- The Hawkeye Initiative:Pinning Down Transformative Feminisms in Comic-Book Culture through Superhero Crossplay Fan Art
Fan studies’ preoccupation with fan art has never fully manifested into a robust theorization of the area. That is to say, although fans’ transformative works have long been central to both fandom and the study of fans, fan scholars have paid disproportionate attention to fan fiction and fan vids as objects of study.1 The relative lack of scholarship on fan art (which, broadly defined, would include fan drawing and painting, as well as digital image manipulations, mash-ups, and even potentially animated GIFs) is particularly confounding given fan culture’s migration to platforms like Tumblr that trade in spreadable fan-produced imagery. Through an analysis of one transformative superhero fan art site, The Hawkeye Initiative, I contend that it is especially vital that we consider the place, and transformative potential, of fan art within comics fan culture. Although fan texts are in no way medium specific (e.g., one might write textual fanfic about an audiovisual fan object, like a television show), the sequential art form of comics lends itself to both a proliferation of fan art and a more robust collection of terminology and texts to theorize it.
The Hawkeye Initiative is a crowdsourced fan-art site, founded in December 2012 on a simple premise: “How to fix every Strong Female Character pose in superhero comics: replace the character with Hawk-eye doing the same thing.”2 The “initiative” referenced in the site’s title is to “illustrate how deformed, hyper-sexualized, and impossibly contorted women are commonly illustrated in comics” by redrawing comic-book panels featuring superheroines with the Marvel character [End Page 150] Clint “Hawkeye” Barton while retaining the superheroine’s hypersexualized costume and pose (Figure 1).3 The site aims to be not just illustrative but also transformative: a “way that people can express the desire for [a change in the extreme sexism of modern comics] in a way that is both compelling and fun.”4 Similarly, I position The Hawkeye Initiative as illustrative of a broader trend in comics fan art toward gender-swapped renderings of characters as a mode of transformative intervention, “turning the male gaze of comic book culture back on itself and holding the industry accountable for the paltry number of women being hired to work on mainstream superhero titles.”5 Though my focus is on superhero(ine) representations, the industry’s aversion to hiring more female creators and artists is always already an implicit component of this representational critique. Here, I consider both the formal dimensions and the cultural implications of superhero crossplay fan art, and gesture to its transformative capacity for superhero representations specifically and comic-book culture more broadly.
Click for larger view
View full resolution
Crossplay, Genderswap, Drag: A Note on Terminology
What, then, do we call this particular strain of fan art, in which male superheroes are parodically styled in the costumes and poses of their female counterparts? Theories of drag and camp, drawing on work by Esther Newton, Judith Butler, and J. Jack Halberstam, among others, would certainly offer a rich theoretical framework.6 Because superhero narratives [End Page 151] always already complicate the notion of a “true” identity, and likewise drag “subverts the distinction between inner and outer psychic space and effectively mocks both the expressive model of gender and the notion of a true gender identity,” we might couple these theories toward a better understanding of the camp humor that The Hawkeye Initiative’s fan art employs and its capacity as a feminist project.7
However, the bulk of the reporting on The Hawkeye Initiative has defined the images as examples of “genderswap” fan art.8 Though fans have a long history of producing “genderswap” art in a variety of forms (e.g., fanfic, cosplay, and fan art most prominently), the label itself can be slippery in its definition and problematic in its application. “Genderswap” is broadly used to classify fan works in which “characters have become differently sexed.”9 Kristina Busse and Alexis Lothian contend that...