Know Her Name Spotlight: Amanda Conner

amandaconnerjune2011In typical conversations about women’s accomplishments and innovations in comics, pin up art tends to rank far down the list of topics you’d expect to hear. Looking not just at the mainstream of superhero work or creator owned properties that have proliferated since the early 90s, but even the underground scene that sprouted like mushrooms in the shadow of the CCA it’s not hard to see why. With only a few notable exceptions, pin up art in comics is dominated by women’s bodies contorted in bizarre ways and constructed for a particularly masculine, voyeuristic gaze.

Yet that’s where Amanda Conner has thrived, bringing a unique playfulness and complexity to her work that has not only put her in high demand, but has also played a critical role in reshaping how we look at several of DC’s most sexualized female characters over the last decade, most notably Power Girl, Harley Quinn, and Starfire as both artist and writer. The breakthrough hit that catapulted Conner to prominence at DC was her JSA Classified arc with writer Geoff Johns, but the Rosetta Stone that unlocks so many of the key elements of her success and what makes her such a vital cartoonist came long before in her collaboration with Garth Ennis on The Pro, a boundary pushing gross out comedy about a sex worker single mother who spontaneously gains superpowers.

Girl Comics by Amanda Conner
Girl Comics by Amanda Conner

There’s certain parallels to underground cartoonist Julie Doucet in the way that Conner revels in the gross and projects a clear enjoyment of it in her work, but the main difference between their approaches and engagement with bodily functions and fluids is how it interacts with their figurative work. Doucet, and others like her, generally use it to desexualize the female body and create a context for it as divorced from an eroticized male gaze as possible. Conner’s female figures, on the other hand, intentionally remain open to and frequently invite a scopophilic if not outright objectifying gaze. It comes into play most obviously in The Pro where Conner poses the heroine in typical pin up poses, then complicates and obscures the expected sexualized gaze by literally dirtying her up with things like cigarette ash falling into her cleavage, stains on her underwear, and various scuff marks on her body. Conner coats her subject in a messy, confrontational layer of humanity that forces the viewer to take in the subject as more than a vehicle for sexual gratification.

It’s the same spirit, deployed very differently, that turned her collaboration with Geoff Johns into a titanic success and a watershed moment for Power Girl as a character. Power Girl is a character who, despite being a trailblazing female superhero with a great deal of heart put into her best appearances, was held back for decades because of the attention drawn to her chest window and the exaggerated size of her breasts. The urban legend about how that happened was that her original artist Wally Wood set out to draw her breasts bigger every issue until the editor noticed and intervened. The story wasn’t confirmed prior to his death, but seems credible when examining the issues and is given further credibility by Wood’s pedigree as a founder of Mad magazine and the artist responsible for the Disneyland Memorial Orgy. Whether or not it’s true is largely academic because over time it became her dominant characteristic, and while there are many great stories with and about her -particularly her early rivalry with Wildcat- they were overshadowed by the focus on her breasts to the point that most writers had just thrown in the towel and made them the only way they could conceive of her.

They key point to understand about Power Girl’s characterization prior to Conner and Johns’ collaboration is that art and story were, if we believe the Wood legend, working at cross purposes from her inception. While they certainly weren’t the first writer and artist to come together in a meaningful way on Power Girl, they’ve had by far the most success at it, and they did it not by bowing to one or the other’s natural instincts, but leveraging their combined talents into a synthesis. Their JSA Classified arc, appropriately titled Power Trip, is a classic usage of Geoff Johns’ most successful formula: take a beloved but careworn classic character, contemplate the various twists and turns in continuity and characterization they’ve been subjected to over the years, and boil them down to what, in his perspective, is their core sensibility.

What Johns saw in Power Girl was a restlessness and an inability to fit in on a cosmic level. Up until then she’d been given various competing origins and backstories from simply being the Supergirl equivalent on Earth 2 to a mind numbingly convoluted Atlantean heritage, none of which had stuck in a meaningful way, so he decided to recast the boob window in her costume, the subject of dozens of bad faith arguments over why women dress in certain ways over the years, as a placeholder. Johns guided her to the conclusion that she was holding out for something given that the vast majority of iconic DC heroes wear their insignia on their chests. It had nothing to do with her cleavage and everything to do with a sense of ennui.

It’s a hard line to sell, or at least it would if he had just about anyone but Amanda Conner to help him sell it. Instead of undermining Johns or the character, Conner drew attention to the more familiar interpretation of the window, primarily with the sarcastic self awareness that she imbued Power Girl with. Running away from the topic would have been ridiculous and the honest truth is that a lot of people who read comics like looking at boobs, they especially like looking at them when they’re cartooned intelligently, and above all people really like Amanda Conner’s art. Combined with Johns’ appeal to traditional superhero comic readers, it was a smash hit that went into several printings, produced a trade paperback sweetened with a selection of classic Power Girl appearances, and created the demand for a monthly series drawn by Conner and co-written by longtime collaborators Jimmy Palmiotti and Justin Grey.

