The Bechdel Test and Beyond – Part IV, Boys Comics

It looks like girls’ comics portray a very wide range of roles for girls and women – perhaps wider than is the case in some recent mainstream media targeted at a girls’ market – and that boys and men are integrated into that world of girls as well. The roles that boys and men are shown as playing are not as wide-ranging as those that girls and women are shown in, but compared to the representation of other groups such as Black and Minority Ethnic characters, boys and men get much more of a look-in. What about boys’ comics? What sort of representation do they have of girls and women? Do boys and men get as wide a range of representation in the comics targeted at them as a market?

A couple of notes of caution before I go further. One obvious one is about the scope of what I am looking at in this post – I don’t own very many boys’ comics at all and so I am restricted in what I can easily put through this test. I am of course very happy to hear comments to expand on or to refute the results I will go through below. If readers want to apply the tests to a wider range of boys’ comics I would be very happy to hear the results, and to put then in a followup post if people would like. For instance, I could imagine that repeating this analysis on 2000AD – perhaps on the same sort of date range as my examples below – could reveal an interesting set of different results. (Edited to add: the latest post on blog Great News For All Readers gives a clear hint that Valiant and Lion in 1975 would almost certainly have given different results even to the following year’s copy of Battle and Valiant that I look at below.)

The second, perhaps more major, caveat is to reiterate something I said in earlier posts: this test says nothing about the quality of the individual story or comic, and was never intended to. A story can be great entertainment, excellently written, touching and humane, exciting and innovative, while dealing with a very small subset of humanity or the human concern. The problem comes when only a small subset of humanity is used as the usual channel for stories – when no one else gets a look-in and it is not even questioned. The overall range of stories that are told ends up narrower, but also a wide range of people – those not included in that selected small subset – are implicitly told they are not the stuff of stories. To repeat again, please do not take the comments below as a negative judgment of the comics I am looking at – I can see the stories are exciting and well crafted. That’s exactly why it’s important to apply an analytic test that doesn’t talk about the way the story makes the reader feel or whether it’s well-done – to look at an aspect of the story or comic that can otherwise get hidden by those subjective judgments.

Rounded Representation 5

I was able to look at: four issues of Battle Action dated between March and April 1980, and one issue of Battle and Valiant dated December 1976, all five of which were published by IPC. I have grouped these under the heading ‘War comics’ above, coloured green. Not all boys’ comics are about war as a genre, I appreciate, and thankfully I also had an individual issue of a more general comic that featured a wider genre range – DC Thomson’s Spike, dated 26 November 1983. I didn’t look at humour comics (which weren’t marketed in as gender-specific a way) or at the action adventure comics of an earlier age. Other notable omissions are the weekly publications with a more overtly didactic element and an implicit seal of parental approval – Eagle, Look and Learn, and the like.

First of all, do any of the chosen boys’ comics pass the Bechdel test? If not, there is very little chance of them passing the Rounded Representation test because they are unlikely to have any sort of range of female characters depicted. It’s perhaps not that unexpected that none of the war comics I looked at had as many as two named female characters – there was one story in Battle and Valiant (“The Black Crow”) set in a nursing home, that showed three uniformed nurses, but each unnamed. Arguably two of the nurses have a minimal conversation, which I didn’t indicate in the analysis above, but this is about a man (“Mon dieu… Germans!” “It is Major Klaus von Steutsel… head of the Gestapo in Pontville!”). (Most of the issues had absolutely no women depicted at all, so to have turned to a page with as many as three women on it felt quite unusual.)

The copy of Spike also does not have any stories that pass the Bechdel Test: a couple of the stories had mothers mentioned or shown, but again none of the female characters were named. It felt like slightly less of an exclusively male world on show; balanced against that though, the nurses in “The Black Crow” were professionals with roles of their own, rather than generic wives and mothers, so perhaps honours are even.

