Category: Blog

Hasbro’s Problem With Women: Part Two

Not nearly enough has been said recently about the lack of diversity in the offerings of toy companies. It’s an ongoing concern, perpetuated by outmoded views on gendered marketing and the so-called “correct” type of play for boys and girls. While views on this are, thankfully, beginning to change, most of that change is occurring at the store level, with parents who are making informed decisions about what their children can play with. This change has not, unfortunately, hit the level of cultural penetration necessary for toy manufacturers to change their approach in terms of character selection, character design, or marketing, so, it’s important that we keep discussing the subject.

In part one of this series, I wrote a little bit about the way that lack of proper representation can lead to girls–and grown women–being marginalized. This concept is as true in the toy market as it is in any medium; comics, video games, film, right through to non-entertainment-based occupations–recall the story from a few weeks ago of the first two women to graduate the U.S. Army’s Ranger training.

While writing that piece, I felt that it was not enough to simply speak about this subject; I wanted to ensure that it was given weight and proper consideration. To that end, during the writing process, I interviewed three women who have personally interacted with and been affected by this exact topic. One important note: I did not have to search for these women. I simply asked–the experience is a prevalent one. Because I conducted each interview separately, I’ll present them the same way, though each follows a similar thread. First, I spoke with Claire Napier, Features & Opinions Editor at Women Write About Comics, as well as a contributor at Comics Alliance.

Thanks for taking the time to help with this! I’d like to start with the basic: Do you buy action figures regularly?

Not for a long time now.

Okay–can I ask what got you both into and out of the hobby?

Into: I like STUFF. I like things, tangible things, and I like the environment-altering properties of art. An action figure is a sculpture, but you’re allowed to manipulate it.

Out: expense, dislike of buying environments, bad paint application, weird joint decisions, and ugly sculpts. Plus it’s hard to buy a girl without feeling like it’s a sexual transaction.

 Can you explain the last in more detail?

On the one hand, way too many female-character sculpts are eroticised. And on the other, it’s hard for me to feel 100% cool about literal objectification when I’ve felt so bad about metaphorical objectification in real life.

Do you feel that improvement on the one hand would make the other less of an issue?

I mean, it definitely wouldn’t make it worse.

Given your perspective on literal and metaphorical objectification, what are your thoughts on the availability of female characters in action figure form? Do you think there should be more?

Keep in mind that my facts are out of date because I was so easily riled by the ratios and the sculpting details. but yes there should be more. More of each type, I mean; there are plenty of Barbies to match the Kens and the action men.

Would “more characters with less objectified designs” be an accurate synthesis of your stance? 

Clothing and the semiotics of anatomy should be considered when designing and approving toys; I guess I’m not 100% clear on what you mean when you say “action figures”? I made an assumption that it’s 4-11″ moulded, jointed toys for action-based properties, without additional clothing (or with the occasional fabric accessory)?

That’s a pretty accurate definition, yeah. “Action figures” itself is a phrase that exists generally for marketing purposes–toy companies didn’t want to sell “dolls” to boys. The definition of them has evolved somewhat over time; they tend to be more articulated and have a greater range of motion than the traditional doll.

Which is so unfair. Like…posing. Is it, or is it not, vital to feminine modes of performance? It is! Frankly I’d have had and kept much more interest in Barbies if they could stand up on their own. But no. that’s for boys?

There’s an inherent lack of logic to that, it’s true. What are your thoughts on the idea that a lack of proper representation in toy aisles, especially combined with gendered marketing and directed at children, contributes to the marginalization of women as those children grow older?

I think it’s a perfectly reasonable assumption. I can’t see any reason to object to the notion at all.

Are you familiar with the outcry over Hasbro’s lack of Black Widow merchandising this summer?

Yes.

At the time of that outcry, Hasbro had a 6″ Black Widow figure set for release as part of an Amazon exclusive box set that also features Thor, Hawkeye, Bruce Banner. That set is due out later this month. As an avid collector myself, I have a great many thoughts about the choices behind the release of this figure, to include both time and venue, but I’d like to hear your perspective on it. Do you feel that makes for an adequate response?

lol, no. Not in the least. The word is “exclusive,” which is…the opposite of “inclusive”, as well as meaning more expensive and hidden away. You can already get Thor and Hawkeye and Banner figures, I’m guessing? I’m also guessing she doesn’t come with a motorcycle.

