Monday, August 3, 2009

Sirens and Divas - A Comparison

In the last month, we saw the release of two titles from the big two publishing companies that both center around a team of women. I am, of course, talking about Marvel Divas from Marvel and Gotham City Sirens from DC. I wanted to compare the first issue of these two comics side-by-side to see how they measure up to each other in different aspects, such as the art and the writing.

Another reason for this comparison is that both of these books have experienced their fare share of discussion over their portrayal of women, something which I know is a very heated topic among comic book fans. I know that the fact that I possess the Y chromosome means my experience may be biased, but I want to tackle this analysis and comparison with the utmost respect and sincerity.

The Name

I think it is interesting that both titles carry names that have powerful, although not exactly positive, connotations.

A "diva", traditionally, meant a female performer that could act, sing, and dance (a triple-threat, if you will) and was originally tied to the world of opera and theater. "Diva" was the term given to the female lead of a given performance, who were normally viewed by the general public as having hot tempers, likely to throw fits, and would often quarrel with other leading ladies.

In modern times, however, the term has evolved past its roots in opera and theater and is now used basically as a derogatory term to women that act in the same way, yet are not necessarily tied to the world of performance. One thing to keep in mind, however, is that Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa (the writer of Marvel Divas) used to be a playwright before a comic book writer, so it is probable that he was going for the original meaning rather than the modern one.

"Siren" is another word with a long history of connotations, dating all the way back to Greek mythology. A "siren" is often confused with a "mermaid", because they both use the sound of their voice to attract men to them (and in some languages, they share the same name). The difference is that sirens were portrayed as women with bird like features, such as wings or bird feet while mermaids have fish-like features. In this aspect, sirens are a lot more like sphinxes or harpies (which is also used as a derogative term against women).

In modern times, the word carries a more positive connotation as a very seductive woman, one who can lead men to do her bidding, without the negative aspect. The fact that the three women involved in Gotham City Sirens are former villains leads me to believe that they are going for the older meaning. Siren, of course, can also refer to noisemakers such as police sirens or firefighter sirens.

I don't know how familiar comic book readers are with the etymology of these words, but if anything, I suspect that more readers know the original definition of the word "siren" than that of "diva".

The Cover

"Don't judge a book by it's cover" is an age old adage, but sometimes it is all comic book fans get for a long time before the actual comic book gets to their hands.

Marvel Divas

When the cover and blurb to Marvel Divas showed up in the previews and in that week's column of Cup O' Joe (by Marvel's Editor-in-Chief Joe Quesada) there was quite an uproar about it from fans. The cover by J. Scott Campbell featured a portrayal of the four leading ladies standing around and striking sexy poses with unrealistically big breasts that defied gravity and waists that did not fit their body types. While this is obviously not the first time that women have been unrealistically portrayed in comics (and won't be the last either), it struck a nerve among many fans of both genres because of the fact that this book was seemingly aimed at female readers while the cover was aimed at the male portion of comic book readers.

Gotham City Sirens

The cover to Gotham City Sirens, drawn by Guillem March, was practically the same thing - the three heroines are standing on top of a circle (in this case, I presume it is the Bat-signal) while striking sexy poses. In this cover, the body proportions look a bit more realistic than the previous one, but it is also a bit more blatant in showcasing Harley Quinn's behind and Poison Ivy's cleavage. But because of the fact that the accompanying blurb did not imply this comic was meant for female readers, this cover did not cause nearly as much of a furor around the internet.

Of course, there's also the belief that there's no such thing as bad publicity, which could mean that the controversy raised over the cover to Marvel Divas could have raised that book's profile and led to more sales. At the same time, the controversy surely kept away people from the book. Proving or disproving this theory in regards to these particular comics would be a pretty hard thing to do anyway.

The Role

Despite their similarities, these two books share very different roles for their respective companies.

