Mako-Mori-testing Archie and JLA

The other day I learned through the Comix-Scholars mailing list of the “Mako Mori test”. Devised as an alternative to the Bechdel test and named after a Pacific Rim character, it works like this (quoted from The Daily Dot):

The Mako Mori test is passed if the movie has:

a) at least one female character;

b) who gets her own narrative arc;

c) that is not about supporting a man’s story.

If the Bechdel test isn’t always easy to put into practice, the Mako Mori test is almost unusable. How do we define a narrative arc? How do we define “supporting a man’s story”?

Let’s say a narrative arc in a film is similar to a dramatic arc in drama theory, in that the story builds up to a conflict involving the protagonist (which must be female to pass the Mako Mori test) and then this conflict is resolved. This is already a much simpler definition of an arc than e.g. Gustav Freytag’s five-part model, so it should be easy to find stories – maybe even in comics – that match the Mako Mori test criteria, right?

While a comic may pass the Bechdel test in its first panel, it takes a lot more panels until one can say whether the Mako Mori test is passed. This makes it difficult to apply the Mako Mori test to ongoing serialised comics such as most webcomics, newspaper strips, and monthly comic books. Then again, nowadays comic book writers usually “write for the trade”, so that 6 (give or take 1-2) consecutive issues can be collected in a trade paperback that stands well on its own, in the sense that it contains a complete, self-contained story arc.

There are two ongoing comic book series I’m currently reading that have just reached their sixth issue, so let’s see how they fare in the Mako Mori test.

In the recently re-launched Archie by Mark Waid there are two candidates for female characters with their own narrative arc, Betty Cooper and Veronica Lodge. It’s difficult to place Betty in a narrative structure because of Waid’s unusual storytelling: the big crisis – Archie’s and Betty’s breakup – has already happened in the past, and the comic is about how everyone deals with the aftermath. From the beginning, Betty doesn’t want to get back together with Archie, but still has feelings for him and doesn’t approve of his new relationship with Veronica. Throughout the six issues, nothing happens that changes Betty’s attitude, so I don’t see a narrative arc here. I’m not saying a character needs to undergo drastic changes to constitute a narrative arc, but there’s simply no turning point or climax that the events involving Betty build up to.

Betty's situation summed up in two panels. Art by Fiona Staples

Betty’s situation summed up in two panels. Art by Fiona Staples

Likewise, there’s no arc structure around Veronica: she faces some challenges when she comes to Riverdale, but a new status quo (dating Archie and more or less fitting in with her other schoolmates) is quickly established. At the end of the sixth issue, a conflict involving her father is set up, but we’ll have to wait and see if this conflict qualifies as a climax of her narrative arc.

Even if Betty and/or Veronica got their own narrative arcs, one would be hard-pressed to argue that these arcs do not support a man’s story and thus fulfil the third Mako Mori criterion. Archie is first and foremost the story of its title character (who even sometimes acts as first-person narrator) and everything that happens is related to him.

JLA by Bryan Hitch is technically already at issue #7, but #5 was a filler issue completely unrelated to the actual story. In the beginning, the Justice League of America fights a supervillain called Parasite, only to be scattered across place/time/dimensions. Then the main plot begins with the Kryptonian god Rao coming to Earth. Meanwhile, Wonder Woman – the eternal token woman in the Justice League, if you will – finds herself on Olympus, which lies in ruins and has been abandoned by the other gods. Somehow Aquaman ends up on Olympus too, and the two fight off an attack by Rao’s prophets. Wonder Woman then rebuilds Olympus and arms Aquaman and herself with the weapons of the gods.

Soon she will be joined by a male companion, though.

Soon she will be joined by a male companion, though.

It’s too early to say how the final conflict will be resolved and who Wonder Woman is actually up against. Wonder Woman thinks it’s not Rao but “something else”, “something that terrified [the other gods]” (#7). But I still wouldn’t rule out the possibility that Rao and Superman are going to be at the center of this conflict, and if Wonder Woman should merely come to Superman’s aid, her narrative arc would be supporting a man’s story.