In any case, it’s easy to see that girls and women are considerably less well represented in these boys’ comics than is the case for boys and men in girls’ comics. Even in publications that include a lot of fantastical stories, girls stories are not set in an exclusively female world; boys and men are given parts that are more than purely token. Not so in (these) boys’ comics. I have therefore not gone through the Rounded Representation test looking at depiction of girls and women in boys’ comics.

What of the roles that boys and men are depicted in, in these publications aimed at them? Now here’s an interesting thing – in terms of representation, boys are actually slightly hard-done-by in their ‘own’ comics, more so than in girls’ comics. That will need a little more teasing apart than the simple ticks in the various cells above show, however (which is also often the case with the Bechdel Test). So, let’s look at the Rounded Representation test as applied to male characters in boys’ comics.

  • Emotions: in both the war comics and the individual issue of Spike it was possible to find depictions of the range of emotions. I must say though that it was a lot easier in the single issue of Spike; in the war comics it took me looking through most of the pages before I was able to find much in the way of happiness. There was a lot of fear and doubt, and friendship wasn’t hard to find (D-Day Dawson ready to sacrifice himself for his buddies, Jimmy Miller trying his hardest to win Machine Gun Cooley’s friendship). Happiness, and even anger, weren’t anything like as prevalent though. I felt like the tone was a fairly steady and grim one: not many highs and lows of emotion overall, other than perhaps fear in particular.
  • Abilities: Again the individual issue of Spike has a wider range shown of abilities – the war comics stuck to a fairly realistic representations of physical and mental feats. Spike included a story about a footballer, a Conan-type warrior, and the immortal “Wilson, Maker of Champions”, who was clearly especially clever to boot. (I wasn’t however quite sure on that brief sample that I could call him superhumanly so, hence the question mark for that cell.)
  • Challenges: as mentioned earlier, the war comics I looked at are pretty focused on realism so there are no fantastical challenges faced by the protagonists. And while World War II is clearly a society-wide threat if ever there was one, I didn’t feel that the protagonists’ roles in these stories were really about trying to stop the whole war, they were much more specific than that. There were of course plenty of threats in the war comics, driving the story along; fewer positive goals, but I counted Jimmy Miller’s quest to win Machine Gun Cooley’s friendship as such. Spike includes fantasy and realism, individual challenges and wider-spread ones, and a few positive goals as well as external threats (a group of inner-city kids work hard to start a City Farm, and Wilson has a visitor who wants to be made into a champion decathlon athlete).
  • Ages: neither the war comics nor Spike show any very young children – baby brothers or suchlike. Not very surprising in a war comic, but there were no families escaping the horrors of war or similar – the focus was pretty narrowly on the soldiers themselves, hence on young adults and grown ups. The story in Battle and Valiant mentioned above, “The Black Crow”, features old men in a nursing home, and expands the range of ages noticeably. Spike, once again, is wider in its range than the war comics and ticks most of the boxes fairly comfortably.
  • Roles: so few of the characters are female that there is hardly any way that these comics couldn’t have featured men and boys as all of the range looked at: protagonists, sidekicks, villains, and background characters.

Overall, the Rounded Representation test looks like it shows a pretty wide representation of male characters in these boys’ comics, though some of the ticks would have ended up as blank cells if only one or two individual issues had been examined. Certainly some of the result is about genre, with (these) war comics likely to focus on young adults and grown men in a realistic setting, facing individualistic challenges in an overall story tone of fear and anger, with little happiness depicted. Of course in principle war comics could work differently – “Rogue Trooper” is a war story set in a science fiction milieu with an overarching threat to the whole of the world and positive goals based in comradeship as well as threats from external forces. (There’s even at least one named woman in it, though whether as a whole it passes the Bechdel Test I am not sure.) Overall however it is pretty clear that whereas girl readers had their stories set in a world which represented them in a rounded way as people endowed with possibilities both good and bad, boy readers were given more circumscribed stories with a narrower set of options – and very little room indeed for their sisters, mothers, and fierce warrior Leelas.

2 thoughts on “The Bechdel Test and Beyond – Part IV, Boys Comics

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