Gotham City Sirens

Gotham City Sirens was one of the many relaunches and debuts that DC has put out in the process of revitalizing the Batman franchise. Gotham City Sirens is, in many ways, similar to one of the many books that was canceled earlier this year - the long-running Birds of Prey.

Birds of Prey was also a book about three women (originally two, eventually more) coming together to join efforts, although they were heroes as opposed to the villains of Gotham City Sirens.

DC has several other ongoing titles that feature women as protagonists, popular and long stay characters, such as Wonder Woman and Supergirl, the newly launched Power Girl series, and the recent Black Canary and Green Arrow co-billing. Additionally the current weekly comic by DC, Wednesday Comics, also features stories about Wonder Woman, Supergirl and Catwoman.

Marvel Divas

Marvel, in comparison, seems to have less ongoing titles with female leads. Ms. Marvel is one of them and the newly relaunched Black Panther (although I don't know how long that is going to last, as T'Challa seems to be back in some of the covers) are the only two female characters that currently have an ongoing series. She-Hulk's title was canceled not that long ago and was replaced with a mini series (Savage She-Hulk) instead that featured a new character.

It seems that Marvel prefers to spotlight their female characters with mini-series instead, such as Dark Reign: Elektra, Savage She-Hulk, NYX, and Patsy Walker: Hellcat. Marvel Divas falls within that category of trying to fill out the gap created by the lack of diversity in Marvel's ongoing titles, as is the upcoming Models, Inc.

An ongoing title is seen as more prestigious than a mini-series in many reader's eyes because it shows that there is a greater interest from readers and a greater willingness from publishing companies to showcase and push their female characters to new audiences.

The Art

Covers aside, the art on these two comic books is on opposite ends of the spectrum. As I have mentioned on other occasions, I hate to criticize art unless it is detrimental to the story, so will be looking at each with that in mind.

Gotham City Sirens

Gotham City Sirens features an art style that is extremely clear, kinetic, and colourful. Guillem March provides the pencil work and he is an extremely talented storyteller with a strong sense of both movement and facial expressions.

Sadly, the art is not without it's faults and one of the most glaring ones is the sexualization of all three main characters. All three female leads have D-cups with lots of clevage showing, there's a couple of gratuitous closeups of Catwoman's behind, and Harley Quinn is wearing a schoolgirl outfit throughout the whole first issue.

This is, of course, nothing new within comic books, as most readers fully know, but it bears repeating. There is nothing wrong with the bodies of either men or women, but it honestly felt that in this comic, showcasing it played a bigger part than it needed to. Despite the fact that this is a book with three women as protagonists, it feels like the art was completely aimed at male readers.

Marvel Divas

Tonci Zonjic (and yes, I had to look up how to spell it) provides the art for Marvel Divas. It's hard to define Zonjic's art, as there is a sense of realism in his character designs, but it doesn't resemble the photo realistic style of Brian Hitch or Steve McNiven.

The greatest feat in Zonjic's style is that he manages to give each of the four ladies a distinct fashion style that separates them from one another and gives each character a personality that is instantly identifiable. Black Cat is shown always wearing dresses and knee-high boots, Hellcat has apparently a liking of business suits, Firestar wears clothes that you would see at a rock concert, and Photon's civilian wardrobe is made up of simple jeans and shirts.

There is a problem with Zonjic's style, however, and it is that his characters seem to have a "missing-nose" syndrome. Depending on the profile that the characters are standing, the nose or other parts of their face aren't completely drawn and it makes the character's facial features look too similar to one another.

Both artists have their strength and their weakness, but with profoundly separate styles. At the end of the day, it is a matter of taste and preference as to which one readers will like the best, but I felt the art in Marvel Divas was more welcoming to the female, or any, for that matter, readers.

The Story

These two stories are built strongly on the foundation of other works, although very different ones.

