t have these crazy proportions that are clearly based on the fantasy of a 13-year-old boy.

The flip side is women will playfully objectively the insanely attractive male characters. It’s lighthearted but not so coarse. More women are drawing and writing stories.  There aren’t as many writers as I would like, but I’m seeing more female writers and more male writers who write women very well. A guy, Brian Wood, has marketed “Minx” to women. It’s a series on women at New York University and their struggles to come to adulthood. I sense that he gets women. I’m seeing more of that in the superhero books too, like Mary Jane in Spiderman: better writing, meatier roles. I like Fiona Staples , an artist, and writer Gail Simone.

Both Marvel and DC have come a long way. I was looking at some very old Fantastic Four. Some of that stuff is so howlingly sexist….. even if women are superheroes, they’re told go fetch coffee. Lois Lane had her own series in years past and all about her obsession with being Superman’s girlfriend. Every issue she’s pining for Superman and coming up with a scheme, even though she’s an amazing investigative reporter.

Q: Can you explain the appeal of comic books, especially to adult readers?

A: If you’re someone who enjoys reading, there’s a serial aspect to it; it’s very satisfying, wonderful art and literature that doesn’t exist anywhere else. The fantasy aspect is a draw. You can have so many conversations with people about this stuff. There’s an obsessive quality to it that’s kind of fun. Conversations like: should Wonder Woman be a lesbian? Everything is so serious, with work mortgage child rearing. Plus I can share comics with my son who thinks I’m the coolest mom in world….

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