Thor and Hawkeye, yes. You can certainly get Hulk figures, but this will be the first release of Banner in his civilian identity. And you’re correct: No motorcycle.

I don’t care the tiniest bit about Black Widow, in my own heart. I’m not interested in the character individually, and I don’t care to see the films in question. but it’s deeply frustrating to be confronted with disrespect and disempowerment, and to be so baldly denied care. It matters to girls to see women doing things, and to be able to align themselves with these women. Action figures help, and so does acknowledgement of worth; in the toy sales field, worth is defined by “presence to be sold”. If she’s not there, she doesn’t matter, and so it goes: neither do girls.

The human form of Banner is empowered by his comparison to Black Widow in her super heroic form. “Maybe he’s not the Hulk, but he’s an amazing scientist.” Black widow isn’t magic (count “magic” as whatever extra-human power, in this case), she’s just really good at stuff. Like Banner. But Banner is only present on the team because he’s the Hulk AS WELL; Black Widow is made a graciously-included, lesser extra, by this comparison.

One more question: Given the subjects we’ve covered, regarding your level of comfort with the hobby, representation, and availability, do you think you’d still be a collector if not for these exact problems?

Honestly, I don’t know. I don’t know if my interest has healed over naturally, or as a result of enforced separation. I’d be less mean about toys if not for these exact problems, though.

Toys could use a little meanness. Thank you again!

Claire has recently written heavily about gender portrayal in games as well; those articles are up at WWAC and well worth a read. You can also support WWAC’s Indiegogo campaign here.

Next time I’ll speak with El A. of Femmes in the Fridge, and also one of the folks behind the WeWantWidow campaign–who, as you can imagine, also has plenty to say about this subject. Until then!

 

Hurt So Good: The Best Punisher Book You Never Read

This week marked the conclusion of Mark Waid and Chris Samnee’s Daredevil run, which has been beautiful, glorious, and heartbreaking. Brett White over at CBR penned a piece about it that truly encapsulates the level of craft on display through the entirety of that book. He’s done a fantastic job of saying exactly what I think about Daredevil, so I’m not going to talk about that. I’m going to talk about another book that started at the same time: The criminally slept-on Punisher book, by Greg Rucka and Marco Checchetto. Today, we’re going to talk about the first issue of that book.

Punisher#1

Cover art for The Punisher (Vol. 9) #1, by Bryan Hitch

Just about everyone is familiar with the Punisher these days. He’s had three(!) feature films and fifteen different solo books, each of those iterations–film and comics both–a differing take on the character. If that seems excessive, well, it is, but consider: in itself, it’s a statement on the character, the way that he works. Frank Castle as a character is a good idea, pure and simple. He’s vengeance, revenge. He’s the hurt we all feel, and that we want others to understand. He’s cathartic, relentless justice in primal terms.

He is not good, though. He’s not a role model. He is violent, uncompromising. He has no faith in man to improve, to do or be better. There is a cynicism to him that feels almost infectious; a disease that has taken root, caused by trauma and loss. If the Hulk as a character is a demonstration of the dangers of uncontrollable rage, then Punisher is a lesson on how much more dangerous, how much more toxic rage can be when channeled–both to the carrier and its victims. Rage infects, it destroys. It’s not a thing that lasts; when it has no target, it only eats itself.

Frankly, that’s why the Punisher has had so many series–as good a concept as he is, his books don’t last because sustaining that rage over a prolonged period of time is difficult, if not impossible[1]. Protracted rage gives way to exhaustion. In a comic book, that’s a death knell. So, multiple volumes, with low issue runs. Short, staccato bursts. Which brings me to what is easily the best of those many volumes–Punisher Volume 9, by the aforementioned Rucka and Checchetto.

From the very start of their run, Frank Castle is a ghost in his own book. He barely says a thing throughout the first issue; in fact, he doesn’t appear in the book at all until page thirteen. When he is finally present, the ghost analogy holds; he haunts the shadows and the edges–we don’t see his face until further on, on page twenty.

