The Long Con(vention): Women at Comic Con India

The gendered nature of comics fandom in India is very much in evidence at events like Delhi and Mumbai Comic Cons, a researcher finds.

That old truism about comics being a boys’ club may no longer be accurate, but it is impossible to refute the fact that female representation in the world of comics, at all levels, is still playing catch up.
In December 2018, I attended the comic conventions (Comic-Con) in Delhi and Mumbai. As part of fieldwork for my thesis, I was there to gather data about the circulation and consumption of graphic novels in India, especially contemporary, “home-grown stuff.”  I attempted this through participant observation and semi-structured interviews with two stakeholders—the consumer and the creator.

I had visited the Comic-Con only once, a few years ago, when I was a student at Delhi University. I was not a comics reader then, so the visit had involved a casual stroll through the venue, gawking at the cosplayers, rifling through some of the hideously overpriced merchandise, and calling it a day after a few hours.

My fieldwork visit was very different. I went armed with a “super-fan” ticket that gave me access to the venue for the entire duration of the convention. The ticket came with a giant “swag bag”, a black cape, a free promotional comic book, a black entry wristband, and our very own VIP entrance. 

It was an excellent opportunity to reflect on how the fandom has been co-opted by late capitalism; how neatly consumption (and one’s ability to indulge this consumption), is tied to one’s credentials as a fan.
 

Will Female Comic Fans Please Stand Up?

I spent the better part of two years reading comics and graphic novels for my literature review. I read work that was published in both the United States (US) and in India over the last 100 years alongside scholarly commentary that ranged across disciplines. The gender imbalance in both my primary and secondary reading material was disappointing. From seminal comics studies, texts like Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics and Will Eisner’s Comics and Sequential Art, to works of art criticism like John Berger’s Ways of Seeing, to artefactual cultural histories like David Hajdu’s The Ten-Cent Plague, the imbalance was visible through multiple factors. For instance, the paucity of female creators in comics publishing behemoths, the skewed gender ratio at comic conventions, the sexist biases embedded in plots and narrative arcs, the uncomfortable gendering of superhero costumes, etc.

The most famous feminist intervention in this discourse is the list, created by comics writer Gail Simone, where she documented every instance where a female comic book character had been "depowered, raped, or cut up and stuck in the refrigerator" (Simone 1999). This rampant brutalisation of women characters, particularly superheroines and wives and girlfriends of superheroes, seemed to suggest an instrumentalist view of women; that they were valuable in these narratives only in insofar as they could be used to advance the plot, damn the villain, and elicit sympathy for the hero. These stories also seemed to betray misogynist anxieties around the idea of increasingly empowered women with the third wave of feminism well underway. 

Suzanne Scott took this idea further by delving into the question of reception.  Specifically, she examined the issue of how women reading these narratives made sense of their own subject position within a seemingly hostile subculture. Her research suggests that female fans of comic books have “long felt ‘fridged’, an audience segment kept on ice and out of view” (Scott 2013).

A Female Researcher at Large  

In preparation for fieldwork, I had read, among other things, Mara Thacker’s essay on the perceptions around the cultural status of comics in India among casual fans and scholars. She decided to conduct interviews at the Delhi Comic Con with the hope that a collective sense of community and the carnival-like atmosphere inside might play catalyst to interesting, useful conversation. I went hoping for the same. 

I must have approached at least 100 people in all, at both venues—a lion’s share of them in Delhi since the convention there was bigger and lasted longer. In a disappointing, but not a shocking development, less than 30% of these respondents admitted to being readers of comic books. Most were fans of the cinematic renditions of these familiar stories or interested in a TV show or exclusively devoted to manga. Despite my best efforts to avoid gender bias, and especially seek out women, the majority of my respondents turned out to be men.

Most female respondents, when asked if they read comic books, said they only watched the DC or Marvel movies, or only read novels. A small percentage of these, often cosplayers, expressed their devotion to manga and anime. An interesting pattern emerged as I spoke to a few of these women off the record; many had started off reading American and Indian comics and graphic novels but once they became interested in manga, they only read the latter. When I asked why they thought that happened, some replied that it was because it offered them narratives of everyday life and concerns to soak in instead of busy superhero fare, while others said that they got so habituated to a particular visual aesthetic that coming back to American or Indian comics felt jarring to the senses. 

This reminded me of an observation Scott McCloud makes in Understanding Comics about some fundamental differences between western and eastern notions of narrative: very broadly speaking, US and Europe comics seem to privilege a goal-oriented approach to storytelling, reflected in the fact that most of the panel transitions in their comics cover some kind of action or movement while the manga has a more cyclical, labyrinthine structure, with many panels simply reflecting aspects of a single scene. The final effect in the latter is one of leisurely contemplation, of fully inhabiting a given moment. 