Marvel Divas

Marvel Divas was notoriously pitched as "Sex and the City" set in the Marvel Universe by Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa. Although my experience with the TV show is rather limited, the end result is a lot like what Sex and the City was like from my perspective: four women discussing and bonding over their romantic life, complete with one of the protagonists being the author of the book. The comic book dwells on both the comedic and more dramatic aspects of life as a single women in a world dominated by men, much like the show did. The comic, also like the TV show, features a lot of snappy dialogue that is somewhat self-aware and that breaks the 4th wall.

I am actually a very big fan of Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, his short run on the Nightcrawler ongoing being one of my favourite series ever and his work on Marvel Knights 4 also very high on my list. During Marvel Knights 4, he also wrote a very "Sex and the City"-like issue where Sue Storm, She-Hulk, Emma Frost, Sharon Ventura , and Alicia Masters go for a girl's night out. He actually uses Marvel Divas to have a cameo by Sue Storm, probably a nod to his previous work, and Aguirre-Sacasa has stated that Invisible Woman is one of his favorite characters. She shows up to promote Hellcat's work, but doesn't do much else.

Gotham City Sirens

Gotham City Sirens is the brainchild of Paul Dini, who has written a lot of Batman related titles in the previous years. Most notably, however, is his work in the world of animated TV series such as Batman: TAS, Superman: TAS, Batman Beyond, and many others. Dini, alongside Bruce Timm, helped create the character of Harley Quinn, who proved to be so popular that it was added to the Batman canon in the comics.

My experience with Dini's writing is actually very limited, but, from what I have learned, he has a tendency to spotlight his pet characters, like he is doing with two of the protagonists of Gotham City Sirens, Harley Quinn and Poison Ivy, and with villains such as Hush and the Riddler. This tendency, however, reaches almost Claremontian levels when it comes to one particular character - Zatanna. She makes an appearance in this comic where she is wearing only a robe before getting into a bathroom only to be almost drowned by Poison Ivy in scene that felt straight out of a bondage movie. Zatanna is held under water, with her extremities restrained, and a gag in her mouth.

It is interesting that both comics had a guest appearance in the story by a pet character of the author, but they are treated in very different ways.


Both comics are flawed in different aspects, but it should be obvious by reading this article which one I preferred. I think Marvel Divas attempted to portray women more realistically than Gotham City Sirens did, which was more of a straight superhero fare. What do you think? Which one did you like more, and why?

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Tromeritus said...

Good article. I did not buy either.

The rest of the Marvel Divas and GCS covers aren't cheesecakey (false controversy for press, anyone?) Also, a $4 price tag is already cringe-inducing to current comic readers; why would a newcomer gravitate to Marvel Divas? Is it expected to be more successful than She-Hulk or Spider-Girl? Both MD and GCS sound patronizing, but who am I to criticize variety?

Matt Ampersand said...

@Tromeritus: That's a very good point about the 3.99 price. It's become standard price for Marvel to make all the mini series at that price, but I could definitely see it hindering the series from getting some extra casual readers.

kwaku said...

I was planning on getting Sirens and I think March is a very good artist but once I actually got a look inside the book, I put it back. It seems like every panel he draws is with the intention of making the women as "sexy" as possible. It's a pity because I think he can draw really well.

Matt Ampersand said...

@Kwaku: I agree, I think he is a great artist. It's just a shame that he filled the book with cheesecake shots (but who knows, maybe the script called for it).

Andrenn said...

Great post, Matt.

I agree that Marvel Divas is the superior book but I like it more for the writing as Dini doesn't seem to be bringing his A-game to Sirens. I'm not a big fan of, how Harley isn't in her classic uniform and the Zatanna moment was just downright laughable. So I agree that Marvel Divas is the superior book.

kilmoonie said...

Good article as I'm glad someone compared the two, although I think you might have been a bit kind to Divas. On the surface, you would think Divas was the better book, but once you look closer, I kind of think the problem lies a bit in its intent (as you spelled out).