Instead, the story is about a Marine named Rachel Alves. It opens on the day of her wedding, in a scene that feels like a love letter to Kill Bill, albeit filtered through a very different lens. For Rachel, unlike The Bride, the ceremony is complete, and the reception has begun. During the party, a fleeing man bursts in through the doors, chased by others. All of them are heavily armed. The men doing the chasing open fire; they kill their target, then, presumably to silence witnesses, proceed to murder the guests in attendance, not to mention the wedding party itself. The bloodstain on Mrs. Alve’s dress blossoms like a flower; we see her fall. There is an exceptional cruelty, an unnecessary act that cements the evil of these men; they hold the bride and groom, make them face each other as they’re murdered. Rachel is the last to be shot, and the final panel of the scene has her laying next to her already deceased husband, staring up at the camera. It’s grisly and disturbing, in exactly the way a crime story is meant to be. You cannot help but feel the tragedy of the moment, the quickness with which the joy of the day turns to heartbreak. There’s a caption in that same panel; one of the officers investigating the scene later informs us that Rachel does not die. She must bear the trauma of what’s been done to her, and to the people around her.

There are things to be said about the nature of violence toward women and way it’s used as a storytelling device; those things are for another piece (which I certainly will write). For this article and this story, it’s enough to describe these events and understand that they are crucial, pivotal to this story in a way that this type of violence often is not. This story is about pain. It’s about trauma, how it affects us, how we deal with it, and how much harder that is without a support network. It’s a story, despite the title of the book, about Rachel Alves.

From Punisher (Vol. 9) #2. Art by Marco Checchetto.

From Punisher (Vol. 9) #2. Art by Marco Checchetto.

Two policemen are introduced; Detectives Clemons and Bolt. They are our viewpoint for this arc of the story; they are the ones detached from the immediate action, viewing it analytically. They are there with a job to do. When we’re finally introduced to the titular character, it’s through a text message; he’s contacting Bolt, in search of information for his war on organized crime. His specific target is The Exchange; we find out that they’re behind the massacre at the reception. This information is not especially relevant to the Punisher; it’s another crime, another atrocity to him, something that justifies–or rather, necessitates–his actions. He stages a hit on a nightclub populated with criminals that is an interesting inversion to the first few pages; like the Exchange, the Punisher leaves alive only one individual. Unlike that organization, however, his choice is deliberate. It’s then that we see his face–he holds a gun to the man’s head, then smiles and walks away. His choice is not immediately explained.

Instead, his relationship with Detective Bolt is established; while doing routine surveillance of a suspected mobster, Bolt and his then-partner are caught unprepared by a meet that goes sideways. Being in public, there is also a class of school students present. As Bolt is only just beginning to react, the Punisher is there, holding him quiet. The Punisher pulls a fire alarm, alerting the class and getting them out of the way just in time, as a firefight begins. When his shooting hand is wounded, he loses his gun, and takes Bolt’s, finishing the job. Later, Bolt, unwilling to admit that the Punisher had taken his weapon and saved those children, takes the credit for both the fire alarm and the expert shooting. He’s given a promotion; the Punisher begins using him for information.

It’s only during this event that we finally see the Punisher in full; firing the shots that Bolt takes credit for. He’s a very different creature than the cover art shows us; much of that is due to the difference between the artists. Hitch is a much more mainstream type of penciller; his lines are clean and neat, and he draws the Punisher on the cover as we expect to see him; former military, close cropped hair, body armor, and a cold, grimacing look. When Checchetto’s Punisher first appears, it’s something else entirely.

ChecchettoPunisher

From Punisher (Vol. 9) #1. Art by Marco Checchetto.

His hair is loose, he hasn’t shaved in days. Instead of armor with a neatly designed skull emblem, he wears a shirt with an impressionistic feel; this skull is bleeding its color down the front of his chest. His coat flows and moves around him; we can see the injury in his primary hand, but he’s just as good firing with his left. That grimace is gone; his face bears the years of pain, but the knit brow is focus, the lines of his mouth are utterly impassive. It’s almost a worse kind of coldness; these men are already dead to him. Marco Checchetto draws the Punisher as a man riding his rage to the edge of his own ability to function. He is barely holding it together; not just in this moment, but as a human being. Fortunately, because this is a Greg Rucka book, everything will be okay and Frank Castle will finally find peahahahaHAHAHAHA.

