Month: September 2015

Hasbro’s Problem With Women: Part Four

In part one of this series, I spoke first about the problems inherent in the decision to release a Pepper Potts Rescue figure as an online exclusive as opposed to its original slated mass release. Then, in parts two and three, I talked to both Claire Napier and El A. about their experiences in the toy market, and how the idea that there are “boy” toys and “girl” toys can be inherently destructive and marginalizing at a very young age. Today, my third and final interview is with Bailey Poland, author and collector, about her experiences.

I’d start with the question of whether you buy figures regularly, but in your case, I’ve seen (and been a little envious of) pictures of your collection. So I’ll start with: What got you started buying figures?

It is definitely a fairly regular habit with me. When I first started dating Gabe, who is now my husband, I had a couple of loose figures, but I was not actually engaged in collecting. He’s a lifelong collector, and he was sort of a guide as I got more seriously into it. Once I figured out what I wanted my focus to be on (loosely, “badass ladies”/Wonder Woman, and Star Wars) I took off from there.

You’re likely very aware of the outcry over Hasbro’s lack of Black Widow merchandise in conjunction with the Avengers: Age of Ultron release, yes?

Oh definitely – including their decision to place Cap in a toy version of a scene she starred in, and her absence on the DVD covers.

Are you aware of the upcoming release of a 6″ Widow figure as part of an Amazon box set?

I am! It would be nice if we could get a better ratio than 3:1 sometime on these. The set with Maria Hill was also 3:1. [1]

Marvel's Agents of SHIELD 3-Pack

Hasbro’s Marvel Legends: Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D 3-Pack. Maria Hill is only the third female character from the Marvel Cinematic Universe to be released by Hasbro.

Pack ratio aside, do you see any other problems with that release?

She’s not as sexualized as some versions I’ve seen. I don’t love that it’s a nearly identical sculpt to the previous release, but that’s not uncommon for figures generally.

That’s true. What are your thoughts on the idea of only making her available as a box set, and furthermore as an online exclusive as opposed to a general retail release?

That’s also prohibitive – I had to buy the entire box set to get the Maria Hill figure, which was a big expense to end up with 3 other figures that are not being displayed. For people on a budget, having female characters limited in that way can really be a problem.

How do you feel about the representation of female characters in action figure form? As a collector with a specific focus, are you happy with the amount of offerings out there, or do you wish there was a better spread? Specifically in terms of release rates; every collector I know wants more of their favorite characters in general.

One of the reasons I settled on using Wonder Woman as a focal point is that she is one of the few female characters you can find fairly reliably. Overall, though, there is a massive dearth of female characters in pretty much every line of toys out there, and it is hugely frustrating. The LCS[2] I go to has probably between 15 and 20 male figures for each female figure, and that’s true of most toy stores as well. Part of that is a problem of the culture itself – male characters still dominate a lot of the stories that figures are coming from. However, a lot of female characters end up getting totally left out of the merchandise, which does not help. I’ve built up a pretty large collection of female characters, but that’s after 2 and a half years of serious work on it, which not everyone has the time or resources to do.

And yet the industry perception is that female characters don’t sell.

Yeah, that is another big problem. They devote fewer resources to the female figures, the ones that do get put out are often lower-quality and hyper-sexualized, and the culture itself still has a lot of gatekeeping to getting women into collecting, when we would be a massive market. Can you imagine how well a Kamala Khan Ms. Marvel figure would sell? They wouldn’t be able to keep it on the shelves.

Absolutely–the recent Carol-as-Captain figure flew off of the pegs. Have you ever felt uncomfortable buying figures?

I definitely have – there are a lot of assumptions about what I’m doing in a specific environment, what I know about what I’m doing, and what my interests are. I wrote about this some in my piece on why comic shops aren’t welcoming to women – all of that is also true in toy shops, especially given the large overlap between the two. There’s definitely sometimes the sense that I’m being perceived as an interloper, or that my interest is not genuine or not as strong as theirs, which leads to some aggression, some posturing. There are also always the guys who orbit in stores like that and try to hit on me or “helpfully” point out things I already know

Have you ever bought a figure of a female character just because it’s the only representation of that character, even if you were unhappy with the design?

Frequently, yeah. Kotobukiya makes some of the most incredible statues I’ve seen, and their Bishoujo line is no exception, but it also cannot be denied that those figures in particular are incredibly sexualized. I’ve heard every defense in the book for it, but it can’t be denied that the superheroines, for example, are powerful women who are being put into often uncharacteristic poses. That is done for a specific audience, and it isn’t inherently bad, BUT there is so little representation otherwise that if you want a Koto statue of many of those characters, that’s your only option. I have a ton of the Bishoujo figures, but I am always a little disappointed that I can’t just get the characters as they are. Ditto the Play Arts Kai Wonder Woman, Black Widow, etc. Really, really cool figures with about a million articulations, and all of them are unbelievably sexualized in ways that don’t feel true to the characters.