SIRENS as you put it was a book in the new Batman line, just another book of many DC books that concentrate on female protagonists. DIVAS was notionally meant to appeal to the female audience that Marvel doesn't have/craves. I really won't pile on with how the Campbell cover was a horrible idea to get girls to buy this comic. Ok, I guess I will: It was a HORRIBLE idea. All it did was get boys that eat this stuff up to pick it up the cover. Meanwhile, it grossly misrepresented the interiors.

SIRENS struggles from a plot perspective. I think that Dini is struggling to really find a reason to have these girls together, and until that settles down a bit I think we are looking forward to more of the same (I have read #2 at this point). The art is pretty good. As you noted, some T&A shots, but for the most part, anyone that saw the cover got what it was they were advertising. No harm no foul on this one as far as its audience go I would think. Mostly boys being a Batman line? Dunno. For better or worse, this book suffers from just not being that good. (Yet? In Dini we trust?)

DIVAS on the other hand, comes across as more of an embarrassment to me. From yes, the cover to the cringe inducing, "are you f'n serious?", last page. Is this honestly what Marvel thought girls would want? A blatant Sex and the City ripoff -- complete with what Sex and the City girl are you -- 10 years after it had any chance of being relevant? I mean, this comes out in 1999 it would have at least been original. Now? It's all just too transparent. The "gals" sitting around talking about who they slept with and "look at that guy" because when it's a comic for girls, it HAS TO revolve around getting guys and relationships, right?

I mean, they met at a speed dating for Super Heroines. These girls are SUPER HEROES and we are to believe that they need to speed date to meet someone? And the best that they can do there is a geek, a homeless man and a gay guy? Name an actress/model/celebrity (real life counter parts?) that has to speed date homeless guys. I know this was played for comedy, but it just rubbed me the wrong way. But if -- IF -- this is the tone you want, ok...

And then to cap it off, as a cruel joke, there is the cancer. Huh? What could we possibly throw in this book to make it more of a cliche on what girls are supposed to want in their fiction: cancer. Someone at Marvel stole the Lifetime channel's script bible. Call the cops. (And I know that Angelica has cancer scare history.)

At least the Zonjic art was awesome.

What's sad, with the sales of the book low (once we're past the bloated #1 with Campbell rulz cover), Marvel will throw up their arms and go, "We tried! Girls just don't want our comics!" I would have rather they just let Kathryn Immonen continue with Patsy after the solid Hellcat mini. Kathryn are you out there? Did you laugh at this book too?

Sorry for the rant in the comments section. But yeah, ultimately I think it was the intent of the books that got my goat. I read Divas from the point of view of a girl wanting to read this comic, and not so with Sirens. That's why it was a bigger failure to me.

Kirk Warren said...

@kilmoonie - That's an interesting perspective you bring up at the end about going in with the idea that Divas was "for women", so a bigger failure than the intent of GCS. With the announcement and solicits for Divas, I went in thinking it was going to be a complete cheesecake failure of a book and ended up pleasantly surprised by how, well, not absolutely terrible it was. There were cringe inducing moments where things fell flat, but, for the most part, it was a fairly fun read until that cancer ending.

With GCS, I was hoping for a continuation of what DIni was doing with the three girls in Detective Comics and with Hush at the end of his run there or, at the least, some campy DCU animated style adventures like his Ivy and Harley stories from the past, so came away from this mostly T&A book a lot more disappointed than with Divas.

not sure what I'm getting at here. Just found it curious how we arrived at different conclusions based on our differing vantage points going in.

Anonymous said...

So... im the only one that found all the idea of marvel divas (starting by the title) superficial and too MTVesque???? recently i was pointing out to a friend how in the constrat of both comics, one can see the current tendecy of both big companies. With a marvel more self-centered to become a big multimedia monster (and sometimes kicking fan asses on the way) trying to catch new readers (with the standarization of his quality) and a DC that is doing comics(no meaning if they are good or bad)for fans.