No. This is a story about pain. One you should absolutely start reading.

[1]The two aberrations are the series which ran through the late 80s and early 90s. Consider that these series ran in the heyday of Marvel’s guns-and-pouches aesthetic, and it’s easy to see why they maintained as long as they did.

The Punisher (Vol. 9) is available in its entirety on Comixology, or you can read it on Marvel’s Digital Unlimited service.

 

Hasbro’s Problem With Women: Part One

This is the beginning of a series examining Hasbro’s trouble with female representation in the toy market. In part two, we’ll start to examine the personal experiences of women who’ve interacted with collecting as a hobby–both in the past and the present.

This week, Hasbro announced the upcoming exclusive figure that will be provided to Marvel Digital Unlimited Plus Subscribers in 2016: Rescue, aka Pepper Potts. Which is GREAT! Sort of.

RescueFigure

Some background: Virginia “Pepper” Potts first appeared in Tales of Suspense #45, six issues after the first appearance of her boss, Tony Stark. That issue came out the same month as X-Men #1—Pepper Potts has existed for as long as Professor X, Cyclops, Marvel Girl, Beast, Angel, and Iceman. The Rescue armor, however, is much newer–it  first appeared in Invincible Iron Man #10, which came out in 2009.

This update was a smart move by Marvel; comics as an industry were beginning an upswing, and the Iron Man franchise in particular was looking good after a very successful movie only a year prior. It also took a character who had been sidelined in a very subservient role for entirely too long and put her front and center, with a clear mission statement that differed her from her male armor-wearing counterparts. Pepper Potts chose the name Rescue, because that’s what she does. She doesn’t engage in fist fights with supervillains, because she’s not an egomaniac who needs to punch people who disagree with her. She helps people in need.
Rescue02

Rescue is important, both for the history of the character inside the suit and for the counterpoint she provides to traditional superheroics. So, getting a figure of her is great! Couple of questions, though:

  1. Why is this the first figure of Pepper Potts that Hasbro’s ever released?
  2. Why is this figure going to exclusive Marvel subscribers instead of to general retail?

Both questions are answered by a simple phrase: Hasbro has a problem with female representation in their action figure lines. This is borne out not just by the choices concerning this action figure, but by the choices concerning action figures of female characters in general. Take the history of this figure itself—this is not a newly designed toy. This exact figure was announced for retail two years ago. To coincide with the release of Iron Man 3, Hasbro put out a series of Marvel Legends figures with a specific Iron Man theme. The roster of that lineup was:

  • Classic Iron Man
  • Heroic Age Iron Man
  • Iron Man Mk 43
  • Iron Patriot (comics version)
  • Ultron
  • Iron Patriot (film version)
  • Iron Monger (Build-A-Figure)

One glance at this lineup shows an…interesting choice: There are three figures of Tony Stark/Iron Man alone. Two more figures are an adaptation of his armor: The comics-styled Iron Patriot toy is based on the time Norman Osborn wore the suit, and is a straight repaint of an earlier Iron Man figure, and the movie-styled version, while new tooling, is still based on armor taken from Tony’s house in the second film. The last figure is, inexplicably, Ultron. Keep in mind this is 2013—two years prior to the release of Avengers: Age of Ultron, and thus well before Ultron as a character was specifically associated with Iron Man in any way.

Hope wasn’t entirely lost, though—due to the success of the movie and this first series, Hasbro announced an expansion of the set. Specifically, three more figures: A repainted version of the movie-styled Iron Patriot as the more traditional War Machine, a figure of the Iron Man 3 villain Mandarin, and, you guessed it, Pepper Potts’ Rescue armor. Hasbro set a late-quarter timeframe for release, and even put out PR photos of all three figures. Fans (this author included) waited eagerly for those figures.

Cut to 2015. In Hasbro’s third Avengers-themed series of Marvel Legends this year, we finally see the first of these three figures. Surprising no one, it’s the easy repaint: War Machine. Rescue and Mandarin were nowhere to be found, nor did anyone expect them to be: The truth of the matter is, it’s not surprising when late-announcement figures don’t make it to shelves; it happens every couple of years or so, on average. So when that add-on didn’t make it to shelves in 2013, it was a safe bet that fans wouldn’t see those figures—except, of course, the one figure that had already been released to retail, and therefore already had existing molds.