I also once had a couple of guys who were collectors harass me online for hours for pointing that out, so that is a bone of contention for a lot of people.


Kotobukiya Bishoujo Starfire, Mystique, and Spider-Woman.

I have definitely been personally embroiled in an argument over whether Kotobukiya figures are unnecessarily sexualized. It’s always fun when people fall back on the, “Well I don’t see it that way, therefore it’s not” defense.

People get super, super heated when it comes up. “I have a right to my opinion!” Yawn.

Do you think the type and level of representation that women and female characters have in toys, especially when combined with gendered marketing and the fact that the target demographic is often kids, contributes to the marginalization of women as those kids grow older?

Absolutely. I think it’s one of those things where media is part of a cycle – women are underrepresented, and represented in limited/limiting ways when they do appear. That affects who feels welcome in those environments, who remains interested, and where the market goes through time. That also becomes a self-perpetuating cycle, where there’s the assumption that women are just naturally uninterested, and therefore nothing about the status quo needs to be (or even can be) changed. Girls grasp from a very young age that they’re not welcome in certain spaces – by the time we get to adulthood, a lot of us have lost whatever interest we may have had at one point.

Had you heard about the Rescue figure before I mentioned it this morning?

I had not! I don’t follow the Iron Man figure releases very closely, so I missed that one.

Well, for background, it’s a figure of Pepper’s armor, and it’s announced as an exclusive for Marvel’s Digital Unlimited subscription for 2016. For more background, it was originally planned as a retail release in 2013, was molded and tooled, but never put into production. It just vanished. Hasbro put out a series of Iron Man figures that year that contained three versions of Iron Man and two of Iron Patriot, however.

I remember there being a massive glut of Iron Man figures for quite some time

It’s interesting to me that the release of this figure so closely mirrors the path of the Black Widow figure.

Yeah, there are some important parallels to draw there.

I’m trying to think of anything to say about that that we haven’t already covered…anything to add on your part?

I think we pretty much hit a lot of the big stuff. One of the key things for me is that even when collecting is frustrating or limited, it’s also still really fun and rewarding, and it’s something I wish a lot more women were into. It’s going to be an uphill battle to change the market to actually be welcoming to women, but getting women interested again will have to be a big part of that.

I’ve talked to a few folks, and the running theme seems to be: Better/less objectifying designs, better availability, and including women both in the design phase and marketing demographics.

Definitely. Having better diversity at all stages of the process will speed that change along immeasurably

Thank you so much for taking the time!

I think that it’s important to note the way that all three interviewees have answered these questions. I selected three of them only on the criteria that they’re generally a part of what’s considered “geek culture”–that’s a whole other thing–and yet their answers are almost uniform in the way that they’ve felt regarding the treatment of women.

I also spoke with the three of them because I’m not a woman. I don’t have these experiences. The collector toy market is, ostensibly, geared directly at me. By and large, my personal relationship to the issue is that characters I’d like to see get made don’t get made on the basis of their gender. I think it’s absurd, but as a man, there are plenty of characters out there for me to identify with. You’ve heard talk of privilege in various spaces of the internet, no doubt, but this is what it is in its essence; I’m considered a prime demographic, these women are not. The extension of that logic is that my expendable income is desired, and theirs is not. Take a moment to consider that concept. These companies are literally willing to cheat themselves out of money in the name of adhering to sexist standards.

Next week, I’ll discuss the parallels of Black Widow and Rescue, to which I’ve alluded in this interview, and also review Hasbro’s overall 2015 track record.

[1]The pack she references was actually a 2:1 male to female ratio. This does not change her point in the slightest, I only include the correction for the pedants out there.

[2]LCS = Local Comic Shop.

Hasbro’s Problem With Women: Part Three

Last time, I talked with Claire Napier about her experiences with buying figures, and what ultimately drove her to give up the hobby. I felt that was an important interview to lead with, because it underscores a big point in what I’m trying to say–these practices are literally driving customers away. This week, I’m speaking with El A. of Femmes In the Fridge, and also a large part of the #WeWantWidow campaign on Twitter around the time of the Avengers sequel–a campaign that spilled over into real life.

For those not familiar, #WeWantWidow centered squarely around the lack of merchandise featuring Black Widow, despite both her appearance in Avengers: Age of Ultron and the sheer abundance of products that came out in support of that movie. There were multiple toy lines put out by Hasbro, and while there were a few things featuring her likeness released, Widow was largely defined by her lack of presence in most of those lines. In fact, in the most egregious instance, Widow was actually replaced on two separate occasions in toys that were specifically referencing a scene she starred in. In fact, the most recognizable representation of the character in toy form only just came out yesterday, despite the fact that the movie released May 1st–over four months ago.