That same formula was applied to revamp Harley Quinn with her own ongoing series informed by the fetish oriented redesign that had its initial genesis in the Arkham video game franchise. The character was in the middle of a gigantic spike in interest outside of comics, but she was, just like Power Girl had been, completely overshadowed by skimpy and exploitative outfits that didn’t have much life or inspiration behind them. This time shifting roles to primarily co-write the title with Palmiotti and only contributing covers on a regular basis, she completely altered the character’s trajectory with a smash hit that has since grown into the top selling female lead superhero comic with a plethora of satellite specials and miniseries fanning out around it.

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The basic logic of what she, Palmiotti, and series regular artists Chad Hardin and John Timms, did with Harley Quinn is even simpler than the adjustments made to Power Girl. What’s cleanly visible is that they looked at who the women, and readers of any other gender, but especially women, are who find Harley compelling and the iteration they had on their hands in particular. What started out as goofy fetishwear became an investment in the contemporary burlesque revival, carnival culture, and roller derby, providing fertile ground to bring out the penchant for transgressive humor that has defined both writers careers. What the past two years working primarily as a writer have proven is that Conner has a keen ability to not just bring out very particular sensibilities in her own work, but preside over their proliferation in an ever expanding team of artists.

A great deal of credit for how Conner’s command of body language and her career spanning dedication to creating complex and challenging portrayals of sexualized female bodies translates onto the page by the interior artists on the Harley Quinn affiliated titles also belongs to Palmiotti, who has the most intimate understanding of Conner’s work, having not just written for her but also inked a significant amount of her work, including The Pro and Power Trip. With the pendulum swinging towards auteurship being awarded to writers over artists, Conner’s career and the unique sensibilities she brings to the comics page no matter what role she plays in its creation is a vital example that challenges the notion that either writer or artist can be conclusively said to be the primary driver or architect behind the creation of a comic.

It can’t be seen as an accident that the work that recent Harley Quinn and Starfire artists, a broad range that includes Hardin, Timms, Stjepan Sejic, Moritat, Elsa Charretier, and Emanuella Lupacchino, bears many of the hallmarks of Conner’s work. There’s clearly carefully calculated direction at work, but these are also artists who have the capability and interest in bringing it out in their work. Just as Ennis, Johns, and Palmiotti needed Conner’s particular talents to bring out the potential in their scripts, Conner relies on her artists to flesh out her stories in their particular creative voices. Of particular interest is how John Timms, whose style is one of the furthest from Conner’s, has evolved over time on Harley Quinn, growing as an artist and bringing out a more nuanced version of those hallmarks.

In the issue #26, kicking off a brand new chapter in Harley’s life after having broken away from the Joker in an emphatic way, Timms executes a sequence that carries the reader through Harley being catcalled on the beach that shifts from inviting us to view her butt from the perspective of the voyeur back to Harley and her perspective as she berates the catcaller and the conversation develops. Going back to Conner’s earliest and bluntest work like The Pro, this kind of interplay was executed in the ways mentioned above, complicating an image visually with unappealing elements like runny makeup, clothing that sags in places that are usually suctioned tight in pin up work, a cigarette dangling from a slack mouth.

That bluntness remains in places, particularly in the Harley Quinn Road Trip Special that balanced cheesecakey sequences like the trio of Harley, Ivy, and Catwoman dressing and undressing with the simultaneous actions of sitting on the toilet and brushing their teeth, reminding us that they’re bodies, and pleasant ones at that, but they still do all the things that bodies do. What we see in Harley Quinn #26, in that scene on the beach, is a further development of that exchange. We’re invited to look without the usual mitigation or complication, but there’s a price for admission, and Timms uses the shifting perspectives and some of his most dynamic, refined body language yet to express it. If we’re going to be complicit in that voyeurism, then we have to take part in the conversation around what’s appropriate behavior both in consuming sexualized depictions of female bodies in art and interacting with women in the real world.

What’s most breathtaking about Conner’s career and her continuously spreading influence is that The Pro and these selections of her most highly regarded contributions at DC are a small sample of a sprawling body of work that extends far outside of superheroes to encompass projects as diverse as a particularly memorable guest issue on the criminally underrated Vertigo series Codename Knockout, Vampirella, Painkiller Jane, Archie, and with a final wink to Wally Wood, Mad.

Maybe we don’t look to pin up art first when looking for examples of transformative female creators but that might also be okay, because when you ask most anyone who exemplifies the best of what pin up art can offer, Amanda Conner’s name will be at, or near, the top of every list. Harley’s got a great butt and a wicked grin on the cover of #26 thanks to Conner, but she’s also sporting a custom jacket with a graphic of the Joker bruised and beaten behind bars on it, a send up of the one with “Property of the Joker” emblazoned on it that Margot Robbie wears in the Suicide Squad movie, signaling that no matter what happens in there, Harley will be free and clear of any romanticized depictions of domestic abuse as long as she’s on the comic. Tasteful isn’t in Conner’s vocabulary, but she has, perhaps better than anyone working today, understood how to demonstrate that sex in comics can not only be safe but also inviting for women.

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