Which is why the announcement now of Rescue is such a surprise, and a mystifying choice: Why now? Why an exclusive? Where’s Mandarin?

Why now? It’s hard to say, or more accurately, it’s hard to conclusively cite with facts (not being an actual member of the media, I’m unable to speak with Hasbro’s PR). This could be a response to the backlash over the lack of Black Widow merchandise in conjunction with Avengers: Age of Ultron. It could be that Hasbro’s takeaway from that backlash is that they really need to get those female characters out. It could be neither of those things, and simply a case of Hasbro missing the point once more. There is a definite parallel to this figure’s arc and that of the Black Widow figure coming out this month, after all.

If Hasbro is aware of the need for better representation, why is this release an exclusive? Here’s a version of a central Iron Man character, one who’s played in her film incarnation by an extremely well-known actress (incidentally, there is still no planned release of a Cinematic Universe Pepper Potts, despite her super-powered role in the third movie). Why is this figure not coming to retail, where they can sell more units, and make a significant level of profit off of that figure, which, I’ll remind you again, has been sculpted, tooled, and ready to go for over two years?

Furthermore, why a Digital Unlimited Exclusive? Hasbro has released multiple exclusives to Toys R Us, Target, and Wal-Mart in times past, not to mention online exclusives with retailers like Amazon or Entertainment Earth. Why not one of those? Why an exclusive for only the highest tier of a tiered subscription service, at a hundred dollars? Do the folks at Hasbro and Marvel really consider this iteration of the character to be so obscure that the figure won’t perform at retail? Or is it the opposite, do they think the character will be a popular enough choice to significantly boost sales of the Digital Unlimited service?

I suspect the answer is somewhere near the middle of those two, given the history of response to questions like this. There has been a long held perception in the industry that ‘action figures of female characters don’t sell.’ It’s an erroneous perception, not borne out in the slightest by actual sales data, but it persists nonetheless. There’s also the theory that Disney acquired Marvel primarily for the market share of boys’ toys it represents; which further posits that Disney has no need for action figures of women, due to their domination of the girls’ toy market with existing Disney Princess characters.

Either way, it’s a troubling scenario, and it’s especially apparent compared against today’s comic market, where such strides are being made.  These characters need to be represented; failing to represent them contributes to the overall sidelining, both of those characters and of women in general. It sends a subconscious message that these characters don’t matter as much as their male counterparts, a message further borne out when one of those counterparts gets three different iterations in the same series.

Next week we’ll explore that idea, as I interview Claire Napier, of Women Write About Comics.

Things I’m Consuming

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Presented in no specific order:

Fresh off of my finishing Sean Howe’s Marvel Comics: The Untold Story, I was eager for another book in the same sort of vein. It’s no secret that I like comics, but what fascinates me as much as comics themselves is the industry behind it. There’s absolutely so much there, and Morrison provides a perspective that Howe’s book didn’t; he’s worked for both companies, and he’s not from New York, so he hasn’t been a part of that very American identity that the Big Two both inhabit. As part of the British Invasion (lord, how I hate that term) of comics in the 80s, he’s also had a very singular career arc, doing as many offbeat, weird projects as he has mainstream cape books.

Come As You Are has nothing to do with Nirvana. It does, however, have a lot to do with the science of sex, and the way we perceive and talk about it. It’s thoughtful, accessible, and incredibly inclusive, and fantastic at enabling folks to re-examine the ways that they approach sex, right up to dismissing the myth that is the sex drive.

Daedalic had a sale this past weekend, so I took advantage of it to pick up Deponia for cheap–$6.50, all told. The Complete Journey contains the entire trilogy, as well as director’s commentary and what apparently is an improved inventory mechanic. I say ‘apparently,’ because I never played the original games, so I have no comparison point. At any rate, I do find the inventory intuitive and easy to use. The game itself is a point-and-click adventure that plays in the style of old LucasArts games–Sam & Max, etc. It’s not as funny as those–there’s a joke about a girl’s weight in the second chapter that just falls entirely flat–but it’s challenging in the way that I like games to be. Which is to say, there’s a puzzle to solve, rather than having calculate my jumps at a geometric level.