Two Quinjet toys depicting the motorcycle-ejection scene from Avengers: Age of Ultron. Black Widow is replaced for each toy by Iron Man and Captain America, respectively.

In the interview (and the next one after this), you’ll see me retread some of the ground I covered when speaking with Claire last week–both because I wanted to get differing perspectives on subject and because Claire herself raised some interesting points during that interview that I hadn’t yet considered.

Hello! We talked briefly about figures a few weeks ago–you gave me a wishlist of characters that you wish were being made. Incidentally, that inspired a lot of the thoughts that eventually led to this series, so thanks for that.

Yeah, I remember that! Glad it was helpful!

So, first question: Do you buy action figures regularly?

I probably don’t count as buying them ‘regularly’. I only buy entertaining figures (to me) and the female characters whose design I find empowering. So I have, eh, maybe 30 of them knocking around the house…if I could afford the bombshells I would have them all, natch…

How long have you been buying them for?

Hmm, If you count non-comic characters that I bought at places like Barnes and Noble & toy stores, since Pirates of the Caribbean 1, so 2003…if you just count figures from comic stores, since early 2012.

Does the lack of availability of female characters affect your purchasing habits?

100%, yeah. Availability and design of female character figures is a huge money-saver for me, essentially!

I’ll bet. Does the act buying figures of female characters ever make you feel uncomfortable?

No, though the act of NOT buying the ones that do exist (due to their design or what have you) does make me uncomfortable sometimes!

Can you expand on that?

Sure. I feel guilty because it is a common and legit observation that we must demonstrate that selling diverse-oriented figures, ESPECIALLY to women, is a winning proposition. The reason you often see regressive people say that “the best way to change things is to support the things that exist” is that is creates this guilt. It’s a good silencing tactic in that it makes sense on a surface level.

I feel guilty I own no Batgirl, Batwoman, Spiderwoman, etc figures, but that is being imposed ON me by that tactic, because the reality is that there are no figures FOR me out there of those characters, (except the bombshells) or I would WANT to own them.

Also, I KNOW Hasbro, Disney, Lego actively do not want my money or my active engagement with their products. That adds to the sense that I am doing it wrong; I bought a Captain Boomerang figure recently, because…well, I wanted to annoy my mum by displaying a silly man with a boomerang hat on my shelf where she would eventually see it!

But in so doing, I am effectively invading a space where I know I am unwanted, demanding accommodation from the company that doesn’t want me, and then supporting…making figures of dudes, for dudes. It just generally makes active participation in figure culture feel icky. When DC did that with its comics, I just didn’t buy THEIR comics; for figures, there is no real competitor, certainly not for licensed characters.

So you feel that the solution to the problem is not just to offer a better selection of female characters, but also to actively market to women; to include consideration for customers who are women in the design process, etc.
The solution is to remove the antiquated, self-reinforcing market ‘wisdom’ that women and girls are not viable consumers of toys. Gender-neutral design based on the number of comic readers would fix it. (Even based on the number of physical copy readers, aka the data consumers have access to, which are skewed against new, young and diverse readers, all of whom are far more present on the digital market)

Batgirl of Burnside, who, if accurately molded, would not be hyper-sexualized as a figure, is the second most stable, successful series DC is putting out. A gender-neutral toy market would have made her and released her long ago. Ditto Ms. Marvel, who is the most stable title Marvel sells digitally, and rock solid in physical sales as well.

But instead of targeting characters with the most readers, they target characters with the most male readers, so we have Spider-Woman as one of the Marvel characters I see most often, always in her old, outdatedly icky costume and posed boobs-first. Realistically, many geeky women can and do accept that version in figure form, just like they did in comic form, but that’s never going to be a big draw or a thing that creates new figure collectors among women geeks; we kinda prefer not to see ourselves as sexual objects first, people second.

Marketing to women actively would be swell, but just not deliberately marketing away from women would probably be adequate over time. @LetToysbeToys is huge on that.

I certainly felt that the release of the Spider-Woman figure in particular was especially tone-deaf, given that it occurred right when a new costume was being showcased for the character.

Yeah, that’s either terrible communication between companies or terrible choices by someone in those companies. Especially since the new Spider-Woman costume & art was effectively an apology for the Milo Manara No. 1 variant cover.


At the time of #WeWantWidow, Hasbro had a 6″ figure planned as part of an Amazon box set. That set will be available this month. Were you aware of those plans then, and how do you feel about that offering, in relation to the lack of other Widow merchandise?

The Amazon-Exclusive Age of Ultron set, featuring the 6" Black Widow figure.

The Amazon-Exclusive Age of Ultron set, featuring the 6″ Black Widow figure.

