One of the refrains I heard constantly during college was that women just can’t write men. Every time we try they come out overly emotional and feminine, and we either should stop trying or discuss our male characters with the men in our lives to get it right. And, yes, this was advice I got from tenured professors.
I would really like someone to start telling male writers this. Specifically, male graphic novel writers. Because they don’t know what the hell they’re doing.
As I said before in my article, “Bitch Planet: The Comic My Cynical, Feminist Heart Has Always Wanted,” I’m leery of men writing comics for women and about women. Despite their best efforts (Actually, I hope these aren’t their best efforts because, if so, that’s really sad.), the result is almost inevitably irritating and heavily reliant on tropes. If you want examples, check out Scott Lobdell’s Red Hood and the Outlaws Volume 1 (where we get our now infamous Starfire revamp), everything James Gunn did to women in the Guardians of the Galaxy movie, and Kurtis J. Wiebe’s Rat Queens. Even really good writers like Brian K. Vaughn can stumble such as his obsession with lesbianism and man-hating “Amazons” in Y: The Last Man.
Copperhead by Jay Faerber and illustrated by Scott Godlewski is no different. The first trade follows ballbuster/single mother Clara Bronson as she moves to the mining town of Copperhead with her young son Zeke. After some nasty, unnamed business at her old job, they’re trying to start fresh. However, first they have to get past the surly deputy Budroxifinicus (“Boo”) who has been denied the sheriff position solely because of his species, the artificial human (or “Artie”) Ishmael who lives in the Badlands and kills Natives (weird Predator/the Stalk-like aliens who are smarter than they initially appear), and Ma Sewell, a pugnacious, protective redneck slime-toad.
Clara Bronson is nothing new. She’s the Baddest Bitch in the Room (she had to be, you see), she’s a Single Mother Trying to Raise Her Boy on Her Own, and she’s a Tough-as-Nail Lawman with a Heart of Gold. As far as I can tell, she has no sense of humor, no understanding of irony, and only a grudging respect for anyone that doesn’t look like her – which makes her a stone cold racist. She makes no attempt to get along with her deputy and in fact insists on diminutivizing his name despite his request that she doesn’t. She gets caught up in the emotional side of cases, foregoing procedure for sentiment while her deputy does all the running around and heavy lifting. And then at the end of the trade she offers the woman who assaulted her in the first issue a job babysitting her son. She is a train wreck.
That being said, I loved this stupid graphic novel. I loved the train wreck that was Sheriff Bronson. I loved Faerber’s attempts to create a Strong Female Character who defies stereotype by stuffing every stereotype he could think of on her. I love that she is deeply suspicious of someone and then two pages later can be 100% on her side. I love that she’s the Baddest Bitch in the Room but that she’s also a Chick Who Gets Shit Done. I love that she doesn’t bluff her way through every situation only to need to be rescued. She’s an utter trope, but fortunately for me, she’s the kind of trope I love.
The world building involved in Copperhead helped fuel my excitement. While I’ve seen similar worlds such as in Joss Whedon’s Firefly, Kelly Sue DeConnick’s Pretty Deadly, and even Brian K. Vaughn’s Saga, I still found a few unusual and even unique nuggets. I loved Lieutenant Ford’s dismissal of Benjamin Hickory’s attempts to blackmail Bronson and applauded Godlewski for getting that subplot out of the way in only one page. I absolutely want to know more about the war between Boo’s capybara-esque species and humans and look forward to more stories about him. Likewise, I’m intrigued by the Arties and hope that they’ll appear more in the future and perhaps even take center-stage. Finally, I was pleasantly surprised to see that the Natives – who had mostly been presented as mindless, animalistic killing machines – were actually sentient creatures capable of complex gambling rings and negotiating the settlers to a stalemate.
I also have to mention Godlewski’s art and Ron Riley’s colors, which were fantastic. Godlewski is a master of bitchy female faces and creating characters ready-made to cosplay. Every one of Bronson’s outfits (all two of them) is distinctive and iconic and would be great fun to wear. And the second Bronson sneered on the very first page I knew that I would love this bitch. If I can’t get a unique female character, I at least want an openly bitchy one. Bless you, Godlewski (and, I suppose, Faerber).
[Minor criticism: why does everyone have such weird, creepy teeth?]
The palette Riley chose was a beautiful combination of Space Age/1980s pop and old-timey Western. I appreciated his attention to detail and how he would change palettes based on the light source and how he actually knows how to color green skin. He stumbled a little on internal light sources but really shone when you got him outside in dramatic dark lighting. I would absolutely read anything he colored – at least once, anyway.
What you may notice I’m not excited about or anticipating is learning more about Bronson and Zeke. I have zero desire to learn about their backstories or their futures and honestly hope they become supporting cast for Boo and Ishmael. This comes from the fact that there’s nothing new or exciting about them. It’s what happens when you take wholly unoriginal characters and put them in a cool, new scene with cool, exciting side characters but then let all the side characters have all the fun.
Unfortunately, it also contributes to the idea that female characters aren’t exciting in and of themselves. Many readers will just blame women for being boring instead of blaming the writer for being lazy and trite. It happens over and over again, especially when you create a Strong Female Character With Nothing To Do (For an overall good article on this subject, click here.). Look at Bronson. She starts out the trade throwing some men out of her train car for disturbing her son’s nap and then ends with finding a missing dog and getting a new baby-sitter. If she were the Baddest Dude in the Room, would she be given such paltry fare?
I don’t want to say that men can’t write women. Certainly, Brian K. Vaughn, Matt Fraction, Jason Latour, and Cameron Stewart have shown that they’re capable while several women (including Meredith Finch’s new Wonder Woman and Amanda Conner’s new Harley Quinn) have demonstrated a truly disturbing lack of self-awareness. So maybe the problem isn’t so much the sex of the writer as their expectations of who women are and what they can do. Maybe instead of focusing so much on proving again and again that women can totally be tough, they should just focus on creating a consistent characterization of a woman capable of living and succeeding in the world. She doesn’t have to shoot off her mouth constantly or shoot first and ask later or cry in a corner every time she hits someone or have a ton of sex – not if it doesn’t advance the plot and if it isn’t something a real, human woman would do. And if you don’t know? Ask a woman. There’s like 4 billion of us out here. I’m sure there’s at least one of us willing to help you get it right.