Matt Ampersand said...

@kilmoonie - It's great to hear from another perspective. That's a very good point about the intent of the book. Like I said in the intro, I try to approach these articles with as much objectiveness and detailed analysis as possible, but something will always slip under my radar. Good thing we have our trusty readers to catch them.

As for the "Lifetime bible script", at least we didn't end up with a plot about someone's daughter being way too rebellious for them to handle, or a murder plot where it all points to the wife being the killer, but the evil husband had planned it all along!

In all seriousness, I hope the cancer plot is resolved ASAP, and we can get on with just a fun mini series. If Marvel Divas can deliver that, when all is said and done, I will be content.

Jason said...

I liked Sirens more because the $4 price tag for Divas turned me away. Which is a shame since I thought the preview pages I read had potential.

kilmoonie said...

@Kirk Warren - I mostly read it with that intent because it seemed to me it was pretty obvious that that was the intent with the pitch being Sex and the City in the Marvel Universe. Still, I wonder what females at large are thinking... it seems most positive reviews are from guys.

And I'm with you on GCS as far as why I'm picking it up. The Hush storyline that Dini has been rolling with since Detective has been pretty solid so I wanted to see more of that adventure. I really hope this gets better.

And for what it's worth, my girlfriend read both (and she loves to support the girl comics when she can) said MORE Sirens, NO MORE Divas.

variant Girl said...

First off I would like to commend you on your great comparisson of these two books. I am a female comic fan and actually have my own review site and Ezine, and I thought that you did a bang up job in writing this. I personally hated both of these books because I don't feel either of them got it right when it comes to women. Granted males were writing them, but Greg Rucka for instance is doing wonderful work with Dect comics and Batwoman. He did the same when he wrote for Wonder Woman. So I think it may be a small cop out to say these books were what they are because a guy wrote it. I believe these books did what they were intended to do which was cater to the Fanboy, and if that is in fact the case, Marvel, DC job well done. Books like these do nothing for women in comics, and do nothing to entice the fangirls out there to read it. Also, why not have given these projects to female writers? Why because there are not that many of them sucessfully working in the comic industry, and that has to change if we expect to see a change in the female characters and female oriented plotlines within comic books. Keep up the good work!

Variant Girl

Matt Ampersand said...

@Variant Girl: Glad you liked the article. I would definitely like to see more female writers handle women. As a matter of fact, I mentioned in the recent "Wednesday Comics - Marvel Edition" that I would love to see Kathryn Immonen get to write a She-Hulk series.

starlight_2_twilight said...

I think I am the only one who LOVED MD! I thought it was light, but I wasn't expecting anything too deep from a four comic run. And it was a lot better than I expected. I love that it shows the ladies as more "rounded" characters and focused on their friendships, I mean, do you ever really see friendships being discussed? For example, who the hell is Rogue's best friend? I mean, really? And cancer, sadly, is something a lot of women (and men!) have to deal with, regardless of superhero powers. To me, I felt the cancer did make you think about how they just aren't supposed to be just super heroes, but "people" too. And the art isn't strictly cheesecake. It's *gasp* realistic (for a comic book!) Love it! (and I've been buying Sirens, and I thought the 3rd book was a joke. But I'l keep buying everything in hope that one day, just one day, someone will throw us ladies a bone and give us a comic series!)

Anonymous said...

As a Harley fan, I must say that I adored Gotham City Sirens. And I am a girl. Needless to say, yes there was overexposure. But ofcourse there's going to be, it's a god forsaken comic book intended for male audiences, at all times. 99 percent of the female population is obsessed with twilight anywhome, so who gives a frick about them. Upon saying this, I must say that Marvel Diva's is kinda cheesy, idk, I just didn't like it that much. Gotham City Sirens has that Dini touch. And, I just finished reading the 7th issue, the plot is getting very, very good, and you know what, I could care less about the skin. It's beautifully inked, and drawn.

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