Yeah, I was aware of that one. I don’t know that I have any feelings about it? I guess I’m not sure what you mean.

Well, I’m not sure they could have changed their plans for the release anyway; I’m sure certain contracts and deals were signed for exclusivity, but I find it interesting that the one well-sculpted, well-articulated BW figure to hit the market is doing so not only as an exclusive, and not even as a general retail exclusive, but as an online-only offering. I was wondering specifically how you felt about that, and whether it poses a problem.

Oh. Yeah, that’s an ongoing trend. Another example is the only Pop Funko figure of the female Thor being exclusively available in the loot box from Secret Wars (a bit ironic, since she isn’t IN Secret Wars, but whatever..)

It means they don’t put them in their retail catalogs and use up shelf space on the ‘real’ characters, just like the playset that replaced Black Widow with Captain America for the motorcycle scene did.

It is exactly that marginalization of the female characters that perpetuates the notion they don’t sell. She was also in a bundle of already fairly pricey figures, which makes it less likely that mom and dad, having somehow discovered it exists, getting it for their kid, and ditto for the adult fans; $20 on a figure is one thing, but $80 to get the one woman character is a hefty price tag.

(Also, and I’m fine with how we all rallied behind Widow, go with what works, licensing issues may be involved as well, but…you can get AoU Bruce Banner in street clothes, but not Scarlet Witch…)

You highlighted an interesting point re: the marginalization of female characters. Do you think that those choices, combined with gendered marketing and the fact that kids are generally the target demographic for toys, contributes to the further marginalization of women as those children grow up?

Oh, sure. It does. Teaching little boys that they are different from little girls, privileging ‘their interests’ and setting them apart from what little girls supposedly want, cancelling shows because little girls just literally do not count in viewership assessments all help shape the culture that leads to pay inequality, men and women both seeing their counterparts as ‘the other’, does nothing to counteract the negativity society has about those who straddle that gender divide, and, above all, only giving little boys male hero toys, and only giving those little girls who cross into that ‘boy only’ space access to male hero toys is EXACTLY why some dudes grow up seeing geek culture as ‘their thing’ and get hella uncomfy about Lady Thor, etc.

It is training the next generations to grow up with the same privilege sets as the last; the male white people are the heroes, everyone else is on the margins.

The GOOD news is that, as little as I personally like them, shows like Stephen Universe are counteracting those notions while still remaining heavily watched by little boys. The BAD news is that those are not figure-ready properties, and even if they were, toy companies wouldn’t want to make them, since they don’t conform to the standard aesthetics.

It’s definitely a frustrating situation. Thank you again for speaking with me!

El runs the site Femmes In The Fridge, where she discusses comics, pop culture, and the importance of intersectionality in both. You can also find her Twitter at @FemmesinFridges.

Next week, I’ll be interviewing Bailey Poland, freelance writer and ardent collector in her own right.


Adventure Log 1: Job Faire

abyssal leap

Hammersgaard is a bustling city on the outskirts of Coralym, its eastward walls standing against the Ruined Frontier, its southern along the banks of the Orga River. Due to its rural location, Hammersgaard is a chaotic, unruly town, full of thieves, murderers, and all sorts of sinners and criminals alike. Thanks to its river proximity, Hammersgaard does a fair bit of business as a port town, but that’s nothing compared to its bustling economy of adventuring companies exploring the Ruined Frontier.

These companies and the business they practice is highly organized (if certainly corrupt) by a system enforced by the High Justices of the town. Prospective jobs are reported, catalogued, and divided by type, then dispersed according to a bidding system—companies will make competing bids for labor/materials/timeframe, and the High Justices will award each job accordingly.

Today, as it happens, the auction is almost over. There is only one job remaining, and four parties left still bidding–first, yourselves, then: a trio of nearly silent elves dressed in black leather armor, their chests stamped with red handprints; a group of noblewomen to one side, dressed in their finest and sniffing haughtily at the others, and finally, perhaps the oddest group of all; a foursome of monstrous humanoids led by a bespectacled owlbear who seems more at home in an accounting office than where his type might normally look.

As the High Justice overseeing the auction finishes his notations for the last auction and returns to the podium, the other groups perk up. You’re able to recognize this man–High Justice Reknar. His irritability and disdain for the adventuring line of work is notable, but so is his fairness. He looks out over the remaining groups, then speaks.

“The last contract is thus: A tribe of goblins has set up a base in the Frontier. Scouts pinpoint their location as a ruined temple,  but their numbers are above average, as is their level of aggression. They’ve been raiding farms just outside the city walls. For extermination, the bidding will start at one thousand gold.”

The owlbear immediately lifts a clawed appendage. “Hrmhrm…Nine hundred and fifty.”

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?


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.


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.


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.


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.

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


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.