I really, really wanted to like this game. I waited the month or so for it to make it out on Android, and I devoted an entire weekend to it, even! But…I don’t. It’s boring, and it punishes you for not playing, which is perhaps the biggest cardinal sin I can think of when it comes to a game. It might just be me personally, but I really felt a sense of anxiety in the way the game wants your constant attention, and it just made the whole experience unpleasant for me. I’ll happily wait for Fallout 4 instead, where the world doesn’t keep wanting things when I’ve saved and exited.

Look, I know a lot about the X-Men. My first comic was an X-Men book (Uncanny #173, which is–incidentally–the best, and I will fight you if you say otherwise), and from that moment, I dived wholeheartedly into that world, learning everything I could. I’ve read just about every issue from the first few decades, and even that level of commitment does not compare to the talents of Rachel and Miles. Starting from the very first issue, they take an indepth look at the entire history of the X-Men, averaging about four to five issues per episode. They discuss the events of each issue in detail, but more than that, they provide important context by filtering those issues both through the events of their time and through a more modern lens. On top of that, I’m not a big podcast guy, but Rachel and Miles trump my chief complaint there, as well; by recording in an actual studio, with a producer, they have a level of precision, conciseness, and overall audio quality that very few other podcasts are able to match.

Look, you probably know about Welcome to Night Vale. It’s the most popular podcast on iTunes. It’s also the only other podcast that gets by my general distaste, by being excellently recorded and produced. If you actually don’t know, it tells the story of a fictional town known as Night Vale, as reported through a local community radio host named Cecil Palmer. It’s well-written, adventurous, spooky, and absurd, and it’s probably one of my favorite things to be made in the last decade. Really–check it out.

Weekly Update 8/31/2015

I’m going to try and start each week with a general update. We’ll see how that goes, but I’ve even created calendar reminders.

Since starting a new job last February, I’ve put a very consistent effort to Get Things Done around the house. A portion of that is stability–for the first time since 2010(!), I have a stable job with a reasonable commute and steady hours. You wouldn’t think something like that would be so hard to come by in the IT field, especially a stone’s throw from Seattle, but you’d be wrong.

That’s part of why I have room in my life to run a tabletop game for my family now. It also means I have time to do things like tear down a rotting shed, clean up my property, and get to work on buying a new house. It’s also led to things like updating my website!

Even so, it’s hard sometimes to keep track of projects, so I figure I’ll try writing about things in progress as a means of keeping myself honest, so to speak. I get most of my work done on the weekends–Saturday specifically–but even so, there’s a lot of time after work each weekday to get small things done.

More tweaks

A bit more fine tuning here and there, and I think everything is now where I’d like it to be.

I’m working on a site page containing the basics of the Pathfinder game, so that it’s easily referenced: Setting, cast, etc. I’ll probably throw in an archive page for the adventure logs as well.

The other two header categories I’m still tweaking; I plan for one to lead to short comics, and the other to prose. The comics one will probably take longer, for obvious reasons.

This has been a heck of a project over the last couple of days–I’ve known enough CSS basics to get by for a while now, but I’ve had to push that knowledge a lot to get this theme working the way I like it. It’s really satisfying, though! It’s all where I want it now–everything is neatly subdivided into its categories, which works for me and my organizational habits.

I hope you like it, and I hope it proves interesting.

Aaaaand we’re back.

Another site update…it’s been a while.

I struggled for a long while with how I wanted to present myself here, but I think I finally have it figured out. Welcome to the blog. I have a few things planned; short comics, a story here and there, regular blog stuff. I’m also planning an adventure log for a table top game that’s starting up soon. I may do more things; we’ll see.

There’s not much here yet, but if you are looking for stuff I’ve written, well, you can find a couple of posts at Robot’s Pajamas:

10 Marvel Legends Figures Hasbro Needs to Make

Flash Season 1 Finale Paradoxes Examined: A Deep Dive

That’s it for now, but you can also find me over on Twitter or Tumblr, using the buttons on the right of your screen.

Talk to you soon!