The conventions also gave me an opportunity to reflect on my own location, and ruminate over how the researcher’s identity affects data collection. A young man cosplaying as Superman in Delhi told me about his chronic depression, failed suicide attempts, the slow road to recovery aided by DC’s Superman series, and his current mental health wellness blog. This conversation stands out in my mind for the unexpectedly intense personal details shared therein in a noisy, hectic space like the Comic Con. What inspired this young man to confide in a complete stranger here? Of the many possible explanations that spring to mind, the most probable seems to be that patriarchal societies condition women to play the role of sympathetic listeners, while men are socialised to treat them as such.         

A few men sometimes wandered over to me for purposes of flirtation when they spotted me sitting by myself at the sidelines or even outside the venue. Resolving to find as many respondents as I could, I turned this otherwise annoying occurrence into an opportunity for research. Some ended up agreeing to talk to me on-the-record about their comic book reading habits. At the Delhi Comic Con, I had exchanged brief pleasantries with a young male researcher, who was similarly engaged in fieldwork, and I couldn’t help but wonder if he was being approached by potential female respondents as he sat taking a break, perhaps reading a comic outside a venue? Were young men as willing to open up about their struggles with depression and suicidal ideation with him? 
 

The Handmaid and the Emcee

As I have already noted above, the lack of female respondents left me disappointed. In my attempt to explain why this happened, I sought out various female presences at the convention.

Aside from female attendees, female volunteers (outnumbered by male volunteers), and a few female artists and exhibitors, the convention employed women in two distinct capacities. The first was as “handmaids” from the TV show based Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel The Handmaid’s Tale, wherein a totalitarian regime forces fertile women or “handmaids” into child-bearing servitude. The handmaids wore shapeless red robes and demure white caps that cover the upper part of their face. The women hired as handmaids to promote the show at the venue, all seemed like young high-school children. They were silently moved in a herd from point A to point B throughout the day. They stood in a straightline with their heads bowed, holding a placard that advised other women to “let the men enter first”. The handmaids were guarded against all outside contact. 

As a marketing strategy, it seems exceedingly ill-thought-out to me and made me a little queasy in both Delhi and Mumbai. Would it have been slightly easier to stomach had we not lived in a grossly patriarchal nation where the female body is still very much thought of as the preserve of men? Perhaps. I wanted to speak to the handmaids and ask them if they had read the book (unlikely, I suspected) or watched the show and, if yes, what they thought of the whole charade. Unfortunately, they were so well shielded from the general public that even lurking around the women’s bathroom in hopes of waylaying one paid no dividend.

The other women prominently involved in the event were the emcees responsible for conducting audience question and answer sessions and generally, pumping up the crowd. These women were uniformly attractive and dressed scantily in the manner of show models who are hired to stand by the side of cars at exhibitions and trade fairs. Their clothes, of no particular note in Mumbai, struck an incongruous one in the freezing open-air venue in Delhi. The women read out questions and consulted answers from prepared cards and seemed easily thrown off their game by replies that didn’t tally exactly with what was written on the card. It seemed to indicate a lack of familiarity with the subject. What was the purpose of hiring a certain type of young woman for this role? What did the job description read like? And most importantly, what does it say about the assumptions Comic-Con organisers make about who constitutes their core audience?  

I had already accounted for the interplay of cultural and social capital at CCI. Erotic capital, which these emcees brought to mind, was a relatively novel concept to chew over in this context. Erotic capital, formulated by Catherine Hakim along the lines explored by Pierre Bourdieu in Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgment of Taste, describes the social value an individual or group accrues as a result of their sexual attractiveness. This attractiveness is contingent upon a whole host of factors, of course, ranging from caste and class location to degree of conformity to cultural beauty standards. It can be exchanged for other forms of capital, particularly economic capital. 

   
Where Do We Go from Here?

I, for one, went straight to my laptop after the conventions to write an account for my supervisor. One of the central concerns of my thesis is the question of readership and social space: What sort of a reading audience does the Indian graphic novel both assume and construct? Who does its recurring themes and concerns speak to? A literary genre is not a biological or natural event; a host of cultural institutions and social forces conspire to make it happen. When one of these cultural institutions—Comic Convention India—decide to employ young women as “handmaids” and show-models, they contribute to the long tradition of male gatekeeping within comics fandom. It is another way of telling women that they can only fulfil certain preordained roles within this community. I have resolved to go again next year, and the year after that and perhaps the one after that too, in the hopes of seeing at least some of these gates come crashing down in the face of feminist persistence.  

 

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