However, even though (or precisely because) Wonder Woman doesn’t get much on-panel time in this comic, her portion of the story runs parallel to the others and thus forms something like an independent narrative arc. If we had to pick a “winner”, the “Mako Mori award” would surprisingly go to JLA rather than Archie. Another outcome of this little exercise might be that the Mako Mori test isn’t that great a sexism detector.

Just for the record: Archie passes the Bechdel test in issue #2 or #3, whereas JLA doesn’t pass it at all…


Bechdel-testing Japan Inc. and Mai, the Psychic Girl

The other day, Forrest Helvie posted a nice summary of the “Bechdel Test” and the “Sexy Lamp Test” at sequart.org. Both of these tests are used to gauge gender bias in comics, even though they were not originally intended for that purpose by their inventors, Alison Bechdel and Kelly Sue DeConnick, respectively. Due to both Bechdel and DeConnick being comic creators, rather than theorists, it’s not surprising that in their original form, both tests are under-theorised (i.e. no explanation is given why they should work at all) as well as under-operationalised (i.e. there are many different possible ways to apply them). This in turn has led a lot of people to perceive these tests as simple and consequently apply them to a lot of different things.

Rather than debate their flaws and merits, I’ll just join in and see how they work for some comics I’ve been reading lately. I’ll start with the Bechdel Test (reserving the Sexy Lamp Test for another blog post), which consists of three parts:

A work (originally a film) passes the test if

1. It has at least two women in it
2. Who talk to each other
3. About something besides a man.

One way of putting this into practice is to design a ranking system in which the parts of the test add up, e.g. on the Bechdel Test Movie List which uses different icons for four ranks from “Fewer than two women in this movie” up to “There are two or more women in this movie and they talk to each other about something other than a man”. In contrast, the website Bechdel Testing Comics simply labels comic book issues as either “Failed” or “Passed”.

I’m going to try something else that I think is better suited for comics of different lengths: I’ll look for the first page of a comic on which the dialogue of two women about something besides a man occurs. Let’s start with a manga that I’ve already offhandedly accused of sexism: Shōtarō Ishinomori’s Japan Inc. (マンガ日本経済入門 / Manga Nihon Keizai Nyūmon). Originally published from 1986-88 in three volumes, the first volume was translated into English in 1988, which is the edition I’ll use here.

  • Japan Inc. starts off well. The first female character appears on the second page already (p. 4 in the University of California Press edition), and she even has a speaking part and is a named character: television reporter Kathy White.
  • Soon afterwards, on p. 11, a second woman appears on panel – the first (and only) recurring female character, Miss Amamiya, who works in the same company as the two (male) protagonists, Kudo and Tsugawa.
  • After that, women do have occasional appearances, but hardly ever do we get to see two women in the same scene. On p. 71 there are two female office workers on the same panel, albeit not talking to each other.
  • Finally, on p. 178, two women talk to each other – the aforementioned Miss Amamiya and Mrs. Ueda, the elderly mother of another co-worker. However, their entire short conversation revolves around Mrs. Ueda’s son.

And that’s it! On 313 pages, there’s not a single instance of two women talking about something besides a man. (The second volume of Japan Inc. is a different story with a different cast of characters.)

At around the same time (1987), Mai, the Psychic Girl (舞 / Mai) by Kazuya Kudō and Ryōichi Ikegami was published in English. Its protagonist is a young woman, so surely this manga does better at the Bechdel Test?

  • Sure enough, the eponymous protagonist appears on the very first panel of the comic, and on p. 17 we see Mai talking to her female classmates, Yumiko and Rie. Their conversation goes on for seven pages, but its main subject are men. Mai herself notices that: “You guys are always talking about boys. Can’t you talk about something else?” (p. 21).
  • Then, on p. 14 in issue #2 (or the 50th page of the comic series as a whole), Mai calls Yumiko on the telephone, and this time their conversation revolves not around boys but Mai’s whereabouts.

Thus we can say Mai, the Psychic Girl has passed the Bechdel Test, whereas Japan Inc. has failed.

The Bechdel Test has often been criticised for not being able to detect sexism and misogyny in every instance, but as this little comparison hopefully shows, it’s a good way to get started on talking about gender bias problems in comics.